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St. John: The Apostle of Love

December 21, 2020

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.” Revelation 1: 5b-6.

The church remembers St. John, the Apostle next Sunday on December 27th.  John, called the Evangelist, was also known as the “Apostle of Love.”[1]  This nickname is based on two observations.  First, John called himself “the disciple Jesus loved,” (John 21:20). Second, John wrote more about the subject of love than any other New Testament author. 

John stressed Christ’s love of the church, our love of Christ, and loving each other.  He realized that speaking the truth with love prevents us from being too harsh or judgmental with each other.[2]  Because John experienced the love of Christ up close and personal, and heard the commandments from Christ himself to love others, he wrote more often about the importance of love in the Christian church than the other New Testament authors.

 His friends would have been surprised that John was given the moniker “Apostle of Love.”  He didn’t start out as a particularly loving person. John appears to be vengeful (Luke 9:54), judgmental (Mark 9:38), and selfish (Mark 10:35-37) during Jesus’ ministry, but became more loving and compassionate after Pentecost in 32 A.D (Acts 4:13; 1 John, Chapters 3 and 4). 

John was born in the region of Galilee in 6 A.D. and thus was a few years younger than Jesus. John and his older brother James were the sons of Zebedee and Salome. They fished in the Sea of Galilee with their father and were known as the “Sons of Thunder.” The brothers were among the first followers of Jesus.

By his own account, John was very close to Jesus.  Along with Peter and James, John witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the Transfiguration. John was the only disciple who stayed with Jesus when he was crucified and he was the only apostle who was not martyred.

The details of John’s later life are unclear.  At some point, possibly after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, he went to Ephesus in Asia Minor (present day Turkey). With a burst of energy beginning at about age 79, John wrote five books that would be included in the New Testament.  It is believed that he wrote the Gospel of John in about 85-90 AD[3] and his three letters in about 90 A.D. while in Ephesus.  He was in charge of the churches in that area between about 90-95 A.D., particularly the church that Paul established in Ephesus.  John was in his late 80’s when he was exiled to the island of Patmos about 95 A.D., where he received the revelation from God that is the subject of the book of Revelation. Patmos is an island in the Mediterranean Sea off of the western coast of Turkey.  John was about 94 years of age when he died in about 100 A. D.  He was the last man standing of the apostles.  

God used John to reveal himself to the seven churches in Asia Minor and to give them hope that God will ultimately prevail.  God’s revelation to John gives readers a vision of the Risen Lord.[4]  The greeting in John’s revelation is unique in that it refers to the three parts of the Trinity, unlike other New Testament greetings that only name God, the Father, and Christ:  “To the seven churches in the province of AsiaGrace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, . . .”(Excerpts, Revelation 1: 4-6).  The words “him who is, and who was, and who is to come” is a reference to God the Father’s revelation to Moses, as “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14-15).  Bible scholars explain that “the seven spirits” is a symbol for the Spirit of God.[5]  Jesus Christ is specifically named. 

Christ is the protagonist in John’s vision, and is praised in the revelation: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen” (Revelation 1: 5b-6).  That Jesus loves us fiercely was evidenced by his death on the cross.  

The phrase “to him who loves us” is a present participle in Greek, indicating Christ’s continuous, ongoing love for us.[6]  That blows my mind. This seemingly esoteric book of John’s revelation contains a confirmation from God himself that Christ’s love for me and for you is ongoing and that it will never end. 

The introduction to John’s revelation puts God into perspective for us: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8).  God confirms his authority over all of history by identifying himself as the beginning and ending letters of the Greek alphabet. 

The theme of love between God and man and with each other is continued in John’s letter to several Gentile churches and to all believers: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.  The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.  We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1: 1-4).   The “Word of life” refers to Jesus, whom John and the disciples heard, saw, and touched. John is relating what they saw and heard so that we may have fellowship with each other and with Christ. The Greek word koinonia is variously translated in several contexts in the New Testament, but here, the word describes our fellowship with God and with each other—binding us together in love. 

The takeaway from John’s writings is that God’s love, evident through Jesus Christ and expressed in his followers, transforms us so that we are brought together as one in the Spirit. As an eyewitness to Jesus’ divinity, John was qualified to speak the Truth—with a capital T that we can depend on.  John’s shortcomings encourage us when we realize that like us, he was at times angry, judgmental, and selfish. He encourages us to shed our old selves and to move forward together in love and concern for each other. We will never reach perfection, but we can begin the journey to become more Christ-like. 

 If God’s love transformed John into the Apostle of Love, surely, he can do something with you and me.  And while we are saved by Christ’s death on the cross, we need to seek him and put feet on the gospel. Faith is expressed by actively loving and helping others. Fellowship or koinonia with each other is only possible when we have a close relationship with the Risen Christ. Our love for each other is a direct result of our relationship with Christ.  

During the Christmas season we see many images of Santa Claus and his elves working hard in his workshop.  But the message of Christmas is that God loved us so much that he sent his Son to live on earth for a time and to die on a cross for our sins. Jesus was sent to work for us.  And now God is calling you to put your faith to work in a workshop in your neighborhood. 

Will you take the challenge? Will you be a worker in his workshop?  Will you commit to spending time in the Word and with the Risen Lord?  Will you work on showing Christ’s love to others as Christ has shown his love for you?  You might just find that you are given a “second wind” as John was given when he began his writing career at age 79.  

Prayer: Risen Christ, we praise and thank you for being our flesh and blood example of how to live in koinonia with each other—binding together in love and communing with each other and with you as one in the Spirit. Forgive us for forgetting that love is the most important commandment that encompasses all others. Thank you for sending John to us to testify to your love for us and to encourage us in the faith through your inspired and revealed Truth to him.  Keep us ever mindful of the needs of our neighbors so that we may reach out in love to those you put in our paths. Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture readings for St. John Sunday are Revelation.1:1-6 [7-8]; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 21:20-25.

[2] John McArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men: How the Master Shaped His Disciples for Greatness, and What He Wants to Do with You.

[3] Biblical scholars differ as on the dates of John’s writings and other dates regarding his life, but the dates cited in this blog represent the majority opinion.  

[4] The seven churches to whom the revelation is addressed are Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

[5] The seven spirits symbol derives from the 4th chapter of Zechariah containing imagery of seven lamps symbolizing the Spirit. 

[6] Peter S. Williamson, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Revelation, Baker Academic (2015).

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