The Ministry of the Apostle John (1)
By Titus Chu
The apostle John was an interesting person. He was Jesus’ cousin, and probably quite a bit younger than Jesus. Perhaps as a boy he even ran errands for Jesus in the carpenter shop. Together with James, Jude, and John the Baptist, he witnessed the early years of Jesus.
During his lifetime, John saw many things. He witnessed the Lord’s death and saw Him in resurrection. He was in the upper room on Pentecost when the Spirit fell upon all who were gathered there. He saw how thousands were wonderfully saved at that time, and joined Peter as he healed the lame man at the Temple. He saw the persecutor Saul become the apostle Paul who went on to unveil great truths and raise up many churches among the Gentiles. He later saw the city of Jerusalem, and thus the church in Jerusalem, destroyed by the Roman army.
John likely wrote Revelation and his epistles in the late 80s, and his Gospel in the 90s. Paul and Barnabas had died, as had all the other apostles, including Matthew who had written his own account of Jesus’ life. The other gospel writers, Mark and Luke, had also died. John was the only one left who had the ability to perceive the real situation among the churches.
Do you know why John was not martyred as the rest? He was preserved by caring for Mary, the mother of Jesus. When the Lord was on the cross, John was the only one of the twelve there with Him, along with Jesus’ mother and some other women. Peter and the others had run off. Jesus, while He was on the cross, spoke to John and His mother Mary. He said to John concerning Mary, “Behold, your mother”, and to Mary concerning John, “Behold, your son”. The Bible then says, “From that hour the disciple [John] took her into his own household” (John 19:27).
Jesus did not entrust His mother to His brothers James and Jude. Perhaps this was because of His knowledge of them. We find out more about James later in Acts and in his epistle, and of Jude we know very little other than what we can infer from his epistle. Jesus did not choose them, Mary’s own sons and His own brothers, but He chose John. I believe this long term assignment preserved John and his ministry until they would be useful later.
To care for Mary, an older woman, must have been a cross to John. It could not have been easy. John was very active immediately after Pentecost, but after James rose up to insist on a legal Jewish church life In Jerusalem, he and the other apostles all had to go away. John may have taken Mary to a town close to Jerusalem, or to his own hometown in Galilee. When Paul returned to Jerusalem in Acts 21, James and the elders of Jerusalem met with him, but nothing is said about John or any of the other the apostles.
John was a great apostle. He is described as the unique one “reclining on Jesus’ bosom…whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). Yet this great apostle’s assignment was not to do a great work, but to care for Mary, an older woman. He must have heard how Peter was pioneering in the gospel, how Paul was raising up new churches, and how James was raising up a huge number in Jerusalem. Perhaps John wanted to do a great work also, but his daily task for many years was simply to make Mary her meals and to insure her comfort.
John may have wished he hadn’t been at the cross when Jesus died. Peter had run away, and now had a glorious labor. I can imagine John asking why he didn’t have such a great ministry as he cooked another pot of soup for Mary.
Eventually Mary died. After burying her, John must have wondered what was next for him. If Mary died around AD 75, he was probably around 65, which was an advanced age in those days. What should he do? He was an apostle, but he had not exercised that way for along time.
A Confused Situation
John ended up in Ephesus, perhaps out of an invitation from Timothy, once a coworker of Paul. I’m sure the church there welcomed John with open arms. He became an elder, and as such he no doubt became quite active and began to minister life to the saints. At that point, the Lord seemed to say, “You still have a lot of natural energy. I will deal with that by sending you to an island where you will have no one to minister to.” Thus John was sent to the island of Patmos for a few years, where he had more experiences of Christ and wrote the book of Revelation.
When he returned to Ephesus, the situation had become messy. There was probably a larger number compared to what had been there before. The workers in the various areas—such as Galatia, Europe, Judea, and Babylon—had been raised up under different influences and ministries, and this brought in confusion. John must have been confronted with a lot of questions about practices and teachings. As the last living of the original apostles, he was uniquely qualified to answer such things. He had seen how the churches had been raised up, and how they had passed through different times of trial. He had seen many different kinds of congregations. He had a lot of stories he could tell.
A Healthy Church Life
How do you produce and maintain a healthy church life in such a messy situation? John, in his first epistle, stressed three elements. He did not seek to trump others’ experiences with his own, or respond to teachings by adjusting doctrine. Instead, he simply said that if they had these three elements, their church life would be healthy.
First, we must firmly attach ourselves to the apostles and the apostles’ teaching. Notice that John uses the plural “we” and “us” when speaking of the apostles in 1 John 1:3. There are many brothers who are laboring as apostles. We will later define who these servants are.
Second, we must take God as the light in the church life. Everything is to satisfy the Lord. There should be nothing hidden. There should be no darkness in a healthy church life. If there are some who fellowship together secretly or if some cluster together just by themselves, then their church life cannot be healthy. Our fellowship in the church life must be in the light, for God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). He hates any kind of maneuvering or favoritism. Those who serve the churches must not exercise such things, and those in the churches must not seek to keep things to themselves.
Third, we must love one another, and together love Christ. Why? Because God is love (4:8, 16). John writes, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (4:20). A pure church life has no parties or cliques, but is full of brotherly love.
Paul never defined God. John, however, defined God as being Spirit, light, and love (John 4:24; 1 John 1:5; 4:8). A healthy church life is determined by our experience and appreciation of these three aspects of God. First, we firmly attach ourselves to the Lord’s servants. Second, we experience God as light. Third, we love one another. These three things are very simple, and yet how practical they are! If these three things are present in our church life, our church is healthy.
Christ as the Beginning
John writes of Christ and our experience of Him in this way: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life” (1 John 1:1). He speaks of Christ as the everlasting One who is from the beginning, and who is the Word of Life. This is the One we must pursue life long. First we hear. Second we see. Third we look upon. Fourth, we touch. Our Lord must become so experiential to us.
Who is this Lord we have believed in? He is Jesus, who is the Christ. Christ is a very inclusive title, even though the word itself simply means “anointed one.” As the anointed one, Christ was in the beginning, as it is written: “From everlasting I was established, from the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth” (Prov 8:23). As the One in the beginning, He was the Word of Life.
When we say, “Lord,” we acknowledge Him as Lord over all, especially over our lives and over the church. When we say, “Jesus,” we are speaking to Him as a man. When we say “Christ,” we are addressing Him as the anointed One who has an operation. God’s purpose in the universe is focused upon Christ. In this, He is the beginning, He is the Life, and He is the Word, the Word of Life.
Without Christ, there would have been no beginning. His operation produces all beginnings. Why were we born? The Lord is the beginning. Why were we saved? The Lord is the beginning. Why do we love the Lord, and why do we follow the Lord? Our response must be the same: The Lord is the beginning. The same holds true for every new phase we enter into, whether marriage or having a child or simply waking up to another day. In all these things, He is the true origin. His existence is the beginning, and He produces all new beginnings.
When we were young we believed we exercised control over our own lives. But it is Christ who is the beginning of all things. The fact we have a life to live at all is due to Christ being the beginning. God used our parents, but He is the real beginning, for He predestinated in eternity past that we would each come into being to be a part of His body.
Christ is the cause of all the beginnings in our lives. He gave us life and caused us to follow Him. He gave us our spouse and our children. He calls us to serve Him in the church life. He is the one who is the supporting element who stands with us through all our difficulties. He is the beginning of everything.
He is the one we lean upon and the one in whom we trust. Christ is indeed everything. This is why John could write, “What was from the beginning…” Christ was and is always “from the beginning.” We can never have a beginning apart from Christ. In all things He operates as the beginning in our lives. We cannot take any credit, for Christ alone is the ultimate and actual beginning. Every time we touch Christ we touch a new beginning, for Christ is the beginning.
Before we come to a church meeting, we may feel tired and discouraged. But after singing together and enjoying the speaking, we begin to sense the Lord’s presence and experience another new beginning. By touching the Lord we are always strengthened to enjoy a new beginning.
Christ is the beginning. He is always there, and if we touch Him, we will enjoy many beginnings. Every time He blesses us, He blesses us with a new beginning.
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