Son of Thunder, Apostle of Love

In this series on the apostles of Jesus Christ, we’ve now arrived at the life of the last surviving apostle, John. By the end of the tumultuous first century, John had experienced all the joys and disappointments of life as a follower of Jesus. He had been there from the start of Jesus’ ministry, had witnessed the transfiguration of his Teacher, and knew who Jesus was. He had seen thousands of people come into the newly formed New Testament Church—three thousand in one day, and five thousand shortly thereafter. And he had cared for Jesus’ mother Mary, perhaps taking her with him to Ephesus.

John had also wrestled with the growing spread of Gnostic ideas. A so-called fellow minister had even prevented him from teaching. He had been held captive on Patmos, a Roman prison island. And while there in the middle of the 90s C.E., by which time he was quite old, he received the overwhelming series of visions known as the Apocalypse, or Revelation.

All of this happened over a period of about 70 years. It is thought that John lived into the reign of the emperor Trajan (98–117).

As noted, Ephesus apparently became his base after the departure of the Church from Jerusalem in the late 60s as they fled from the advancing Romans. The Anchor-Yale Bible Dictionary notes: “The common tradition of the church affirmed that, after his leadership role in the church of Jerusalem, John moved to Ephesus, where he lived to an old age and died a natural death. The tradition is summarized by Eusebius.”

Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote in the late third and early fourth century, often quoted earlier writers whose works are in some cases no longer extant. He mentioned a few of them as supporters of the tradition that John lived in Ephesus, that he worked there, and that he was alive at the end of the first century. One of his sources was Irenaeus (ca. 130–202), whose works are still in existence. Irenaeus claims he got reports about John’s ministry in Ephesus from Papias (ca. 60–130) and Polycarp (ca. 70–156), whose lives overlapped with John’s. Polycarp was in fact a disciple of John. Others also testified to John’s ministry in Ephesus, though pertinent texts exist only to the extent that they were quoted by later writers such as Eusebius.

Sons of Thunder

In the Bible the apostle John is mentioned by name 30 times—in Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts and Galatians. We are first introduced to him in the book of Matthew: “While walking by the Sea of Galilee, [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him” (Matthew 4:18–22).

Here we are introduced to John as the brother of James, both of them sons of Zebedee. Their mother, it appears, was a follower of Jesus and was present at the crucifixion. Perhaps she was one of those women who helped Him when He was in Galilee; based on references in Mark 15:40 and Matthew 27:56, her name may have been Salome. When the brothers left their father to follow Jesus, hired hands remained to help him in his fishing business. The fact that the family had enough money to hire servants suggests that it was probably a reasonably successful business (Mark 1:20).

In Mark’s Gospel we also learn that just as Jesus renamed Simon, He also gave these brothers a special name: “And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder) . . .” (Mark 3:13–17).

To James the son of Zebedee, and to his brother John, He gave the name ‘Boanerges’ (that is, ‘Sons of Thunder’).”

Mark 3:17, Holman Christian Standard Bible

Perhaps this is a clue to their nature. Three examples show why Jesus might have given them this name, each of which provided opportunities to teach certain principles. These experiences undoubtedly affected John, who did not write the books we have until near the end of the first century. By the time he set them down, he was a very mature person. Earlier in life, he seems a rather different man.

Three Examples

At a certain point in Jesus’ ministry, “John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward’” (Mark 9:38–41).

Here Jesus spoke to having a more measured approach to life’s events—not getting immediately overexcited about things that happen. It doesn’t say that Christ considered everyone who did things in His name to represent Him, or to be equal in any sense. Many people misunderstand this scripture, thinking it means that everyone’s work is equally valid as long as they use the name of Christ. But Jesus didn’t say that. He just said, in effect, “Relax, don’t get too excited about it. If that’s what they’re doing, as long as they’re not opposing us, then that’s fine.” He didn’t say, “We’re all the same” or “Go join them.” He simply said, “Leave them alone.”

In a second example, Mark relates that “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you’” (Mark 10:35). That’s quite a statement. “Why don’t you just do everything we want?”

And he said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’” (verses 36–37).

This is presumption in the extreme—naked ambition. Jesus used the opportunity to teach humility, not behaving as many leaders in the world behave, not ruling as many human beings rule. “[He] said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. . . . To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared. And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (verses 38–45).

Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else.” 

Mark 10:43–44, New Living Translation

By now the brothers had been with Jesus for about three years. But what was their state of mind?

Here’s the third example, which perhaps best illustrates the aptness of the title Jesus gave them: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village” (Luke 9:51–56). 

Despite this strong, demanding, fiery, impetuous aspect of the brothers’ nature, John was later known not as a “son of thunder,” but as the “apostle of love” for his promotion of outgoing love as a godly attribute. As we saw in Peter’s case (see the Apostles Series Parts 13–15), this is an indication of how much a person can change under God’s guidance.

A Developing Leader

As they matured, the two brothers were singled out for an important role. The naming of James and John early in the list of disciples (Matthew 10:2–3) reflects in part the chronological order of their calling, but it’s also an indication of their eventual leadership based on their experiences from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

For example, they were present when He performed an early miracle. Jesus “left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them” (Mark 1:29–31).

The two brothers were also among the few allowed to be present at the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Jairus was a local synagogue leader): “Someone from the ruler’s house came and said, ‘Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more.’ But Jesus on hearing this answered him, ‘Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.’ And when he came to the house, he allowed no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child. . . . Taking her by the hand he called, saying, ‘Child, arise.’ And her spirit returned, and she got up at once” (Luke 8:49–55).

Later, James and John accompanied Jesus up a mountain and saw a vision of their Master in the kingdom of God: “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:1–2). John saw it and was convicted, and this became an important aspect of his biography.

And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?’”

Mark 13:3–4, English Standard Version

Further, according to Mark, Jesus’ explanation of the end of the age was directed to James, John and two others: “And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?’” (Mark 13:3–4).

And again, when the time came for the final Passover meal, John was one of two disciples sent to prepare it: “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread [that is, the start of the Passover season], on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it’” (Luke 22:7–8).

Finally, during Jesus’ most intense time in the Garden of Gethsemane, “he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33).

John’s Growing Presence

John is not mentioned again in the three synoptic Gospels as they go on to relate Jesus’ death and resurrection. And the Gospel of John doesn’t mention him at all, at least not directly.

But he is named again at the beginning of the book of Acts: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew. . . . All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:12–14).

Note that John, who had been asked by Jesus to take care of His mother (John 19:26–27), now takes precedence over James—an indication of his developing role.

By this time John is often linked with Peter, and this continues through the early chapters of Acts: “Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth . . . fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up. . . . While he clung to Peter and John, all the people, utterly astounded, ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s” (Acts 3:1–11).

Peter explained to them how all of this had happened. The account in Acts says that John was also involved in the speaking, and that their speech attracted the attention of the religious leaders: “And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem. . . . And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’” (Acts 4:1–7).

Peter told them how it happened and who Jesus was. Though Peter is credited with speaking, it was the courage of both men that took the religious leaders aback: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (verse 13).

Unable to act against the two men, the religious leaders had to let them go. “When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God. . . . When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (verses 23–31).

This was yet another experience that informed John’s ongoing ministry.

Further Growth

John’s role continued to grow as the young Church increased. When the gospel went out to the region north of Judea through Philip, and “the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for [it] had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:14–16).

One of those baptized was Simon Magus. But the magician, who was involved with incipient Gnosticism, had ulterior motives. John was present when Peter severely rebuked the false teacher (verses 17–23). This was a significant event, for John later had to deal with Gnostic influences within the Church.

In time John was mentioned by Paul as one of three leaders in Jerusalem following Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul wrote: “When they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James [the brother of Jesus] and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:7–9).

We will further explore John’s developing role, as well as his writings, next time.