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Apostle John

by Lois Donahue

Since, up to now, practically everything I knew about John came primarily from the Gospel in its four presentations, I was both intrigued and impressed by several well-documented quotes I recently read elsewhere which gave me a broader view of this man. Words like - - "The Apostle of Love", "St. John the Divine", "a man of mystic contemplation", "caught up in ecstasy" and "St. John the Theologian" -- gave me a kind of verbal character portrait of the older, more mature, more, if you will, 'saintly' John.

However, I must confess that, on a personal level, I am more comfortable with the 'earlier' John. This is probably true because the Bible, while never overlooking greatness and holiness, still rarely seems hesitant in giving us at least a glance at the human short-comings, the "more-like-us"ness, of our faith ancestors. Let's live a bit with the Biblical John and I'll try to explain - John, like his brother, James, worked for his father, Zebedee, in the family fishing business and we read about him mending nets in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. (Mk 1:19) Because of that we know John was a man who 'worked with his hands', (as did Jesus, the carpenter) who therefore had callouses, knew bodily weariness and was not a stranger to the aches, pains and frustrations which went with his trade. John was a young man when he met Jesus and decided to be His disciple and, like Jesus, he never married. Speaking of John and Jesus meeting and recalling some of the things I learned about John from the Bible, I sure have to agree with the comment that "when Jesus met John He did not see perfection but He certainly saw potential". Here's what I mean.

Scripture does let us know John was less than perfect. Jesus not only called him a 'son of thunder' (Mk 3:l7) but expressed disapproval when He witnessed John's display of temper in wanting to "call down fire from heaven to consume.." certain Samaritans who would not welcome Jesus into their village. (Lk 9:51-56) (By the way, whenever I think of John the fisherman or 'this' John, as introduced to us by Jesus, Himself, I resent those artists who portray him as some kind of 'milquetoast' young man rather than the virile, determined one I'm sure he was.) -- but moving right along --

In Mk 9:38 we learn he was a man who still did not fully comprehend how Jesus expected his followers to understand and deal with others. In this instance, when John tells Jesus "we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us", Jesus hoped to teach him how to judge acceptable tolerance by speaking the words with which we are all now quite familiar, ". .whoever is not against us is for us.".

Hard as it is to imagine, John might have had a very human trace of egotism since we read in Mk 9:34 and Lk 9:46 that he evidently entered into an argument with other disciples as to which of them was the greatest.

John may also have demonstrated, to some at least, that he was ambitious almost to the point of being presumptuous by joining his brother in asking Jesus that they be the ones allowed to "sit one on your right and the other at your left". (Mk 10:35) (Speaking of this incident, I must insert something here on behalf of all mothers. As long as I can remember hearing about John and James sitting on either side of Jesus in His Kingdom, I always accepted the fact that, as Matthew tells us, the request was made by their (not stated but implied) 'pushy' mother. WELL for those of you who thought the same, Thank you Mark! -- While we still don't know for sure who did or didn't make the request, it at least gives us the option of believing it wasn't necessarily 'Mom'.)

Like Thomas, it seems John may have had his own doubts about the Resurrection and, again like Thomas, needed some kind of 'proof'. We are told in Jn 21:1-9 that it was only after he went to the empty tomb and saw with his own eyes that "he believed".

In all fairness, too, here I must acknowledge that when the above happened, John, to his credit, proved to be a man who behaved respectfully toward someone to whom such respect was due since, although he was the first to reach the tomb of Jesus, he waited and allowed Peter to be the first to enter.

With that, we seem to have moved from John's lack of 'perfection' to his signs of 'potential' so let's continue with that --

Jesus must have been aware of certain attributes of character in this young man which prompted Him to select John, along with two other Apostles, to be with Him on three emotionally charged occasions -- when He compassionately responded to the pleading of a despondent father and brought his daughter back to life (Mk 5:37 Lk 8:51) -- when he was "troubled and distressed" at Gethsemane (Mat 26:37 Mk 14:33) and when He was gloriously transfigured (Mt 17:1 Mk 9:2 Lk 9:28). Thus it was that John was chosen and became part of what has been called "the inner circle". We are not told exactly why these three were chosen but it is intimated that Jesus, Peter, James and John became close friends.

Beyond that, we learn from the Bible (Lk 22:8) that Jesus obviously considered John both competent and dependable in dealing with rather mundane but still necessary chores; otherwise He would not have instructed him to "Go make preparations" for what was to be the Last, Supper.

Jesus also surely had some indication of how fearlessly loyal John was capable of being as was later evidenced by the fact that, despite knowing what price he might well be asked to pay for doing so, John was the only one of the Twelve who remained with Him throughout the agony of His crucifixion and death.

Jesus, too, must have sensed John was basically gentle, considerate, loving, and trustworthy. Would He have entrusted care of His mother to any other kind of person??? (In 19:26-27)

Now just two bits of trivia about John I stumbled across in doing some re-reading -- he was the first to recognize Jesus when, after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to "seven" of His disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias and, after Jesus was arrested, it was because John was known by the 'right people' that he and Peter were allowed into the courtyard of Caiaphas, the high priest.

So much for my pre-Pentecost view of John based on Gospel references and personal assumptions (the latter of which are no more than that) - - now let me add what Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles.

In 3:1 we find that John and Peter, on the way to the temple to pray, were responsible for giving back to a "man crippled from birth" the ability to walk and how that man "clung to them both" no doubt in amazement and appreciation. Further on we read the two Apostles were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin to be asked, "By what power or by what name have you done this?" Without hesitation, the response was, in the name of "Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified". Hearing this, the members of this supreme court of Israel "were astonished at the assurance shown by Peter and John, considering they were uneducated laymen", and decided to let them go with "a stern warning never again to speak to anyone in this name". To the great credit and courage of the two Apostles, they responded with the words "We cannot promise to stop proclaiming what we have seen and heard." (4:5-20) -- which the Bible assures us they continued to do.

The last reference we have to any action by John is in 8:14 when John and Peter went to the people of Samaria "who had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus" and "laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit". John's name is again mentioned in Acts 12:1. Sadly, it is to tell us that King Herod Agrippa had beheaded his brother, James.

Later in the Bible we find John's three Epistles which, for me, primarily reaffirm his ongoing dedication to passing along the beliefs which he had heard from and seen exemplified by Jesus. But I must add, you can almost hear the 'voice of thunder' when you read some of his strong reminders like "Whoever says 'I know him', but does not keep his commandments, is a liar." (1 Jn 2:4) As to any comment I might be inclined to make regarding what John had to say in the last Book we find in the Bible, let me just tell you this -- any explanation of the Book of Revelation I might offer would be as hopelessly inaccurate as any translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls I might attempt.

At this point let's move beyond Scripture and turn to things I learned from those who lived and recorded events which occurred along the path of John's later life thus hopefully offering you a more complete and thus perhaps a more accurate portrayal of this deservedly much loved and greatly admired Apostle. However, please keep in mind that what follows does not come as "inspired words" but appears to have been based largely on legends and traditions.

Apparently John still lived in Jerusalem at the time of the Council held there in AD 49 and continued to teach throughout Palestine until possibly AD 60 when he went to Rome and again met his great friend, Peter. Two stories are told of things that happened to him while in Rome. One is that he was thrown in a 'cauldron of hot oil' but miraculously emerged without a trace of burn or injury. The other is that someone tried to poison him but when he put the cup to his lips the poison left the cup in the form of a serpent. (This accounts for the fact that the depiction of a snake coming out of a chalice has been used as one symbol of St. John -- another being an eagle signifying to what great heights he soared in his love and in his writing.)
From here on I cannot vouch for the specific 'when' or 'where' of John. Some say that while still in Rome John was imprisoned and tortured (which may well have been in connection with the boiling oil episode) but managed to escape back to Ephesus, inferring he lived there for a time before going to Rome. By the way, I found nothing about his whereabouts when Mary was assumed into heaven.

Here let me toss in a few things I read about John which, although I am unable to place them in an exact location or time frame I'd like to share.

In one source I read of John's explosive, although possibly justified, temper. It seems John left a young convert who was still in need of spiritual guidance and training in the care of one of his Bishops. Well, once the boy was baptized, the Bishop, believing all was well, lost touch with him. Unfortunately, all was not well. The young man got in with the wrong crowd. In the course of time he became the leader of a notoriously violent and cruel gang. When John returned and found out what had happened, the Bishop experienced the on-slaught of the Apostle's wrath. Following that, however, and again in John's defense, he, at great risk, searched out the 'gang leader', convinced him to repent, do penance and return to the Church.

From other stories, I definitely got the impression that, at times at least, John had little patience with heretics. It seems once one such heretic who preached that Christ was not divine entered the bathhouse in which John was already enjoying his bath. The moment John sighted Cerinthus he jumped from the water and ran toward the door calling others to do the same rather than risk remaining with this "enemy of truth".

I did run across something else involving John which fascinated me. It is said that someone once saw him playing with a partridge and expressed surprise that a person as eminent as he would be spending time doing something so trivial. John explained that he needed time to relax occasionally or he would pay the physical price of overwork and then not be able to "fulfill his duties". For some reason I get the impression that John gave his response in a rather mellow, soft spoken manner and therefore I am inclined to believe it was when he was older and had toned down his 'thunder'.

But back to as close as I can come to the time~frame course of John's life.

During the reign of Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) Christians were persecuted. While John was fortunate enough not to be put to death, we are told he was exiled from Ephesus to a prison colony on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea which certainly does not indicate a comfortable and pleasant time of his life. Domitian's successor ended persecution and gave the aging John permission to return to Ephesus. (By the way, during the process of his aging, we read some had affectionately given this 'beloved apostle' the nickname, "old Man, John".)

Back in Ephesus he again devoted himself to what he had always done -- worked prayerfully and diligently for Christ's Church. Through all the many, many years of such work we hear of things like preaching, writing, founding churches, ordinations, miracles etc. All of which certainly contributed to Paul's description of him as a "pillar" of the church. (Gal 2:9)

Toward the end of his life John became very crippled and had to be carried to and from church by his disciples but he insisted on going and always told the congregation to "love one another". When he knew his time had come, he asked to be carried to the grave he had instructed be dug for him. There he made the sign of the cross and spoke his dying words, "Peace be with you, my brethren." His speculative age at death ranges from 87 to well over 90. I did not find the given day, month and year on which he died but it seems it was in 100 AD and we celebrate his feast day on December 27th.

I have waited until here, toward the end, to make a confession. In writing about John and using Bible references concerning him, I have never used quotes identifying him as "the one whom Jesus loved". (Jn 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 20) Not long ago I would have done that without a second thought. However, in getting exact chapters and verses to share with you now, I suddenly realized that only in "John's" Gospel did I find him being identified with those above words. (Please forgive me, John, if I am wrong.) But those words bothered me. It just seemed way out of character for John to, in any way, "brag" about himself or, by the words he chose, to single himself out as "the" disciple Jesus loved. I think this especially concerned me because I'd come to know he was a great, great many years beyond his youth when he 'authored' the Gospel bearing his name.

I just couldn't believe that someone like the mature and humble man I had come to know would make it a point to write indicating that he was more special or more loved than his fellow Apostles and if, in any way, it could possibly be true, I was embarrassed for him. HOWEVER, just like Bible-searching got me into this frame of mind, further research got me out in a hurry and left me personally embarrassed. I was so relieved to learn that reliable opinion seems to be as follows:

Although the fourth 'gospel' bears his name and we are told in the last paragraph of that 'gospel' that the 'disciple whom Jesus loved' (Jn 21:20) is "the disciple who testifies to these things and has written them" -- still, the words which follow those, "and we know that his testimony is true" would seem to make it quite evident that, as was the practice at the time, someone other than John -- quite possibly one of his disciples - may well have played a role in bringing into existence the written presentation of 'THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN'.

Based on that, it just makes sense to me that the final 'editor', no doubt a man who greatly admired John, would insert here and there certain 'personal opinion' words or phrases -- not to mislead us into thinking he was quoting John's exact words but to help us "know" John as he did -- a tried and true follower and friend of Jesus.

So now I close, still personally embarrassed because of my own moments of unfounded misjudgment of John the Apostle's opinion of himself -- but do find some comfort in knowing that John the Saint won't give my own imperfections a second thought and will leave the matter of my questionable, if any, potential in the 'judgment realm' of a patient and loving God.

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"Nothing should
frighten or grieve you.
Let not your heart be troubled. Am I, your Mother,
not here with you?"

"Nothing should
frighten or grieve you.
Let not your heart be troubled. Am I, your Mother,
not here with you?"

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