Whilst researching for my new Forbidden Bible Verses on John’s epistles, I ran across a character study of the apostle.

John MacArthur points out that John was not always the apostle of love. Because we have been told about his love from the time we were in Sunday School or catechism class, we have accepted it. Mediaeval and Renaissance paintings further reinforce the image of a delicate man, doe-eyed, leaning on Christ’s shoulder at the Last Supper.

However, when Christ chose him and his brother James, Mark’s Gospel refers to them as standing out with their strong personalities. Here is Mark 3:14-19 (emphases mine):

14And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach,

 15And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils:

 16And Simon he surnamed Peter;

 17And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder:

 18And Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Canaanite,

 19And Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him: and they went into an house.

Off topic for a moment: I linked to Mark 3 in its entirety so that readers who are unaware may also note verses 28 and 29 about the unforgiveable sin of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.

Back to the apostle John. Note that Christ referred to them as Boanerges — ‘the sons of thunder’. Neither was soft or self-effacing.

MacArthur reminds us that John is quoted only once in the Gospels, in Mark 9. To set the background, the chapter begins with an account of the Transfiguration, in which Jesus took Peter, James and John to a mountaintop whereby they saw Him become absolutely radiant in all His glory. Not only that, but Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus and conversed with Him.

As most of us would have done, Peter proposes erecting three tents — one for the transfigured Christ and two more for Moses and Elijah. Then, the Transfiguration suddenly ends, but not before God the Father says (Mark 9:7): ‘This is my beloved Son, hear Him’.

On the way back, the three apostles started discussing who amongst them was the greatest. They were proud and privileged to have seen the glorious Christ. None of the other apostles had. Surely, they reasoned, among the three of them, Jesus must have had a preference. This is an example of boastful human nature at its best, and who are we to say that we would have done any differently?

Later on, Jesus asks them what they were talking about. He knows, of course, but He wants them to say it.  Here is the exchange (Mark 9:33-35):

33And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?

 34But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest.

 35And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.

In an attempt to deflect His attention from them, John briefly points a finger at someone of whom he disapproved (Mark 9:38):

And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us.

Jesus corrects him by replying (verses 39-41):

39But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me.

40For he that is not against us is on our part.

41For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward.

MacArthur said in a sermon about John:

He had a volatile personality. He had a fervent passionate personality. He was intolerant, very ambitious. He was anything but that dove-like person he’s often painted as being in those medieval paintings. In fact, when James one time wanted to bring down fire and burn up all the Samaritans, that’s a little less than the desirable evangelistic love, when James wanted to call down fire from heaven and just burn up all the Samaritans, John was in agreement. John agreed. John wasn’t the passive brother, they were both sons of thunder. When James’ mother went to Jesus to ask for special privilege and honor from the Lord, John was there too. They were explosive, ambitious, driven

That’s [Mark 9:38] the only thing John ever says and he feels guilty about being stubborn, obstinate. He feels guilty about being narrow. He feels guilty about being prejudice. He feels guilty about being sectarian. He’s wired like that. Yeah, burn up the Samaritans. Yeah, we want to be in the chief seats. Yeah, buddy, you’re not in our group, shut up! This is John. He had a real competitive spirit. It showed up in condemning this man who was trying to minister in the name of Jesus, whether he was actually doing it or not, he was trying to do it. John shut him down. Jesus rebukes John for that sectarian attitude.

By now, you might wonder why Jesus would have chosen people whom we would accuse today of being ‘intolerant’ or ‘not very nice’.

MacArthur explains:

Why would the Lord Jesus make him an Apostle? Because this is the kind of man that can be shaped into strength. He had the potential to be hard for the truth. What the Lord had to do was make him loving. And perhaps it was that critical rebuke there in Mark 9 that catapulted John toward being loving. He had that kind of personality of conviction, of narrowness, uncompromising, intolerant devotion to what was true. He was very black and white, he had a clear-cut view of spiritual realities. There was nothing vague in his world. And that was good and God needed it but it had to be tempered with love.

And this is what happened and how John became Jesus’s favourite apostle, leaning on His shoulder at the Last Supper and being the go-to man for Peter to say, ‘Ask Jesus who the betrayer is’ (John 13:21-26):

21When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.

22Then the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake.

23Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.

24Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake.

25He then lying on Jesus’ breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it?

26Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.

So, although John does not name himself in his own Gospel, MacArthur points out that we know it is he who penned it — and how he came to be portrayed in mediaeval and Renaissance paintings:

And so, that’s why … when the medieval artist starts to paint John, he starts to paint a lover because it was eventually true of John. And it shines through the gospel that he wrote and it shines through the epistles that he wrote. For in the gospel of John you see this unwavering regard for the truth. Everything with John is absolute, there is light and darkness in the gospel. There is life and death, there’s the Kingdom of God, and there’s the kingdom of the devil. There are the children of God and there are the children of the devil. There’s the judgment of the righteous and there’s the judgment of the wicked. There is salvation and there is damnation. There is receiving Christ and rejecting Christ. There is a vine and it has some branches with fruit and some with no fruit. There is obedience to His commands and there is disobedience to His commands. And that’s the way it’s always portrayed by John. And when you get to the epistles, it’s the same thing. There are those who are in the light, and those who are in the darkness. There are those who confess their sin and those who deny their sin. There are those who are disobedient to Christ and those who are obedient to Him. There are those who love others and those who don’t, those who love God and those who don’t, those who are righteous and those who are sinful, those who keep the commandments and those who don’t, those who believe and those who don’t, and it’s just that simple.

John did not write an ‘analogy’ — as someone who emailed me a few months ago said — but Gospel truths. This also holds for his epistles, which also preach about the basis of love in Christ’s commandments. They also warn us against false prophets, who came into the Church almost immediately.

MacArthur observes:

In the second epistle, 2 John, calls for complete separation from all those people who aren’t faithful to the truth. And the third epistle says essentially the same thing. The one who does good belongs to God, the one who doesn’t hasn’t seen God. John gives us a fundamental understanding of Christianity in its absolute sense, but he does it in these epistles as we will find with a tenderness and a love of a pastor. Somewhere along the line, this man had been tempered. Jesus wanted his strengths, He wanted his resolution, his commitment, but He needed to get rid of all the hints of selfish ambition and pride and He needed to turn him from being a sectarian to being a lover who could embrace while calling them to the truth …

But John’s love never slid into some sentimentality. It was never sentimentality and tolerance masquerading as love. Until the end of his life as the last Apostle to die at the end of the first century, he never, never tolerated deception, he never tolerated lies, he was always committed to the truth. He never tolerated sin of any kind …

And the assumption today is that if you hold to the truth without ambiguity, without vagueness, if you hold to the absolute truth of Scripture, you’re somehow not loving. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.

Allow me, please, to segue briefly before returning to St John. I’m fully aware from some of the comments I receive from Anglicans that a) we should be focussing more on the ‘nice’, comforting verses and b) embrace semi-Pelagianism, Universalism and pietism. Many of our Church of England clergy — top to bottom — are utterly irresponsible in presenting Christ’s teachings to us. Anglicans announce, ‘Well, my vicar says …’ or ‘My vicar told me I didn’t need preparation for my confirmation’. Confirmation is the time when Anglicans need to understand the 39 Articles of Religion and why we have them. It’s also the time when we need to study the various heresies, because many of us go on to adulthood, if not death, in error. We have no catechism in current use, which probably wouldn’t be so bad if our clergy knew Scripture well enough to explain it to us, but they do not. Or, if they do, then they wilfully take most of it out of context and apply unintended meaning — e.g. Social Gospel, ‘analogy’ — to it.  Or they say, ‘Look, all that was in the past. Just focus on the Beatitudes’. They raise more questions than they answer, and the result is that many Anglicans are at sea spiritually. It is no wonder our churches are empty. Our clergy make the Bible sound like an historical tome, nothing more. It’s no wonder that some Anglicans drift into New Age ‘philosophy’ or towards the ‘certainties’ of Islam which they describe as ‘beautiful’ and ‘peaceful’. On the other hand, the laity who stay in the Church are offended by verses proscribing sin: ‘Surely, we will all be saved at the end of the day’. Why?

That is not what the New Testament says. And this is what John points out to us in his Gospel and his letters in the way that only he can.

I’ll close here with another passage from MacArthur’s sermon:

The priority is the truth, proclaimed in love. That’s the balance. That’s the divine balance … sound doctrine and the graciousness, the love of the Spirit. It’s not enough to have the love and the gentleness and the graciousness and leave out the truth. You have to have the truth. The ignorant and the deceived need the truth. And it’s not enough to love them, that is to leave them in error, leave them in shallowness. It’s not enough to come to people clothed in tolerant sentimentality which is a poor substitute for genuine love. There must be the truth.

But it’s not unloving, self-exalting orthodoxy either. It’s not good when love is missing and the truth is just cold facts stifling and unattractive. Ministry must possess truth and love for that is the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Christ was the perfect image of truth and love in balance. If you’re seeking to minister, these are the two things you seek. You seek to know the truth as God has revealed it, and you seek to love as Christ loves. And there all, as always in every era, lots of imbalance with respect to these two virtues. Plenty of shallow teaching, plenty of tolerance of error in the name of love, and there’s always plenty of hard, harsh, brash, self-righteous, cold orthodoxy. Sentiment and superficiality on the one hand, and orthodox indifference on the other. Critical mix and the critical balance is what God desires.

There will always be passages from Scripture, even the New Testament, which are difficult to grasp or seem ‘offensive’ to modern-day readers. However, that is our opportunity to study them more closely and understand their meaning. This is why a good commentary is such an important accompaniment to our reading. It has nothing to do with ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’, because both of them can sometimes be in error, especially with some of the more present-day regression (e.g. ‘federal headship‘) in reaction to current denominational politicisation and apathy.

Back on topic: if you enjoy reading John’s Gospel, you will certainly like what his letters have to say. You can find out more in the next several Forbidden Bible Verses, continuing tomorrow.