How often have I said,
"Blessed that John who on thy breast
Laid down his head."
It was that contact all divine
Transformed him from above,
And made him amongst men the man
To show forth holy love.
CHRISTINA G. ROSSETTI.
Love is regenerating the world. It is the love of God that is working this mighty transformation. The world was cold and loveless before Christ came. Of course there always was love in the race, -- father-love, mother-love, filial love, love for country. There have always been human friendships which were constant, tender, and true, whose stories shine in bright lustre among the records of life. Natural affection there has always been, but Christian love was not in the world till Christ came.
The incarnation was the breaking into this world of the love of God. For three and thirty years Jesus walked among men, pouring out love in every word, in every act, in all his works, and in every influence of his life. Then on the cross his heart broke, spilling its love upon the earth. As Mary's ointment filled all the house where it was emptied out, so the love of God poured out in Christ's life and death is filling all the world.
Jesus put his love into human hearts that it might be carried everywhere. Instantly there was a wondrous change. The story of the Church after the day of Pentecost shows a spirit among the disciples of Christ which the world had never seen before. They had all things common. The strong helped the weak. They formed a fellowship which was almost heavenly. From that time to the present the leaven of love has been working. It has slowly wrought itself into every department of life, -- into art, literature, music, laws, education, morals. Every hospital, orphanage, asylum, and reformatory in the world has been inspired by the love of Christ. Christian civilization is a product of this same divine affection working through the nations.
Perhaps no other of the Master's disciples has done so much in the interpreting and the diffusing of the love of Christ in the world as the beloved disciple has done. Peter was the mightiest force at the beginning in the founding of the Church. Then came Paul with his tremendous missionary energy, carrying Christianity to the ends of the earth. Each of these apostles was greatest in his own way and place. But John has done more than either of these to bless the world with love. His influence is everywhere. He is likest Jesus of all the disciples. His influence is slowly spreading among men. We see it in the enlarging spirit of love among Christians, in the increase of philanthropy, in the growing sentiment that war must cease among Christian nations, all disputes to be settled by arbitration, and in the feeling of universal brotherhood which is softening all true men's hearts toward each other.
It cannot but be intensely interesting to trace the story of the friendship of Jesus and John, for it was in this hallowed friendship that John learned all that he gave the world in his life and words. We are able to fix its beginning -- when Jesus and John met for the first time. One day John the Baptist was standing by the Jordan with two of his disciples. One of these was Andrew; and the other we know was John -- we know it because in John's own Gospel, where the incident is recorded, no name is given. The two young men had not yet seen Jesus; but the Baptist knew him, and pointed him out as he passed by, saying, "Behold the Lamb of God!"
The two young men went after Jesus, no doubt eager to speak with him. Hearing their footsteps behind him, he turned, and asked them what they sought. They asked, "Rabbi, where abidest thou?" He said, "Come, and ye shall see." They gladly accepted the invitation, went with him to his lodgings, and remained until the close of the day. We have no account of what took place during those happy hours. It would be interesting to know what Jesus said to his visitors, but not a word of the conversation has been preserved. We may be sure, however, that the visit made a deep impression on John.
Most days in our lives are unmarked by any special event. There are thousands of them that seem just alike, with their common routine. Once or twice, however, in the lifetime of almost every person, there is a day which is made forever memorable by some event or occurrence, -- the first meeting with one who fills a large place in one's after years, a compact of sacred friendship, a revealing of some new truth, a decision which brought rich blessing, or some other experience which set the day forever apart among all days.
John lived to be a very old man; but to his latest years he must have remembered the day when he first met Jesus, and began with him the friendship which brought him such blessing. We may be sure that as at their first meeting the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul, so at this first meeting the soul of John was knit with the soul of Jesus in a holy friendship which brought unspeakable good to his life. There was that in Jesus which at once touched all that was best in John, and called out the sweetest music of his soul.
"Thou shall know him when he comes
John calls himself the "disciple whom Jesus loved." This designation gives him a distinction even among the Master's personal friends. Jesus loved all the apostles, but there were three who belonged in an inner circle. Then, of these three, John was the best beloved. We are not told what it was in John that gave him this highest honor. He was probably a cousin of Jesus, as it is thought by many that their mothers were sisters. This blood relationship, however, would not account for the strong love that bound them together. There must have been certain qualities in John which fitted him in a peculiar way for being the closest friend of Jesus.
We know that John's personality was very winning. He was only a fisherman, and in his youth lacked opportunities for acquiring knowledge or refinement. If Mary and Salome were sisters, the blood of David's line was in John as well as in Jesus. It is something to have back of one's birth a long and noble descent. Besides, John was one of those rare men "who appear to be formed of finer clay than their neighbors, and cast in a gentler mould." Evidently he was by nature a man of sympathetic spirit, one born to be a friend.
The study of John's writings helps us to answer our question. Not once in all his Gospel does he refer to himself by name; yet as one reads the wonderful chapters, one is aware of a spirit, an atmosphere, of sweetness. There are fields and meadows in which the air is laden with fragrance, and yet no flowers can be seen. But looking closely, one finds, low on the ground, hidden by the tall grasses, a multitude of little lowly flowers. It is from these that the perfume comes. In every community there are humble, quiet lives, almost unheard of among men, who shed a subtle influence on all about them. Thus it is in the chapters of John's Gospel. The name of the writer nowhere appears, but the charm of his spirit pervades the whole book.
In the designation which he adopts for himself, there is a fine revealing of character. There is a beautiful self-obliteration in the hiding away of the author's personality that only the name and glory of Jesus may be seen. There are some good men, who, even when trying to exalt and honor their Lord, cannot resist the temptation to write their own name large, that those who see the Master may also see the Master's friend. In John there is an utter absence of this spirit. As the Baptist, when asked who he was, refused to give his name, and said he was only a voice proclaiming the coming of the King, so John spoke of himself only as one whom the Master loved.
We must note, too, that he does not speak of himself as the disciple who loved Jesus, -- this would have been to boast of himself as loving the Master more than the other disciples did, -- but as the disciple whom Jesus loved. In this distinction lies one of the subtlest secrets of Christian peace. Our hope does not rest in our love for Jesus, but in his love for us. Our love at the best is variable in its moods. To-day it glows with warmth and joy, and we say we could die for Christ; to-morrow, in some depression, we question whether we really love him at all, our feeling responds so feebly to his name. A peace that depends on our loving Christ is as variable as our own consciousness. But when it is Christ's love for us that is our dependence, our peace is undisturbed by any earthly changes.
Thus we find in John a reposeful spirit. He was content to be lowly. He knew how to trust. His spirit was gentle. He was of a deeply spiritual nature. Yet we must not think of him as weak or effeminate. Perhaps painters have helped to give this impression of him; but it is one that is not only untrue, but dishonoring. John was a man of noble strength. In his soul, under his quietness and sweetness of spirit, dwelt a mighty energy. But he was a man of love, and had learned the lesson of divine peace; thus he was a self-controlled man.
These are hints of the character of the disciple whom Jesus loved, whom he chose to be his closest friend. He was only a lad when Jesus first met him, and we must remember that the John we chiefly know was the man as he developed under the influence of Jesus. What Jesus saw in the youth who sat down beside him in his lodging-place that day, drank in his words, and opened his soul to him as a rose to the morning sun, was a nature rich in its possibilities of noble and beautiful character. The John we know is the man as he ripened in the summer of Christ's love. He is a product of pure Christ-culture. His young soul responded to every inspiration in his Master, and developed into rarer loveliness every day. Doubtless one of the qualities in John that fitted him to be the closest friend of Jesus was his openness of heart, which made him such an apt learner, so ready to respond to every touch of Christ's hand.
It would be interesting to trace the story of this holy friendship through the three years Jesus and John were together, but only a little of the wonderful narrative is written. Some months after the first meeting, there was another beside the sea. For some reason John and his companions had taken up their fishing again. Jesus came by in the early morning, and found the men greatly discouraged because they had been out all night and had caught nothing. He told them to push out, and to cast their net again, telling them where to cast it. The result was a great draught of fishes. It was a revealing of divine power which mightily impressed the fishermen. He then bade them to follow him, and said he would make them become fishers of men. Immediately they left the ship, and went with Jesus.
Thus John had now committed himself altogether to his new Master. From this time he remained with Jesus, following him wherever he went. He was in his school, and was an apt scholar. A little later there came another call. Jesus chose twelve men to be apostles, and among them was the beloved disciple. This choice and call brought him into yet closer fellowship with Jesus. Now the transformation of character would go on more rapidly because of the constancy and the closeness of John's association with his Master.
A peculiar designation is given to the brothers James and John. Jesus surnamed them Boanerges, the sons of thunder. There must have been a meaning in such a name given by Jesus himself. Perhaps the figure of thunder suggests capacity for energy -- that the soul of John was charged, as it were, with fiery zeal. It appears to us, as we read John's writings, that this could not have been true. He seems such a man of love that we cannot think of him as ever being possessed of an opposite feeling. But there is evidence that by nature he was full of just such energy held in reserve. We see John chiefly in his writings; and these were the fruit of his mellow old age, when love's lessons had been well learned. It seems likely that in his youth he had in his breast a naturally quick, fiery temper. But under the culture of Jesus this spirit was brought into complete mastery. We have one illustration of this earlier natural feeling in a familiar incident. The people of a certain village refused to receive the Master, and John and his brother wished to call down fire from heaven to consume them. But Jesus reminded them that he was not in the world to destroy men's lives, but to save them.
We know not how often this lesson had to be taught to John before he became the apostle of love. It was well on in St. Paul's old age that he said he had learned in whatsoever state he was therein to be content. It is a comfort to us to know that he was not always able to say this, and that the lesson had to be learned by him just as it has to be learned by us. It is a comfort to us also to be permitted to believe that John had to learn to be the loving, gentle disciple he became in later life, and that the lesson was not an easy one.
It is instructive also to remember that it was through his friendship with Jesus that John received his sweetness and lovingness of character. An old Persian apologue tells that one found a piece of fragrant clay in his garden, and that when asked how it got its perfume the clay replied, "One laid me on a rose." John lived near the heart of Jesus, and the love of that heart of gentleness entered his soul and transformed him. There is no other secret for any who would learn love's great lesson. Abiding in Christ, Christ abides also in us, and we are made like him because he lives in us.
John's distinction of being one of the Master's closest friends brought him several times into experiences of peculiar sacredness. He witnessed the transfiguration, when for an hour the real glory of the Christ shone out through his investiture of flesh. This was a vision John never forgot. It must have impressed itself deeply upon his soul. He was also one of those who were led into the inner shadows of Gethsemane, to be near Jesus while he suffered, and to comfort him with love.
This last experience especially suggests to us something of what the friendship of John was to Jesus. There is no doubt that this friendship brought to John immeasurable comfort and blessing, enriching his life, and transforming his character. But what was the friendship to Jesus? There is no doubt that it was a great deal to him. He craved affection and sympathy, as every noble heart does just in the measure of its humanness. One of the saddest elements of the Gethsemane sorrow was the disappointment of Jesus, when, hungry for love, he went back to his chosen three, expecting to find a little comfort and strength, and found them sleeping.
The picture of John at the Last Supper, leaning on Jesus' breast, shows him to us in the posture in which we think of him most. It is the place of confidence; the bosom is only for those who have a right to closest intimacy. It is the place of love, near the heart. It is the place of safety, for he is in the clasp of the everlasting arms, and none can snatch him out of the impregnable shelter. It was the darkest night the world ever saw that John lay on the bosom of Jesus. That is the place of comfort for all sorrowing believers, and there is abundance of room for them all on that breast. John leaned on Jesus' breast, -- weakness reposed on strength, helplessness on almighty help. We should learn to lean, to lean our whole weight, on Christ. That is the privilege of Christian faith.
There was one occasion when John seems to have broken away from his usual humility. He joined with his brother in a request for the highest places in the new kingdom. This is only one of the evidences of John's humanness, -- that he was of like passions with the rest of us. Jesus treated the brothers with gentle pity -- "Ye know not what ye ask." Then he explained to them that the highest places must be reached through toil and sorrow, through the paths of service and suffering. Later in life John knew what the Master's words meant. He found his place nearest to Christ, but it was not on the steps of an earthly throne; it was a nearness of love, and the steps to it were humility, self-forgetfulness, and ministry.
It must have given immeasurable comfort to Jesus to have John stay so near to him during the last scenes. If he fled for a moment in the garden when all the apostles fled, he soon returned; for he was close to his Master during his trial. Then, when he was on the cross, Jesus saw a group of loving friends near by, watching with breaking hearts; and among these was John. It lifted a heavy burden off the heart of Jesus to be able then to commit his mother to John, and to see him lead her away to his own home. It was a supreme expression of friendship, -- choosing John from among all his friends for the sacred duty of sheltering this blessedest of women.
The story of this beautiful friendship of Jesus and John shows us what is possible in its own measure to every Christian discipleship. It is not possible for every Christian to be a St. John, but close friendship with Jesus is the privilege of every true believer; and all who enter into such a friendship will be transformed into the likeness of their Friend.