While Peter was a married man and probably among the oldest of the disciples, John was likely only a teenager. Along with Peter and his brother James, these three disciples got to see and hear things from Jesus that no one else on earth has seen or heard.
And John wrote all that he wrote so that we might see Jesus and hear Jesus, and get to know Jesus as John did (John 20:31).
Everything John writes is an invitation to walk alongside him so that we might see what he saw and hear what he heard as he listened and prayed and wept and walked and ate with Jesus.
John was a fisherman and part of a family business with his dad, Zebedee and his brother James. Fishing was hard, dirty work, but if you were good at it, you could earn a really decent living.
John and James worked in partnership with two other men who were also brothers and later disciples of Jesus—Peter and Andrew.
Walking along a beach in Galilee one day came God in human flesh. Into this world of fish and family came Jesus, and He invited these young men to follow Him.
Both sides of this call would have been overwhelming to such a young man as John.
First, to be invited to leave the security of the family business involved a huge sacrifice, including, for many, the opportunity for marriage since you would have no way of providing the dowry.
On the other hand, being invited into discipleship was a great honour, especially for an uneducated, poor-speaking Galilean fisherman.
So, what does John do? He does what all teenagers do. He drops everything and heads off for an adventure. John the fisherman becomes John the disciple of a Rabbi called Jesus.
In our day, we go in search of a school to send our kids to. In John’s day, that wasn’t how it worked. Instead, you went off to find a teacher that you admired so that you could learn to live like him.
Once you had been welcomed into the company of a Rabbi, his life became yours.
There was a saying among the Jews, “may you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi…”. In other words, may you walk so closely behind him that the dust off His sandals lands on you.
You would eat with your Rabbi, walk with your Rabbi, attend all the same gatherings as your Rabbi. He would teach you daily, and you would sit humbly at his feet, learning and growing in wisdom.
It was a way of life that involved deep affection.
As John’s new life of following Jesus gets underway, there are several incidents that press home his youth; his child-like love for his teacher.
At one point, John boldly approaches Jesus and asks if there might be two seats beside Him. One for himself and one for his brother James. John and James want to be up there beside the boss. And so, with what might seem like a youthful lack of tact, they straight-up ask for it.
Isn’t this the way with young people? An older man would not do this. He would try and scheme and manoeuvre his way into the top seats, but not a child. A child will walk right up to the head of the table and plonk herself on your lap.
This was John. “Can I sit with you?” He doesn’t find a way to win the attention or affection of Jesus. He just asks. Never mind the other disciples. Just two seats will do.
Instead, Jesus gave John something far more valuable than a seat beside Him. He gives John a nickname: Son of thunder.
Who do we give nicknames to? To those we love. To those with whom we feel a close connection.
Jesus invites John, an impetuous teenager who once asked Jesus to call down fire from heaven so that Samaria would be consumed, into the most intimate of mateships. Not only by giving him a nickname but by choosing John among the hundreds that have begun following Him.
And beyond that, He includes this teen, along with Peter, the elder statesman and James, his brother, into the inner circle of three.
Together, these three are called to the most intimate of relationships with Jesus and each other.
And so, we see Peter and John, very early on in the book of Acts, working together, settling disputes together, doing miracles and evangelising together.
John was there with Peter and James when Jesus spoke on a mountain top with two of John’s biblical heroes, Elijah and Moses. It was John, along with Peter, who was given the job of preparing Jesus’ last Passover with them before His crucifixion.
You know the painting, its famous, Jesus eating His last meal with the disciples. It was John who helped set that table. It was John who went ahead of His Rabbi and prepared the meal. And probably sat, peering out the window like a schoolboy, waiting for His beloved teacher to arrive.
And when Jesus arrives, who sits down in the seat next to Him? John. Leaning on the shoulder of the Son of God he loved so much.
Only little children do this. Only those who are free to love without pride do this sort of thing.
And so, it’s no surprise that when Peter wants to know who the betrayer is, he gets John to ask the question. Which John, like all little brothers, does.
Isn’t Peter just like a big brother here? And isn’t John just like a child? What big brother hasn’t got his little brother to do his bidding for him?
Here, in John, we meet a young man-in-the-making who publicly and unashamedly loves His Lord.
And yet, later that same night, having been invited to keep watch with James and Peter on the hillside with Jesus in prayer, what does this hyperactive teenager do? He falls asleep.
Jesus is sweating blood, and John falls asleep. His best friend is about to be publicly executed, and John falls asleep.
This was to be their last moments on earth together, and John slept.
Before the night is over, Jesus will be arrested, tried and tortured for a crime He did not commit. And yet, as the trial unfolds and all of Jesus’ disciples flee, who is left following Him to the crucifixion? John.
John and Peter are the only two who follow the arrest and the trials, during which even Peter flees in shame.
And what a shameful night it turned out to be as John saw his Teacher’s body torn down to the muscle, ripped by shards of metal and broken clay. As he watched Jesus stripped naked and whipped until His body was unrecognisable and his hands and feet were hammered through with railroad spikes.
And there, at the foot of the cross, beside the mother of our Lord, stood John.
And at that moment, a moment of agony for everyone, what does Jesus do? He calls John to serve.
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” (John 19:26)
What was Jesus doing? He was loving John. He was still teaching John, even to the bitter end.
Jesus didn’t do this for Himself. Jesus did this for John. John wasn’t perfect. John was a sinner. John was weak, young and prone to napping on the job. John was like any one of us.
But Jesus loved John and so Jesus offers one last act of friendship by entrusting his own mother into the care of this young lad.
Three days later, when the disciples hear that the tomb is empty, who is it that runs to the tomb? Peter and John. Little brother gets there first, but like a boy who races to the seashore before everyone else, he stops short of going in. Instead, he waits and lets his big brother go into the darkness first.
When they find that Jesus truly is missing from the tomb, when they realise Jesus is no longer with them, John then does what most of us do when we think our Lord is absent. He reverts to type. He goes back to his old life.
But Jesus wasn’t missing. Just as it was in the beginning, John is back to fishing, and Jesus turns up walking along the seashore.
And who recognises Him first? John.
You can picture the scene, can’t you? Did he run to Jesus, throw his arms around Him and kiss Him on the neck?
Can’t you picture the ecstasy? Wouldn’t your heart skip a beat if you were John; if this was your mother or brother or sister?
After this, Jesus appears to hundreds more as proof of His resurrection, and John is there for all of it. And John is also there as Jesus is lifted up to the throne room of glory at the right hand of God.
And so John, the disciple of Jesus, had become a true witness and would spend the rest of His life teaching others to follow the risen Lord.
He will live long enough to see all of his mates die for their testimony. He will live long enough to meet Paul, see Peter crucified upside down, see James beheaded, and he will eventually be the last man standing.
And John, the disciple who rested his head against the shoulder of God, would also be the last man to give an eye witness testimony to all that Jesus Christ is, has done and will do.
In the first century church, if you were taught by John you were given great honour among the churches. But there was also a price for being associated with John, as many of his persecuted and martyred disciples would discover.
Moreover, there was a price for being the last eyewitness.
The Jews knew if they could get John to recant, they could totally discredit Christianity and bring the faith to an end.
But though they persecuted him, even throwing him into a vat of boiling oil, John lived on to tell others about Jesus.
In his later years (perhaps as old as 90), John was exiled to the island of Patmos for his testimony. Alone, no one to share his faith with, no one to relive the glory days. All his friends had been martyred; His disciples had moved on, some martyred, some would fall away.
These would have been dark days for John. This sleeper in a storm had once failed his Lord. He had not been awake and ready for action when Jesus needed him most.
Would Jesus do the same? Would Jesus now fail John?
No. For it was there on Patmos that John would see Jesus for the last time. It was there that Jesus came to John and revealed Himself in all his glory. A Revelation that he would write down for all the world to read.
John eventually got off Patmos and remained in Ephesus. As an old man nearing 100, history tells us that he would often be carried into church on a stretcher to preach. His sermons typically consisting of just one line,
brothers and sisters, love one another.
In fact, so often would he repeat this, that the people, knowing the incredible life he had lived with Jesus, kept insisting that he tell them more. To which he would simply reply,
If you have love for one another, this will be enough.
We often wonder whether we love enough. We do this especially when it comes to Jesus. We look inward and we worry whether we have done enough and whether our love for Him is real enough.
But John appeared to be free from this anxiety. Why was that? What was it that made John, John?
The answer is simple and beautiful. John’s own self-description tells us. Repeatedly in the Gospel of John (13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 20), we are told that John was,
…the disciple whom Jesus loved.
There was no bragging in his letters about how much he had done for Jesus, or what he had seen or heard, and no anxious navel-gazing about how much he might love Jesus.
John was free because John was just happy to be loved.
John knew that Jesus loved Him. As sure as he knew about anything, John knew that he was loved. And that truth had set him free.