Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 10:2e “. . .and John his brother;. . .”
John was the only disciple who dared to stand close to the cross of Jesus, the one Jesus trusted to care for His mother (JN 19:26-27), the first to understand the significance of the empty tomb (JN 20:8), and the author of five Bible books.
We examine his life under three headings: smugness, love, and honor. First, John struggled with smugness. Being the other half of the “sons of thunder” (MK 3:17) duo, John had to battle against an innate holier-than-thou attitude.
He once told Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to hinder him because he was not following us.” Jesus replied, “Do not hinder him” (MK 9:38-39 NAS). John was wrongly suspicious of anyone not affiliated with his own group, an ever present danger of denominationalism.
For the most part, denominations are a good idea. They allow us to express our beliefs freely without having to argue all the time. The breakdown in denominationalism comes when the groups are harsh and unchristlike toward one another.
It is okay to fairly and honestly assess the doctrines of different groups and point out where we differ with them, but wrong to scathe, to scold, to harshly ridicule the beliefs of others. We have a right to disagree, but must do so respectfully.
In my formative years in the ministry, two battles tore Christians apart, and abundant guilt clung to both sides. Speaking in tongues drove a deep wedge into us. Opponents rashly said speaking in tongues was of the devil; proponents hotly replied that anyone who did not speak in tongues did not possess the Holy Spirit.
My dad was one of thirteen children. Of the twelve who reached adulthood, eight remained Baptist, four became Pentecostal. This divided our family as terribly as ripping a garment. My double cousin, a preacher who embraces tongues, shares my passion for missions, yet we’ve been reluctant to discuss theological issues. Only two months ago did the two of us have our first real conversation about the issue that matters most to us. Too much smugness. Too much John.
The other divisive issue was eternal security. Caustic opponents said believing in once saved always saved encourages Christians to live in sin; cynical proponents said those who believe in falling from grace serve God solely for mercenary reasons, for what they can get out of it, to save their own skin. I have found wisdom in the counsel of my friend Bob Cirtin, who says we should live such a holy life that the argument is moot. Too much smugness. Too much John.
I’m grateful our church will soon host a Sunday night city-wide interdenominational worship service. God has given us favor with churches of many beliefs. I pray we can be a catalyst in helping us all be a little less smug, a little less John.
Holier-than-thou haughtiness cuts not only across denominational lines, but also within denominations. My beloved Convention has now been embroiled in a struggle over the role of the Bible for twenty-three years. I admit we needed warriors to engage the battle of reconfirming our belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, but one tragedy of war is, when it ends, warriors don’t step aside and let peacemakers take over. Once victory is won, instead of taking time to consolidate the win peacefully, the spirit of war continues. Transitions that could be accomplished in five years with peace are ram-rodded through in five months with bloodletting.
All the while, unbelievers look on in shocked disbelief, displaying a better understanding of how Christians ought to act than we do. The world is on a fast track to Hell, but we play fiddles while Rome burns. As the USA sinks into perdition we rearrange furniture on the Titanic. Too much smugness. Too much John.
Second, John learned to love. God changed him from a son of thunder to a son of the rainbow. John became a peace-child, a man of gentility. He went from being John the Smug to being John the Beloved. We can change. There is hope. Never be satisfied with our current spiritual status. Always seek a higher level.
The change John underwent is a transformation I long to experience. I desire what he achieved. Some are called King or Queen, Lord or Lady, Nobleman or Knight, but what are these when viewed in light of the title eventually bestowed on John–“the disciple whom Jesus loved” (JN 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20)?
Jesus loves all people equally, but being human, He was subject to bonding with certain personality types. Personalities resonate, hearts bond, spirits jell. It’s not planned, it just happens. In my teen years, three of us cousins enjoyed hanging out together, but two of us merged into a oneness the third could not penetrate. The two of us did not intend for this to happen, and we were careful to include the third in our activities, but the bond between the two of us could not be denied.
This is what happened between Jesus and John. As Jesus smoothed John’s rough edges, they drew close to each other in a way no other disciple could match.
When I was born, my dad, who had just begun preaching, was in the father’s waiting room. He heard me crying and said it reminded him of one crying in the wilderness. Thus he named me for John the Baptist. I revere my namesake, the fiery orator of Jordan, the baptizer of Jesus. As a lad, I would say, when I die, cut my head off so I can be like John the Baptist. At least I had enough sense to say wait till I was dead to do it. At my ordination, Dad preached on John 1:6, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” He challenged me to emulate the chief characteristics of John the Baptist’s ministry. The Baptist is still my hero, but as years pass, I more and more find John the Beloved stealing my heart.
“The disciple whom Jesus loved”–I want this. I know Jesus loves me. I want Him also to like me, to feel special affinity between us, to sense our personalities resonating. The relationship is open to all. Jesus does not play favorites.
Third, John attained honor. We all relish being honored. I was asked by my family, and given the honor, to preach the funerals of my Grandpa and Grandma Marshall. I have the honor to serve one of the most respected and talked about churches in a denomination of 45,000 congregations. But these and all other honors pale into oblivion when compared to the honor bestowed on John the Beloved.
On the night our Lord was betrayed, as Jesus was entering the midnight of His soul, He reclined at supper with the Twelve, but only one was allowed to lean on His breast. Only one entered the sanctuary of being a bosom friend (JN 13:23).
When I hear of Elijah calling down fire from Heaven, it thrills me. When I think of John the Baptist preaching, I’m inspired. When I read of Paul’s missionary journeys, I get fired up, I want to pack my suitcase and go on a mission trip.
When I think of John the Beloved leaning on Jesus’ breast, I’m jealous, I feel faint, weak in my spirit. This is the position I would like to attain to. I want sin removed so that I can draw close to Jesus, and rest my weary head in His lap.
At long last, the end came. John outlived all the other disciples, supposedly dying in his nineties. He and his brother James epitomize the Moravian emblem of an ox standing between an altar and a plow, underscored with the inscription, “Ready for Either.” For James it was the altar, he was a short bright flame that brought early martyrdom. For John it was the plow, a long life of devoted service.
Near the end of his days, John was exiled to the island of Patmos (RV 1:9), a penal colony just off the coast of Turkey. While here, all alone, his old friend came to visit. John knew the voice, though magnified as a trumpet (RV 1:10), and recognized the Person, though portrayed in apocalyptic splendor (RV 1:12-16).
John realized it was his friend of yore, but did not presume on their friendship. His friend was first of all his Lord, thus John fell at His feet as dead (RV 1:17). The love never nullified the reverence. The two always belong together.
John was the last of the Twelve to enter Heaven. I’m sure the others parted as he arrived in order to let him and Jesus draw close to one another. On the final Day, at the marriage supper of the lamb, when all God’s people gather for a huge feast of celebration, there will be no question as to who will lean on Jesus’ breast.
Mighty Moses won’t even think of sitting in that seat. John the Baptist and Paul the Apostle will be close by, but not that close. Over two seats there will be no debate, no discussion. Jesus will take the one, John the Beloved will have the other. Wow, what an honor. I want to learn to love Jesus like that. Don’t you?