Profiles of Faith: John - An Apostle of Godly Love

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John - An Apostle of Godly Love

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The apostle John had an impressive biblical résumé. We first learn of him when he and his brother left their nets on the Sea of Galilee to become “fishers of men” (Mark 1:17 Mark 1:17And Jesus said to them, Come you after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.
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) with Jesus of Nazareth. He helped arrange the last Passover meal and service for Jesus and his fellow disciples. He was known to the high priest and moved freely among the Jewish leadership.

If you want to know about the way of God, study Jesus Christ. If you want to know the love of Christ, study John.

John faithfully remained with Jesus’ mother during her Son’s crucifixion. On the morning after Jesus’ resurrection, John ran with Peter to the empty tomb. He saw the risen Christ walking on the Tiberias shore. With his brother James and the other apostles, he helped establish the first church in Jerusalem. Later he served other congregations in Ephesus and Asia Minor.

As if that weren’t enough, he wrote five books of the Bible: the Gospel and three letters that bear his name, and the book of Revelation.

John’s Gospel and his three epistles focus on love. In His Gospel he refers to himself as that disciple whom Jesus loved.

If you want to know about the way of God, study Jesus Christ. If you want to know the love of Christ, study John.

John’s background

John was a Judean Jew who knew well the geography and customs of his homeland. His meticulous attention to numbers (John 2:6 John 2:6And there were set there six water pots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece.
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; John 6:13 John 6:13Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above to them that had eaten.
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; John 6:19 John 6:19So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing near to the ship: and they were afraid.
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; John 21:8 John 21:8And the other disciples came in a little ship; (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits,) dragging the net with fishes.
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; John 21:11 John 21:11Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken.
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), names and other details substantiates his claim as an eyewitness of Jesus and His teachings and miracles (John 19:35 John 19:35And he that saw it bore record, and his record is true: and he knows that he said true, that you might believe.
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; John 21:24-25 John 21:24-25 24 This is the disciple which testifies of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true. 25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.
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).

John’s father was Zebedee (Matthew 4:21 Matthew 4:21And going on from there, he saw other two brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them.
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). His mother was apparently the Salome who served Jesus in Galilee and was present at the crucifixion (compare Mark 15:40-41 Mark 15:40-41 40 There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; 41 (Who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him;) and many other women which came up with him to Jerusalem.
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and Matthew 27:56 Matthew 27:56Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedees children.
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). Salome appears to have been a sister of Mary the mother of Jesus (compare John 19:25 John 19:25Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.
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and Mark 15:40 Mark 15:40There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome;
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).

If so, then John was Jesus’ cousin and probably about the same age. Since Jesus and John the Baptist were also cousins, this would also make him a cousin to John the Baptist, whose mother, Elizabeth, was a close relative of Jesus’ mother (Luke 1:36 Luke 1:36And, behold, your cousin Elisabeth, she has also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.
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).

John appears to have worked in partnership with his brother James and his father, Zebedee (Matthew 4:21 Matthew 4:21And going on from there, he saw other two brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them.
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), as well as with Simon Peter (Luke 5:10 Luke 5:10And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, Fear not; from now on you shall catch men.
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). He had not only his fishing business in Capernaum, complete with hired servants, but he may have also had a house in Jerusalem (Mark 1:19-20 Mark 1:19-20 19 And when he had gone a little farther there, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the ship mending their nets. 20 And straightway he called them: and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and went after him.
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; John 19:27 John 19:27Then said he to the disciple, Behold your mother! And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.
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). He was even an acquaintance of the high priest in Jerusalem (John 18:15-16 John 18:15-16 15 And Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple: that disciple was known to the high priest, and went in with Jesus into the palace of the high priest. 16 But Peter stood at the door without. Then went out that other disciple, which was known to the high priest, and spoke to her that kept the door, and brought in Peter.
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).

Originally John appears to have been a disciple of John the Baptist (he is apparently the unnamed disciple in John 1:35 John 1:35Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples;
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; John 1:40 John 1:40One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.
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). Scripture shows that, after heeding the persuasive preaching of John the Baptist, John the future apostle was ready to take his stand with his Savior. He was one of Jesus’ first five disciples (John 1:35-51 John 1:35-51 35 Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples; 36 And looking on Jesus as he walked, he said, Behold the Lamb of God! 37 And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. 38 Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, What seek you? They said to him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwell you? 39 He said to them, Come and see. They came and saw where he dwelled, and stayed with him that day: for it was about the tenth hour. 40 One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first finds his own brother Simon, and said to him, We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ. 42 And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, You are Simon the son of Jona: you shall be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone. 43 The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and finds Philip, and said to him, Follow me. 44 Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip finds Nathanael, and said to him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. 46 And Nathanael said to him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip said to him, Come and see. 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! 48 Nathanael said to him, From where know you me? Jesus answered and said to him, Before that Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you. 49 Nathanael answered and said to him, Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel. 50 Jesus answered and said to him, Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, believe you? you shall see greater things than these. 51 And he said to him, Truly, truly, I say to you, Hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man.
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). He was with Christ when He performed His first recorded miracle at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee (John 2:2-11 John 2:2-11 2 And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage. 3 And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus said to him, They have no wine. 4 Jesus said to her, Woman, what have I to do with you? my hour is not yet come. 5 His mother said to the servants, Whatever he said to you, do it. 6 And there were set there six water pots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. 7 Jesus said to them, Fill the water pots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, Draw out now, and bear to the governor of the feast. And they bore it. 9 When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not from where it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, 10 And said to him, Every man at the beginning does set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but you have kept the good wine until now. 11 This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.
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).

Later, John apparently returned to his fishing enterprise at Capernaum. After a while Jesus called him and his brother to leave their business and follow Him (Mark 1:19-20 Mark 1:19-20 19 And when he had gone a little farther there, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the ship mending their nets. 20 And straightway he called them: and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and went after him.
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). From that point on, John became a close friend and an eyewitness of the words and deeds of Jesus, which he wrote about in what would become the Gospel of John.

Jesus nicknamed John a Son of Thunder (Mark 3:17 Mark 3:17And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder:
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). The Gospels don’t explain why, but it could be because John appears to have originally had a flaring temper. Early in Jesus’ ministry, for example, John forbade a stranger to use the name of Christ while casting out demons (Mark 9:38 Mark 9:38And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in your name, and he follows not us: and we forbade him, because he follows not us.
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). On another occasion Jesus had to rebuke John for his hotheadedness when he wanted to call down fire from heaven onto a Samaritan village (Luke 9:52-56 Luke 9:52-56 52 And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. 53 And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, will you that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? 55 But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, You know not what manner of spirit you are of. 56 For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.
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). Rubbing shoulders with Jesus, hearing Him speak of godly love and watching Him practice it among those who didn’t appreciate Him could have been what transformed John into an apostle John was one of the three disciples of Jesus’ inner circle (Mark 5:37 Mark 5:37And he suffered no man to follow him, save Peter, and James, and John the brother of James.
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; Mark 9:1-9 Mark 9:1-9 1 And he said to them, Truly I say to you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power. 2 And after six days Jesus takes with him Peter, and James, and John, and leads them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them. 3 And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them. 4 And there appeared to them Elias with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter answered and said to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. 6 For he knew not what to say; for they were sore afraid. 7 And there was a cloud that overshadowed them: and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him. 8 And suddenly, when they had looked round about, they saw no man any more, save Jesus only with themselves. 9 And as they came down from the mountain, he charged them that they should tell no man what things they had seen, till the Son of man were risen from the dead.
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; Mark 14:33 Mark 14:33And he takes with him Peter and James and John, and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy;
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). He was recognized as the one closest to Jesus.

In fact, at the 12 original disciples’ last Passover together, the Bible portrays John leaning on Jesus’ chest (John 13:23-25 John 13:23-25 23 Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. 24 Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spoke. 25 He then lying on Jesus’ breast said to him, Lord, who is it?
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), an expression of friendship and brotherly love. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this image is priceless. John’s writings explain why he was so close to Jesus: This disciple practiced the godly love he wrote about. “The disciple whom Jesus loved” John used an interesting writing style in his Gospel. Throughout the book he wrote of himself indirectly, as though he were another person. For example, five times he wrote of himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23 John 13:23Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.
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; John 19:26 John 19:26When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he said to his mother, Woman, behold your son!
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; John 20:2 John 20:2Then she runs, and comes to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, They have taken away the LORD out of the sepulcher, and we know not where they have laid him.
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; John 21:7 John 21:7Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher’s coat to him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea.
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; John 21:20 John 21:20Then Peter, turning about, sees the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrays you?
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).

Let’s look a little more closely at two of the five times John referred to himself this way. In John 13, at Jesus’ last Passover with His disciples, Jesus was deeply troubled because He knew Judas Iscariot was soon to betray Him. When He told His disciples, “Most assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me” (John 13:21 John 13:21When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Truly, truly, I say to you, that one of you shall betray me.
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), they were worried too. They began to look askance at each other, perhaps trying to decide who might be the one of whom Christ spoke.

At that point John set the scene for the events that followed. He shares with us the remembrance that one of the apostles was leaning on Jesus’ chest and referred to that specific person as the one “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23 John 13:23Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.
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).

As was the custom, Jesus and the disciples ate their meal reclining around a low table. In this relaxed atmosphere the disciple “whom Jesus loved” was sufficiently comfortable with his master to rest his head on Jesus’ chest.

Simon Peter motioned for John to ask to whom Jesus was referring when He said someone would betray Him. So John asked, “Lord, who is it?” (John 13:24-25 John 13:24-25 24 Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spoke. 25 He then lying on Jesus’ breast said to him, Lord, who is it?
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).

Jesus answered plainly: “It is he to whom I shall give a piece of bread when I have dipped it.” Jesus dipped the bread and gave it to Judas Iscariot. He then told Judas, “What you do, do quickly” (John 13:26-27 John 13:26-27 26 Jesus 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. 27 And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus to him, That you do, do quickly.
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).

Amazingly, none of the disciples— including John—understood Jesus’ words to Judas. Some thought He told Judas to buy necessities for the feast, while instructed Judas to give some money to the poor (John 13:28-29 John 13:28-29 28 Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spoke this to him. 29 For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said to him, Buy those things that we have need of against the feast; or, that he should give something to the poor.
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).

Among other information and lessons revealed in this drama, John indirectly identified himself as the one “whom Jesus loved.”

John used this description to identify himself at another intense moment later that day. Even as Jesus was being crucified, He demonstrated His love for Mary, His mother.

“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing near by, he said to his mother, ‘Dear woman, here is your son,’and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’From that time on, this disciple took her into his home” (John 19:25-27 John 19:25-27 25 Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he said to his mother, Woman, behold your son! 27 Then said he to the disciple, Behold your mother! And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.
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, New International Version).

Jesus entrusted the care of His own mother to His beloved friend and follower, John. This, too, shows the closeness and trust the two shared.

This incident is telling in another way. As Christ was being put to death by the Roman authorities, John proved fearless in the face of potential accusations that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. John ran the risk of being incarcerated, scourged and crucified for being an accomplice to His Master. Yet He was not afraid to be seen supporting Him in the hour of His greatest need.

His presence at Jesus’ feet in His hour of trial at once validates Jesus’ love for John and John’s reverence for Jesus. The godly love that each had for the other reassured Christ that He could count on John to take care of His mother from that hour.

John’s godly love

John lived a life of godly love. He wrote expressively about this kind of concern for others.

His Gospel is filled with many of Jesus’ discourses and conversations. John in particular wrote more about what Jesus said than what He did.

John’s three letters overflow with statements that help us understand how God’s kind of love contrasts with the human version. Let’s notice two examples.

In his first epistle, John gives us a direct definition of godly love: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3 1 John 5:3For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.
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). John knew the source of godly love, understood it and practiced it. He realized that God communicates His love through the laws He gives us, the laws by which we are to live.

Jesus Himself said that God’s law can be summarized in two great commandments: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40 Matthew 22:36-40 36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like to it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
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). John similarly summarized God’s very nature and character when he wrote, “God is love” (1 John 4:8 1 John 4:8He that loves not knows not God; for God is love.
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; 1 John 4:16 1 John 4:16And we have known and believed the love that God has to us. God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him.
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, emphasis added throughout).

John focused on the most important virtue and gift of God: love. God’s love is different from the natural love of humans. The Greek verb for God’s kind of love, agapao , means a deliberately applied concern for others. A lesser level of love, phileo in the Greek, means a fondness or affection for another person. John focused on and taught about godly love as the most important virtue a human being can exhibit.

John also contrasted godly love with human love in 1 John 4:18-21 1 John 4:18-21 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear: because fear has torment. He that fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love him, because he first loved us. 20 If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? 21 And this commandment have we from him, That he who loves God love his brother also.
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:

“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. We love Him because He first loved us.

“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 recognized the contradiction in the concept that someone could love God yet hate his brother. He knew that we humans can distort the concept of love to make it mean just about anything we want it to mean. But God’s love isn’t like that. Godly love always puts care and concern for the other person first.

John understood godly love. He knew it because Jesus had demonstrated it to him and the other disciples. John had watched Jesus live by it and apply it for 3 ½ years. John knew where godly love came from and how mankind should express it. He believed and practiced it with all his heart.

John on Patmos

John’s Gospel includes many events and details from Christ’s life. His record is more personal than that of the other three Gospels and so helps complete for us the picture of Jesus’ life and teachings. John, so close to the Son of God, had opportunities few others had. When we read His Gospel from this perspective, we perceive it as an intimate narrative.

In the decade of the 90s, John, though getting on in years, was still teaching and ministering in Asia Minor. During the Christian persecutions under Emperor Domitian (81-96), he was banished to the island of Patmos, in the Aegean Sea.

Christ permitted the apostle’s exile on the island for a reason. Now, some 65 years beyond Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, He revealed to John the dark days that lay ahead—not just during his times, but especially in the troubling and tumultuous last days.

Responding to Jesus’ command to “write” (Revelation 1:11 Revelation 1:11Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What you see, write in a book, and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia; to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamos, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.
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; Revelation 1:19 Revelation 1:19Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;
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), John recorded prophecies of the great events that would transpire from his time until Jesus returned.

John gives us a loving perspective of what Christ expected of him and of us. Twice in his first chapter John uses a phrase that depicts the responsibilities of Jesus’ disciples, especially in the face of persecution.

In Revelation 1:2 Revelation 1:2Who bore record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.
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he writes that he bears “witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, and to all things that he saw.” He repeats this instructive thought a few verses later: “I, John, … was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:9 Revelation 1:9I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
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).

Notice that John speaks of “the word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus Christ.” The word of God encompasses God’s instruction, recorded for us in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. The testimony of Jesus Christ can be defined as that which Christians live and teach from Jesus’ life, instructions and example.

John was faithful to Christ in all these things in spite of the threat of persecution and death. He proved his faith and love in traumatic times, although he was now in his 90s. At one point John heard a loud voice from heaven commend all Christians who overcome Satan: “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb [Jesus’ shed blood] and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death” (Revelation 12:11 Revelation 12:11And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives to the death.
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).

John’s ordeal on Patmos, where Christ evealed to him what we know as the book of Revelation, was a series of miraculous vents. Without this last book of Scripture, the people of God could not understand many details about the time of the end. John’s understanding and commitment to God’s love and His beloved friend and Savior made possible the writing of this book.

The apostle of godly love

Few men knew Jesus of Nazareth as well as John did. A mutual understanding and respect for the unselfish love of God bound their relationship. Jesus had special love for John, perhaps because John had such an abiding reverence for the godly love exhibited by His Master. Beyond this special relationship, some of John’s personal traits may well have made him an easy person to love.

We’ve learned that, early in the life of John, Jesus nicknamed him a Son of Thunder. John’s writings, however, reveal a completely different man. John changed his outlook as he followed in the footsteps of his Master, listening and heeding His teachings. He was highly regarded by Jesus and the other apostles and, surprisingly, apparently by the sometimes-contrary high priest. This speaks volumes of John’s character.

John understood and taught godly love. He knew that God’s instructions, summarized in the Ten Commandments, are an expression of love from God to mankind, then from mankind to God and human beings to other human beings. Godly love is the greatest gift God can impart to mankind and the greatest we can return to Him and share with others. John lived the love of God.

John was an apostle who reflected God’s love. He learned about godly love from God, who Himself is love (1 John 4:8 1 John 4:8He that loves not knows not God; for God is love.
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). John taught the truth and worth of godly love and left us an outstanding example.