John was just an ordinary simple fisherman. Yet he became the author of the book of Revelation, one Gospel, and three epistles that bear his name. He is known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
We first meet him in Matthew 4:21 when Jesus called him and his brother James, as they helped their father with his fishing nets along the shore of Lake Gennesaret. With his brother James, John readily left his father to follow Jesus.
Do you see a kind of abnormality here, something unusual, a bit of irresponsibility? Humanly speaking, that’s how it seems. But what lies behind the apparent abnormality?
The Influence of Home
John and his brother came from a service-oriented family that put the mission of Jesus and the things of God ahead of their personal welfare. We read in Mark 15:40, 41 about certain women who observed Jesus’ crucifixion, and among whom was Salome. According to the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, this Salome (who followed Jesus and ministered to Him) was the mother of John and James (vol. 5, p. 657).
If that is so, then this mother must have been a role model for her sons in ministry, for Jesus, preparing them from childhood to follow the way of the Lord. Surely, their father (with whom they worked) also played a significant role in bringing up the children in the fear and discipline of the Lord. And thus Jesus found them assisting their father in his work. Nor did Zebedee object to their decision to follow Jesus and leave their regular work behind. The entire family must have been looking forward to a Messiah, to a Deliverer—though not one that would be crucified on a cross.
The influence of God-fearing parents (especially of the mother) upon children in their early years is important and has far-reaching effects, as we see in the lives of John and James. As parents we should carefully consider the influence we exert upon our children. We should be concerned about both their temporal and eternal interests.
John followed Jesus instantly. But this doesn’t mean that he was all pure, holy, and free from all worldly influences. He was just like any of us—proud, self-assertive, ambitious for honor. Impetuous and resentful under injury, he and his brother were called “sons of thunder” by Jesus. Ellen G. White observes that they received the title because of their disposition.
Two Incidents Reveal John’s Nature
1. Retaliation and Revenge
When the Samaritans didn’t receive and respect Jesus as John and James expected, they asked Jesus “to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did” (Luke 9:54).
How quickly the feeling of enmity developed in their mind at the least provocation! Would you and I have behaved differently? Knowing Jesus had the power, would we also have thought of destroying those who dishonored Him? The tendency to retaliate and take revenge upon those who hurt us described John’s nature perfectly. He wasn’t different from us.
Jesus’ response came in the form of a rebuke: “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:55, 56). Ashamed of their behavior, they began to see the real picture of Jesus and His mission. It touched their hearts, and their behavior began to change. Through every such experience they grew spiritually, recognizing their personal faults as they looked upon Jesus, their Master.
2. Self-love and Pride of Place
John and James sent their mother to request Jesus to grant them places of special honor in His kingdom. Like many of us, these young men—selfish and ambitious—desired the highest place. Jesus didn’t condemn them for their ambition, but instead used the opportunity to teach them a lesson in servant leadership. “Whoever desires to be first among you,” He said to them, “let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:27, 28).
Jesus’ lesson of unselfish service penetrated their hearts and remained with them ever after, even in the face of danger and persecution.
A Transformed Life
Selfish love, evil temper, the desire for revenge, the spirit of criticism—all these were traits found in “the beloved disciple.” But Jesus reads the hearts of all, and He could recognize the ardent, teachable, humble, loving heart of John beneath these weaknesses. When He rebuked John’s self-seeking, disappointed his ambitions, and tested his faith, the lessons went deep into John’s heart, and John realized his wretchedness. Thus he humbled himself to be used by the Holy Spirit, resulting in the total transformation of his life. However defective their character, all who humble themselves before the power of the Holy Spirit will be transformed by divine grace into effective witnesses for Christ.
Through the three and a half years he lived as a witness to the transforming love of Jesus, John learned the lessons of true love, being daily sanctified by the power of God. “As the character of the Divine One was manifested to him, John saw his own deficiencies, and was humbled by the revelation. Day by day, in contrast with his own violent spirit, he beheld the tenderness and forbearance of Jesus, and heard His lessons of humility and patience. Day by day his heart was drawn out to Christ, until he lost sight of self in love for his Master…. He yielded his resentful, ambitious temper to the molding power of Christ, and divine love wrought in him a transformation of character” (Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 557). An ordinary fisherman was turning into a mighty witness for the Lord of heaven.
John came to value the meekness, humility, and love he found in Jesus, and recognized these as essential elements to growth in grace and fitness for the work he’d been called to do. His affection for the Master grew daily, and ultimately his life became like His. Self became hidden in Christ, and though Jesus loved all His disciples, John appeared to be the most beloved (see John 19:26a). We know that Jesus entrusted the care of His mother to him at the time of His crucifixion (John 19:26b).
“After the ascension of Christ, John stands forth as a faithful, earnest laborer for the Master…. The apostle’s life was in harmony with his teachings. The love for Christ … led him to put forth earnest, untiring labor for his fellowmen.” And “realizing that brotherly love was waning in the church,” John “urged upon believers the constant need of this love” (The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 546, 548).
A change will come into our lives as we learn how this humble servant of the Lord, experiencing the loving rebuke of Jesus, was transformed into a powerful witness for the kingdom of God. We are the messengers of love who must lead others to the kingdom of God during these last days.
What kind of witness are we bearing for Him through our personal lives?
Ramani Kurian is a resource person for the Education Department of the Southern Asia Division in Hosur, India.