John son of Zebedee
John son of Zebedee (Hebrew: Yochanan ben Zavdai—Greek: Iо̄annēs ton tou Zebedaiou) was born c. AD 6 (3766–3767 in the Hebrew calendar) in the Roman district of Gaulanitis. He was a fisherman from Bethsaida with his brother James alongside Simon Peter and Andrew. They probably all worked in the same fishing company, dealing with various Jewish and gentile customers on the Sea of Galilee shores. When Jesus called all four of these men to rank among his twelve apostles, John and James continued with their ambitious ways. Jesus called them the "sons of thunder" (Greek: Boanerges; G993, from Aramaic ben and regesh; H1123 and H7285) when they tried to gain a position in God's kingdom (Mark 3:17; 10:35-37). John and James were also known for their zeal, especially when calling for divine wrath to incinerate the Samaritan villages which rejected Jesus (Luke 9:54). Conversely, the Hebrew name Yochanan (H3076; "John"), literally means "God has been gracious."
Whom Jesus Loved
John did not refer to himself in the first person when writing his gospel account. Instead, he called himself the "disciple whom Jesus loved" (13:23; 19:26; 21:7; 21:20), choosing the Greek verb agapaō (G25) to emphasize the steadfastness of this close bond. This may be to underscore that John was the only one of the twelve apostles to stay with Jesus during his crucifixion (19:26-27). John also used the verb phileō (G5368) once to suggest a brotherly connection (20:2). Although he may have called himself the "beloved disciple" out of humility and a desire to uplift Jesus, John also so strongly identified with him that he wrote in terms of relationship and not personal ambition. This "son of thunder" increasingly made an impact in God's kingdom, but not in the way he first intended. However, John learned through Jesus that true strength does not come from hierarchies and political power, but from compassion for God and one's neighbor—even if it means death (15:13). Many commentators refer to John as the "apostle of love" because agapē (G26, "steadfast [and] preferential love") is such a major theme in his writings. Out of love and concern for one's salvation, John finished his gospel saying, "This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true" (21:24).
During the Italian Renaissance, the well-known artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) painted his famous work The Last Supper. Despite the fourteen centuries between Jesus and da Vinci, many people either consciously or subconsciously picture The Last Supper when reading John's gospel. This problem leads many readers to misunderstand this particular verse: "One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him" (13:23). The Greek text is a little more intimate when it reads: Ēn anakeimenos heis ek tōn mathētōn autou en tō kolpō tou Iēsou hon ēgapa ho Iēsous. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) does not translate the noun kolpos (G2859), which means "lap," "bosom," or "hollow." In ancient times, when dining tables were low to the ground, each person would recline with their feet turned away. For John to rest in Jesus' bosom, he had to lay his head on his chest between the arms. However, for Jews, this was not a romantic gesture in the slightest, but of loyalty and good faith. This is why they refer to the afterlife as "Abraham's bosom" (cf. Luke 16:23). In context, this was John's acknowledgment that Jesus was succeeding Abraham as the way to God's kingdom. For the same reason, John was the most explicit New Testament writer when it comes to salvation: "Not that I accept such human testimony, but I say these things so that you may be saved" (5:34). Moreover, John did not go out of his way to lean on Jesus as if he was a European sitting on a chair. Rather, he was a Galilean who was resting in the everlasting arms of Israel's long-awaited Messiah.
John the Evangelist
The New Testament includes five texts traditionally ascribed to John son of Zebedee. Modern biblical scholarship features a wide range of opinions as to whether he wrote all of them or any of them for that matter. However, the earliest patristic writers were unanimous in their conviction that John wrote the fourth gospel, but only the first of the three Johannine letters; they debated over the other two and Revelation (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.24.17-18). Each of the four canonical gospels reveals that John was not just one of the twelve apostles, but also one of Jesus' inner circle alongside Peter and Andrew. This means he was a witness to Jesus' entire three-year ministry, even before he called eight other men to join the twelve. John was with Jesus when he agonized over his passion in Gethsemane, although he fell asleep as did Peter and Andrew (Mark 14:37-41). Because John was the only apostle to stay with Jesus during the crucifixion, Jesus charged him to be a caring son to his mother Mary (19:26-27). These experiences made John a key witness to Jesus' life and teaching. In the Acts of the Apostles, John was often ministering with Peter to the Jews and Samaritans throughout the Near East (3:1-4:19). Although Paul of Tarsus only mentioned John once, he acknowledged him as one of the three major "pillars" of early church leadership centered in Jerusalem—the others being James and Peter (Gal. 2:9). His ministry still influences our current faith in this great evangelistic verse, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16).
John most likely spent the last three decades (c. AD 70–100) of his life in the Roman province of Asia, specifically with the Ephesian church. He finished his gospel around 90 and the three eponymous letters sometime between 85–95. John wrote his final work, Revelation, circa 95 during his time as a political prisoner on the island of Patmos, which ended sometime between 96 and 98 under the emperor Nerva (c. 30–98). The evidence for Johannine authorship for each of these texts relates to the location and historical events of Ephesus and other cities of Roman Asia (modern-day Turkey). For example, all seven churches in Revelation were located on the same letter carrier route (Rev. 1:11). The patristic witness from Irenaeus (c. 130–201) confirms John's authorship of Revelation, which was not questioned until the third century by Dionysius of Alexandria (c. 200–265).
Early church tradition indicates that John was not martyred like the other apostles, but died of natural causes. Perhaps, this comes from his narrative: "So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, 'If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?'" (21:23). John lived through the darkest times for the first-century church, and each of his works reflects themes such as persecution, trauma, and endurance. Key events include Nero's violence against the church (54–68), the First Jewish-Roman War (66–73), and Domitian's persecution (81–96). Because John saw the world at its worst, he could say this with the most heartfelt conviction, "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!" (Rev. 22:20b).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, shed upon your church the brightness of your light; that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may walk in the light of your truth, that we may attain to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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