Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

John was one of two sons of Zebedee, and tradition gives their mother’s name as Salome. From the Gospel, we learn that John, with his father and brother, were fishermen in the Sea of Galilee. He, along with his brother James and of course Peter, belonged to the inner circle of disciples around Jesus. As one would expect, there is no record of the year or place of his birth. John, with Peter and his brother, were privileged witnesses of certain events in the Gospel story.

They were with Jesus when he restored the daughter of Jairus to life (Matt 5:37; Luke 9:51), at the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1; Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28) and also during his Agony in the Garden (Matt 26:37; Mark 14:33). It was John who went with Peter into the city to make the preparation for the final Passover meal (the Last Supper; Luke 22:8). It is possible that John was the other disciple who “who was known to the high priest” and went with Peter as Jesus was brought into the high priest’s house (John 18:15). But it may refer to the “Beloved Disciple”.

John and his brother were called Boanerges or ‘Sons of Thunder’ (Mark 3:17) by Jesus because of their fiery temperament, revealed when they suggested Jesus should call down fire from heaven on some Samaritans who would not provide hospitality to Jesus and his disciples as they were passing through the territory (Luke 9:54).

John and James also aroused the ire of their fellow apostles by asking Jesus privately to grant them the privilege to sit on Jesus’ right and left in his Kingdom – in other words, having the places of greatest honour. And, when asked would they be able to go through an experience similar to that Jesus was about to face in his Passion, they boldly said they could. Jesus told them they were right, but it would only happen after they had fully absorbed the way and thinking of Jesus. As for instance, when he told them that true greatness was not in having places of honour, but rather in outdoing everyone in loving service to others.

The name John is traditionally linked with New Testament writing. Three different authors with the name John have been identified. First, there is the author of the Gospel according to John and the First Letter of John, commonly referred to as John the Evangelist and also identified with John the Apostle. The authorship of books in ancient times was quite loose, and the name attached to a book may not indicate that that person actually wrote it, although he may have inspired it in some way. However, the same person does seem to have authored these two books.

Second, both the Second and Third Letter of John have the same author, who calls himself the Presbyter or Elder and is sometimes identified with a person known as John the Presbyter.

And, third, the author of the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse (a Greek word for ‘revelation’) calls himself John, but the book’s whole way of thinking, style and content make it very unlikely he was the one who wrote the Gospel. He says that, because of his Christian faith, he had been exiled to the island of Patmos but he does not claim to be John the Apostle, although some early writers so identified him.

The Gospel according to John clearly emphasises the divine nature of Jesus, as both Light and Life and the Word of God incarnated into the human family. This Gospel also puts love (agape) as the vital bond between Father and Son, and between Christ and disciples, and also the bond between disciples. Traditionally, John the Apostle wrote his Gospel towards the end of his life, at the end of the first century.

Another tradition identifies John the Apostle with the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John, however, this is questionable. The Beloved Disciple seems rather to represent the perfect or model disciple, one who has none of the defects and faults of the Twelve, all who reveal clear weaknesses, including John.

After the Resurrection, John was prominent in the early Church. Not only would he have been among the early witnesses of the Risen Lord but, also would have been involved in the early preaching. Chapter 3 of Acts of the Apostles speaks of Peter and John going into the Temple to pray at 9 o’clock in the morning. At the Temple gate they saw a man, “lame from birth” who was brought there every day. When he begged money from the two Apostles, they both fixed their gaze on the man and asked him to look at them. Then Peter said to him,

I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk. (Acts 3:6)

Then Peter pulled the man to his feet. He went into the Temple with them, walking and jumping about, and praising God. As the crowds gathered in wonder, this gave Peter the opportunity to preach to them about Jesus Christ. While they were still addressing the crowd, the Temple guard and some Sadducees came and arrested the two Apostles and put them in jail for the night. The following day, they were brought before the Sanhedrin and again, Peter took the opportunity to speak about Christ and why they believed in him. Eventually, divided among themselves, their judges sent them away with a warning never to speak about Jesus again.

The last appearance of John the Apostle in the New Testament is in chapter 8 of the Acts. When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had “accepted the word of God”, Peter and John were sent to evangelise them. The people there had “only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” but the Spirit had not yet come down on them. The two Apostles then laid their hands on the people and they received the Spirit.

Now after Peter and John had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans. (Acts 8:25)

It is not certain how long John, with the other Apostles, would have stayed in Jerusalem. However, 12 years later, during the persecution of Herod Agrippa I, they would have scattered to other parts of the Empire. John may have gone to Asia Minor. It seems there was already a Christian community in Ephesus before Paul first went there, and John has always been linked with that city. He would probably have returned to Jerusalem for the Council held in 51 AD.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul refers to John, together with Peter and James, as “the acknowledged pillars”, in other words, the most prominent figures in the Jerusalem community (see Gal 2:9).

There is a long-standing tradition that John the Apostle settled in Ephesus. Various legends are told of him there by people like Clement of Alexandria. It was said he feared that the baths at which the heretic Cerinthus was bathing would collapse because he was in them. Or his repeated exhortation to his followers to love one another, to the point of tedium. He emphasised it because “it is the word of the Lord and, if you keep it, that is enough”. Something similar to St. Augustine’s later saying: “Love and do what you like.”

An old tradition holds that John was banished by the Roman authorities to the Greek island of Patmos. According to Tertullian, John was banished after being plunged into boiling oil in Rome and suffering nothing from it. It is said that the entire coliseum was converted to Christianity upon witnessing this miracle.

The vestments for John’s feast are white, indicating he is not regarded as a martyr. Artistic representations of John reflect other legends. He is shown holding a cup with a viper in it, calling to mind a challenge from the high priest of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus to drink a poisoned cup. In his role as evangelist, his emblem is an eagle.

John is the patron of theologians, writers, and all who work at the production of books. The dedication of the church of St John before the Latin Gate on 6 May commemorates his escape from being put into a cauldron of boiling oil under the Emperor Domitian.

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