What can we learn today from the Apostle John?
John's writings help us learn about God's law and love.
John wrote so extensively about love that Bible scholars call him the apostle of love. Why did he write so much about the subject? And what can we learn from the writings of John about the connection between God's law and love?
Did John perhaps record the depth of God's love in a way none of the other New Testament writers was able to do?
John's friendship with Christ may have given him a writer's edge in describing this most important element in a Christian's life. Let's look at John, the disciple Christ loved (John:19:26), and some of John's writings.
Taught and trained by Jesus
After Jesus called His disciples away from their jobs and professions and into a new way of life, for 3 1/2 years John and the other 11 disciples lived their lives together. Jesus was teaching and training them to become apostles-the ones He would send after His resurrection to preach the Gospel of God's Kingdom to the world.
The Bible depicts the disciples as a close-knit group. John was especially close to Christ; in his own Gospel account he refers to himself repeatedly as "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John:21:7, for example).
Jesus' example of love for His disciples and all people would so affect His immediate followers that they eventually taught and practiced the same love. The godly love Jesus advocated eclipsed any human understanding of love.
The Greek of the original New Testament refers to three categories of love: eros , for sexual love; philos , for friendship or brotherly love; and agape ,for a godly, outgoing love for others.
Movies, television programs and novels confuse these kinds of love. This is one reason that the so-called love generation of the 1970s could not discover God's love on its own. God's Word reveals godly agape love, which translates from the Greek into an unselfish concern for others.
The apostle John gave attention to the various kinds of love. When Jesus dined with His disciples, the biblical account generally notes the friendship and affection Jesus and John felt for each other: "Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved" (John:13:23).
John was comfortable openly expressing his affection for Jesus, and the Messiah often returned John's open expressions of love with His assurance of love reciprocated. Such direct contact with the Savior of mankind could have only a beneficial influence on John and his capacity to love others.
John's early life perhaps prepared him for his later life's service to God and humanity. Little is written about the disciple's early years, except that he worked closely with his father (Matthew:4:21) and that his mother manifested an earnest desire for the welfare of her sons (Matthew:20:20).
Opportunity to share Christ's love
Jesus gave John, along with James and Peter, special opportunities for involvement in certain activities and plans. The Gospel writers all mention John's presence in the accounts of Christ and His works. John was there when Jesus restored Peter's mother-in-law to health (Mark:1:29-31). He witnessed Jesus' raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mark:5:35-37). John saw the "transfiguration," the prophetic vision of Jesus as the resurrected Son of God (Matthew 17; Mark 9; Luke:9:28-36).
John was present when the Savior foretold Jerusalem's destruction (Mark:13:2). John helped Peter prepare the last Passover (Luke:22:8). John was the one who asked Jesus who would betray Him (John:13:23-26). John, with Peter and James, received the Master's invitation to watch with Him in Gethsemane as He cried out the anguished prayer just before His crucifixion (Mark:14:32, 33; Luke:22:44).
John, Peter and James, who were supposed to remain alert and on watch the whole night, fell asleep. Later, when Roman guards took Jesus prisoner, John (who is referred to in the account as "the other disciple" or "another disciple"), along with Peter, followed the band of officials to the palace and, because of John's acquaintance with the high priest, gained admittance to the building (John:18:15, 16). Apparently John was also the apostle immediately at hand when Christ gave up His life at the crucifixion.
During the crucifixion, Jesus appointed John to care for His mother, Mary. At this critical time, John was aware that he also could be arraigned, indicted and imprisoned for his audacity. He likewise could suffer the humiliating death of a convicted criminal.
John later wrote of Jesus' charge to him: "When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, 'Woman, behold your son!' Then He said to the disciple, 'Behold your mother!' And from that hour that disciple [John] took her to his own home" (John:19:26, 27).
John's understanding of God's love
John was there at the last supper and observed the Passover with Jesus, witnessing the loving example of Christ's washing of His disciples' feet. John records Jesus' teaching about our spiritual cleansing, depicted by the Passover bread and wine, which shows God's magnitude of love: "For God so loved the world that He gave [for our sins] His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John:3:16).
At this pivotal point in history, Jesus was finalizing the personal training of His disciples. The next day He would demonstrate the greatest love mankind has ever known, the greatest love possible: He would lay down His life and allow Himself to be crucified. John records that there can be no greater love than the love that would inspire one to "lay down one's life for his friends" (John:15:13).
John records Jesus' reference, during His final night on earth, to a new kind of love, a love that the disciples would not be capable of giving until they later received the Holy Spirit: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (John:13:34). The love Christ taught His disciples requires God's Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, we cannot comprehend the agape love God wants to share with us.
Because of their human frailties, Christ assured His disciples of the spiritual help-the Holy Spirit-that God the Father would send them some seven weeks after His crucifixion:
"If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John:14:15). "And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever . . ." (verse 16). "He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him" (verse 21). "As the Father loved Me, I have also loved you: abide in My love" (John:15:9).
Christ likens a Christian with God's Spirit to the branching of a vine. For the branches to bring forth fruit, they must abide in Christ-the Vine-through the Holy Sprit.
"I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit" (John:15:1, 2). "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me" (verse 4). "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love" (verse 10).
Christ promises spiritual help
John's writings show that the Holy Spirit is the spirit of truth: "But when the Helper comes, [which] I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth [which] proceeds from the Father, [it] will testify of Me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning" (verses 26, 27).
The apostle Paul explains that "the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit . . ." (Romans:5:5).
Christ ended His talk with the disciples on that last evening with prayer. John later mentions one of Jesus' last conversations with God the Father before His death. Our Savior talked to the Father about the love that John and the others were beginning to understand and that can exist only through God's Spirit:
"I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me" (John:17:20-23).
"Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declareit, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them" (verses 24-26).
Almost two months after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, John was there when God did indeed send the Holy Spirit to the apostles and others on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1, 2).
John, along with the other apostles, witnessed Jesus' ascension into the heavens and participated in the selection of Matthias to replace the betrayer, Judas.
Son of Thunder
John's example should teach us a lesson. Before God calls us (John:6:44), we walk "according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air [Satan], the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience" (Ephesians:2:2).
But now we have the opportunity to live as Christ's disciples: "But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses [that is, we were condemned by our own sins], made us alive together with Christ" (verses 4, 5).
John, the apostle of love, does not appear in Scripture as a weak man, in spite of his portrayal by various artists down through the centuries. In fact, Christ referred to him and his brother as the "Sons of Thunder" (Mark:3:17). When John wrote the powerful book of 1 John, he addressed the spiritual decay of the Church of God. Heresy and apostasy prevailed. The church was scattering (1 John:2:18, 26). John, the apostle of love and a Son of Thunder, fought to preserve the truth of God.
"Little children, let no one deceive you . . . He who sins is of the devil," John wrote in 1 John:3:7, 8. He contrasted the righteous and the unrighteous. He foretold the many false prophets (1 John:4:1) who would arise in that day and beyond.
We may now live a godly life of loving others because Jesus Christ first loved us (1 John:4:19), and He is now "our life" (Colossians:3:4). Our life, through God's Spirit, is Christ's life. Christ loved us even before we could recognize our sins and repent of them (Romans:5:8). God calls us to follow Christ's example: "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John:4:7, 8).
As an old man, John was used of God to write the book of Revelation, in which God warns and indicts the lawless who will not turn from their evil ways.
In this book, John shows another side of God's love, with the Eternal meting out discipline, intervening for His elect and allowing terrifying events on the earth. Christ's followers, however, need not be afraid of the calamities pictured in Revelation: "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love" (1 John:4:18).
Love from disciple to apostle
John, more than any other New Testament writer, waxes eloquent on love from diverse perspectives. He explains that godly love cannot originate with us; it comes only from God: "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [atonement] for our sins" (1 John:4:10).
John shows that God's love is directly tied to the gift of the Holy Spirit: "If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit" (verses 12, 13). John makes the inseparable connection between the ability to love others and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
John also exposes the facade of those who profess their love for God while hating their own brethren: "If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also" (John:4:20, 21). John says we show that we love God by loving our brethren.
Bible definitions of love
First, John defines God's love in Christians, indirectly and directly: "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments" (1 John:5:2). We could call these "if-then" proofs: If we love God, then we will be keeping God's commandments. If we obey God's commandments, then we will love God and fellow human beings.
The next verse provides us the most direct definition of godly love: "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments" (verse 3). This is a fundamental biblical definition of God's love. We must keep in mind that the keeping of God's commandments is made possible through the power of the Holy Spirit (1 John:3:23, 24).
John is not speaking of some new or different set of commandments in 1 John 5. He is referring to the Ten Commandments, the same law Jesus summarized as the two great commandments (Matthew:22:37-40): "Brethren, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning" (1 John:2:7). "For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother's righteous" (1 John:3:11, 12).
God's love manifests itself in right attitudes and actions. A person who expresses God's love is a person who is becoming like God. As we read earlier, God has called us to follow Christ's example: "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born [or begotten] of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John:4:7, 8).
Love is God's dominant quality. God is the epitome of love.
Let us act on the inspiring message of love recorded by the apostle John. As God's children, let us follow our Creator as He is. Through godly love, we will enter God's Kingdom and live forever. GN