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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

John

- John

by Daniel Whedon

JOHN

JOHN THE EVANGELIST.

John was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and was probably born at Bethsaida, (by interpretation Fishville,) at the northern end of Lake Gennesaret. That his parents were respectable in rank, and easy in their pecuniary circumstances, is inferred from the fact that John was acquainted with the high priest, that his father employed hired workmen in his fishery, and that John was able to provide for the mother of Jesus at his own house, probably in Jerusalem. He is indeed called in the Acts of the Apostles unlettered; but that simply signifies that he was not a professional man, that he was neither priest, nor scribe, but an ordinary layman. His father, Zebedee, probably died before John’s apostolate. His mother, Salome, appears to have been a woman of piety, who became attached to Jesus, not without high Messianic hopes, and lived within the circle of the Christian Church after the resurrection of Christ.

The first great point of John’s life was his becoming, we know not by what means, a disciple of the Baptist. The tradition, however, is found in some early writers that Zebedee was an uncle of the Baptist, and therefore the Baptist and the Evangelist were cousins. However this be, this discipleship attests the early religious tendencies of John, and doubtless inspired his heart with an expectation of a Messiah near.

The next great turn of John’s life, and its most important crisis, was his acquaintance with Jesus. To this, indeed, he was led by his discipleship under the Baptist. The deep interest with which at the latest period of his life he remembered his first introduction to Jesus, is shown by the fresh and minute narrative he gives of it in the first chapter of his Gospel. On the banks of the Jordan, afar from his Galilean home, he is standing; and he listens while the Baptist gives his testimony to the MESSIAH, freshly arrived from the scene of temptation, and at once and forever he receives the testimony. He is forthwith accepted by Jesus as his disciple, with a few others, as the rudiments of his future apostolic college. After the miraculous draft of fishes he was especially called to be, not only a disciple, but a teacher, a fisher of men. At the complete inauguration of the college, followed by the sermon on the Mount, John is incorporated into that body. He is repeatedly named as one of the elect three, Peter, James, and John. This James was his elder brother, and it is remarkable that these brothers were the first and last of the apostolic martyrs.

John was distinguished at once by the simplicity of his character and the ardour of his affections. And those affections had a double side: one of deep love for Jesus and his Gospel, and the other of intense antagonism of heart for all opposed to Christ. Hence, while, on the one side, he was the disciple whom Jesus loved, and who leaned upon the Saviour’s bosom, on the other, he would have called down fire upon the Samaritans who rejected Jesus, and was significantly named a “son of thunder.” And thus we see how, in the closing period of his life, he could, within a single brief period, write those Epistles which are redolent with the deepest spirit of love, and yet record the visions of his Apocalypse in language of the most terrible sublimity. Those who say that the author of the Gospel and Epistles could not have been the author of the Apocalypse, are but poor pretenders in the science of human character.

The next great turn in John’s life was his departure for the East to take Apostolic charge of the Churches planted by Paul in Asia Minor. This probably took place soon after the death of Paul, and would bring us to about A.D. 63 or 66. During his residence in Asia Minor he was banished by one of the Roman Emperors to Patmos, an island in the AEgean sea. Here he wrote the Apocalypse; according to Irenaeus, under the reign of the Emperor Domitian. A narrative is given by Tertullian, that John was cast into a vessel of boiling oil, and delivered from death therefrom by a miracle before he was banished to Patmos. But as this sort of capital punishment was never practised by the Romans, scholars generally reject the story. According to Polycrates, the successor of John as Bishop of Ephesus, John died a martyr to the faith. His life extended to the close of the first century of the Christian era. According to Jerome, he was a hundred years old.

Two or three anecdotes are related, which may illustrate the opposite sides of John’s affectional nature.

While at Ephesus, John, learning that the heretic Cerinthus was within the same bathing-house as himself, rushed rapidly out, lest the building should fall upon the head of both. There was a great lesson in this vehement action. The inspired apostle knew that he was standing at the fountain head of Christian truth, whence it was of most momentous importance to our world, that the stream should flow to future ages in perfect purity. To him, the heaven-sent guardian of that truth, no criminal could be, rightly and truly considered, more deeply criminal than the errorist, who would corrupt the fountain and send a stream of fatal falsehood to that great future.

John in one of his apostolic tours found a newly converted young man, whom with deep-loving interest he committed as a precious deposit to the very special charge of the pastor, and departed home. A while after, John revisited that Church, and upon re-demanding the sacred deposit, he was sorrowfully told that the youth had gradually apostatized, and had become a highland robber chieftain. “To what a keeper have I trusted my brother’s soul!” exclaimed the indignant apostle. Mounting horse, he speeds to the hills; and taking means to be captured by the robbers, is brought to their chief. With words of exquisite pathos he melts the outlaw’s heart, and leads him from his robber clan back to the fold of Christ. Such was the power of holy love. Finally, the beautiful impression made by this apostle on the memory of the primitive Church is evinced by one delightful tradition given by Jerome. In extreme age, such was his bodily weakness that he was carried by the strong arms of the young men to the religious meetings. When at last he became unable, even there, to preach, he constantly repeated the words, “Little children, love one another.” Such were the opposite sides of John’s heart. For antichrist in all its forms he had a holy opposition; for the image of Jesus, wherever seen, a bottomless depth of love.

AUTHENTICITY OF JOHN’S GOSPEL.

The authenticity of John’s Gospel was never questioned (save by the ancient but short-lived and insignificant sect of Alogi) until the last century. And even since, no sceptic has ever denied its existence, as John’s Gospel, in the second half of the century after John’s death. The only doubt or debate, therefore, covers the first half of that century, and the proofs within that period are abundant.

1 . John’s conspicuous position in the powerful Church of the great city of Ephesus, one of the SEVEN CHURCHES addressed by his Apocalypse, renders the successful forging of a Gospel under his name soon after his death incredible. 2. Justin Martyr, whose life, in a region not far from Ephesus, covers that first half-century, testifies that the Gospels were read as Scripture in all Christian Churches from Sabbath to Sabbath; and one of these Gospels by him included was John’s Gospel. Now it is impossible that John’s own Seven Churches could have been so deceived as to have unanimously so received and read a Gospel forged in the name of their own great apostle. 3. The bishops of each of those Churches, as the earliest ecclesiastical writers abundantly testify, could be enumerated by name in ascending line up to John’s own day; when the first one was, in some cases, by him ordained. These, together with their Churches, verified the apostolic books; which were thereupon deposited in their archives, and publicly read as inspired Scripture in their Sabbath service. Through these lines of pastoral succession the great writers and doctors of the Church, at the close of that century, appealed to the authentic copies of the apostolic documents sacredly preserved in the leading apostolic Churches. It was in this way, in this first primitive apostolic age, that the NEW TESTAMENT CANON was formed; and not by any late decree of popes or councils. And in this way the authenticity of the Gospels, and most, if not all, the Epistles, has ever stood above all rational question. 4. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, one of John’s “Seven Churches,” himself a hearer and disciple of John, and probably by John ordained bishop, in his brief Epistle, still extant, quotes John’s Gospel. 5. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, whose life covers this half century, uses expressions which none but a reader of John’s Gospel would be likely to use. 6. Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, contemporary though the junior of John, quotes his first Epistle, which is the proper appendix to the Gospel, written in a profoundly similar style and spirit, and evidently refers to the Gospel in its very first sentence. 7. Valentinus, as we are informed by the historian Eusebius, accepted all the books of the New Testament; but John’s Gospel was his favorite; and Valentinus was a junior contemporary of John in the same region of country. 8. Heracleon, a pupil of Valentinus, wrote a Commentary on John 9:0. The followers of Valentinus, in the same age, are quoted by Irenaeus (who lived in the next century) as saying, “John, the disciple of the Lord, wishing to describe the origin of all things,… says, In the beginning was the Word,” etc.

These are not all the proofs that this Gospel came from John; but did space allow us to unfold them at length, they would be still more amply conclusive. The authenticity of this Gospel can scarce be honestly questioned.

CHARACTERISTICS OF JOHN’S GOSPEL.

John, unlike the other three Evangelists, records not the common oral Gospel, (see page 5,) but his own personal recollections. And he is very emphatic on this point in several passages; interposing his own personal veracity, as being individually present at the transaction, and not possibly mistaken. He leaves no space or time for the growing of legends, stories, or myths. He was on the spot; he saw; he knows; and you must either impeach or believe him. Hence all maintainers of the so-called mythical or legendary theories of the origin of the Gospels are obliged, with no creditable success, to invalidate John.

John purposes to exhibit Jesus in his transcendent exaltation of character; in the highest, the supreme phase of his nature, as the WORD. Other Evangelists begin with and dwell mostly within the humanity of Jesus, but transiently darting up to the height of his perfect divinity. John depicts the supreme Divinity walking among men, and struggling to make his rays penetrate their darkened understandings. It is Deity reigning in, and in spite of, its humiliations. It was nearly this to which Clement of Alexandria alluded when he said: “John, last of all, perceiving that the more corporeal truths were revealed in the [previous] Gospels, being persuaded by his acquaintances, and divinely influenced by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.”

From his own sensitive and elevated temperament, from the Grecian culture in the midst of which he wrote, and from the transcendent aspect of the Lord’s nature which it was his mission to present, John omits many of the simpler and more humiliating points of our Lord’s earthly condition. He omits all detail of his birth and childhood; and commences with his pre-existence as the eternal Word. He furnishes no human genealogy. Though he fully asserts the existence both of Satan and demoniacs, he omits the temptation; and gives not a single instance of the casting out of demons, a sort of miracle, mostly confined, doubtless, both in fact and in notoriety, to the period and country of our Lord’s birth and life. He does not, like the other Evangelists, dwell on the immense profusion of the Lord’s miracles, but selects the sacred number seven; * each one of which either contains a symbolical import, or serves as a text upon which a high discourse of the Lord is suspended, or both. Although our Lord’s discourses in this Gospel are richly suffused with the symbolical spirit upon which the parable is founded, yet he gives not a single instance of the simple parable itself. Hence, too, he dwells slightly on the more corporeal and Jewish form of the “kingdom of God,” and the personal advent of the bodily Son of man to judgment. He omits the Passover form of the last supper; and passing over the humiliation of Gethsemane, takes care to show that our Lord’s submission to death was imperial and voluntary. It is obvious that in all this John contradicts not the revelations of the previous Evangelists, but enlarges them with rich expansions. Yet all these expansions are expressed in brief by the previous Evangelists; and, earlier than most of the Gospels, St. Paul, with a fulness that the assailants of John are anxious to forget, expresses in his own style expansions as transcendent as John himself. So that John’s enlargements are no later growth of Christian doctrines. It is also obvious that John writes not so much “a brief biography of Jesus,” as a doctrinal narrative describing and illustrating his divinity in humanity.

[* 1, Water made wine; 2, Nobleman’s son healed; 3, Impotent man restored, 4, Feeding the five thousand; 5, Walking on the sea; 6, Giving sight to the blind; 7, Raising of Lazarus.] The style and spirit of John’s writings possess peculiarities differencing them from any other specimens in all literature, sacred or profane. There is a sameness which pervades his Gospel, Epistles, and Apocalypse, yet a difference in each from the other. The most remarkable phenomenon in his Gospel is, that whether Jesus, the Baptist, or our John himself is speaker, the style is remarkably the same. Hence, it has been boldly inferred that John is the real and sole author of the discourses he puts in the mouth of both. There is also a round of terms, most of which occur indeed in the other Scriptures, but are of very emphatic and frequent use in his Gospel. Such terms are, light, life, testimony, glorify, only-begotten. The solution of these facts may appear from the following considerations.

The character and style of the Lord Jesus himself were, as we may say, many-sided. He had many different styles and strains of discourse. With one of these styles of thought and spirit the spirit of John was deeply in unison. Discourses of that strain were so congenial to his temperament as to fill his heart, and indelibly impress his memory; to model his mind, and to form his vocabulary and style. That class of discourses he selects for his Gospel. So in a far lower degree we have often seen some eminent preacher stamp his own style upon a whole train of pupils. But never was this impression so powerfully imparted as in this supreme instance. The impress of the Lord’s style of discourse reigns through all that John in his Gospel writes. Glimpses, however, of the same spirit appear in the other Gospels. But so entirely is John’s style formed by his Master’s influence, that when he proceeds to give the general substance of the Baptist’s testimony, in a free version, the style is eminently both John-like and Jesus-like. That style appears in all its deepest intensity in the discourses of Jesus; and yet we are obliged to believe that of those divine discourses the pen of John vainly struggles to give the full, deep, continuous flow. They are but spirited indications of what the Lord really and fully discoursed; giving us conceptions that they shadowed truths higher than we can fully conceive. But from these discourses, as sources, the same spirit breathes through the whole Gospel; mostly in the Baptist’s testimony; less in John’s own narrative style; and least of all in the dialogue, where it sometimes nearly disappears. The dialogues are eminently dramatic, natural, and strikingly characteristic of the particular speakers. The conclusion is, not that John makes Jesus talk in his own style, but that Jesus has breathed a style into the entirety of John.