John: Apostle of Love and Light

Jesus named the apostle John, along with his brother James, a son of thunder (in Greek, boanerges). In the last issue we saw in the brothers’ response to certain situations why that might have been appropriate. But as John’s life progressed, he became better described as the apostle of love.

This is evident in the New Testament writings that bear his name or that are attributed to him by conservative scholars. This includes the Gospel of John, his three pastoral letters and the book of Revelation. Not every commentary agrees that John wrote everything that appears under or is associated with his name. Some question his authorship of the Gospel; others doubt that he wrote the letters; still others balk at his involvement with the book of Revelation. Many conservative scholars agree, though, that there is sufficient internal evidence, cross-referencing and weight of tradition to be reasonably sure that John wrote all of them. There is also general agreement among such scholars that John wrote late in the first century, after everything else that comprises the New Testament was written. This is the position taken here.

Evidence of the Author

One of the evidences of John’s authorship of the Gospel is oddly that it contains no direct reference to him by name. That’s not to say he doesn’t appear; he is indicated at the end of the book, when, following Jesus’ death, some of the disciples have gone back to fishing. John writes, “After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way” (John 21:1). This is an important phrase—“he revealed Himself in this way.” What is about to happen is a miraculous catch of fish that parallels the account of the fishermen’s convincing early encounter with Jesus (see Luke 5:1–11). Was this the incident that came to John’s mind in the events described in John 21? This may be a clue to why Jesus revealed himself to them in this way by the Sea of Galilee following the resurrection.

John writes, “Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’” (John 21:4–7). John no doubt recalled the parallel earlier incident. The phrase “that disciple whom Jesus loved”—or similar wording—occurs several times in the latter part of the Gospel and has been understood to be John’s way of referring to himself (see John 13:23; 19:26).

The description of what happened when Jesus’ body went missing also involved “the disciple whom Jesus loved”: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes” (John 20:1–10).

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

John 21:25, English Standard Version

The Gospel ends with a further reference to Peter and John: “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who had been reclining at table close to him and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!’” (John 21:20–22). Some then said that John was not going to die. But as John records, “Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (verses 23–24). So the one “whom Jesus loved” is saying that his eyewitness account can be trusted.

Purpose for Writing

The Gospel of John was written at a time when Gnostic challenges to belief in the coming of Jesus as the Son of God had surfaced. We live in similar times, as authors, commentators, scholars and filmmakers question whether there is anything authentic about Christ or what is known as Christianity. Was Jesus a real person at all? Even if He was, according to this way of thinking, He certainly wasn’t the Son of God. It is all an invention—a mere fabrication.

The Gospel of John is obviously quite different from the synoptic Gospels. It reads differently than Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is written with a different purpose. John writes the Gospel from his perspective to demonstrate that Jesus is exactly who He said He was in the context of late-first-century doubt about Christ. And he includes information about Jesus in the context of Hebrew life and law. He organizes the work around the holy days and the festivals in Jewish life. Because part of the problem was that the Jewish leadership and many of the people had rejected Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah to come, John sets about to explain once more what happened in his experience. Summarizing his purpose, he says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:30–31). 

If we accept that the Gospel of John was written before the three letters by his name, and before Revelation, then the content of the books makes sense. They can be understood sequentially.

For Jews but Also for Gentiles

As a Jew and an eyewitness, John had a lot to say about Judaism’s rejection of the Christ. In the Gospel, there are 14 direct quotes from the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, supportive of Jesus as the Messiah. Half of them are from Psalms, four from Isaiah, two from Zechariah, and one from Exodus; in other words, from all three divisions of Scripture—the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (see also Luke 24:44). By the time John wrote at the end of the first century, false teachers had gone out into the world from all sides, and it was time to restate the truth about the identity of Jesus in terms that Judean Jews, Greek-speaking Jews, and gentiles could understand. Hence, the Gospel opens with a statement about the preeminence of Jesus as the preexisting expression of God—in Greek philosophical terms, the Logos, meaning “the Word.”

You do not find direct references or quotes from the Old Testament in any of John’s letters, however. That seems curious, because most New Testament writings contain some reference to the Hebrew Scriptures. But John had already laid out the scriptural evidence that Jesus is the Christ in his Gospel. Eventually people raised questions about the Gospel, and Gnostic false teaching began to contradict the truth about Jesus. So the first letter begins with a reminder in familiar terms of John’s status as an eyewitness to Christ’s coming (see John 1): “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:1–4).

Gnostic Belief

John was combating the rising influence of Gnostic teachers who denied the testimony about Christ that had been given from the beginning of the Gospel. They claimed to have secret knowledge (gnosis). The opposition, they said, is between spirit (good) and matter (evil). They taught that the human sphere is corrupt and that God has nothing to do with it. Therefore Jesus could not have been the divine Christ but for a short time—from His baptism to just before his death. Nor could Christ have been killed; only the human Jesus was killed. Further, because God has nothing to do with this world, we can behave as we wish. Sin, in effect, doesn’t matter.

So John wrote, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (verses 5–6). It is easy to imagine the corrupting effect of the kind of teaching John was denouncing. He continued: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (verses 7–10).

Sin is a reality. It exists. It cuts us off from God. It is not the way to live. But we do sin, and yet there is a way forward in God’s sight. His Son’s sacrificial death, John points out, has made a relationship with God possible and continues to do so, through the payment for sin and its forgiveness.

John’s point is not to encourage sin by what he is saying, but simply to recognize that humans do sin even after conversion. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation [or atonement] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1–2).

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him,’ but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist.” 

1 John 2:3–4, New Revised Standard Version

The Gnostics taught that they were above sin as followers of their version of Christ. They were more “spiritual” and did not need law to define behavior. But John continues with a reminder that obedience to God’s way is evidence that we know Him. Anything else is a deceit: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (verses 3–6).

Next, John says that the truth about Christ is what has been taught from the beginning. It is not a matter of discovering new esoteric knowledge such as the Gnostics claimed. Secret knowledge is not necessary, because God has revealed the truth about Christ from the start.

God and the Material World

John knows that God is concerned about the material world. That is the astounding thing about the Father and the Son. They have involved themselves with their creation to the extent of sacrificing sinless life for it, so that they can have an everlasting relationship with their children. The Gnostics, John notes, are walking in darkness, not light. This is evident because they have hatred for other humans: “Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (verses 7–11).

Now, you might wonder how this is relevant today. There are all kinds of variations on the theme that the Gnostics put forward. No doubt we have modern versions of the Gnosticism of John’s time. We have those who deny that Christ ever existed, or who insist that the New Testament record is unreliable. We have New Age notions about what God is doing in the world. There is every kind of belief system, with people choosing what they want from all traditions. People claim a vague spirituality without much definition in terms of right behavior. They say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” It is as if people prefer anything but the truth delivered by God through Christ.

Despite God’s involvement with the physical world, the first section of John’s first letter ends with instruction about how to relate to it appropriately: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (verses 15–17).

From here to the end of the first letter, John discusses the reality that the age of man is coming to an end and that the spirit of antichrist is prevalent. We’ll take up that theme next time.