St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
December 27, 2020
Text: John 21:20-25
The will of the Lord is always best. But that is a statement of faith, to be revealed in the End. For now, it is not always our human experience. We cannot see what it is God is out to accomplish. We can only trust the promise that He will work it for the good. We often wonder why bad things happen to some, and not others. And specifically, we wonder why bad things happen to us, and not others. Jesus reveals that Peter is to be martyred (John 21:18-19). When he grew old, Peter would stretch out his hands and be dressed by another and carried where he does not want to go. That is the death Peter would die to glorify God. And so it happened. Peter was crucified, in Rome, reportedly upside down, because he did not consider himself worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord. It is at this point that Peter turns to see John following behind, and he wonders. What about this man? If I must be martyred, what must he suffer? Why must this bad thing happen to me, and not necessarily to him?
But that is not the question Peter is to ask. That is to be none of his concern. “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (v. 22; ESV).
We so often long to look into things that are none of our business. What about this fellow? Why don’t You teach him a lesson for once, Lord? God knows he has it coming. Why do you leave him alone, and afflict me? Jesus answers you the same way he answered Peter. “If it is my will that he be spared, what is that to you? You have only one order of business to be concerned with. You follow me. Do not look to this side or that, or behind you. Keep your eyes on me. Go where I lead you. Do what I give you to do. Bear what I give you to bear. Trust that it is all for the good. I will work it all for my will, for your salvation, for the Father’s glory. My cross is the model. See how I worked that great evil for your redemption. Your cross is light by comparison. See how I will work it in ways unimaginable to you. Your suffering will end. The Kingdom is the prize. Take the long view. Follow me!”
And what about John? Today is his feast day, so we should say what is to be said about him. It is not the case, as the rumor went, that John was not to die. Jesus simply said, “If it is my will that he remain… what is that to you?” Jesus had His will for John, just as He had for Peter. For John, it seems, the Lord’s will was that he live a martyr’s life, even as Peter died a martyr’s death. In other words, John knew his fair share of suffering for Christ and the Gospel. John, we remember, along with his brother James, was willing to drink the cup of the Lord and be baptized with His baptism, that is, to suffer and die a bloody death (Mark 10:38-39). So boasted those Sons of Thunder. The Lord promised they would do just that. As it happens, James, Son of Zebedee, was the first of the Apostles to shed his blood (Acts 12:2). But what about his brother, John? According to tradition, he lived to a ripe old age, and was the only Apostle to die of natural causes. He seems to have spent the bulk of his ministry in Jerusalem, and then as Bishop of the Church in Ephesus. We know he cared for Mary in his own home, as our Lord bid him do from the cross. A member of Jesus’ inner circle, the disciple whom Jesus loved, he was the only Apostle to stick with our Lord through His trial and crucifixion, and he was one of the very first eyewitnesses of the empty tomb and the risen Savior. He wrote the Gospel that bears his name, and three epistles preserved in the New Testament. He was exiled by the Emperor Domitian to the Island of Patmos, from which he saw his vision, being in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and thus wrote it down in the Book of Revelation.
Exiled. That is just one example of John’s suffering for Jesus. We know he was arrested at least twice (undoubtedly more) for preaching the Gospel (Acts 4:3; 5:18). On one occasion, being charged not to speak in the Name of Jesus, John was led to answer with Peter, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:20). On the second occasion, the Apostles answered the Chief Priests’ charges, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29). Whereupon they were threatened and beaten, yet they rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (v. 40). And they steadfastly continued in the Temple and from house to house, teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ (v. 41). The legend goes (and this is a stretch, but then again, who knows? It is Tertullian who reports it, a pretty trustworthy source) that prior to John’s exile to Patmos, the Emperor tried to kill him in the Colosseum by plunging him into boiling oil, but he wouldn’t die! His skin wouldn’t even blister! And the whole audience in the Colosseum (aside from the Emperor) was converted to Christianity that day! Okay, maybe, maybe not, but this was the age of manifest miracles, and it is not unlike the biblical examples of the three young men and the fiery furnace, or Daniel in the lions’ den.
But the point is, John did suffer. Not according to Peter’s plan, but according to our Lord’s. He suffered precisely the crosses our Lord laid upon him, and in this way, he glorified God and followed Jesus. His whole life was a martyrdom, a taking up of the cross and following the Savior. Incidentally, think what a gift it was to the Church to have this Apostle live to a ripe old age, probably into his nineties, which was very old in those days. Just as the New Testament canon was being compiled, the Church, in her infancy, had a living eyewitness to the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And some of the earliest Church Fathers, including Sts. Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch, learned the faith at the feet of St. John himself. And St. Irenaeus was only one generation removed, a student of Polycarp. These were three of the most important Church Fathers after the Apostles. That is the true apostolic succession; not a genealogical record of who laid hands on whom in ordination, going back to the Apostles, but the teaching of the Apostles passed down from one generation to the next.
So what about this man, John? Well… what about him? The Lord had His plan for John, even as He had His plan for Peter. And so He has His plan for you. Don’t always be comparing yourself to others. Don’t always be wondering why you suffer as you do, and the other man does not; why he has this and that good thing, while you must go without it. He has his cross, and you have yours. The Lord has a specific plan for each one of us, and His will shall be accomplished on earth as in heaven, and His will is the very best.
Do you know that the Lord brought you to this time, and this place, among these people, and in these circumstances, precisely for this very moment? As Mordecai said to Queen Esther facing the possibility of suffering and death for her people, “who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Indeed, she had, according to God’s will. You are right where God wants you. To do what? To follow Him. To suffer, yes, whatever He permits, and whatever cross He lays upon you. And also to rejoice in Him. To love. To confess. To speak in His Name. To serve faithfully in your vocations. To love and act for those among whom He places you. And you are not to look from side to side, or behind you, asking, “what about this man?” Eyes on Jesus. He has redeemed you. He was born for you. He died for you. He is risen for you. He lives for you. He loves you. You belong to Him. And your every moment is sanctified by His blood. We worry so much about what may happen, about sickness and death, suffering and pain, as though those things are in our control. But they aren’t. It is much better than that. They are in His! None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord. If we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s (Rom. 14:7-8). We are His martyrs. Jesus died and rose again for us, that He may be our Lord in life and in death, and that death may have no power over us.
So what about John? He followed Jesus. Take John as your example, and follow in his train. And read his writings, especially the Gospel that bears his name. Jesus, of course, did many more things than John or the other evangelists could record in their accounts. “Were every one of the to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books” (John 21:25). “(B)ut these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). John was an eyewitness of these things. Take him at his word, and so receive the Gift: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for you. Merry Christmas! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.