History of the Christian Church: Vol. 1, Ch. 07, § 042-043

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History of the Christian Church: Vol. 1, Ch. 07, § 042-043


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42. Apostolic Labors of John

John in the Acts

In the first stadium of Apostolic Christianity John figures as one of the three pillars of the church of the circumcision, together with Peter and James the brother of the Lord; while Paul and Barnabas represented the Gentile church. This seems to imply that at that time he had not yet risen to the full apprehension of the universalism and freedom of the gospel. But he was the most liberal of the three, standing between James and Peter on the one hand, and Paul on the other, and looking already towards a reconciliation of Jewish and Gentile Christianity. The Judaizers never appealed to him as they did to James, or to Peter. There is no trace of a Johannean party, as there is of a Cephas party and a party of James. He stood above strife and division.

In the earlier chapters of the Acts he appears, next to Peter, as the chief apostle of the new religion; he heals with him the cripple at the gate of the temple; he was brought with him before the Sanhedrin to bear witness to Christ; he is sent with him by the apostles from Jerusalem to Samaria to confirm the Christian converts by imparting to them the Holy Spirit; he returned with him to Jerusalem. (Act_3:1 sqq.; Act_4:1, Act_4:13, Act_4:19, Act_4:20; Act_5:19, Act_5:20, Act_5:41, Act_5:42; Act_8:14-17, Act_8:25) But Peter is always named first and takes the lead in word and act; John follows in mysterious silence and makes the impression of a reserved force which will manifest itself at some future time. He must have been present at the conference of the apostles in Jerusalem, a.d. 50, but he made no speech and took no active part in the great discussion about circumcision and the terms of church membership. All this is in entire keeping with the character of modest and silent prominence given to him in the Gospels.

After the year 50 he seems to have left Jerusalem. The Acts no more mention him nor Peter. When Paul made his fifth and last visit to the holy City (a.d. 58) he met James, but none of the apostles.

John at Ephesus

The later and most important labors of John are contained in his writings, which we shall fully consider in another chapter. They exhibit to us a history that is almost exclusively inward and spiritual, but of immeasurable reach and import. They make no allusion to the time and place of residence and composition. But the Apocalypse implies that he stood at the head of the churches of Asia Minor. This is confirmed by the unanimous testimony of antiquity which is above all reasonable doubt, and assigns Ephesus to him as the residence of his latter years. He died there in extreme old age during the reign of Trajan, which began in 98. His grave also was shown there in the second century.

We do not know when he removed to Asia Minor, but he cannot have done so before the year 63. For in his valedictory address to the Ephesian elders, and in his Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians and the second to Timothy, Paul makes no allusion to John, and speaks with the authority of a superintendent of the churches of Asia Minor. It was probably the martyrdom of Peter and Paul that induced John to take charge of the orphan churches, exposed to serious dangers and trials.

Ephesus, the capital of proconsular Asia, was a center of Grecian culture, commerce, and religion; famous of old for the songs of Homer, Anacreon, and Mimnermus, the philosophy of Thales, Anaximenes, and Anaximander, the worship and wonderful temple of Diana. There Paul had labored three years (54-57) and established an influential church, a beacon-light in the surrounding darkness of heathenism. From there he could best commune with the numerous churches he had planted in the provinces. There he experienced peculiar joys and trials, and foresaw great dangers of heresies that should spring up from within. All the forces of orthodox and heretical Christianity were collected there. Jerusalem was approaching its downfall; Rome was not yet a second Jerusalem. Ephesus, by the labors of Paul and of John, became the chief theatre of church history in the second half of the first and during the greater part of the second century. Polycarp, the patriarchal martyr, and Irenaeus, the leading theologian in the conflict with Gnosticism, best represent the spirit of John and bear testimony to his influence. He alone could complete the work of Paul and Peter, and give the church that compact unity which she needed for her self-preservation against persecution from without and heresy and corruption from within.

If it were not for the writings of John the last thirty years of the first century would be almost an entire blank. They resemble that mysterious period of forty days between the resurrection and the ascension, when the Lord hovered, as it were, between heaven and earth, barely touching the earth beneath, and appearing to the disciples like a spirit from the other world. 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 Augustin, in Africa, revived them.

John at Patmos

John was banished to the solitary, rocky, and barren island of Patmos (now Patmo or Palmosa), in the Aegean sea, southwest of Ephesus. This rests on the testimony of the Rev_1:9, as usually understood: “I, John, your brother and partaker with you in the tribulation and kingdom and patience in Jesus, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for (on account of) the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” There he received, while “in the spirit, on the Lord’s day,” those wonderful revelations concerning the struggles and victories of Christianity.

The fact of his banishment to Patmos is confirmed by the unanimous testimony of antiquity. It is perpetuated in the traditions of the island, which has no other significance. “John - that is the thought of Patmos; the island belongs to him; it is his sanctuary. Its stones preach of him, and in every heart, he lives.”

The time of the exile is uncertain, and depends upon the disputed question of the date of the Apocalypse. External evidence points to the reign of Domitian, a.d. 95; internal evidence to the reign of Nero, or soon after his death, a.d. 68.

The prevailing - we may say the only distinct tradition, beginning with so respectable a witness as Irenaeus about 170, assigns the exile to the end of the reign of Domitian, who ruled from 81 to 96. He was the second Roman emperor who persecuted Christianity, and banishment was one of his favorite modes of punishment. Both facts give support to this tradition. After a promising beginning he became as cruel and bloodthirsty as Nero, and surpassed him in hypocrisy and blasphemous self-deification. He began his letters: “Our Lord and God commands,” and required his subjects to address him so. He ordered gold and silver statues of himself to be placed in the holiest place of the temples. When he seemed most friendly, he was most dangerous. He spared neither senators nor consuls when they fell under his dark suspicion, or stood in the way of his ambition. He searched for the descendants of David and the kinsmen of Jesus, fearing their aspirations, but found that they were poor and innocent persons. Many Christians suffered martyrdom under his reign, on the charge of atheism - among them his own cousin, Flavius Clemens, of consular dignity, who was put to death, and his wife Domitilla, who was banished to the island of Pandateria, near Naples. In favor of the traditional date may also be urged an intrinsic propriety that the book which closes the canon, and treats of the last things till the final consummation, should have been written last.

Nevertheless, the internal evidence of the Apocalypse itself, and a comparison with the fourth Gospel, favor an earlier date, before the destruction of Jerusalem, and during the interregnum which followed the death of Nero (68), when the beast, that is the Roman empire, was wounded, but was soon to be revived (by the accession of Vespasian). If there is some foundation for the early tradition of the intended oil-martyrdom of John at Rome, or at Ephesus, it would naturally point to the Neronian persecution, in which Christians were covered with inflammable material and burned as torches. The unmistakable allusions to imperial persecutions apply much better to Nero than to Domitian. The difference between the Hebrew coloring and fiery vigor of the Apocalypse and the pure Greek and calm repose of the fourth Gospel, to which we have already alluded, are more easily explained if the former was written some twenty years earlier. This view has some slight support in ancient tradition, and has been adopted by the majority of modern critical historians and commentators.

We hold, then, as the most probable view, that John was exiled to Patmos under Nero, wrote the Apocalypse soon after Nero’s death, a.d. 68 or 69, returned to Ephesus, completed his Gospel and Epistles several (perhaps twenty) years later, and fell asleep in peace during the year of Trajan, after a.d. 98.

The faithful record of the historical Christ in the whole fulness of his divine-human person, as the embodiment and source of life eternal to all believers, with the accompanying epistle of practical application, was the last message of the Beloved Disciple at the threshold of the second century, at the golden sunset of the apostolic age. The recollections of his youth, ripened by long experience, transfigured by the Holy Spirit, and radiant with heavenly light of truth and holiness, are the most precious legacy of the last of the apostles to all future generations of the church.

43. Traditions Respecting John.

The memory of John sank deep into the heart of the church, and not a few incidents more or less characteristic and probable have been preserved by the early fathers.

Clement of Alexandria, towards the close of the second century, represents John as a faithful and devoted pastor when, in his old age, on a tour of visitation, he lovingly pursued one of his former converts who had become a robber, and reclaimed him to the church.

Irenaeus bears testimony to his character as “the Son of Thunder” when he relates, as from the lips of Polycarp, that, on meeting in a public bath at Ephesus the Gnostic heretic Cerinthus, who denied the incarnation of our Lord, John refused to remain under the same roof, lest it might fall down. This reminds one of the incident recorded in Luk_9:49, and the apostle’s severe warning in 2Jo_1:10 and 2Jo_1:11. The story exemplifies the possibility of uniting the deepest love of truth with the sternest denunciation of error and moral evil.

Jerome pictures him as the disciple of love, who in his extreme old age was carried to the meeting-place on the arms of his disciples, and repeated again and again the exhortation, “Little children, love one another,” adding: “This is the Lord’s command, and if this alone be done, it is enough.” This, of all the traditions of John, is the most credible and the most useful.

In the Greek church John bears the epithet “the theologian” ('e8'e5'ef'eb'ef́'e3'ef'f2), for teaching most clearly the divinity of Christ ('f4'e7̀'ed 'e8'e5'ef́'f4'e7'f4'e1 'f4'ef'f5͂ 'eb'ef́'e3'ef'f5). He is also called “the virgin” ('f0'e1'f1'e8'e5́'ed'ef'f2), for his chastity and supposed celibacy. Augustin says that the singular chastity of John from his early youth was supposed by some to be the ground of his intimacy with Jesus.

The story of John and the huntsman, related by Cassian, a monk of the fifth century, represents him as gently playing with a partridge in his hand, and saying to a huntsman, who was surprised at it: “Let not this brief and slight relaxation of my mind offend thee, without which the spirit would flag from over-exertion and not be able to respond to the call of duty when need required.” Childlike simplicity and playfulness are often combined with true greatness of mind.

Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, at the close of the second century, relates (according to Eusebius) that John introduced in Asia Minor the Jewish practice of observing Easter on the 14th of Nisan, irrespective of Sunday. This fact entered largely into the paschal controversies of the second century, and into the modern controversy about the genuineness of the Gospel of John.

The same Polycrates of Ephesus describes John as wearing the plate, or diadem of the Jewish high-priest (Exo_28:36, Exo_28:37; Exo_39:30, Exo_39:31). It is probably a figurative expression of priestly holiness which John attaches to all true believers (Comp. Rev_2:17), but in which he excelled as the patriarch.

From a misunderstanding of the enigmatical word of Jesus, Joh_21:22, arose the legend that John was only asleep in his grave, gently moving the mound as he breathed, and awaiting the final advent of the Lord. According to another form of the legend he died, but was immediately raised and translated to heaven, like Elijah, to return with him as the herald of the second advent of Christ.