By Weldon E. Warnock
A gardener asked a piece of fragrant clay in his garden, “How come you have such sweet aroma?” Answered the clay, “Because they placed me near a rose.”
Constant association with the Rose of Sharon transformed John from a quick-tempered youth to a man of gentleness. His ambitions decreased. His intolerance subsided. Under the training of Jesus, the fiery youth became a warm-hearted man.(1)
John’s Early Life
During the personal ministry of Jesus, John is pictured as a selfish, over-ambitious, hotheaded, intolerant sort of person. His early character is depicted in Luke 9:46-56. We observe three things:
1. His selfish ambition. Verse 46 states, “Then there arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be the greatest.” Although the account describes the apostles in general, such attitude toward greatness was especially true of John and his brother James. Later, James and John ask Jesus, “Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory” (Mk. 10:37).
Matthew records (20:20-24) that James and John even involve their mother in their conspiracy to occupy the top positions in the coming kingdom. They envisioned (erroneously, of course) an earthly kingdom with positions of authority and they selfishly sought the number one places. They did not think of their qualifications or sharing with others, but just their own self-interests. This spirit still abides with us today in the church of our Lord.
2. His intolerance. John said to Jesus, “Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us” (9:49; Mk. 9:38-40). John evidently thought that no others than the chosen twelve should be so honored in having the power to cast out devils. John’s jealousy shows through, as his priority, he thought, was being challenged.
This man was not unknown to Jesus as Jesus must have endowed him at sometime with the power to cast out demons, just as He later empowered the seventy disciples to cast out devils (Lk. 10: 17). All of the disciples of Jesus, including Jesus Himself, were out preaching the kingdom was at hand and working miracles to confirm their proclamations.
3. His quick temper. When the Samaritans would not provide accommodations for Jesus when he was passing through Samaria from Galilee to Jerusalem, James and John reacted, “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did” (9:54). Jesus, rebuking them, said, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (vv. 55-56).
John’s hair-trigger temper exploded. He wanted to show who is “boss.” He had not yet learned that trading insult for insult will do no good. They had already forgotten Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). John had to learn that, to be a carrier of the gospel of Christ, he had to have a different spirit. How well he learned this lesson.
The Gospels paint John as angry, ambitious and intolerant, while John’s epistles picture him as the epitome of love. John had been transformed by the loving Christ and changed from the son of thunder (Mk. 3:17) to the apostle of love.
The metamorphosis of John was slow. The volcanic, eruptive drives did not change over night into the tender, warm-hearted personality. It took time for him to cultivate the nature of Jesus. He had to do a lot of looking at the Perfect One. As Paul said, “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).
“John’s change of disposition is an encouragement to us. Ornery, selfish, whining youths need not grow up into ornery, selfish, whining adults. Through, the laws. of spiritual growth, green bitter fruit can ripen into something luscious and lovely.”(2)
James Iverach says succinctly of John, “So that vehemence of disposition was held in check, and, while still in existence, was under control, and allowed to have vent only on occasions when it was permissible, and even necessary. So in his writings, and in the reflections of the Gospel, we note the vehemence displayed, but now directed only against those who refused to believe in, and to acknowledge Jesus . . . . But love itself has its side of vehemence, and the intensity of love toward a person or a cause may be measured by the intensity of aversion and of hatred toward their contradictories.”(3)
Love does not mean, therefore, timidity, compromise and softness, but a temperament that is under the control of Christ, always manifesting His spirit toward God the Father on the one hand and Satan and his evil forces on the other.
John’s Display of Love
There are three areas wherein we see John’s love displayed or shown. They are:
1. His love for God and the Lord Jesus Christ. After Jesus’ betrayal, it was John who followed Jesus into the courtyard (Jn. 18:15-16) and entered into the courtroom of the high priest’s palace, while Peter was denying that he was a disciple of Jesus.
The only apostle that is spoken of as being present at the crucifixion of Jesus is John. Jesus looked down at him and said, “Behold thy mother,” and “from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home” (Jn. 19:27). After Jesus’ resurrection, John was the first apostle to the empty tomb, outrunning Peter (Jn. 20:4).
Later, after the church was established, when John and Peter were threatened by the Jewish officials to not speak or teach in the name of Jesus, both retorted, “Whether it be right. to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
When many of the Samaritans were converted to Christ, it was John and Peter who went down to Samaria to impart the Holy Spirit unto them (Acts 8:14-25), preaching the gospel about Jesus and His love in Samaria and many villages on their return to Jerusalem. The people he once sought to destroy, he is now seeking to save.
John served the Lord faithfully until he left this world for that eternal home, compelled and constrained by love for his Master. Out of the depth of his heart the aged apostle could say, “We loved him, because he first love us” (1 Jn. 4:19).
2. His love for brethren. Over and over in his first epistle, John writes about love of the brethren. He states, (a) The message they had heard from the beginning was to love one another (3:11). (b) Love of the brethren was an assurance of having passed from death to life (3:14). (c) Love was to be shown by action and not just by word of mouth (3:18; cf. Jas. 1:26-27). (e) We are to love each other because God is love and God first loved us (4:7, 8, 11). (f) Love for our brethren shows that God dwells in us (4:12, 16). (g) Love will give us boldness in the day of judgment (4:17). He affectionately calls his brethren “little children” and “beloved.”
Those to whom John wrote, especially in his first letter, were troubled with the evil influence of the Gnostic philosophy. Among other evils, the Gnostics had contempt and hatred for their brethren because they considered them unlearned, common and inferior. The “intellects” were those who had embraced Gnostic beliefs and thought of themselves as more knowledgeable and more sophisticated than those who held to the incarnation of Jesus. How wrong they were!
In this connection William Barclay gleans from John’s first epistle the following comments: “The original of Christianity is that we should love one another (3:11). Belief in Christ and love of man must go hand in hand (3:23). Anyone who does not love is spiritually dead and who hates his brother is in effect a murderer (3:14-15). The man who hates his brother, whatever claims he may make, is still in darkness. (2:9-11). The man who claims to love and who at the same time hates his brother is a liar (4:20). To the Gnostics contempt for and hatred of the common man were part and parcel of religion; to John they were the complete negation of Christianity.”(4)
3. His love for the truth. I like what Leslie B. Flynn said about John: “Though John epitomized love, it was love with backbone. True love can be tough, warding off all that would injure the object of its affection. Just as a loving father would -protect his toddling youngster against a vicious dog, so John warned against popular false teaching aimed right at the vitals of his “little children.”
“He did not hesitate to call those whose walk contradicted their talk liars (1 John 1:6; 2:4). He forbade believers to welcome into their homes, or endorse in any way, those who held false views of Christ (2 John 10). He exposed Diotrophes for his dictatorial assumptions and malicious words (3 John 9- 10). John didn’t lose his tendency to thunder, but his denunciation was restrained with humility and charity.”(5)
Indeed, John loved the truth! He rejoiced greatly to hear of the elect lady’s children walking in truth (2 Jn. 4). He was elated that Gaius was walking in truth and that he had no greater joy than to hear that his children walked in truth (3 John 3-4). John hated darkness but loved the light of God’s word.
John affirmed that the love of God is perfected by keeping God’s word, and through the word, we know God (1 Jn. 2:3-5). He knew that no lie (false doctrine) is of the truth (1 Jn. 2:21), and those who abide not in truth hath not God (2 Jn. 9). To John, love meant to walk after the commandments of God (2 Jn. 6).
In the eyes of this great man, things were black and white, good and evil. There were few shades of gray in his perspective. Everyone was either for or against the Lord; either a child of the devil or a child of God; either a child of light or a child of darkness. He never vacillated on truth or made excuses for false teachers, or courted their favor. How the church needs more men like this today.
Yes, John was a man of love. But this was only developed after months of pounding, hammering and shaping on the anvils of God, and months of molding by the patient Savior and Friend of man. John is finally shaped into a character of love, departing this world after a century of having served God with all his heart, soul and mind.
John’s change began taking place when he met the Messiah. It will come for us when we open our hearts and let Jesus come in.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 17, pp. 531-532
September 1, 1983