John's Ministry and Death
The main problem facing the first-century Church was how to relate to Judaism (if at all). James and Paul often appear in opposition to each other, but in reality they both believed Christianity to be the continuance of the biblical belief system and the fulfillment of “the hope of Israel,” as Paul called it. The entire sacrificial system in the law pointed to the death of the true Lamb of God, and His resurrection from the dead gave us that Hope.
But insofar as structure is concerned (which is the realm of “religion”), James retained the old structure of Judaism, while Paul launched out into new territory, largely forsaking the temple organization and its rituals. Both James and Paul understood the basic truth that the New Covenant had replaced the Old, and that the New Jerusalem had replaced the Old. However, in practical life, James had to live in Jerusalem, while Paul spent much of his time in foreign lands. This had an effect upon them that seemed to put them in conflict.
Both James and Paul lived by the principle of “being all things to all men.” Because James lived in Jerusalem, it was necessary for him to be more scrupulous than his contemporaries to show that this new Way was not a violation of Moses or the law itself, but was rather a fulfillment of the law. This new Way did not give men a license to sin, but showed a better and permanent manner of justification from sin. The Way had a better Lamb that did not need to be repeated daily.
James had a point to prove to the Judeans, which he did very well—that Christianity did not put away the law. Paul also had a point to prove—that Christianity did not need Judaism's religious structure. In fact, the structure was no longer adequate to house the increased anointing that God had poured out at Pentecost. The New Covenant did not alter the moral requirements of God, for it was still necessary to have the law written on one's heart.
What changed was the manner in which that law would become part of our nature. No longer would God make man responsible by his own decision and self-discipline to become righteous. Now God would take full responsibility to write the law in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. The old way was proven to be ineffective by 1500 years of history. Man's inadequacy had been proven fully, and now God would show His power to change mankind by His own will and action.
Paul himself was led to accommodate the people of Judea when he went to Jerusalem, as we have seen. So in that, he was in agreement with James. And James agreed with Paul on the matter of circumcision, the sign of the covenant, which had changed from outward to inward—as the law itself had prophesied in Deut. 30:6.
Through all of this, we find John in the background. In the early days of Pentecost, Peter and John were the two leading apostles, but Peter was always named first, and he always seems to have done the speaking. He was with Peter in Acts 3 to heal the lame man at the Gate called “Beautiful.” He was brought before the Sanhedrin with Peter to answer for his “crime” of bearing witness to the Truth (Acts 4:13). The other apostles sent Peter and John to Samaria to confirm the work of Philip there (Acts 8:14).
Yet John makes no speeches and did not seem to take an active role in the first Church council in Acts 15. In fact, it appears that he only took charge of the churches in Asia after the death of Peter and Paul after 66 A.D. It is as if John were held in reserve for a later time. And so his greatest ministry took place in the chaotic days following the destruction of Jerusalem. It was left to him to bring completion to the foundations of the early church by bringing together and canonizing the two streams of thought which were the legacies primarily of James and Paul.
In particular, he spent his time in Ephesus, making that the de facto center of Christianity—whereas Antioch had been the main center in earlier days. Though Paul had ministered for three years in Ephesus, the character of the church there was shaped by John. Philip Schaff tells us,
“But the theology of the second and third centuries evidently presupposes the writings of John and starts from his Christology rather than from Paul's anthropology and soteriology, which were almost buried out of sight until Augustine, in Africa, revived them.” (History of the Christian Church, Vol. 1, p. 426)
By “anthropology,” Schaff was referring to Paul's doctrines on the mortal nature of man that causes him to sin (Rom. 5:12). By “soteriology,” Schaff was referring to Paul's doctrines on salvation. These were important, of course, but John's teachings centered mostly around “Christology,” the study of the nature and character of Christ,. For this reason, John focuses on the idea of Love, which was actually the glue that united James and Paul in spite of their very different types of ministry.
Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in the second century, tells us that John was exiled to Patmos toward the end of the reign of Domitian, who ruled Rome from 81-96 A.D. (Against Heresies, V, xxx, 3). Irenaeus (120-202 A.D.) was a pupil under Polycarp (65-155 A.D.), who was in turn a disciple of the Apostle John. And so John's Book of Revelation is dated about 96 A.D., although this was probably the completion date for the book he had written while on Patmos (Rev. 1:9).
Domitian himself was very bad-tempered and said to be unfit to rule Rome. Even his father, Vespasian, passed him over and made his other son, Titus, the emperor in 79 when he died. But Titus died in 81, and Domitian then became emperor. When he died in 96, the Roman senate obliterated his name from all public buildings and denied him a state funeral.
Domitian was also obsessed with preventing any further revolt in Judea, for he sought out anyone that was of the house of David and executed any who might lead another revolt. In regard to this, Eusebius quotes Hegesippus in Eccl. Hist., III, xix and xx,
“ ‘And there still survived of the Lord's family the grandsons of Jude, who was said to be His brother, humanly speaking. These were informed against as being of David's line, and brought by the evocatus before Domitian Caesar, who was as afraid of the advent of Christ as Herod had been. Domitian asked them whether they were descended from David, and they admitted it. Then he asked them what property they owned and what funds they had at their disposal. They replied that they had only 9,000 denarii between them, half belonging to each; this, they said, was not available in cash, but was the estimated value of only thirty-nine plethra of land, from which they raised the money to pay their taxes and the wherewithal to support themselves by their own toil.’
“Then, the writer continues, they showed him their hands, putting forward as proof of their toil the hardness of their bodies and the calluses impressed on their hands by incessant labour. When asked about Christ and His Kingdom—what it was like, and where and when it would appear—they explained that it was not of this world or anywhere on earth but angelic and in heaven, and would be established at the end of the world, when He would come in glory to judge the quick and the dead and give every man payment according to his conduct. On hearing this, Domitian found no fault with them, but despising them as beneath his notice, let them go free and issued orders terminating the persecution of the Church. On their release they became leaders of the churches, both because they had borne testimony and because they were of the Lord's family; and thanks to the establishment of peace, they lived on into Trajan's time.”
Eusebius says that John returned to Ephesus from Patmos upon the death of Domitian and finally died shortly into the reign of Trajan (98-117 A.D.).
As the second century began, the Age of the Apostles was ending. John was an old man, recently released from his exile at Patmos by Roman Emperor Nerva, under whose benevolent rule many of the injustices of Domitian had been rectified. Nerva's rule, however, was very short, ruling only from 96-98, when he was succeeded by Trajan.
And so, as the second century arrived, Trajan ruled Rome, Clement was the bishop in Rome, Ignatius in Antioch, Cerdo in Alexandria, and Symeon son of Clopas was bishop in Jerusalem, that is, on the nearby Mount of Olives. Symeon was the son of the son of the Lord's uncle Clopas (or Cleopas) mentioned in Luke 24:18, to whom Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus. (Luke was his companion, so he wrote this account from first-hand knowledge.) Eusebius tells us in his Eccl. Hist., III, 22,
“At Antioch, where Evodus had been the first bishop, Ignatius was become famous at this time; his contemporary Symeon was similarly the next after our Saviour's brother [James] to be in charge of the church at Jerusalem.”
John himself functioned as the head of the churches in Asia, many of which Paul had founded four decades earlier. In the next generation of church leaders, Irenaeus [120-202] wrote of him in his second volume of Against Heresies, XXII, 5,
“And he [John] remained among them up to the times of Trajan.”
Clement of Alexandria, a contemporary of Irenaeus, wrote a brief story about an incident in John's life in a book called The Rich Man Who Finds Salvation, 42.1-15. Eusebius quoted from it in Eccl. Hist. III, 23,
“Listen to a tale that is not just a tale but a true account of John the apostle, handed down and carefully remembered. When the tyrant [Domitian] was dead, and John had moved from the island of Patmos to Ephesus, he used to go when asked to the neighbouring districts of the Gentile peoples, sometimes to appoint bishops, sometimes to organize whole churches, sometimes to ordain one person to those pointed out by the Spirit.
“So it happened that he arrived at a city not far off, named by some [Smyrna], and after settling the various problems of the brethren, he finally looked at the bishop already appointed, and indicating a youngster he had noticed, of excellent physique, attractive appearance, and ardent spirit, he said, ‘I leave this young man in your keeping, with all earnestness, in the presence of the Church and Christ as my witness.’ When the bishop accepted him and promised everything, John addressed the same appeal and adjuration to him a second time.
“He then returned to Ephesus, and the cleric took home the youngster entrusted to his care, brought him up, kept him in his company, looked after him, and finally gave him the grace of baptism. After this he relaxed his constant care and watchfulness, having put upon him the seal of the Lord as the perfect protection. But the youngster snatched at liberty too soon, and was led sadly astray by others of his own age who were idle, dissolute, and evil-livers.
“First they led him on by expensive entertainments; then they took him with them when they went out at night to commit robbery; then they urged him to take part in even greater crimes. Little by little he fell into their way and like a hard-mouthed powerful horse he dashed off the straight road, and taking the bit between his teeth, rushed down the precipice the more violently because of his immense vitality.
“Completely renouncing God's salvation, he was no longer content with petty offences, but, as his life was already in ruins, he decided to commit a major crime and suffer the same fate as the others. He took these same young renegades and formed them into a gang of bandits of which his was the master mind, surpassing them all in violence, cruelty, and bloodthirstiness.
“Time went by, and some necessity having arisen, John was asked to pay another visit. When he had dealt with the business for which he had come, he said, ‘Come now, bishop, pay me back the deposit which Christ and I left in your keeping, in the presence of the Church over which you preside as my witness.’ At first the bishop was taken aback, thinking that he was being dunned for money he had never received. He could neither comply with a demand for what he did not possess, nor refuse to comply with John's request. But when John said, ‘It is the young man I am asking for, and the soul of our brother,’ the old man sighed deeply and shed a tear.
“ ‘He is dead.’
“ ‘How did he die?’
“He is dead to God; he turned out wicked and profligate, in short, a bandit; and now, instead of the Church, he has taken to the mountain with an armed gang of men like himself.
“The apostle rent his garment, groaned aloud, and beat his head. ‘A fine guardian,’ he cried, ‘I left of our brother's soul! However, let me have a horse immediately, and someone to show me the way.’ He galloped off from the church, then and there, just as he was. When he arrived at the place, and was seized by the bandits’ sentry-group, he made no attempt to escape and asked no mercy, but shouted: ‘This is what I have come for; take me to your leader.’
“For the time being the young man waited, armed as he was; but as John approached, he recognized him, and filled with shame, turned to flee. But John ran after him as hard as he could, forgetting his years, and calling out, ‘Why do you run away from me, child—from your own father, unarmed and very old? Be sorry for me, child, not afraid of me. I will gladly suffer your death, as the Lord suffered death for us; to save you I will give my own life. Stop! Believe! Christ sent me.’
“When he heard this, the young man stopped and stood with his eyes on the ground; then he threw down his weapons; then he trembled and began to weep bitterly. When the old man came up, he flung his arms round him, pleading for himself with groans as best he could, and baptized a second time with his tears, but keeping his right hand out of sight.
“But John solemnly pledged his word that he had found pardon for him from the Saviour; he prayed, knelt down, and kissed that very hand as being cleansed by his repentance. Then he brought him back to the church, interceded for him with many prayers, shared with him the ordeal of continuous fasting, brought his mind under control by all the enchanting power of words, and did not leave him, we are told, till he had restored him to the Church, giving a perfect example of true repentance and a perfect proof of regeneration, the trophy of a visible resurrection.”
Such was the character of John, the apostle, and how he cared for the Churches in Asia. John's gospel was written much later than the other gospels, and it is said that his reason for writing it was to share certain details that the others had left out. For this reason, his gospel is quite different and includes supplemental material.
John was also concerned with Gnosticism and wrote against their views. Gnosticism was started by Simon Magus, and when Simon died, he was succeeded by another Samaritan named Menander, who claimed to be the Savior of mankind sent from heaven. Gnosticism adhered to the Greek idea that spirit was good and matter was evil. As a consequence, they denied that Christ had come in the flesh, but only appeared to do so. 1 John 4:2 says,
2 By this you know the Spirit of God; every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does NOT confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
John's Gospel begins with a statement that the Gnostics would have agreed with; but when he said in verse 14, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” it slapped them in the face.
Gnosticism would spawn many more heresies in the centuries to come. Ultimately, these unscrupulous men would figure out that they could not fight John himself. So instead of claiming John as a false teacher, incredulous as it may be, they learned to claim John as one of their own. There came to be many Gnostic orders and occult organizations naming themselves after John. This tactic was designed to fool those who have not studied Church history.
Nonetheless, John’s Gospel speaks for itself. It condemns Gnostic teaching and sets forth the doctrine that Jesus Christ came in human flesh, died on the cross, and was literally raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples in material flesh, not merely the appearance of flesh. The God of heaven did not think it beneath Him to touch physical matter, which He Himself created and pronounced “very good.”
It is well known that John wrote his gospel long after the other gospels had been written. It is more than a mere narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus. Its spiritual message makes it clear that it was written after many years of contemplation. Its value is seen in its doctrinal maturity. Likewise, when we compare it with the other “synoptic” gospels, we can see that while Matthew wrote to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, John makes almost no attempt at all to please the Jews. He writes as if their grace period had ended in divine judgment (70 A.D.). It is not likely that the earlier gospels would have dared to pen Jesus’ words in John 8:44, “You are of your father, the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father.”
John records details that were left out of the earlier gospels. For example, John is the only one who mentioned the raising of Lazarus from the dead, even though this event was one of the most important miracles of the New Testament. Lazarus was in danger for the rest of his life, because he was a living testimony of the power of Jesus and living proof that Jesus was the Messiah. The Jews sought to kill him immediately for this very reason (John 12:10), and he was forced to escape, ultimately to far-away Marseilles.
Lazarus died many years later, and so John’s gospel gives not only an account of his resurrection, but also gives us his name. If Lazarus had still been alive, it is doubtful if John would have named him in his gospel, for that might have put him in danger. It is for this same reason that many people in the other gospels remained nameless, such as the son of the widow in Nain (Luke 7:11-15).
The Book of Revelation appears to have been finalized toward the end of the first century, and John’s gospel was most likely written about the same time. It was necessary that these be finished quickly in order to give authentic Scriptures to the Church before the last apostle died. It had been rumored among Christians that John would live to see the return of Christ (John 21:23). But John knew that he was going to die, because Jesus had prophesied that he and his brother (James) would experience the same baptism (death) that Jesus had experienced (Matt. 20:23). James had already been killed in 44 A.D., and so John expected to receive martyrdom as well. According to Papias, a contemporary of John’s, he was executed at the request of the Jews.
Yet before his death, he was able to complete the canon of the New Testament, which had been started 30 years earlier by Paul and Peter. John’s gospel supplemented the other gospel accounts, telling of many things not recorded by the others. It is also the most well-developed of the gospels, spiritually speaking.
Codex W indicates that John wrote much of his gospel from 65-69 A.D., while Paul and Peter were deciding which of their writings should be canonized. Matthew was completed and dated in 67. Mark’s gospel was completed in 73, followed by Luke’s gospel in 74. The earliest version of John’s gospel appears to have ended with 20:30, 31,
30 Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.
It looks as if John decided to write a final chapter in 97 A.D. around the time that he wrote the book of Revelation. Meanwhile, he had also written various letters which we know today as first, second, and third John. This completed the New Testament.
The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are meant to be read in sequence as first and second Luke. But John recognized these four as representing the four beasts around the throne (Rev. 4:7), so he arranged them accordingly. The four Gospel themes are:
Matthew: The Lion (“Behold your King,” Zech. 9:9)
Mark: The Ox (“Behold My Servant,” Isaiah 42:1)
Luke: The Man (“Behold the Man,” Zech 6:12)
John: The Eagle (“Behold your God,” Isaiah 40:9)
Including Second Luke (i.e., the book of Acts), we have five gospels that run parallel to the five books of Moses.
When John wrote his three epistles, which he included in the canon, his greatest concern was that so many Jewish Christians had gone back into Judaism and had thus gone the way of Judas. He speaks of these people, in effect, as “antichrists,” though technically they were merely Judases that had become allies of “antichrist.” Antichrist means “in place of Christ,” since the word anti means “in place of.” It is so used in Matt. 2:22,
22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of [anti] his father Herod, he was afraid to go there . . .
The chief priests of the temple in Jerusalem had usurped the throne of Christ, and hence they were ruling anti-christ, “in place of Christ.” That is, they “sat” in the temple (spiritually speaking) as if they were God (2 Thess. 2:4). And many Christians, tired of waiting for Jesus’ return, returned to their mother, Hagar.
John condemns this in much the same way that Paul and Peter had condemned it earlier. Those who denied Jesus Christ had neither the Father nor the Son (1 John 2:23). Christian Zionists today would do well to take heed to John’s words, for it is often assumed that Jews are saved apart from Christ, or that they truly know God but not Jesus, or that they are “nearly Christian.” Such teaching today is a continuation of the Judas factor and is the subject of much New Testament teaching.
The problems of the first century have come full circle and are now the dominant problem of modern Christendom. With the rise of Jewish Zionism, we saw a second Revolt, which ended with the re-establishment of Hagar-Jerusalem in 1948. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin wrote his own history about how the Israeli state was established by terrorism and the sword. His 1951 book is entitled, The Revolt: Story of the Irgun. Few Christians today even know that he wrote such a book.
With the replaying of the biblical story in a new context, we see this time the attempt to usurp the birthright with the help of modern Judas—Christian Zionists, who applaud and send financial and military aid. In so doing, they have again betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Both the Scepter of Judah and the Birthright of Joseph have thus been usurped by the same people, and in both cases they have received help from the son of perdition. This was all prophesied, of course, in the story of Absalom’s revolt against David. Even so, very few seem to know anything about this prophecy and history.
From the earliest times we find a dominant order to the New Testament canon. This suggests that it was placed in order by someone--namely, John. Though the usual order of books is not uniformly universal, nonetheless, the usual order is as follows:
The General Epistles
The Pauline Epistles
The Book of Revelation
Originally, many of the Old Testament books were combined, such as the twelve Minor Prophets, making a total of just 22 books of Scripture. The 27 New Testament writings, added to the 22 books of the Old Testament, made a total of 49 books. It full canon of Scripture manifested the Jubilee.
So ends the first century, and, with the death of John, the Apostolic Age as well. The history of the Church would now be told by John’s disciples, those who knew him personally, most importantly, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna.