The last installment in my Lenten series...a blessed Good Friday to all.
March 25, 2007
This week we finish looking at just a few of the faces around the cross. We’ve looked now at four people who played roles in that day. First we saw Pontius Pilate, who judged Jesus worthy of death and sent Him off to be crucified; then we looked at Peter, who denied Jesus despite being a follower for the three years leading up to the crucifixion. Last week, we examined an interesting minor character in the story: Simon of Cyrene, the man who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross the last part of the walk to Golgotha. And now we finish with the disciple John, the only disciple actually present with Jesus when He was dying on the cross.
John was the only one there. Not Peter. Not Matthew. Not Andrew. Only John. How did John overcome the natural fear that a person would have under these circumstances to stay at the side of Jesus even as He dies on the cross—and what does that say to us?
As we piece together the story from the gospels, I want to suggest three reasons why John did what he did in staying with Jesus right to death.
- John stayed because He’d experienced Jesus as the one who can really change a life.
- John stayed because He was compelled by love.
- John stayed because He was appointed by God to be a witness to the crucified Jesus.
Let’s start with this admission: most people think of John as a kind of a creampuff. A really nice guy, gentle and meek and all that. That’s not really accurate. John started out as a mean-tempered nationalistic Jewish zealot.
Go to Mark 3:17. In Mark’s list of apostles, we have a curious note:
James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder)…
Sons of thunder? I thought they were the sons of Zebedee. Jesus gave them a nickname: “sons of thunder.” (If it were today, it’d be something like, “the thunder boys.”) Why did Jesus give them a name like that?
Well, I don’t think it was because they meek little lambs. You don’t call the guys with the sweetest disposition in the room The Thunder Boys. That’s a name you give to guys who tend to shoot first and ask questions later.
Is there any evidence of this? You bet. Check out Luke 9:51-56:
51As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" 55But Jesus turned and rebuked them, 56and they went to another village.
Well, isn’t that just sweet! “They weren’t nice Jesus. Can we blow em up? Please?” It was especially easy for them because they were Samaritans. Any good Jew knew that there is no such thing as a good Samaritan! Surely it’s God’s will to fry half-breed Samaritans who aren’t nice to the Messiah!
This may have been the worst behavior on the part of the Thunder Boys, but it wasn’t the only time they acted up. They were jealous of the behavior of others. They let their ambitious mom try to talk Jesus into making her boys number 2 and 3 in the kingdom of the Messiah. Yes, Jesus named them well!
But on the other hand, in spite of his weaknesses, John was dependable, prompt and courageous, faithful and devoted. He was one of three closest to Jesus. He wasn’t a cartoon: he was a real man. He had both good and not so good traits. Many of us have struggled with some of the same spiritual immaturities that John struggled with. John in his spiritual immaturity had to face up to his spiritual pride and self-centeredness. And gradually, more of the thunder side of John drops away. It’s like Jesus was chiseling away at the worse parts of him to reveal the man God always knew John could be.
Ephesians 2:10 says,
For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Jesus had something special in mind for John from the very beginning. And Jesus has something special in mind for you as well. God wants to work in your life your whole life making you more and more like His Son in our character and especially in our love of God and love of people.
“People can’t change.” That’s an idea we Jesus-followers reject. Our whole faith is centered on the idea of redemption by the power of God expressed through the cross of Jesus and applied by the Holy Spirit. We believe people change.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 says,
9Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
(Sounds pretty bad so far, doesn’t it? But listen to this:)
That is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
The church is full of “formers.” Former sex addicts, former homosexuals (yes, I said that and meant it!), former criminals, former drunks, you name it. John was a former hothead, a former bigot (remember, he wanted to nuke the Samaritans), and a former egomaniac.
But God put him in the gem polisher and tumbled him around and wore off his rough edges so much that within a few years he’s a very different person.
Many years later, John wrote his version of the story of Jesus. He may well have been an old man by then. And he faced a dilemma: how do you modestly write a story in which you have a major part without making yourself look like a hero? His solution was ingenious. He never refers to himself by name. The only person named John in the gospel of John is John the Baptist, not John the apostle.
Instead, John refers to Himself as “the disciple that Jesus loved.” John’s identity changed from Thunder Boy to Loved-by-Jesus. Love transforms. Love changes people. John was changed.
That leads to the second reason why John stayed with Jesus even at the cross:
John stayed because He was compelled by love
One of the reasons we think of John as such a “softie” is the great emphasis on love that we find in his gospel and in the three letters that bear his name (1, 2 and 3 John). But now we see that John could be fierce. Under Jesus’ influence, he turns that into fierce loyalty. He has a love that will no be turned away.
Peter had said that even if everyone else turned away from Jesus, he wouldn’t. As we saw two weeks ago, that wasn’t a promise he could deliver on. He bailed out. Why did Peter and nine other disciples run? They were afraid. They had a reasonable fear that if they were coming for Jesus, they may come for them too.
Was John fearless? No, I’m sure he was afraid as well. Like a soldier in battle, he went ahead not because he was fearless but in spite of the fear. I’m not a veteran, I don’t know what it’s like to be under fire, but I’ve been told that you do what you have to do for your “buddy.” Love of that friend is what keeps you going.
If you go back to the meaning of “love” in Hebrew, you find a surprise. The Hebrew word ‘ahab means a bond or an alliance. It is a promise to come to your aid, no matter what. That’s what real love is: a promise to be there, no matter what.
Jesus had come alongside John and extended to him that kind of love. John had seen Jesus extend this same “no matter what, I’ll be there” kind of love to so many people: a woman caught in adultery, blind beggars, a crazed, demonized man, Mary, Martha and Lazarus; crippled people, and on and on and on. He put away his thundering and learned to love.
Is it possible to learn to love? How else can we love, expect by learning. We become what we observe and what we value. In Psalm 135:18 says about idols, “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” You actually become like whatever or whoever you worship and trust.
If you trust in and worship sex, you become an animal. If you trust in and worship money, you become a consumer. If you trust in and worship power, you become an egomaniac. And if you trust in and worship Jesus Christ, you become like Him: a real Christian: a “Christ-like one.” John trusted and worshipped and loved Jesus and became like Him.
Now the third and last reason why John stayed with Jesus to the end:
John stayed because He was appointed by God to be a witness to the crucified Jesus.
Appointed by God! Let me explain.
I mentioned two weeks ago that John actually knew the High Priest, probably from business dealings. That’s how he got entrance to the room where Jesus was questioned right after his arrest. With that place established, it was far easier for John to stay nearby through Jesus’ trials right through to His crucifixion.
In John 19:25-37, John tells us about what it was like to be there when Jesus was dying on the cross. Start with vs. 25-27:
25Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," 27and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
Do you think John was appointed to be there to take care of Mary? I think so.
Go on to vs. 28-30:
28Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." 29A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. 30When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
None of the other disciples were there to hear these words, “It is finished.” Jesus wasn’t saying that He was finished: He was saying that the task the Father had sent Him into the world for, to pay the price for human sin, was accomplished. Do you think that John was appointed by God to hear these words of triumph? I sure do.
Go on to vs. 31-37:
31Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.
Pay attention now: John wants us to pay special attention:
35The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: "Not one of his bones will be broken,"37and, as another scripture says, "They will look on the one they have pierced."
John wants us to see some special here: blood and water flowed from Jesus’ side when His dead body was pierced by the spear. There are several possible medical reasons why a wound like this would produce a flow of blood and water. That’s only a small part of what got John’s attention. It must have been a scary sight that later struck John as full of meaning. First there’s the blood, the blood sacrifice of the Son of God, God’s own and final Passover Lamb. But after the blood comes water: the water of cleansing, the water of the Spirit, the water of a new beginning symbolized in baptism. John was appointed by God to be a witness of this post-mortem demonstration of Jesus’ mission: to die for us and to cleanse us.
John was appointed to be a witness of the cross. We also are appointed to be witnesses of the cross of Jesus. That doesn’t mean getting into a time machine and landing on the west side of Jerusalem in 30 AD. It means that we bear the marks of change and love that John bore as well.
We have been appointed to bear witness to the cross in the kind of people we are. We have been appointed to bear witness to the cross by
overcoming immaturity and self-centeredness. We have been appointed to bear witness to the cross allowing the Holy Spirit to fill us with the Love of Jesus.
John the Thunder Boy became John the Apostle of Love. John surrendered his all to Jesus. He became a different man. Jesus does that to people. He can and will do the same for you.