1. Character Sketch of the Apostle John
As we begin a study of the first letter of St. John, it will be helpful to look at the rest of the New Testament, to get an idea of what kind of man John was. John is second only to Paul as a New Testament author and teacher. He wrote one of the four gospel accounts of Christ’s life – and John’s gospel is unlike the other three, unique in its arrangement of the material and in its style and emphasis. John also wrote his three letters to the churches and a the book we call the Revelation of St. John, a book written in the visionary style of Old Testament prophets like Daniel and Ezekiel. In all, John wrote almost a fifth of the pages of the New Testament.
From the four gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we have more information about John than we do about most of the people of the New Testament. We know that John and his elder brother James were the sons of a man named Zebedee from Capernaum (Mt 4:18-22). The family business was fishing, as it was for most of Capernaum, and James and John were partners in their work with Simon Peter and his brother Andrew. The Zebedee family seems to have been very successful; when James and John left their father in his fishing boat to answer Jesus’s call, Zebedee was left with hired servants to help him out. It is my own interpretation, but it seems likely that the Zebedee family held a certain social status, and that this is why their mother was bold enough to go to Jesus and request a place of honor for her sons.
Even before John had come in contact with Jesus, we know he had begun to seek God, because he was a follower of John the Baptist. It is generally assumed that it was John, along with Peter’s brother Andrew, who was the disciple with John the Baptist, to whom he pointed out Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:40).
John must have been a very young man when he answered the call to follow Jesus, because he continued to write nearly until the end of the first century. One of the first to be called into the band of twelve men that were Jesus’s closest friends and students, John, with his brother James and Simon Peter, formed the small group of three men that were most intimate with the Lord. Jesus gave these three alone special nicknames. Peter he called “Cephas”, or “Rock”, both for the place he would have in the founding of the Church, and also for his indomitable character that is so evident in the gospel narratives. James and John he nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder”. John, at least in his youth, was impetuous, not to say hotheaded on occasion. Mark wrote that John was offended by a man who was not a disciple of Jesus, yet was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, so he put a stop to it ( Mk 9:38). Another time, when the inhabitants of a Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus and his disciples as they traveled toward Jerusalem, John was all for calling down fire to destroy them (Lk 9:54 ).
Yet, it was these three thick-headed fishermen that formed Jesus’ most trusted group of friends, and John most of all. It was only these three that Jesus took into the house with him when he raised the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue (Lk 8:51). Only Peter, James and John accompanied Jesus up onto the mountain to witness his Transfiguration (Mt 17:1). Jesus had times of private teaching with these three men, whose teaching would become so crucial for the establishment of his Church in truth and understanding (Mk 13:3). And it was only Peter, James and John that Jesus took with him to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray at the darkest hour of his earthly ministry (Mt 26:37).
After Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension John was very active in the Church with Peter. John accompanied Peter when they met the lame man on their way to the Temple for the hour of prayer and healed him (Acts 3:1), and he was arrested with Peter because of the uproar that followed the healing, and Peter’s preaching. Luke wrote that people were amazed at the character of these two men; when the people “saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition.” (Acts 4:13-14)
But over and above being a member of that intimate “inner circle”, John had a deep friendship with Jesus that was unique among all the apostles. In his own gospel he refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. At the Passover meal, the last meal Jesus shared with the Twelve, John reclined beside Jesus and leaned back against him, and at Peter’s urging asked him the question all the disciples were afraid to ask, “Lord who is it that will betray you?” (Jn 13:24). And at the foot of the cross, John alone among the apostles remained, and Jesus gave John and Mary his mother into one another’s keeping (Jn 19:26). The deep love that existed between John and the Lord Jesus, or at least so it seems to me, gave to the writer of the fourth gospel and the letters a special insight into the heart and mind of Jesus’s teaching and character, and permeates John’s pastoral letters with the truth of God’s love for us, and with the knowledge that love is at the bottom of all obedience.