John the Apostle

In the apostle John’s writings, we see some of the deepest teachings about God’s love, and in his life, we see a boldness to preach the Kingdom of God.

Early on in the Gospel accounts, Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee when He began calling His inner circle of 12 disciples. These men had probably all heard and believed Jesus’ teachings. Now they were being called to follow Him.

John is introduced as a fisherman by trade. John and his brother James were on their father’s boat, mending their fishing nets, when Jesus called the two brothers. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed Him (Matthew 4:21-22).

They believed in Jesus and His message, and they boldly acted on that belief.

The training of John

Jesus’ 12 disciples came out of ordinary occupations, but they were called to a much higher purpose for their lives. Jesus would give them the finest education available in spiritual matters. Coming from their humble backgrounds and status in society, they could more easily learn “the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3), without having to unlearn all the pharisaical traditions held by those taught in the rabbinical schools of the day (Matthew 15:2-9; also see John 7:15).

John and the others were being prepared to perform far greater works—sharing the good news of the coming Kingdom of God with the world.

Jesus also called them apostles, from the Greek word apostolos, meaning “one sent on a mission.”

John the Galilean

Like most of the 12, John was a Jew living in Galilee, the northernmost province of Palestine. This region was somewhat isolated from the most extreme influences of the religious leadership centered in Judea to the south. The prideful religious leaders in Jerusalem viewed Jesus’ disciples as uneducated Galileans (Acts 4:13).

Galileans spoke a distinctive form of Aramaic that made them stand out, in the opinion of some, as being different, if not less refined (Matthew 26:69-73).

Over the centuries, gentile populations had settled in what once was the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17:24). While there was a large Jewish population in Galilee, where Jesus performed most of His teaching and miracles, this may be why a prophecy in Isaiah points to His works being done in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 9:1; Matthew 4:15).

One reason Jesus was not highly esteemed was because He was brought up in the village of Nazareth in Galilee (Isaiah 53:3; John 1:46; 7:52). Jesus explained to a crowd that God was not calling many people of high rank and privilege in this age, but that God was opening the minds of those whose hearts were like little children’s (Matthew 11:25; 1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

John, the beloved disciple

John refers to himself in his Gospel account as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He refers to himself this way five times, showing he was a disciple particularly close to Jesus (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20).

We can see that John had a natural boldness that, when molded and refined into the character of Jesus Christ, would be a valuable asset in carrying the gospel to the world.John had a receptive spirit and an eagerness to learn from Jesus, which may have led to the special bond between them. John was one of only three disciples invited to witness certain events like the resurrection of the young daughter of Jairus, a ruler of the local synagogue (Luke 8:51-55). John was also one of just three to experience the vision of the glorified Christ as He was transfigured before them (Matthew 17:1-2).

John was the one who sat close to Jesus at the last Passover and leaned on His breast to privately ask who His betrayer was (John 21:20). John had a deep love for his Teacher and liked to be close to His side. John was one of only three whom Jesus took with Him to a private spot in the Garden of Gethsemane to watch and pray on the night of His betrayal (Matthew 26:36-37).

John was the one Jesus entrusted with the care of Mary. Jesus, nearing death, said to John, “Behold your mother!” From then on, John took her to his own home (John 19:27).

These are some of the moments that show the special relationship Jesus had with John.

John, a “Son of Thunder”

Jesus gave John and James the nickname “Sons of Thunder,” perhaps describing their strong-headed, forceful temperaments (Mark 3:17).

John, like all the disciples, had his human side that was not yet tempered through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. On one occasion a wrong attitude was stirred up in John and his brother James.

On a long journey by foot to Jerusalem, Jesus had sent a few messengers ahead to a village of Samaritans. This was a planned stop for the group, but when the Samaritans learned of Jesus’ destination, they refused to welcome Him.

When James and John saw the rejection of their Teacher—the One who could have brought the villagers great blessings—their anger was aroused. They said in their zeal, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:54).

Jesus had to correct this attitude, saying, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (verses 55-56).

This was one of many teachable moments for John as he learned more about God’s love and mercy. (Read more about this big subject in our article “What Is the Grace of God?”)

Seeking greatness

In another scene, John and James accompanied their mother as she made an appeal for them to receive two of the highest positions when Jesus returned to rule in the coming Kingdom. Their mother, eager to see her sons appointed to such a place of honor, said, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom” (Matthew 20:20-21).

Like many Jews in their day, the disciples were expecting a Messiah to overthrow the Roman occupation and establish a physical kingdom in Israel. They also had a selfish view of leadership.

To this request, Jesus respectfully explained that they didn’t know what they were asking for. Only our Father in heaven can appoint such positions based on His judgment.

Jesus then took the opportunity to explain a deep lesson to all the disciples, saying, “Whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:27-28). (For more on this topic of true greatness, see our article “Humility: The Surprising Key to Lasting Success.”)

John’s boldness

We can see that John had a natural boldness that, when molded and refined into the character of Jesus Christ, would be a valuable asset in carrying the gospel to the world.

John’s epistles express some of the deepest spiritual teachings about the Father’s love that can be seen in the New Testament writings.In Jerusalem in the final days leading up to the crucifixion, it was dangerous to be seen in public with Jesus. Yet on the night when the wicked schemes of the Pharisees and chief priests resulted in a mob arresting Jesus in Gethsemane, John boldly followed Jesus to the home of the former high priest to stay close through the first interrogation (John 18:15-16). John also stayed near Jesus in His final hours on the stake, as revilers mocked the Son of God.

As the apostles continued to preach and perform miracles around Jerusalem after Pentecost, on one occasion the religious leaders were greatly disturbed at their teaching of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. At one point, Peter and John were arrested and jailed (Acts 3:1; 4:1-3). The next day they were brought from the jail to testify before a hostile group. Peter and John confidently explained that it was through the power of Jesus Christ that they performed a miraculous healing of a lame man.

The religious leaders marveled at the boldness of these two apostles. In spite of being severely threatened (Acts 4:18-21), Peter and John were not intimidated, and they continued to teach in the name of Jesus Christ.

John expresses the love of God

Whatever fiery temperament John may have had when Jesus began working with him, we can see in John’s writings the transformation he underwent through the Holy Spirit to become one who could express the deep love that Christ and the Father had for humanity. (To learn more about walking as Jesus walked, read “Following in His Footsteps.”)

John’s epistles express some of the deepest spiritual teachings about the Father’s love that can be seen in the New Testament writings.

John wrote, “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! . . . Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:1-2). (For more on this subject, see our article “Love of God.”)

John serves into old age

Sometime likely around A.D. 90, the apostle John was banished to the Greek island of Patmos for teaching the truth. Early tradition is that John was exiled to this prison island during a time of persecution under the Roman rule of Domitian in the late first century.

John explains, “I . . . was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:9).

John was perhaps in his 90s when he endured the harsh conditions of exile from normal society, and he was probably denied many of the comforts of life. But it was here that God granted John a special role in recording “the Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1).

John was tasked to write down the things he saw in the vision (Revelation 1:11). John was one of only a few men on record privileged to see the glory and the splendor of the very throne room of God in vision (2 Chronicles 18:18; Isaiah 6:1; Ezekiel 1:26; Daniel 7:9; Acts 7:55; Revelation 4:2). (For more on the last book of the Bible, please see the introductory article “Understanding the Mysterious Book of Revelation.”)

John throughout the New Testament

John, an apostle of Jesus Christ, is mentioned by name in the New Testament in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), as well as in Acts and Galatians. Bible scholars generally accept that this same apostle John was the author of five New Testament books—John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John and Revelation.

Actual details are sparse, but John is believed to have outlived all the other apostles and may have been the only one to die a natural death (see Jesus’ conversation with Peter in John 21:20-23 for background).

Paul includes John, along with Peter (Cephas) and James, as esteemed pillars of the early Church (Galatians 2:9).

Extrabiblical records claim that John had a number of students, such as Polycarp, who would be an early elder of the church in Smyrna. See more in our article “Church History: Polycarp and Polycrates.”

In summary, John the apostle was a faithful disciple dedicated to Christ. He was called to do a great work, and as a man of faith, he had a major positive impact on the New Testament Church.

See other stories of faith in the “Women of Faith” and “Men of Faith” sections.

About the Author

Chris Moen

Chris Moen

Chris Moen currently serves as associate pastor of the combined Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, Michigan, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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