Life and Character of John
"Volat avis sine meta,

Quo nec votes nec propheta

Evolavit altius:

Tam implenda quam impleta,

Numquam vidit tot secreta

Purus homo purius.

(Adam of St. Victor.)

The Mission of John.

Peter, the Jewish apostle of authority, and Paul, the Gentile apostle of freedom, had done their work on earth before the destruction of Jerusalem -- had done it for their age and for all ages to come; had done it, and by the influence of their writings are doing it still, in a manner that can never be superseded. Both were master-builders, the one in laying the foundation, the other in rearing the superstructure, of the church of Christ, against which the gates of Hades can never prevail.

But there remained a most important additional work to be done, a work of union and consolidation. This was reserved for the apostle of love, the bosom-friend of Jesus, who had become his most perfect reflection so far as any human being can reflect the ideal of divine-human purity and holiness. John was not a missionary or a man of action, like Peter and Paul. He did little, so far as we know, for the outward spread of Christianity, but all the more for the inner life and growth of Christianity where it was already established. He has nothing to say about the government, the forms, and rites of the visible church (even the name does not occur in his Gospel and first Epistle), but all the more about the spiritual substance of the church -- the vital union of believers with Christ and the brotherly communion of believers among themselves. He is at once the apostle, the evangelist, and the seer, of the new covenant. He lived to the close of the first century, that he might erect on the foundation and superstructure of the apostolic age the majestic dome gilded by the light of the new heaven.

He had to wait in silent meditation till the church was ripe for his sublime teaching. This is intimated by the mysterious word of our Lord to Peter with reference to John: "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" [560] No doubt the Lord did come in the terrible judgment of Jerusalem. John outlived it personally, and his type of doctrine and character will outlive the earlier stages of church history (anticipated and typified by Peter and Paul) till the final coming of the Lord. In that wider sense he tarries even till now, and his writings, with their unexplored depths and heights still wait for the proper interpreter. The best comes last. In the vision of Elijah on Mount Horeb, the strong wind that rent the mountains and brake in pieces the rocks, and the earthquake, and the fire preceded the still small voice of Jehovah. [561] The owl of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, begins its flight at twilight. The storm of battle prepares the way for the feast of peace. The great warrior of the apostolic age already sounded the keynote of love which was to harmonize the two sections of Christendom; and John only responded to Paul when he revealed the inmost heart of the supreme being by the profoundest of all definitions: "God is love." [562]

John in the Gospels.

John was a son (probably the younger son) of Zebedee and Salome, and a brother of the elder James, who became the protomartyr of the apostles. [563] He may have been about ten years younger than Jesus, and as, according to the unanimous testimony of antiquity, he lived till the reign of Trajan, i.e., till after 98, he must have attained an age of over ninety years. He was a fisherman by trade, probably of Bethsaida in Galilee (like Peter, Andrew, and Philip). His parents seem to have been in comfortable circumstances. His father kept hired servants; his mother belonged to the noble band of women who followed Jesus and supported him with their means, who purchased spices to embalm him, who were the last at the cross and the first at the open tomb. John himself was acquainted with the high priest, and owned a house in Jerusalem or Galilee, into which he received the mother of our Lord. [564]

He was a cousin of Jesus, according to the flesh, from his mother, a sister of Mary. [565] This relationship, together with the enthusiasm of youth and the fervor of his emotional nature, formed the basis of his intimacy with the Lord.

He had no rabbinical training, like Paul, and in the eyes of the Jewish scholars he was, like Peter and the other Galilaean disciples, an "unlearned and ignorant man." [566] But he passed through the preparatory school of John the Baptist who summed up his prophetic mission in the testimony to Jesus as the "Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world," a testimony which he afterwards expanded in his own writings. It was this testimony which led him to Jesus on the banks of the Jordan in that memorable interview of which, half a century afterwards, he remembered the very hour. [567] He was not only one of the Twelve, but the chosen of the chosen Three. Peter stood out more prominently before the public as the friend of the Messiah; John was known in the private circle as the friend of Jesus. [568] Peter always looked at the official character of Christ, and asked what he and the other apostles should do; John gazed steadily at the person of Jesus, and was intent to learn what the Master said. They differed as the busy Martha, anxious to serve, and the pensive Mary, contented to learn. John alone, with Peter and his brother James, witnessed the scene of the transfiguration and of Gethsemane -- the highest exaltation and the deepest humiliation in the earthly life of our Lord. He leaned on his breast at the last Supper and treasured those wonderful farewell discourses in his heart for future use. He followed him to the court of Caiaphas. He alone of all the disciples was present at the crucifixion, and was intrusted by the departing Saviour with the care of his mother. This was a scene of unique delicacy and tenderness: the Mater dolorosa and the beloved disciple gazing at the cross, the dying Son and Lord uniting them in maternal and filial love. It furnishes the type of those heaven-born spiritual relationships, which are deeper and stronger than those of blood and interest. As John was the last at the cross, so he was also, next to Mary Magdalene, the first of the disciples who, outrunning even Peter, looked into the open tomb on the resurrection morning; and he first recognized the risen Lord when he appeared to the disciples on the shore of the lake of Galilee. [569]

He seems to have been the youngest of the apostles, as he long outlived them all; he certainly was the most gifted and the most favored. He had a religious genius of the highest order -- not indeed for planting, but for watering; not for outward action and aggressive work, but for inward contemplation and insight into the mystery of Christ's person and of eternal life in him. Purity and simplicity of character, depth and ardor of affection, and a rare faculty of spiritual perception and intuition, were his leading traits, which became ennobled and consecrated by divine grace.

There are no violent changes reported in John's history; he grew silently and imperceptibly into the communion of his Lord and conformity to his example; he was in this respect the antipode of Paul. He heard more and saw more, but spoke less, than the other disciples. He absorbed his deepest sayings, which escaped the attention of others; and although he himself did not understand them at first, he pondered them in his heart till the Holy Spirit illuminated them. His intimacy with Mary must also have aided him in gaining an interior view of the mind and heart of his Lord. He appears throughout as the beloved disciple, in closest intimacy and in fullest sympathy with the Lord. [570]

The Son of Thunder and the Beloved Disciple.

There is an apparent contradiction between the Synoptic and the Johannean picture of John, as there is between the Apocalypse and the fourth Gospel; but on closer inspection it is only the twofold aspect of one and the same character. We have a parallel in the Peter of the Gospels and the Peter of his Epistles: the first youthful, impulsive, hasty, changeable, the other matured, subdued, mellowed, refined by divine grace.

In the Gospel of Mark, John appears as a Son of Thunder (Boanerges). [571] This surname, given to him and to his elder brother by our Saviour, was undoubtedly an epithet of honor and foreshadowed his future mission, like the name Peter given to Simon. Thunder to the Hebrews was the voice of God. [572] It conveys the idea of ardent temper, great strength and vehemence of character whether for good or for evil, according to the motive and aim. The same thunder which terrifies does also purify the air and fructify the earth with its accompanying showers of rain. Fiery temper under the control of reason and in the service of truth is as great a power of construction as the same temper, uncontrolled and misdirected, is a power of destruction. John's burning zeal and devotion needed only discipline and discretion to become a benediction and inspiration to the church in all ages.

In their early history the sons of Zebedee misunderstood the difference between the law and the gospel, when, in an outburst of holy indignation against a Samaritan village which refused to receive Jesus, they were ready, like Elijah of old, to call consuming fire from heaven. [573] But when, some years afterwards, John went to Samaria to confirm the new converts, he called down upon them the fire of divine life and light, the gift of the Holy Spirit. [574] The same mistaken zeal for his Master was at the bottom of his intolerance towards those who performed a good work in the name of Christ, but outside of the apostolic circle. [575] The desire of the two brothers, in which their mother shared, for the highest positions in the Messianic kingdom, likewise reveals both their strength and their weakness, a noble ambition to be near Christ, though it be near the fire and the sword, yet an ambition that was not free from selfishness and pride, which deserved the rebuke of our Lord, who held up before them the prospect of the baptism of blood. [576]

All this is quite consistent with the writings of John. He appears there by no means as a soft and sentimental, but as a positive and decided character. He had no doubt a sweet and lovely disposition, but at the same time a delicate sensibility, ardent feelings, and strong convictions. These traits are by no means incompatible. He knew no compromise, no division of loyalty. A holy fire burned within him, though he was moved in the deep rather than on the surface. In the Apocalypse, the thunder rolls loud and mighty against the enemies of Christ and his kingdom, while on the other hand there are in the same book episodes of rest and anthems, of peace and joy, and a description of the heavenly Jerusalem, which could have proceeded only from the beloved disciple. In the Gospel and the Epistles of John, we feel the same power, only subdued and restrained. He reports the severest as well as the sweetest discourses of the Saviour, according as he speaks to the enemies of the truth, or in the circle of the disciples. No other evangelist gives us such a profound inside-view of the antagonism between Christ and the Jewish hierarchy, and of the growing intensity of that hatred which culminated in the bloody counsel; no apostle draws a sharper line of demarcation between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, Christ and Antichrist, than John. His Gospel and Epistles move in these irreconcilable antagonisms. He knows no compromise between God and Baal. With what holy horror does he speak of the traitor, and the rising rage of the Pharisees against their Messiah! How severely does he, in the words of the Lord, attack the unbelieving Jews with their murderous designs, as children of the devil! And, in his Epistles, he terms every one who dishonors his Christian profession a liar; every one who hates his brother a murderer; every one who wilfully sins a child of the devil; and he earnestly warns against teachers who deny the mystery of the incarnation, as Antichrists, and he forbids even to salute them. [577] The measure of his love of Christ was the measure of his hatred of antichrist. For hatred is inverted love. Love and hatred are one and the same passion, only revealed in opposite directions. The same sun gives light and heat to the living, and hastens the decay of the dead.

Christian art has so far well understood the double aspect of John by representing him with a face of womanly purity and tenderness, but not weakness, and giving him for his symbol a bold eagle soaring with outspread wings above the clouds. [578]

The Apocalypse and the Fourth Gospel.

A proper appreciation of John's character as thus set forth removes the chief difficulty of ascribing the Apocalypse and the fourth Gospel to one and the same writer. [579] The temper is the same in both: a noble, enthusiastic nature, capable of intense emotions of love and hatred, but with the difference between vigorous manhood and ripe old age, between the roar of battle and the repose of peace. The theology is the same, including the most characteristic features of Christology and soteriology. [580] By no other apostle is Christ called the Logos. The Gospel is, "the Apocalypse spiritualized," or idealized. Even the difference of style, which is startling at first sight, disappears on closer inspection. The Greek of the Apocalypse is the most Hebraizing of all the books of the New Testament, as may be expected from its close affinity with Hebrew prophecy to which the classical Greek furnished no parallel, while the Greek of the fourth Gospel is pure, and free from irregularities; yet after all John the Evangelist also shows the greatest familiarity with, and the deepest insight into, the Hebrew religion, and preserves its purest and noblest elements; and his style has all the childlike simplicity and sententious brevity of the Old Testament; it is only a Greek body inspired by a Hebrew soul. [581]

In accounting for the difference between the Apocalypse and the other writings of John, we must also take into consideration the necessary difference between prophetic composition under direct inspiration, and historical and didactic composition, and the intervening time of about twenty years; the Apocalypse being written before the destruction of Jerusalem, the fourth Gospel towards the close of the first century, in extreme old age, when his youth was renewed like the eagle's, as in the case of some of the greatest poets, Homer, Sophocles, Milton, and Goethe.


I. The Son of Thunder and the Apostle of Love.

I quote some excellent remarks on the character of John from my friend, Dr. Godet (Com. I.35, English translation by Crombie and Cusin):

"How are we to explain two features of character apparently so opposite? There exist profound receptive natures which are accustomed to shut up their impressions within themselves, and this all the more that these impressions are keen and thrilling. But if it happens that these persons once cease to be masters of themselves, their long-restrained emotions then burst forth in sudden explosions, which fill the persons around them with amazement. Does not the character of John belong to this order? And when Jesus gave to him and his brother the surname of Boanerges, sons of thunder (Mark 3:17), could he have described them better? I cannot think that, by that surname, Jesus intended, as all the old writers have believed, to signalize the eloquence which distinguished them. Neither can I allow that he desired by that surname to perpetuate the recollection of their anger in one of the cases indicated. We are led by what precedes to a more natural explanation, and one more worthy of Jesus himself. As electricity is stored up by degrees in the cloud until it bursts forth suddenly in the lightning and thunderbolt, so in those two loving and passionate natures impressions silently accumulated till the moment when the heart overflowed, and they took an unexpected and violent flight. We love to represent St. John to ourselves as of a gentle rather than of an energetic nature, tender even to weakness. Do not his writings insist before and above all else upon love? Were not the last sermons of the old man 'Love one another?' That is true; but we forget other features of a different kind, during the first and last periods of his life, which reveal something decisive, sharp, absolute, even violent in his disposition. If we take all the facts stated into consideration, we shall recognize in him one of those sensitive, ardent souls, worshippers of an ideal, who attach themselves at first sight, and without reservation, to that being who seems to them to realize that of which they have dreamt, and whose devotion easily becomes exclusive and intolerant. They feel themselves repelled by everything which is not in sympathy with their enthusiasm. They no longer understand a division of heart which they themselves know not how to practice. All for all! such is their motto. Where that all is not, there is in their eyes nothing. Such affections do not subsist without including an alloy of impure egoism. A divine work is needed, in order that the true devotion, which constitutes the basis of such, may shine forth at the last in all its sublimity. Such was, if we are not deceived, the inmost history of John." Comp. the third French ed. of Godet's Com., I. p.50.

Dr. Westcott (in his Com., p. xxxiii.): "John knew that to be with Christ was life, to reject Christ was death; and he did not shrink from expressing the thought in the spirit of the old dispensation. He learned from the Lord, as time went on, a more faithful patience, but he did not unlearn the burning devotion which consumed him. To the last, words of awful warning, like the thunderings about the throne, reveal the presence of that secret fire. Every page of the Apocalypse is inspired with the cry of the souls beneath the altar, 'How long' (Rev.6:10); and nowhere is error as to the person of Christ denounced more sternly than in his Epistles (2 John 10; 1 John 4:1ff.)." Similar passages in Stanley.

II. The Mission of John.

Dean Stanley (Sermons and Essays on the Apost. Age, p.249 sq., 3d ed.): "Above all John spoke of the union of the soul with God, but it was by no mere process of oriental contemplation, or mystic absorption; it was by that word which now for the first time took its proper place in the order of the world -- by Love. It has been reserved for St. Paul to proclaim that the deepest principle in the heart of man was Faith; it was reserved for St. John to proclaim that the essential attribute of God is Love. It had been taught by the Old Testament that 'the beginning of wisdom was the fear of God;' it remained to be taught by the last apostle of the New Testament that 'the end of wisdom was the love of God.' It had been taught of old time by Jew and by heathen, by Greek philosophy and Eastern religion, that the Divinity was well pleased with the sacrifices, the speculations, the tortures of man; it was to St. John that it was left to teach in all its fulness that the one sign of God's children is 'the love of the brethren.' And as it is Love that pervades our whole conception of his teaching, so also it pervades our whole conception of his character. We see him -- it surely is no unwarranted fancy -- we see him declining with the declining century; every sense and faculty waxing feebler, but that one divinest faculty of all burning more and more brightly; we see it breathing through every look and gesture; the one animating principle of the atmosphere in which he lives and moves; earth and heaven, the past, the present, and the future alike echoing to him that dying strain of his latest words, 'We love Him because He loved us.' And when at last he disappears from our view in the last pages of the sacred volume, ecclesiastical tradition still lingers in the close: and in that touching story, not the less impressive because so familiar to us, we see the aged apostle borne in the arms of his disciples into the Ephesian assembly, and there repeating over and over again the same saying, 'Little children, love one another;' till, when asked why he said this and nothing else, he replied in those well known words, fit indeed to be the farewell speech of the Beloved Disciple, 'Because this is our Lord's command and if you fulfil this, nothing else is needed.' "


[560] John 21:22, 23. Milligan and Moulton in loc. The point of contrast between the words spoken respectively to Peter and John, is not that between a violent death by martyrdom and a peaceful departure; but that between impetuous and struggling apostleship, ending in a violent death, and quiet, thoughtful, meditative waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus, ending in a peaceful transition to the heavenly repose. Neither Peter nor himself is to the Evangelist a mere individual. Each is a type of one aspect of apostolic working--of Christian witnessing for Jesus to the very end of time."

[561] 1 Kings 19:11, 12.

[562] 1 Cor., ch. 13; 1 John 4:8, 16.

[563] The name John, from the Hebrew nnchvhy or nnhvy, i.e., Jehovah is gracious (comp. the German Gotthold), implied to his mind a prophecy of his relation to Jesus, the incarnate Jehovah (comp. John 12:41 with Isa. 6:1), and is equivalent to "the disciple whom Jesus loved," John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20. The Greek fathers call John ho epistethios, the leaner on the bosom, or, as we would say, the bosom-friend (of Jesus).

[564] Mark 1:20; 15: 40 sq.; Luke 8:3; John 19:27. Godet (I. 37) thinks that his home was on the lake of Gennesareth, and accounts thus for his absence in Jerusalem at Paul's first visit (Gal. 1:18, 19).

[565] According to the correct interpretation of John 19:25, that four woman (not three) are meant there, as Wieseler, Ewald, Meyer., Lange, and other commentators now hold. The writer of the Fourth Gospel, from peculiar delicacy, never mentions his own name, nor the name of his mother, nor the name of the mother of our Lord; yet his mother was certainly at the cross, according to the Synoptists, and he would not omit her.

[566] Acts 4:13, anthropoi agrammatoi kai idiotai.

[567] John 1:35-40. The commentators are agreed that the unnamed of the two disciples is John. See my notes in Lange on the passage.

[568] The well-known distinction made by Grotius between philochristos and philiesous.

[569] John 20:4; 21:7.

[570] For an ingenious comparison between John and Salome, John and James, John and Andrew, John and Peter, John and Paul, see Lange's Com on John, pp. 4-10 (Am. ed.).

[571] Mark 3:17. Boanerges (as Lachmann, Tischendorf, and Tregelles read, in. of Gr. Boanerges), ie.,huioi brontes. The word is usually derived from shgr ynb (as pronounced in the broad Galilean dialect). shgr means a noisy crowd of men, but may have had the significance of thunder in Syriac. Robinson derives it from zgr which means tumult, alarm, and is used of the roaring noise of thunder, Job 37:2. The usual Hebrew word for thunder is r?m(Ps. 77:19; 81:8; Job 26:14). This name completely dispels the popular notion of John. "Nichts,"says Hilgenfeld (Einleit., p. 393), "stimmt zu den synoptischen Evangelien weniger als jenes mädchenhafte Johannesbild, welches unter uns gangbar geworden ist."Comp. Godet's remarks at the close of this section.

[572] "The Lord thundered with a great thunder;" "The Lord shall send thunder and rain." See Ex. 9:23; 1:Sam. 7:10; 12:17, 18; Job 26:14; Ps. 77:18; 81:7; 104:7; Isa. 29:6, etc.

[573] Luke 9:4-56. Some commentators think that this incident suggested the giving of the name Boanerges; but that would make it an epithet of censure, which the Lord would certainly not fasten upon his beloved disciple.

[574] Acts 8:14-17.

[575] Mark 9:38-40; comp. Luke 9:49, 50.

[576] Matt. 20:20-24; comp. Mark 10:35-41.

[577] John 8:44; 1 John 1:6, 8, 10; 2:18 sqq.; 3:8, 15; 4:1 sqq.; 2 John and 11.

[578] Jerome (Com. ad Matth., Proaem., Opera, ed. Migne, Tom. vii. 19): Quarta [facies]Joannem evangelistam [significat],qui assumptis pennis aquilae, et ad altiora festinans, de Verbo Dei disputat. An old epigram says of John: "More volans aquila, verbo petit astra Joannes."

[579] The author of Supernat. Relig., II. 400, says: "Instead of the fierce and intolerant spirit of the Son of Thunder, we find [in the Fourth Gospel] a spirit breathing forth nothing but gentleness and love." How superficial this judgment is appears from our text.

[580] This is well shown in Gebhardt's Doctrine of the Apocalypse, and is substantially even acknowledged by those who deny the Johannean origin of either the Apocalypse (the Schleiermacher School), or of the Gospel (the Tübingen School)."Es ist nicht blos," says Baur (in his Church History, vol. I. p. 147), "eine äussere Anlehnnung an einen vielgefeierten Namen, es fehlt auch nicht an innern Berührungspunkten zwischen dem Evangelium und der Apokalypse, und man kann nur die tiefe Genialität und feine Kunst bewundern, mit welcher der Evangelist die Elemente, welche vom Standpunkt der Apokalypse auf den freiern und höhern des Evangeliums hinüberleiteten, in sich aufgenommen hat, um die Apokalypse zum Evangelium zu vergeistigen. Nur vom Standpunkt dei Evangeliums aus lässt sich das Verhältniss, in das sich der Verfasser desselben zu der Apokalypse setzte, richtig begreifen."Schwegler and Köstlin make similar concessions. See my Hist. of the Apost. Ch., p. 425.

[581] In this way the opposite views of two eminent Hebrew scholars and judges of style may be reconciled. While Renan, looking at the surface, says of the fourth Gospel: "John's style has nothing Hebrew, nothing Jewish, nothing Talmudic," Ewald, on the contrary, penetrating to the core, remarks: "In its true spirit and afflatus, no language can be more genuinely Hebrew than that of John." Godet agrees with Ewald when he says: "The dress only is Greek, the body is Hebrew."

section 40 the johannean literature
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