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Early Years of Christianity: The Apostolic Era.
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§ I. Life of St. John.516516See Lucke's excellent Introduction to his "Commentary on the Fourth Gospel." Bonn, 1840. See also the Introduction to Tholuck's "Commentary on the same Gospel," and the passages referring to St. John in the works already quoted. We cite also an admirable sketch of St. John in Adolphe Monod's Sermon on "La Parole Vivante." Paris, I858.

AS in the first period of the apostolic age the principal part is enacted by St. Peter, and in the second by St. Paul, so in the third period the paramount influence is that of St. John. His natural disposition and peculiar gifts account for this delay in the exercise of his apostleship. With a soul meditative and mystical, he had neither the impetuous zeal of Peter nor the indefatigable activity of Paul. On him Christianity had wrought most intensively; he had penetrated int6 the deepest meaning of the teaching of Christ; or rather, he had read the very heart of the Master. It was his vocation to preserve the most precious jewels in the treasury of Christ's revelations, and to bring to light the most sacred and sublime mysteries of the Gospel. In order to fulfill this mission, he must needs wait until the Church was ready for such exalted teaching. The first storms of division must subside. Just as the prophet heard the still small voice, which was the voice of God, only after the sound of the tempest and the roaring of the thunder, so the Apostle of supreme love could not speak till a calm had succeeded to the storm stirred up by the polemics of St. Paul. His work was not more important, nor attested with a diviner seal, than that of the great controversialist of the apostolic age; the two are closely connected, and the latter is the natural sequence to the earlier. The revelation of love could not be complete till Judæo-Christianity had finally succumbed, and had carried with it in its fall all the barriers within which it had sought to limit the grace of God. So true is this, that we find St. Paul himself sounding the first notes of the hymn of love, and thus inaugurating the work of St. John. The former sowed in tears, the latter reaped in joy. The one resisted to blood; the other received for the Church the prize of the well-fought fight. This diversity in the missions of the two Apostles is manifested in the diversity of the methods employed by them, in order to establish the truth, of which they are the organs. While St. Paul wields the weapons of warfare in his irresistible and impassioned dialectics, St. John is satisfied with expounding doctrine. He does not dispute; he affirms. It is clear that he has been led into the possession of the truth by a path widely divergent from that of St. Paul—by the path of intuition, of direct vision. His language has the calmness of contemplation. He speaks in short sentences, strikingly simple in form; but that simplicity, like a quiet lake, holds in its depths the reflection of the highest heaven. "He has filled the whole earth with his voice," says St. John Chrysostom, "not by its mighty reverberations, but by the divine grace, which dwelt upon his lips. That which is most admirable is, that this great voice is neither harsh nor violent, but soft and melting as harmonious music."517517Τὸ δὴ θαυμαστὸν ὁτι οὔτω μεγάλη σὖσα ἡ βοὴ, οὐκ ἔστι τραχεῖά τις οὐδὲ ἀηδὴς, ἀλλὰ πάσης μουσικῆς ἀρμονίας ἡδίων. Chrysost., "Proœm. in Homel. in Joh."

It is very far from the truth, however, to regard St. John as the type of feminine gentleness, as he is represented in legend and in painting, which is only another form of legend. The ancient Church had a far worthier conception of him when it gave to John the Evangelist, the symbol of the eagle soaring to the sun, as though to signify that the mightiest and most royal impulse—that which carries farthest and highest—is love. The soul of the Apostle of Ephesus was as vigorous as that of Paul. He was called the Son of Thunder before grace had subdued his natural vehemence; and something of this early ardor always remained with him. In proportion to his love of truth was his hatred of error and heresy. Such love is a consuming fire, and when it sees its object despised or wronged, it is as ardent in its indignation as in its adoration. The truth which St. John loved and served was no mere abstract doctrine; it was to him incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. He was ever the beloved disciple of the Master, the disciple admitted to his most tender and intimate friendship; and the Church has ever pictured him in the attitude in which he is represented in the gospels at the Last Supper, leaning on the bosom of the Lord. It was by the power of love so strong and deep that he was enabled to fulfill his mission of conciliation, and to harmonize all the apparent contradictions of the apostolic age in the rich synthesis of his doctrine. Let us now inquire how he was prepared for this glorious vocation.

John was the son of Zebedee, a fisherman of the Lake of Gennesaret, who dwelt at Bethsaida. Matt. iv, 21; Mark i, 19; Matt. x, 2. It is not proved that he was actually poor, as Chrysostom maintained, for his father had "hired servants;" (Mark i, 20;) his mother was among the women who ministered to Jesus of their substance, (Luke viii, 3,) and John himself had a house of his own. John xix, 27. Be this as it may, however, he was of obscure and humble origin. Possibly, as some commentators have thought, he may have owed his first religious impressions to his mother, who was among the earliest followers of the Saviour. John, as well as Peter, was a disciple of the Forerunner; the preaching of John the Baptist answered to the needs of his heart, which was eagerly waiting for the hope of Israel. We have already narrated, on the occasion of the calling of Peter, the circumstances under which this Apostle and John were led to follow Christ. John i, 37. They did not at once leave all to be his disciples. The Master gave time for their first impressions to deepen before he called them to forsake family and fishing-nets, and to come after him. Matt. iv, 18-22; Mark i, 19, 20; Luke v, 1-11. John appears to have been very young at this time; his grave and thoughtful nature peculiarly fitted him to receive the education which Jesus Christ imparted to his disciples, and which consisted in impressing on them the features of his own likeness.

John, Peter, and James were, as we know, admitted to special intimacy with the Saviour.518518Matt. xvii, 1; xxvi, 37. Lenain de Tillemont ascribes Christ's preference for John to the fact that he had remained unmarried. ("Mémoires," i, p. 330.) Arbitrary criticism can go no further than this. There is no reason to suppose that John had a much clearer comprehension than the other disciples of the doctrine of Christ. He shared their carnal conceptions of the earthly kingdom of Messiah, (Matt. xv, 20-28,) and exhibited sometimes the narrow spirit of the sectary. Luke ix, 49, 50. His invocation of wrath upon the Samaritans displays an alloy of human passion, blended with his affection for the Saviour. Luke ix, 54. But this affection was so real and true, that it was sure to lead to all the developments of the religious life. He proved his love in a way not to be mistaken at the time of Christ's passion.519519It has been justly remarked that while Peter was rather φιλόχριστος or, John was pre-eminently φιλοΙήσους He followed him into the court of the high priest, and even to the foot of the cross. John xix, 26. He is the only one of the Apostles who witnessed the last sufferings of Christ; and possibly for this reason, he was chosen to render the most emphatic testimony to his eternal glory in the bosom of the Father.

We can well imagine what an ineffaceable image of unparalleled love and sorrow would be left on the soul of John by this scene. Who can tell with what feelings he caught those last words of the God-man, spoken almost in his parting agony, which committed to him the mother of his Lord as a sacred legacy. John xix, 27. He was also one of the first to see the risen Christ. John xx, 8. All these memories, and many more connected with them, were to be successively illuminated by the Holy Spirit till they should form in the mind of John a perfect whole. But he was not himself capable, immediately after the Pentecostal effusion of the Spirit, of receiving, in all its fullness, this divine revelation.

During the earlier period of the apostolic age we see John by Peter's side lending him efficient help, but leaving to him the initiative in speech and action. Acts iii, 1; viii, 14, 25. He enjoyed much consideration, but did not exert a preponderating influence; nothing is recorded of his share in the Council at Jerusalem, though he appears to have been present. Gal. ii, 9. At this time he still adhered to the Mosaic law, as did Peter and James—a course of conduct confirmed by the decisions of the conference at Jerusalem.520520"Apostoli Petrus et Jacobus et Johannes religiose agebant circa dispositionem legis quæ est secundum Moysem." Irenæus, "C. Hæres.," iii, 12, edit. Feuardentius. There are no means of ascertaining in what year he left that city; but he was no longer there in the year 60, when Paul made his last visit. Acts xxi, 17, 18. Nicephorus asserts that he remained at Jerusalem until the death of Mary; but this gives us no exact information, inasmuch as the date of that event is entirely unknown.521521Nicephorus, "Histor. Eccles.," ii, 42. There is one whole period of the life of the Apostle of which we possess no details. His supposed journeys to Rome, and into the country of the Parthians, are wholly legendary.522522This is the opinion of Lenain de Tillemont, i, 355. The legend of the preaching of St. John to the Parthians originated in a false reading of the title of the second Epistle, as "Ad Parthos." (August., "Quæst. Evangel.," ii, 37.) See Lücke's "Commentary on the Epistles of John," p. 28. But if we have no precise records of his life during these years, his writings give evidence that the time was not lost in reference to his own development. He learned to contemplate one aspect of the person and doctrine of his Master, which had not presented itself to any of the other Apostles with equal distinctness; this was the profound mysterious fact of His eternal divinity, his pre-existence, and incarnation. If we wonder at these differences in the manner of apprehending Christ among his immediate disciples—differences, however, which are never contradictions, but are distinguished by the predominance of one or another element, in conceptions substantially identical—we must bear in mind the important influence of moral affinity in connection with religious truth. The eye of the soul, like the eye of the body, has a wider or narrower range. "There are," says Origen, "various forms under which the Word reveals himself to his disciples according to the degree of light in each, which is proportioned to the measure of their progress in holiness. If he manifested himself on the Mount of Transfiguration in a form much more sublime than that in which he appeared to those who had remained at the foot of the mountain and could not reach its summit, the reason was, that those who were below had not eyes able to behold the glory and divinity of the transfigured Word."523523Εἰσὶ γὰρ δίαφοροι οἱονεὶ τοῦ λόγου μορφαὶ καθὼς ἑκάστῳ τῶν εἰς ἐπιστήμην ἀγομένων φαίνεται ὁ λάγος ἀναλογον τῇ ἔξει τοῦ εισαγομένου. Origen, "Contra Cels.," iv, I6, edit. Delarue, i, p. 511. St. John was carried by the Spirit of God up to these blessed heights; thus he saw and heard that which others around him saw not nor heard. The higher he rose in faith and love, the more he beheld of the glory and the Godhead of the transfigured Word, and penetrated deeper and deeper into the meaning of the sayings which he had received from the Master's lips, as one by one they became illuminated with heavenly light.

We are free to suppose that the period of his life about which we have no information, was devoted to climbing that spiritual Tabor on the summit of which the only and eternal Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, was to appear to him in all the glory of his divinity. The Apostle, like Mary, pondered in his heart all that he knew of his Master; in the silence of devotion he listened to his living voice, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, discerned more and more of the mystery of his being. St. Augustine says: "While the three other evangelists remained below with the man Jesus, and spoke little of his divinity, John, as though impatient of treading the earth, rose from the very first words of His gospel, not only above the bounds of earth, air, and sky, but above the angels and celestial powers, into the very presence of Him by whom all things were made. Not in vain do the gospels tell us that he leaned on the bosom of the Saviour at the Passover feast. He drank in secret at that divine spring: "De illo pectore in secreto bibebat."524524August., "Tractat. 36 in Johann." All the life of St. John, during the period when scarcely a trace of him is to be found in the apostolic Church, is summed up in these words.

It is certain that in this interval the Apostle must have come in contact with the philosophic culture so widely diffused at the time among the Jewish synagogues. The comparative correctness of his language is itself a proof that this was the case; it is also beyond question that he borrowed from the modified and infinitely diversified Platonism of his age the expression "the Word," which is evidently of Greek origin. Divine truth can speak in all tongues—in the polished tongue of the learned as well as in the simple and rude idiom of the common people; but through whatever medium conveyed, its substance is still "the things which it hath not entered into the heart of man to conceive."

The time was to come when the Apostle would emerge from his obscurity, and would in his turn exert a wide and deep influence over the Churches of the first century. According to the testimony of Clement of Alexandria and of Irenæus, St. John, after the death of St. Peter and St. Paul, took up his abode at Ephesus.525525Ἐν Ἐφέσῳ τῆς Ασίας διατρίβων. (Irenæus, "Adv. Hæres.," iii, I, 3.) The existence of another John at Ephesus, called John the Presbyter, has been called in question, though he appears to have played an important part in primitive tradition. This doubt has arisen from the silence of Polycrates (Eusebius, "Hist. Eccles.," iii, 31) and of Irenæus, (" Adv. Hæres.," v, 33,) who make no mention of him. The testimony of Jerome is also appealed to, who asserts that the two tombs, which, according to tradition, were sacred to the memory of John the Apostle and John the Presbyter, were both really consecrated to the Apostle John. "Nonnulli putant duas memorias ejusdem Johannis evangelistæ esse." St. Jerome, "Catal. Script. Eccl.," 9. The evidence of Papias, however, seems to us conclusive in favor of the existence of John the Elder. "I inquired," he says, "what had been said by the Elders—Thomas, James, Peter, or John—and what say the other disciples of the Lord, (ἤ τις ἕτερος τῶν τοῦ Κυρίου μαθήτων,) as Ariston and John the Presbyter." Eusebius, iii, 39. Clearly Papias distinguishes John the Apostle from John the Presbyter. Nothing can be ascertained about the latter beyond the fact that he lived. See Lücke, "Comment. in Johann.," i, 25-31. No city could have been better chosen as a center from which to watch over the Churches, and follow closely the progress of heresy. At Ephesus the Apostle was in the center of Paul's mission-field in Asia Minor, and not far from Greece. Christianity had achieved splendid conquests in the flourishing cities of that country; but it had also encountered dangerous enemies. It was there that false Gnosticism first of all showed itself, and perpetually sought new adherents. The Apostle Paul had spoken before his death of its rapid progress. In his Second Epistle to Timothy he seems himself to point out Ephesus as the city most threatened with heresy, where, consequently, the presence of an apostle would be especially needed. St. John made this city his settled abode, without, however, devoting himself exclusively to the important Church there founded. Ephesus was the center of his apostolic activity, but that activity extended over a wide area. Clement of Alexandria tells us how the Apostle visited the Churches, presiding at the election of the bishops, and restoring order where it had been disturbed. To one of these journeys of apostolic visitation belongs the striking incident recounted by the same author, This incident helps us more than many explanations to understand why John was the disciple whom Jesus loved.

"Arrived in a town not far from Ephesus, after having comforted and exhorted the brethren, he observed a young man, tall of stature, of a noble countenance and ardent spirit. Addressing himself to the Bishop, John said: "I commit that young man to thy charge, and call the Church and Jesus Christ to witness that I do so." The Elder at first conscientiously fulfilled his task; he received the young man into his house, instructed him, and at length administered baptism to him. The young man allowed himself to be drawn away into immorality, then into theft. He was obliged to flee from the town, and became the chief of a band of brigands. A short time after," adds Clement, "John had again occasion to visit that Church. After fulfilling his mission, he turned to the Bishop, and said, 'Restore to me the trust which I and the Lord committed to thee before the Church over which thou art overseer.' The Bishop did not at once understand to what the Apostle referred. 'I ask,' said John, 'for the young man whose soul I intrusted to thee.'526526Ἀγε δὲ την πὰρακαταθήκην ἀπόδος ἡμῖν, ἤν ἐγώ τε καὶ ὁ σωτήρ σοι παρακατεθέμεθα ἐπί τῆς εκκλεσίας ἦς προκαθέζη μάρτυρος. 'He is dead,' exclaimed the Elder, with many sighs and tears.' How dead?' asked the Apostle. 'Dead to God; he fell away and was forced to flee for his crimes; he is now a brigand among our mountains, instead of a member of our Church.' Hearing these words, the Apostle rent his clothes and smote on his head, crying: 'What a guardian have I left over the soul of my brother!' He quitted the Church, made his way to the mountains, and gave himself up to the robbers.

"The young man recognized the Apostle, and was about to make his escape. John, forgetting his old age, ran after him, exclaiming: 'My son, why dost thou flee from thy father? I am feeble and far advanced in years; have pity on me, my son; fear not. There is yet hope of salvation for thee. I will stand for thee before the Lord Christ. If need be, I will gladly die for thee, as he died for us. Stop, stop, believe, it is Christ who has sent me.'527527Τί με φεύγεις, τέκνον, τὸν σαυτοῦ πατέρα, τὸν γὺμνον, τὸν γέροντα; ἐλέησόν με, τέκνον, μὴ φοβου· ἔχεις ἔτι ζωὴς ελπίδα, ἐγὼ Χριστῷ δώσω λογόν ὑπὲρ σοῦ· ἄν δέῃ, τὸν σον θὰνατον ἐκὼν ὑπομενω, ὼς, ὁ Κύριος τὸν ὑπὲρ ἡμων· ὑπὲρ σοῦ τὴν ψυχὴν, ἀντιδὼσω τὴν ἑμήν. Στήθι πιστεύων. Χριστός με ἀπέστειλεν. The young man listened, with his eyes cast down to the earth; then flung away his weapons and burst into tears. Throwing his arms around the aged saint, he implored his pardon with a flood of tears which were to him as a second baptism. The Apostle raised him up; he prayed and fasted with him; he completely subdued him by his words, and did not leave him till he had restored him to the Church, a great example of penitence, and a living trophy of Christian love." Never since the time of Christ has the parable of the lost sheep received so perfect an application.528528Clement of Alexandria: Τὶς ὁ σωζομενὸς πλοῦσιος, 39; Eusebius, "Hist. Eccles.," iii, 42.

It has been asserted that by his example and practice at Ephesus, John confirmed the principles of Judæo-Christianity, and adopted them in the government of the Churches.529529Schwegler, "Nachapost. Zeit.," i, 145; ii, 249. Such a supposition is altogether inadmissible, if we accept his gospel and epistles as authentic. Importance has been attached to the singular assertion of Polycrates that John was invested with pontifical attributes; the error here is in giving a severely literal sense to a figurative expression.530530Ἐτι δὲ καὶ Ἰωάννης ὁ ἐπί τὸ στῆθος τοῦ Κυρίου ἀναπέσων ὅς ἐγενήθη ἱερεῦς τὸ πεταλον πεφορηκως καὶ μάρτυς καὶ διδασκαλος. Eusebius, "Hist. Eccles.," iii, 31. A very little reflection removes all dubiousness from this passage. If John had been a Judaizing Christian, how could he have assumed the insignia of the high priest's office in opposition to the most positive prescriptions of the law. It is evident that this expression, which is certainly singular, cannot be taken in a literal sense, but that it relates to the government of the Churches by St. John during this entire period. St. Jerome, who falls into the error of taking literally the expression of Polycrates, sets aside the idea of a Jewish priesthood: "Qui supra pectus Domini recubuit et pontifex ejus fuit." "De Script. Eccles.," 45. It is evident from his writings, and also from his immediate disciples, that John continued to guide the Church along the way opened by Paul, and raised it even to a greater height above the specialties of Judaism. We shall also observe, in speaking of the ecclesiastical constitution at the close of the first century, that there is no foundation for ascribing to him the episcopal organization, properly so called.

It is not possible to determine accurately at what date St. John suffered for the Gospel. The "Fathers" differ as to the time of his banishment to Patmos We are inclined to place it shortly after the death of St. Peter and St. Paul.531531Lücke even asserts that it is not proved that John was directly the subject of persecution. The passage, Rev. i, 9, "I was in the isle which is called Patmos for the word of God " (διὰ τὸυ λόγου τοῦ Θεοῦ) may, he says, refer-to a simple mission for preaching. Lücke, "Offenb. Johannes," p. 815. John, however, declares in the same passage that he had a share in the sufferings of those to whom he writes, (συγκοινωνὸς ἐν τῇ θλίψει.) We regard as wholly legendary Tertullian's assertion that under Nero John was thrown into a bath of boiling oil. Tertullian, "De Præscript.," 36. His exile may have been protracted during some years. The Revelation appears to us to have been written long before the gospel. It carries us into a period very little removed from the fearful persecution under Nero, which was the great typal war of Antichrist against Christ. The mode of thought, the form of language, the prominent ideas, the historical allusions, all suggest this date; and, in the absence of any decisive external evidence, we are free to give full weight to the internal.532532See Note L, at the end of the volume.

With reference to the gospel and epistles, tradition is agreed in the date affixed to them. These writings are the slowly-ripened fruit of all the labors of the apostolic age; but, at the same time, like every other good gift, they come down from heaven, and bear the undeniable seal of inspiration. They clearly belong to a period when heresy was rife, and especially those forms of heresy which, denying the corporeal reality of the Saviour's sufferings, contained the first germ of Docetism. John did not, indeed, design his gospel to be a systematic refutation of the errors of Cerinthus, or of any other heretic. He was satisfied with setting forth true Christian Gnosticism in opposition to false oriental or Judaizing Gnosticism; and his gospel is beautifully characterized by Clement of Alexandria as pre-eminently the gospel of the Spirit.533533Eusebius, "Hist. Eccles.," vi, 14. We should do injustice to the fourth gospel were we to regard it as a merely polemical writing, or as only the complement of the synoptics. The latter supposition cannot be reconciled with the admirable unity of composition to be observed in the Gospel of John. It is full of a creative inspiration. The style is altogether unlike that of a mere commentator, who is completing by a gloss a text already given. John epitomises in his gospel the substance of his preaching at Ephesus, and in the other Churches of Asia Minor.534534"Ibid.," iii, 24. According to Jerome, he had no intention at first of preserving his discourses in writing, but agreed to do so at the express request of the Churches.535535Coactus est ab omnibus pene tune Asiæ episcopis et multarum ecclesiarum legationibus de divinitate Salvatoris altius scribere." St. Jerome, "Proœmium in Matt." See Note M, at the end of the volume, on the authenticity of the gospel and epistles.

We have no detailed information of the last years of the Apostle. Two incidents have come down to us which agree perfectly with what we know of him. Irenæus relates, that going one day into the public baths at Ephesus, and hearing that Cerinthus was also there, he immediately went out, exclaiming, that he feared the house might fall, because of the presence of so great an enemy of the truth.536536Eusebius, "Hist. Eccles.," iv, 14. Epiphanius substitutes Ebion for Cerinthus without giving any reason. "Hæres.," 30. St. Jerome tells us how the aged Apostle, no longer able to preach at any length, would be carried into the assemblies of the Christians to speak the simple words, "Little children, love one another." To his brethren and disciples, who asked him why he thus repeated himself, he replied, "It is the Lord's commandment, and when it is fulfilled nothing is wanting."537537Hieronym., "Comment. in Galatos," c. vi. This hatred of error, and this holy love, give us the perfect portraiture of John. It does not appear that he died a violent death. He fell asleep in Christ at a very advanced age, at the commencement of the reign of Trajan.

St. Augustine tells us, that in his time there was a very current belief that the Apostle was not dead, but was only sleeping in his grave.538538Augustini, "Tractatus 124 in Johann.;" Lemain de Tillemont, i, 37I. Evidently, this impression arose from a wrong interpretation of the words of Christ, spoken to Peter with reference to John: " If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" John xxi, 22. Perhaps, also, the Christians may have found it hard to believe that the Apostle whose influence was still so great, had really passed from the world. They were not altogether wrong. As Lücke has said, he lives, and will ever live, by his writings,539539Lücke, work quoted, p. 40. In the "Acta Apocrypha" (Tischendorf edit., p. 276) it is said that a spring of living water gushed from the tomb of John. and the future belongs to him even more than the past.


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