Don’t Be Rattled; Just Be Loved

A Study of 1st John

The Disciple Whom Jesus Loves: Who Was the Apostle John?

Introduction: In my library, I have a whole wall of bookcases filled with biographies. Many of these are the stories of great Christian leaders through history; others describe the lives of kings or presidents; other books are about celebrities. Sometimes I run across a villain I want to read about. I’ve learned so much through my lifetime by reading the lives of others, and I always discover something about myself whenever I’m reading the life of another person. In many cases, I feel these people are mentoring me.

I have another library—a second library—that is also filled with biographies. Many of them are of great Jewish or Christian leaders; others are kings; some are celebrities. There are villains in this library as well, and I never enter this library without learning something about others and about myself. I can hold this entire collection of books in one hand. It’s my Bible, of course. And the Lord filled it with the true stories of men and women for our benefit. One of our favorite ways of studying the Bible is with character studies—examining the life of some individual whose name is found in God’s Word.

So before we plunge into the little book of 1 John, let’s study the life of its author—John the Disciple; John the brother of James; John, who liked to describe himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

Note that I’m not talking about John the Baptist. There were two prominent men named John in the Gospels—John the Baptist from Judea, who introduced Jesus and was beheaded; and John the Apostle from Galilee, who became our Lord’s disciple and wrote five books of the New Testament—the Gospel of John, the three short epistles I’ve already mentioned, and the book of Revelation. This is the man we want to study so we can better understand why he wrote 1 John. In the process we’ll draw some lessons to help us in navigating our own lives as a disciple of Jesus.

 I’d like to give you a glimpse of the historical John so you can better see him in your imagination.

Let’s start with a short portion of Scripture that absolutely fascinates me. It tells something that happened just after Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Our Lord was taken to the house of the most famous and powerful Jew in all Israel—the high priest, a man named Caiaphas. 


John 18:15-16: Simon Peter and another disciple [that was John’s modest way of referring to himself] were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, spoke to the servant girl on duty there and brought Peter in.

This paragraph is quite astounding when you come to it in your regular reading. John was not simply an uneducated Galilean fisherman; he was personal friends with the high priest of Israel and his family. How could that be?

A Young Person

I’m convinced the Apostle John wrote the book of Revelation. There is some disagreement about the dating of that book, but we can make a strong case for putting it in the last decade of the first century. The New American Commentary says:

The widely accepted date of approximately AD 95, placing Revelation as the last book of the New Testament, still appears to have the better support. The first evidence for this arises from the virtual unanimity of the earliest witnesses. [Dr. R. H.] Charles notes, “The earliest authorities are practically unanimous in assigning the [book of Revelation] to the last years of [Roman Emperor] Domitian….” The preponderance of the evidence favors the date for the composition of the [book of Revelation] to be A.D. 95.

We also know John was an old man who was serving as bishop of Ephesus and the surrounding region. We don’t know how old he was, but it seems reasonable to assume he might have been in his eighties. Let’s say 85, which would be a very advanced age in the first century. He had met Jesus of Nazareth approximately 65 years earlier in about the year AD 30. So that would have made John 20 years old when he began following Jesus. 

That helps us visualize him in the scenes in the Bible.

A Fisherman

We also know John’s occupation: a fisherman on Lake Galilee.

Dr. David Fiensy is the Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Kentucky Christian University, and he has a fascinating book entitled The Archaeology of Daily Life: Ordinary Persons in Late Second Temple Israel. He reported that the fishing industry on Lake Galilee was a huge operation.

Bone evidence also comes from fish remains found both in cities like Jerusalem, Sepphoris, and Caesarea and in towns like En-Gedi. Excavators have extracted from the ruins fish bones in some locations that are not near a lake or ocean. We know that one of the major Galilean export items was fish. The Sea of Galilee contained many varieties of fish edible to both Jews and Gentiles. These fish were pickled or salted and then sold all over Palestine. Many were involved in this trade, from the fisherman—who could be day laborers—to the owners of the fishing boats and the merchants who marketed the fish….

The cities evidently consumed a lot of fish, even though they might be miles from either the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, or the Sea of Galilee….. Many saltwater and freshwater fish were transported miles away from their sources.

Dr. Fiensy points out that excavators at Caesarea have found evidence of a fish kiosk that sold fish to the crowds at the hippodrome just like hotdog stands near a ballpark today.

He also reveals what the excavations at Magdala have uncovered. Magdala is a town just down the shoreline from Capernaum, about six miles south. It was the home of Mary Magdalene. Like Capernaum, it was a fishing village. When I first started leading tours to Israel, we didn’t know where Magdala was. But now the ruins have been uncovered. The Greek name of the town is literally translated as “Place of Processing Fish.”

Dr. Fiensy wrote:

Historians universally agree that the small city lived from the fish industry, both catching the fish and preparing them for shipment to the far reaches of Palestine and beyond. Not only do we have the literary references to the pickled fish of the Sea of Galilee, but we also have in the Magdala ruins two indicators of the importance of fishing: numerous lead weights for holding nets in the water and installations probably used in the salting process. It is possible that excavators have discovered some of the fish vats where the fish were pickled/salted as well as possible aquaria where the live fish were kept until ready to be killed and processed. The pickled fish were well known in antiquity…. Fish bones from the Sea of Galilee turn up even in far-away places like (a tiny village) on the south end of the Dead Sea.

Let me go to another source. In an article by Jerome Murphy-O’Conner in the journal, Bible Review, we read:

The quantity of fresh fish available did not meet the demand [in the first century]. This inevitably pushed up the price…. Our sources complain bitterly at how expensive fresh fish was…. High prices often put fresh fish out of the reach of the poor…. The poor could afford only dried and salted fish, which was the basic food of the lower classes in the cities, slaves, peasants and soldiers in the field.

The Gospels clearly convey the importance of fish in the diet of first-century A.D. Palestinian Jews. Tellingly, the Gospels never mention meat. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asks, “What man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?” The disciples who followed Jesus into the desert carried bread and fish. The references, of course, are to dried or salted fish, which was broiled to make it palatable….

We have a surprisingly good picture of the scale of Simon Peter and Andrew’s fishing operation. They worked in partnership with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who had employees…. The impression that they were men of substance who controlled their own lives is confirmed by the quality of their house at Capernaum. Known as the House of Peter since the fourth century, it is larger than most of the other houses excavated in Capernaum.

But that is not all…. Given the average size of families at the time, it seems very likely that more of the family must have been involved in the fishing business on the Sea of Galilee than just Simon Peter and Andrew, and the family income would have been proportionally greater than that of two men working alone. Against this background of a relatively well-off family, it becomes possible to understand how Simon Peter and Andrew were financially able to drop their work and become, first, disciples of John the Baptist and then disciples of Jesus.

I want to suggest this helps explain the strange passage we read earlier in John 18. Why would a young fisherman from Galilee be well acquainted with the most famous and most powerful man in Israel? My theory is that John was a young, outgoing, friendly, intelligent sales representative for his family’s fishing business. He arranged for the delivery of fish to the rich and famous of Jerusalem, and to the Jerusalem markets. When Jesus was arrested, John knew the employees at the residence of Caiaphas because he was their fishmonger. He had even met Caiaphas.

Why is this important? Well, it simply speaks to John’s personality and intelligence and standing. It simply helps us visualize him a bit better and feel like we know him better. He was at home in both Galilee and Jerusalem, he was entrepreneurial, he must have had a very outgoing personality, and he was a successful businessman even at an early age.

A Disciple

This is the young man the Lord recruited to be among His first disciples. Mark 1:16-20 says:

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow Me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed Him. When He had gone a little farther, He saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed Him.

This wasn’t out of the blue. These young men had already been caught up in the revival that was taking place under John the Baptist. We know that from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. The Lord had been preparing them for this moment. 

It’s a wonderful feeling to sense the Lord Jesus saying, “Come, follow Me.” This week I was at a meeting and listened while a Marine named Brandon Blair gave his testimony. When he saw the twin towers collapse on September 11, 2001, he decided to join the Marine Corps and go to war. He graduated from Parris Island and joined the infantry. As he was boarding the bus at the airport that would take him to his military flight overseas, a fellow with a cane was leaning against the bus and offering Gideon New Testaments to the boys. Brandon took one and put it in his left breast pocket, and there it stayed. He was a machine gunner in a mobile assault platoon. He worked outside the wire in Iraq, outside the base. It was very dangerous. 

Brandon was shot in the chest by an enemy sniper, and as he lay there in the street outside of Fallujah, Iraq, he begged God to spare his life. They took him to the hospital on the base in Fallujah, and there he had never felt so much personal suffering, so sinful, so ashamed of how he had lived, and so much sorrow. There was no one to comfort him. But he remembered that little New Testament and he could reach his cammies, and he pulled that little New Testament and as he read it he heard Jesus say, as it were, “Come and follow Me.”

Brandon ended his testimony by saying, “I’m thankful for the Marine Corps; they gave me a purple heart. But I’m most thankful for the Lord Jesus Christ because He gave me a brand new heart.”

That’s the way Jesus operates, and He says to each of us at a pivotal point in our lives—Come, follow Me.

It seems that John was a person of deep emotions. Jesus gave a nickname to him and his brother, James, calling them, “Sons of Thunder.” On one occasion, he asked Jesus to call down fire on a village that had rejected them. On another, he and his brother James ask to sit with Jesus on the throne when the Kingdom appears. But John matured quickly. 

He, Peter, and John became the inner circle of the disciples who joined the Lord on the Mount of Transfiguration. 

He sat next to the Lord at the Last Supper, stood close enough to the cross for Jesus to entrust His mother to Him, reached the empty tomb before any other disciple, and was the first to believe in the resurrection. He wrote more about love than the other three Gospels combined.

John shows up with Peter at some of the early stories in the book of Acts, then he disappears from the narrative portion of the New Testament. 

A Bishop

But we know from early evidence that at some point, the apostle John ended up in the city of Ephesus and became the head or bishop of the churches in this area. This is the church that Paul established and Acts 19. The cities around Ephesus had been evangelized during this time, so there was a community of churches in this area.

After Peter and Paul were killed in Rome, John apparently took over as the leader or the Bishop of the Church of Ephesus and the surrounding towns. How do we know that? From very early patristic sources. The word patristic is related to the idea of being a patriarch or a father, so when we talk about patristic sources we’re talking about the early church fathers, those who followed the apostles in the chronology of the early church. 

For example, Justin Martyr was born about the time John would have died. He referred to John as one of the Apostles of Christ, an eyewitness of Jesus, who lived at Ephesus.

We also know a lot about one of John’s disciples, a man named Polycarp. He was born shortly after Peter and Paul were executed in Rome. As a young man, he heard the apostle John and was converted to Christ and mentored through the ministries of those who, like John, were eyewitnesses of our Lord and were still alive. 

We have an interesting description of Polycarp’s ministry from an eyewitness named Irenaeus, who wrote to a friend, saying:

When I was a boy, I saw you in lower Asia with Polycarp. I recall the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years.  For the things you learn in childhood grow in the soul and are united with it.

I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he preached and taught, his goings and his comings, the character of his life, his physical appearance, his speeches to the multitudes, and the accounts which he gave of his interactions with John and with the others who had seen the Lord.

I also recall when he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, concerning his miracles and teaching. What Polycarp received then from eyewitnesses of the Word of life, he related in its entirety in harmony with the Scriptures. By the mercy of God, I listened to these things attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart. By the grace of God, I always recall them faithfully.

After the death of John, Polycarp continued in Smyrna until he was martyred probably in his 86th year. So we have this very interesting chain of testimony beginning with the Lord Jesus, who called the apostle John to follow Him; John reached Polycarp, who in turn had an impact on Irenaeus, who died about the year 200. Four men in history who passed the baton of the Gospel one to the other over a period of 200 years—the first 200 years of the history of the church.

A Disciple Whom Jesus Loved

So John was the intelligent, entrepreneurial, outgoing son of the owner of a large fishing business in Galilee. He evidently represented his father’s company in Judea and in Jerusalem, even in the kitchen of the high priest of Israel. When he was about twenty, he became caught up in the revival of John the Baptist, and he was responsive when Jesus of Nazareth came by saying, “Follow Me.” He became in some ways our Lord’s closest friend, the man to whom Jesus entrusted His mother. After the resurrection he served the Lord in Jerusalem, and at some point became the bishop of Ephesus. It was there in his later years that he wrote the three letters at the back of the Bible, along with the Book of Revelation 

But let’s and where we began. John repeatedly described himself as, “The disciple whom Jesus loved.”

  • In John 13, John wrote about the moment Jesus told them that one of the disciples would betray him. Verse 22 says, “His disciples stared at one another at a loss to know which of them He meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one He means.”
  • In John chapter 19, we read, “Near the cross of Jesus stood His mother, His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on this disciple took her into his home” (verses 25-27).
  • Now look at John chapter 20: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
  • In the next chapter, John 21, Jesus appeared to the disciples as they were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Verse seven says, “Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter it is the Lord!”
  • And down in verse 20: “Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them.”

Five times John describes himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He did not say this out of arrogance but out of humility. He didn’t mean that Jesus loved him more than our Lord loved the other disciples. He never described himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved more. He was simply aware, constantly aware, gloriously aware, that Jesus loved him very much. That defined his life.

From the age of 19 or so when Jesus called him to the age of 90 or so when this last surviving apostle passed away and arrived in heaven John was simply aware constantly, aware gloriously, aware that the most important description he could ever ascribe to himself was the disciple whom Jesus loved.

 That description was never trademarked by the apostle John. You can adopt it for yourself. What a difference it would make in our self-perception and in our self-image if we thought of ourselves as the disciple whom Jesus loves. And it’s true. When you follow Jesus you become a disciple whom he loves, and that becomes the defining description of your life. There is none better.