Of all the twelve apostles of Jesus, perhaps we know the most about John. Like Peter and James, he was always there at the key moments. He was one of the inner circle. In fact, he seems to have been Jesus’ best earthly friend (garnering the nickname “the disciple whom Jesus loved”). And he wrote far more New Testament literature, even than Peter … giving us even deeper insights into what made him tick, and what he was like as an old man.
John was the only one of the original twelve who was not violently murdered for his faith. But that doesn’t mean he did not suffer. As an old man, he was placed in exile on a tiny, rocky island in the Mediterranean (“Patmos”, see Revelation 1.9). Think Alcatraz without the fancy prison buildings. It is possible that John died there, away from his beloved churches and virtually alone. But what a blessing that the Lord allowed him to live to such an advanced age! Because of it, we have, not only his gospel, but also 1, 2, and 3 John … and Revelation. And in those books (particularly the three letters) we begin to see very clearly that this one time “son of thunder” (Mark 3.17); this one time self-promoter (Mark 10.35-40), was now completely changed. John is often known today as ‘the apostle of love’ – and not just because He was such a close friend of Jesus, but because that friendship made him such a great lover of others.
All of the love commands that are so familiar to us … “Beloved, let us love one another” (1 John 4.7); “let us not love with word or with tongue, but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3.18); “if God so loved us, we ought to love one another” (1 John 4.11) … they all come from the quill and ink of the aged John. In fact, in his three short letters (comprising only 7 chapters and 133 verses), he uses either the noun or verb form of the word love 62 times. He highlights love a further 51 times in his gospel. What a wonderful lesson this one-time blustery big-mouth has left us! “Let us love one another … for love is from God” (1 John 4.7-8).
And let me point out one other valuable lesson from this most famous of apostles … He did not want, in any way, to become famous. And he took steps (unsuccessfully, of course) to make sure he didn’t.
Imagine yourself living early in the second century, somewhere in Asia Minor. And, since all the books of the New Testament have not yet been compiled into one volume, all you have at your disposal is the gospel of John and his three letters. Being a new Christian, you pour over them, drinking in every word. And one day the pastor comes up to you and says: ‘So what do you think about John, the apostle?’ Do you know what your answer might be? ‘John who?’
You see, if you had no access to the writings of the other apostles, you may never have heard of John. Why? Because he never once names himself in all the chapters of his gospel and letters. Not once! He calls himself “the other disciple” and, occasionally, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” … and in his later writings, “the elder.” But he never names himself. He never seeks acclaim for himself. We only know that “the other disciple” is John himself by comparing notes with Matthew, Mark, and Luke! And what a lesson to be learned! John got it! Christ is all! And therefore, as Augustine would say a few generations later: each of us should “love to be thyself unknown and to be counted for nothing.” That was John in his later life. John who? The son of thunder turned anonymous apostle!
But what about you? Do you “love to be thyself unknown”? Would you be content (even happy) if someone wrote a book about your church … and never once mentioned you by name? Would you write it that way yourself, or at least be willing to deflect all the praise to Christ? O dear brothers and sisters, let us imitate John as He imitates Jesus! Let us humble ourselves and make ourselves (Philippians 2.7) “nothing.”