John the Apostle

Who was John?

John the Apostle is one of the most important figures in the New Testament. He is a central person in the four Gospels - the fourth gospel is attributed to him - and he plays a significant role in the rest of the New Testament. The sources for the life of the apostle John are of various kinds, and of different degrees of trustworthiness. There are the references in the Synoptic Gospels, which may be used simply and easily without any preliminary critical inquiry into their worth as sources; for these Gospels contain the common tradition of the early church, and for the present purpose may be accepted as trustworthy.

There are the statements in Acts and in Galatians, which we may use without discussion as a source for the life of John. There is next the universal tradition of the 2nd century, which we may use, if we can show that the John of Ephesus, who bulks so largely in the Christian literature of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, is identical with the son of Zebedee. Further, on the supposition that the son of Zebedee is the author of the Johannine writings of the New Testament, there is another source of unequaled value for the estimate of the life and character of the son of Zebedee in these writings. Finally, there is the considerable volume of tradition which gathered around the name of John of Ephesus, of which, picturesque and interesting though the traditions be, only sparing use can be made.

The Synoptic Gospels

That John was one of the two sons of Zebedee, that he became one of the disciples of Jesus, that at His call he forsook all and followed Jesus, and was thereafter continuously with Jesus to the end, are facts familiar to every reader of the Synoptic Gospels. The call was given to John and to his brother James at the Sea of Galilee, while in a boat with their father Zebedee, "mending their nets" (Matthew 4:21,22, and parallel passages). "Come ye after me," said Jesus, "and I will make you to become fishers of men" (Mark 1:17; on the earlier call in Judea, John 1:35, see below).

That Zebedee was a man of considerable wealth may be inferred from the fact that he had "hired servants" with him (Mark 1:20), and that his wife was one of those women who ministered of their substance to Jesus and His disciples (Matthew 27:55,56). Comparison of the latter passage with Mark 15:40,41 identifies the wife of Zebedee, John's mother, with Salome, and it seems a fair inference from John 19:25, though all do not accept it, that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Salome, the wife of Zebedee, were sisters. On this view, James and John were cousins of Jesus, and were also related to the family of John the Baptist.

The name of John appears in all the lists of the apostles given in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 10:2 and parallels). While his name appears rarely in a position by itself, he is still one of the most prominent of the disciples. With Peter and James he is present at the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51). These three were also present at the transfiguration (Matthew 17; Mark 9; Luke 9). They were nearest to the Lord at the agony of Gethsemane. In all these cases nothing characteristic of John is to be noted.

He is simply present as one of the three, and therefore one of the most intimate of the disciples. But there is something characteristic in an incident recorded by Luke (9:54), in which James and John are represented as wishing to call down fire on a Sam village, which had refused them hospitality. From this can be inferred something of the earnestness, zeal, and enthusiasm of the brothers, and of their high sense of what was due to their Master. Peter, James, John, and Andrew are the four who asked Jesus about the prophecies He had uttered:

"Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?" (Mark 13:4). Then there is the request of their mother as to the place she desired for her sons in the coming kingdom (Mark 10:35). To Peter and John was entrusted the task of preparation for the keeping of the Passover (Luke 22:8). Once John stands alone, and asks what we may consider a characteristic question: "Teacher, we saw one casting out demons in thy name; and we forbade him, because he followed not us" (Mark 9:38; Luke 9:49). From these notices we see that John was in the front rank of the disciples, and we see also that he was so far conscious of the position he held, and of the intimate connection he had with the Master.

We note further that John was a young man of fiery zeal, and of a tendency toward intolerance and exclusiveness. The zeal and the intolerance are in evidence in the desire to call down fire upon the Samaritan village, and the tendency toward exclusiveness is manifested in the request of his mother as to the place her sons were to occupy in the kingdom. They desire to have the highest positions. These tendencies were not encouraged by Jesus. They were rebuked by Him once and again, but the tendencies reveal the men. In harmony with these notices of character and temperament is the name given to the brothers by Jesus, "Boanerges," "Sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17), which, whatever else may be meant by it, means strength, unexpectedness, and zeal approaching to methods of violence.

Acts and Galatians

John is found in company with Peter in the opening scenes in Acts. He is with Peter while the man at the gate was healed (3:1). He is with Peter on the mission to Samaria (8:14). He is with Peter and James, the Lord's brother, at the interview with Paul recorded in Galatians 2, and the three are described by Paul as the pillar apostles (2:9). This interview is of importance because it proves that John had survived his brother James, whose death is recorded in Acts 12; at all events that John and James were not killed by the Jews at the same time, as some now contend that they were. This contention is considered below.

John's Writings

Gospel and Revelation

Much is to be learned of the apostle John from the Fourth Gospel, assuming the Gospel to have been written by him. We learn from it that he was a disciple of John the Baptist (1:35), that he was one of the first six disciples called by Jesus in His early ministry in Judea (1:37-51), and that he was present at all the scenes which he describes in the Gospel. We find later that he had a home in Jerusalem, and was acquainted with many there. To that home he took Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom the dying Saviour entrusted to his care (19:26,27).

Much more also we learn of him and of his history, for the Gospel is a spiritual biography, a record of the growth of faith on the part of the writer, and of the way in which his eyes were opened to see the glory of the Lord, until faith seems to have become vision. He was in the inner circle of the disciples, indeed, nearest of all to Jesus, "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20), and, because of that love, became the apostle of love.

The Book of Revelation, likewise traditionally ascribed to John, bears important witness to the apostle's banishment in later life to the isle of Patmos in the Aegean (1:9). There he received the visions recorded in the book. The banishment probably took place in the reign of Domitian, with whose practice it was entirely in consonance (on the severity of such exile, compare Sir W.M. Ramsay, Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, chapter viii). The testimony is of high importance in its bearing on the disputed question of John's residence in Asia, a point now to be discussed.

The Character of John

The general character of this great apostle is already sufficiently apparent. While we recall the illustrative facts found in the Synoptics, that James and John were the two who wished to call down fire from heaven on the inhospitable village, that John was one of those who desired one of the chief places in the kingdom, that he it was who forbade the man to cast out demons in the name of Jesus because he followed not with them, we do not forget that on each of these occasions he was corrected and rebuked by the Master, and he was not the kind of man who could not profit by the rebuke of Jesus.

So that vehemence of disposition was held in check, and, while still in existence, was under control, and allowed to have vent only on occasions when it was permissible, and even necessary. So in his writings, and in the reflections in the Gospel, we note the vehemence displayed, but now directed only against those who refused to believe in, and to acknowledge, Jesus. "A quiet and thoughtful temperament is by no means inconsistent with a certain vehemence, when, on occasions, the pent-up fire flashes forth; indeed, the very violence of feeling may help to foster an habitual quietude, lest word or deed should betray too deep an emotion.

Then it is not without significance that, in the three narratives which are cited from the Gospels to prove the overbearing temper of John, we are expressly told that Jesus corrected him. Are we to suppose that these rebukes made no impression? Is it not more likely that they sank deep into his heart, and that the agony of beholding his Master's crucifixion made them ineffaceable? Then, if not before, began that long development which changed the youthful son of thunder into the aged apostle of love" (Drummond, op. cit, 410, 411).

But love itself has its side of vehemence, and the intensity of love toward a person or a cause may be measured by the intensity of aversion and of hatred toward their contradictories. There are many reflections in the Gospel and in the Epistles which display this energy of hatred toward the work of the devil, and toward those dispositions which are under the influence of the father of lies. We simply notice these, for they prove that the fervent youth who was devoted to his Master carried with him to the end the same disposition which was characteristic of him from the beginning.


The following article is excerpted from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain.

James Iverach

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia