From everything we can tell about Christ’s chosen 12 apostles, John was the youngest. He was the son of Zebedee and the younger brother of fellow apostle James (Matthew 4:21). By combining certain passages – Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, and John 19:25 – we deduce that Salome was John’s mother and that she was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. If this deduction is correct, it means that John and James were first cousins to Jesus and explains why Jesus, on the cross, committed Mary to John’s safekeeping (John 19:25-27).
Evidently, Zebedee was well to do in the fishing business on the Sea of Galilee. Mark 1:20 mentions that he employed servants that helped him on his fishing boat (or boats). Perhaps James and John were partners with their father. Then again, Luke 5:10 says the brothers were partners with Simon (Peter), which presumably means that Peter’s brother, Andrew, was also in on the partnership. Whatever the exact details were, what we know for sure is that James, John, Peter, and Andrew all left the fishing business behind and accepted Christ’s call to follow Him (Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Luke 5:1-11). Before that, John and Andrew had been followers of John the Baptist. (It is unanimously believed that John is the unnamed apostle mentioned in John 1:35-42.)
To me, though, the most interesting thing about James and John is that they were both hotheads. Jesus nicknamed them “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Once, while Jesus and the 12 were making their way to Jerusalem, a certain village in the region of Samaria refused to let the group pass through the village. The “Sons of Thunder” didn’t take this slight lightly and asked Jesus, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:51-56) Jesus answered them, “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.” The group then continued on to another village without harming anyone. But it’s interesting that James and John’s first reaction was to lay waste to the offending village. They didn’t even ask Jesus to do it. They wanted Him to give them the power to do it!
The brothers were also ambitious, even to the point of being greedy. In Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-45, we read the story of how they, along with their mother, approached Jesus and asked if He would grant them the incredible honor of sitting next to Him in His kingdom, one at His right hand and the other at His left. If James and John truly were first cousins to Jesus, perhaps that had something to do with the lofty request. But Jesus informed them that He didn’t get to choose who received those choice positions. That threw cold water on the request. The problem then arose that the audacious request had ticked off the other apostles. Things got so tense that Jesus had to give the entire group a refresher course on the fact that true greatness comes from humble servitude. I’m sure that’s not what James and John had in mind since they surely were thinking of Christ’s kingdom in terms of a political, military reign that would oust Rome and reestablish Israel to preeminence.
Still, despite John’s natural temper and ambition, he somehow ended up being historically known as “the apostle of love.” How did that happen? It’s primarily the result of him writing the epistle of 1 John, which features love as one of its main themes (1 John 2:1-11, 3:10-23, 4:7-21, and 5:1-3). As a matter of fact, that epistle contains more about love – loving God, being loved by God, loving others, loving not the world – than any other New Testament book.
There are various possibilities as to why John changed somewhat over the course of his life. Perhaps he finally just grew into all the training he had received from Jesus during the years he spent with Him. Perhaps becoming indwelt by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost had something to do with it (Acts 2:1-4). Perhaps caring for Mary did as well. While I’m not dismissing any of these factors, I would suggest one other thing that I’m sure had a profound influence upon John: the martyr’s death his older brother James died.
The story of James’ death is found in Acts 12:1-2. As a means of keeping the burgeoning Christian church in Jerusalem at bay, Herod Agrippa I had James killed, making James the first of the chosen 12 to be martyred. No mention is made of how John reacted to his brother’s execution but experiencing something like that would have to knock at least some of the “thunder” out of you.
This is not to say, though, that John lost all the fight that had once characterized him. While the epistle of 1 John does have a great deal to say about love, it also features other themes and is written in language that is so bold, direct, matter of fact, absolute, and dogmatic that it is shocking to the “politically correct” reader. Consider the following passages and as you read them think about how a man with John’s ultra conservative viewpoints and blunt speech would fare in our society today.
- “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” (1 John 1:6)
- “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8).
- “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” (1 John 1:10)
- “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now.” (1 John 2:9)
- “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15)
- “They went out from us, but they were not of us: for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.” (1 John 2:19)
- “Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is anti-christ who denies the Father and the Son.” (1 John 2:22)
- “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” (1 John 2:23)
- “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” (1 John 3:6)
- “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:12)
You see, even though John did tone down his “thunder” over the years, he never lost it completely. As further evidence of this, his epistle of 2 John is a warning to Christians about the dangers of embracing false doctrine, and his epistle of 3 John specifically warns against a man named Diotrephes who was causing problems in the church at the time. And then, of course, there is The Revelation in which John describes nothing less than the end of the world.
All told, I think we can look upon John as a wonderful example of a Christian who matured to the point where he struck the proper balance between thunder and love. He never became so open minded, tolerant, and mush and gush as to accept all manner of sin in the name of love, but he did get out of the habit of looking for unbelieving villages to nuke. Living in this world in which extremist mentalities are becoming more commonplace, you and I would do well to learn from John. His balance of thunder tempered with love should be our goal, and I truly believe the Lord will help us get us there if we will let Him mold and shape us.