As an elderly apostle, John confronted many of the same problems that face God's Church today. What can we learn from his mission and message?
For almost 40 years mankind has lived under the threat of the bomb. To what degree the hideous weapons that man has devised might be used is unknown, but the Bible reveals that mankind will not be completely destroyed. Science fiction writers and others living in this 20th century, however, have wondered what it would be like to be the last person alive on earth. The scenario is familiar — everyone else destroyed, everyone else gone, and you are the last, alone, without hope — the only human left alive, knowing that when your life ended, so would society and civilization. At the end of the first century A.D., a situation comparable to that really occurred. An elderly yet imposing patriarch, having been banished to permanent solitary confinement, sat down at the table in his lonely room and began to write. He paused, looked out the window, and he, too, must have felt very alone. Not only because of his extreme isolation, but because he was the last of a vanishing breed. This elder statesman of the Church of God was an apostle — the apostle John.
The rest of the apostles were gone. The Church had deep problems. Within the scattered and diminishing Church were heresy and apostasy. False doctrines were being taught. From without was persecution from Roman authorities. Although John was physically cut off from all of this, he was deeply aware of the situation and of the legacy of truth that had been entrusted to him. Inspired by God's Holy Spirit, he began to write. And what he wrote more than 1,900 years ago gives us today an insight, not only into history, but also into affairs and events that are soon to happen. Enthusiasm and dynamism marked the apostle John's character. You can't help but feel his strength and energy as you read the words he wrote. Apart from the apostle Paul, John was the most prolific New Testament writer. He wrote five books: the gospel of John, I, II and III John, and Revelation. John was the only surviving apostle at the end of the first century. His age probably matched the year (in the early 90s) in which he wrote. Through his late 20s and early 30s, John had been the close personal friend of Jesus Christ; they were about the same age. And now, around A.D. 90, he could look back to those years when Jesus Christ had been with them, through the perspective of 60 years of experience — 60 years of trials — 60 years of the history of God's Church. And he saw some incredible things.
He saw within those 60 years a gradual erosion of the truth revealed by Jesus Christ. The truth held dear by the early Church and the early apostles had been " changed" and even rejected by former members of the Church. John lived to see an age when some churches even refused to read his letters. (See III John and the example of Diotrephes.) John was truly a spiritual and physical elder to those to whom he wrote and to those whom he served. He called them "my little children," conscious of the unique responsibility that God had given him in his spiritual and physical maturity. John knew that he had to give the Church the truth about the heresies that were rife at that time. The original Church of the early chapters of Acts was composed predominantly of Jews. This required Paul to address particular problems, as evidenced throughout Paul's epistles. But the membership had changed drastically through the first century. By the time John wrote, it is apparent that he was dealing with a primarily gentile church in terms of race and culture . And the gentiles had brought with them different problems: problems of liberalism, problems from pagan cultures, problems of a different nature than those of the Church's original members.
Law equals love
Against the background of these new influences in the Church, it is no coincidence that we find a number of references to the law in John's writing. It is also interesting that we find an almost equal number of references to "love." To some, the words law and love seem to be contradictory. However, John showed that the two were one and the same. "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments" (I John 5:3). The law of God is love. The two words are synonymous.
Where John begins
Often, we can tell a lot about the scope and direction of a piece of writing by analyzing the way it begins. This is true for the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and it is also true for the gospel and first epistle of John, who wrote with a more personal, more intense style than the first three. Notice John 1:1. In John's advanced age, with the wisdom and experience of an apostle, it's interesting to see how he was inspired to begin his gospel. "In the beginning was the Word..." (John 1:1). Now that's an interesting introduction. Why would a man of such depth begin in such an elementary, fundamental way? (We of the present era of God's Church might ask ourselves another question: Why does Pastor General Herbert W. Armstrong go back to the beginning so often?) Notice also how John was inspired to begin his first epistle. "That which was from the beginning ...". Again, he goes back to the trunk of the tree. John is reminding us to understand the foundation one more time, to go back into the Garden of Eden. To go back and reexamine the two trees, to take hold of the trunk of the tree. John, like Mr. Armstrong, found it necessary to remind his listeners and readers that they needed to take a look at the very beginning.
So we know that the apostle John began his writings at the very beginning. But where did he go from there? How did John organize his work? Notice John 20:30-31: "And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life [eternal life] in His name." These verses reveal the inspired organization of the gospel of John. Let us examine briefly the three themes mentioned in these verses. • Signs and miracles. There are seven miracles around which John organized the early chapters of his gospel:
Miracle/Sign Passage in John Changing of water into wine John 2:1-11 Healing of the nobleman's son John 4:46-54 Healing of the impotent man John 5:1-9 Feeding of the 5,000 John 6:1-14 Walking on water John 6:16-21 Healing of the blind man John 9:1-11 Raising of Lazarus John 11:1-44
• Belief in Christ. A second emphasis that John was inspired to include in his gospel is the teaching that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ. The signs and miracles help develop faith in us. As Paul commented in Romans 10:17, "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." • Attaining eternal life. The third emphasis is that of believing we might "have life." The "life" John is referring to is, as Mr. Armstrong has explained, not merely a physiochemical, temporary existence, but eternal life through Jesus' name. The true Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed to John has to do with our opportunity to be born into God's Family.
Then and now
All three of these themes — the power of God shown through signs and miracles, the belief in Christ and the goal of attaining eternal life — are still being taught during this Philadelphia era of God's Church. John was inspired to organize his gospel the way he did in order to teach and lead people who had lost faith, who had lost courage, who had lost a great deal even physically through the persecutions and trials that had come upon the Church.
John was truly a spiritual and physical elder to the Church. He called them "my little children," conscious of his God-given responsibility. John knew he had to give the Church the truth.
Part of that needed encouragement from John came from his recording of seven of the ways in which Jesus Christ showed Himself able to supersede natural laws — to go above and beyond the problems we usually face in our day-to-day lives. We in God's Church today need to understand that Jesus is still the Head of the Church and that we also can experience His help in many wonderful ways (John 10:28). Remember the account in the last chapter of John when Christ, after His resurrection, met with the disciples on the shore? All of the disciples were saying, "It's all over." Discouraged, they said, "Let's go fishing." In their minds, the Work had folded; they were ready to go back to their former careers and vocations. Some of us may have seen this same inclination in this era of God's Work. Christ intervened and once again provided them with a catch of fish after they could catch nothing all night long. (See Luke 5:1-10 for the first account of Christ helping His disciples become real "fishermen.") Christ then cooked breakfast for the tired and hungry men. He built their belief and faith by showing them that He was the same Jesus whom they had seen perform many other miracles through the power of God's Holy Spirit. Jesus had been crucified and resurrected, but He was the same Jesus, with the same power. The seven miracles and signs recorded in the gospel of John are given to help us in a similar way. Studying these powerful, encouraging accounts, we remember the importance of faith and belief in a Christian's life. The word believe appears 98 times in the gospel of John — an average of about four or five times a chapter. The lesson John was trying to communicate is clear: It's important to believe God, it's important to trust Him, it's important to have faith in Him.
The seven "I ams"
Another encouraging pattern in John — also found in a pattern of seven — concerns the ways that Christ identified and described Himself. Christ taught us about seven different aspects of Himself using the words I am. Recall the passage in Exodus 3 where Jesus Christ, the God of the Old Testament, met Moses through the miracle of the burning bush and told him to return to Egypt to lead the nation of Israel. Moses replied: "What do I tell the Israelites when they ask who sent me — a bush that keeps burning?... What do I say? What credibility do I have, how can I announce you, how can I tell them that you told me to come here?" Jesus Christ said: "You tell them — I AM, that I AM has sent you. The one who is self-existent. I am, I have been, I always will be." In the book of John we once again read about the I AM. Notice the seven "I AMs":
I AM... Passage in John The bread of life John 6:35 The light of the world John 8:12, 9:5 The door John 10:7 The good Shepherd John 10:11, 14 The resurrection and the life John 11:25 The way, the truth and the life John 14:6 The true vine John 15:1
A unique vantage point
One of the major problems that John saw overtaking that first-century Church was merely a fulfillment of one of Christ's prophecies. Christ had said in Matthew 24:12 that men's love would grow cold. And men's love in what was probably the third generation of Christians was growing cold. That Church, two generations removed from Jesus Christ, had only heard of Christ's teachings, miracles and ministry. The members were not eyewitnesses, as John had been. (Here, too, is a lesson for us: When Mr. Armstrong talks about the early history of this era, he does so from a unique vantage point.) John was writing to many people who weren't even born when he shared these experiences with Christ. They had lost that love, that dedication and that enthusiasm for God's Church; some had begun to get entangled with the world. Notice again the wording of I John 1:1: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes... ". When John says "we," he is probably referring to himself and the other apostles. But all the other apostles were dead. Perhaps a few remaining in the Church were old enough to remember some of these things that Jesus had taught, but John was an eyewitness. John had actually seen these things happen. He never forgot the impact of Jesus Christ's life. In a similar way, we are able to share some of the early experiences of Mr. Armstrong through what he has said and written about them, especially the many miracles and healings. All these experiences have caused an impact in Mr. Armstrong's mind. That impact has never left Mr. Armstrong. That impact never left John, either. "I've seen Him," John said. "I've heard Him and my hands have even handled the Word of life." Yes, John was the close friend who was leaning on Christ's breast at that last supper, the one who had so deeply felt and shared experiences with the Being who was here on earth in the flesh then and is now our High Priest in heaven.
Sin and forgiveness
Among the important concepts John bequeathed to us involved what we today would call "getting the Church back on track." As already mentioned, John emphasizes that law and love are synonymous, and his concern that we understand this is evidenced when he says in his first epistle, "My little children, these things I write to you, that you may not sin" (I John 2:1). You've got to stop sinning, John said. But notice his approach. John was also a realist. He knew that we are human. He did not condone sin, but he knew that we would sin because, even though converted, too often we succumb to our carnal desires. So continuing in I John 2:1, he says, "And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." What is Christ doing as our High Priest in heaven? He's our advocate — He's our go-between, interceding for us with God. "For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus" (I Tim. 2:5). We know from other biblical references that Satan is coming before God's throne as well, accusing us, bringing up our sins (Rev. 12:10, Job 1:6-12). However, we can ask Jesus Christ to intervene on our behalf as our "defense attorney," as our "propitiation" (I John 2:2). Christ is the propitiation — the expiation. The Greek word refers to an Old Testament word that deals with the mercy seat covering the Ark of the Covenant. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the blood of the sin offering was sprinkled on the mercy seat. The blood was the expiation. The blood was the propitiation. Don't misunderstand. John is not saying you can sin and sin again and Christ is going to continue to be your defense. He won't. But if you make a mistake and are truly repentant, Christ will continue to represent you before God.
John's final exhortation
Let's conclude this glimpse into the life and message of the apostle John with the last verse of his first epistle: "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (I John 5:21). Again, we have a reference to John's age, maturity and wisdom in this final exhortation. As subtle and insidious as the problems, temptations, persecutions and idols of John's age were, this apostle was given the insight to perceive Satan's influences. Satan has constantly been our adversary, our tempter, our foe. He places the glittering, appealing idols before us today, just as he placed them before the first-century Church.
Will we listen?
We know that when John took his pen in hand almost 1,900 years ago, he was writing not only to God's people of his own day, but to true Christians throughout the ages. What will be the result of John's admonishment to this era of God's Church? We are all aware that we are preparing for the world tomorrow and the glorious return of Jesus Christ. What remains to be seen is whether we will heed the message of the apostle — then and now.