The life of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist and how it exemplifies the life of every Christian seeking to grow in closeness and likeness to Jesus Christ.
The life of John the Apostle is a story not about John. It’s a story about Jesus and how Jesus changed his life. The transition of John from an ordinary fisherman to an Apostle of Love, as it has been written in the gospels, was captured in his closeness to Jesus. Apart from Jesus, there’s no true life, no true joy, no true peace and no true changes happening in our lives. On the feast day of St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist, which we celebrate every 27th of December, it’s worth commemorating the kind of life John led from the perspective of the gospels, so that we can learn the ways in which Jesus touched him and changed his heart forever.
The Calling of John
As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. —Mark 1:19-20
As a young Jewish fisherman, John must have had his eyes set on the sea. He was the son of Zebedee and a brother to James, who had hired men helping them in the boat. It’s also written that they were partners in fishing with Simon (Peter) and Andrew. It might have never crossed his mind that he would see the Man proclaimed by John the Baptist as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29) This Man, the Messiah, whom the world had been waiting for, was finally in their midst and had chosen him as a disciple. As a faithful child of God, who had been waiting all his life, John did not lose the opportunity and left everything he had behind — his father, the net, the boat, the hired men, and the dream of fishing in the sea.
He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); — Mark 3:13-17
As one of the Twelve, John was believed to be the youngest and (perhaps) the most impulsive. “Son of Thunder,” as Jesus named John, would give us an idea about him. That is, being a man who was rash in his decision making, reckless, and lacking in self-control. Yet, none of these qualities prevented Jesus from choosing him. John was chosen before his birth for the building up of the Kingdom of God. From the moment of his calling, he was poised to be a “pillar” of the faith (Galatians 2:9).
The First Who Believed
As one of the few witnesses of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, John had seen some “signs” that other disciples were not privileged to see. The first of these signs was Jesus’ first miracle at Cana in Galilee, where He changed water into wine. When Jesus did this, and revealed his glory, “his disciples believed in him.” (Jn. 2:11) As a young man in a young ministry, this miracle must have planted a seed in the heart of John that would make him follow Jesus even more fervently.
In another exclusive moment with Jesus, John was made a witness of Jesus’ future glory in the Transfiguration. It was a heavenly event that made John, James and Peter say, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” (Mt. 17:4) This was, at the time, the most important miracle in John’s life because it was meant to strengthen his faith and to prepare him for His Master’s passion, crucifixion, and death that were to come.
The Apostle of Love
In the gospels, John is seen approaching Jesus like an ordinary child would approach a father. In Mark 9:38, John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” In Luke 9:54, when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” In Mark 10:35,37, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus, however, did not concede to the rawness of John’s character, but rather He used these as opportunities to teach him an important virtue.
In all of these encounters with Jesus, John was learning how to love. Throughout the three years of his discipleship, he was close enough to Jesus to know love that is beyond understanding. John saw Jesus praying early in the morning and staying up late at night to pray. John must have heard his loud cries and tears as Jesus offered up his prayers and supplications to His heavenly Father. John also saw Jesus feeding the hungry, giving alms to the poor, healing the sick, giving hope to the hopeless, delivering the afflicted, teaching the unlearned, and washing the feet of His own disciples. In all these, John’s heart was being formed and shaped into the very heart of His own Master.
The Powerful Witness
John witnessed the trial of Jesus before the high priest (Jn. 18:15). He also witnessed Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. Standing at the foot of the cross, John received Jesus’ last will: to make Mary as his Mother (Jn. 19:26-27). Representing the disciples and the whole of humanity, John stood for us, taking Mary as our Mother.
John witnessed the empty tomb. He saw the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself (Jn. 20:7-9). Up to that moment, he only knew the words: “He will rise from the dead.” When he saw the empty tomb, he believed.
John witnessed Jesus’ resurrection. “That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”” (Jn. 21:7). Having known and believed Jesus had risen, John was the first to recognize the face of Jesus. John testified to these things and had written them for all of the world to know that his testimony is true.
John writes, “we declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.” (1 John 1:1). The Word of life, the light of the world, the love of God became concrete in the life of John. He knew that it has form, sound, texture, fragrance. He knew that it’s real in the person of Jesus Christ; that God is light and God is love. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13)
The End of John’s Life
John, as it is believed according to tradition, was the only apostle who lived up to his old age. He was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he received a vision that he would later write as the “Revelation.” He was given the gift to see the events from the beginning of time and to the end of time. These visions were written for the sake of strengthening the first followers of Christ who were undergoing a time of great persecution. But it is also to reveal to all Christians of our time, and those who will come after us, the eternal Lordship of Jesus Christ. “I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (Rev. 22:8-9)
John became a powerful witness to Jesus not because of who he was or what extraordinary virtue, influence and intelligence he had. John’s life simply revolved around Jesus. From his youth until his old age, he never left the side of Jesus. He was present during the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and faithfully followed Him until it reached its completion during His crucifixion and His glorious resurrection. It’s a privilege available for every Christian, that is, if we keep the Holy Scriptures and the Traditions of the Church close to our hearts. When we walk closely with Jesus, who we are, what kind of past we had, how many times we may have failed, would not matter too much. As it happened in the life of John, we will sooner or later bear witness to the transformative power that the love of God can accomplish for us.