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How The Son of Thunder Became a Son of God


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Article: 7 Min

An Apostle in Exile

by John MacArthur at Grace to You

Isn’t it exciting when you read a book or watch a movie to find out that the characters in it were real people, not just characters in that story? We want to open the Bible and point you to a character, the Apostle John, tell you a little about his life, and share the exciting news that he was a real guy.

It’s easy to read the Bible while considering “Bible characters” to belong in the same category as Mother Goose or Ebenezer Scrooge, but this isn’t the case. Biblical characters are not cartoons; they’re as real as Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. It might surprise you to know that historians have found more evidence of the existence of biblical characters than they found on these two historical figures! 

When you open the Bible, you’re opening a historical document and it’s screaming, This is a true story!” 

In this article, we want to introduce you to a biblical author: the Apostle JohnWe want you to understand that he’s a real person! The Bible shows us a man with a family, anger issues, and dreams. He’s a lot like you and me.

Let’s remember that the Bible is God’s Word. We can trust that God included every detail for a purpose. He told us all about John for a reason.

God wants us to know that the man who changed John’s life can change yours too. That’s why John wrote to tell us about his own life, so that through his experiences, you could meet his friend, Jesus. 


John’s Family and the Cost of Discipleship

Mark 1:19-20 reads, “When he [Jesus] 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” (NIV).

Let’s look at what the passage teaches us about John. John is the brother of James, and he is the son of Zebedee. This is not the same James that wrote the New Testament book, James, but he was nevertheless a disciple of Jesus along with John. John and his brother are about to set out on the adventure of a lifetime: to follow Jesus.  

Another little detail that many speculate about is that John’s father had “hired men” with them in the boat. Many scholars think this indicates that John came from a wealthy family or a family with a decent income. Interesting, don’t you think?

Like any other family, they experienced great sorrow. Not too long after their calling, John suffered the loss of his brother, James: “King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword” (Acts 12:1-2 NIV).

John was no stranger to grief. His brother, who saw incredible miracles by Jesus’ hand and witnessed the greatest event in history, was killed for sharing his testimony among the nations. John lived on, continuing to proclaim the message for which his brother died, no doubt bearing grief along the way.  

That’s something to think about. Jesus’ ministry was a family affair for John. It affected his dad’s business and cost the life of his brother. But, Jesus’ ministry became even more personal when John himself witnessed history’s most horrific event—Jesus’ death by crucifixion.  

John’s intimate relationship with Jesus wasn’t an isolated friendship. It was a family endeavor that transformed his household. 


A Son of Thunder: He Defended the Truth 

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:51-55 NIV) 

This is a shocking story! These guys were harsh. What a relief that their Lord is slow to anger and doesn’t share in their rash judgments. We find that John seems too immature to be a disciple.  

It seems like John’s loyalty to Jesus lights passion in his heart. John records in his book that Jesus says he is “the truth” (John 14:6)—and John believes it. As a young follower of Christ, John is willing to blast anyone who does not respect Jesus, but as he matures John learns to temper his passion for the truth with love.  

We have another example of John’s veracity and fierce loyalty to Jesus, recorded in Mark 8:39-40: 

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” 

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” (NIV)

At times, John seems a little exclusive. John’s gospel and his first epistle (1 John) use the term “truth” more than any other book in the Bible. John was a man firmly committed to the truth. His convictions ran deep—he was probably one of those “nobudge” individuals, so committed to the line between right and wrong that they tend to offend. This quality likely earned him and his brother their nicknames, “The sons of thunder” (Mark 3:16-18). But that nickname wasn’t what he would finally be known as. 


“The Beloved Disciple”: He Learned to Love 

Would you be surprised to know that in John’s gospel and in his first letter, we find the most occurrences of the term “love” than in any other books of the Bible? 

Just as Jesus taught John through their personal relationship, John in turn teaches us through his writings: Love and truth can’t be divorced. The love of God is grounded in God’s truth, and the truth of God is an outpouring of his love, and can only be rightly shared in love.  

John earned the redemptive nickname, “The Beloved Disciple” because he often refers to himself as “the one whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 20:2; 21:20).  

Jesus’ love transformed this man from a fire-calling zealot to a love-promoting father-figure to the early church.

 Compare the fire-calling disciple with the grown-up church leader:

 The elder,

To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth . . . because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever:

Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love. (2 John 1:3 NIV)

Do you feel the tenderness with which he addresses his audience? It’s almost as if these are two different people! As a young follower of Christ, John seems rash and harsh. As he matures, John learns to temper his passion for the truth with love. In other words, he began to look more like his Lord, Jesus.


John’s Short Bio  

John’s primary identity was a follower of Jesus. The bedrock of John’s existence was his fellowship with the man Jesus Christ. John writes:  

The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. (1 John 1:2-4, NIV) 

This passage could be John’s autobiography. We know him because of his writing and the writing of his friends. They wrote out of their joy. Why were they joyous? Because they found life. They found eternal life—not in a religion, or cause, or even in the fulfillment of their dreams. They found life in a personin their fellowship with him.  

If John is a real person, we can be just as certain that Jesus is a real personBased on all John’s writing, that same life-giving, transforming relationship with the real, living, resurrected, and returning Jesus is available to you too. Cry out to Jesus today, and ask him to take over your life too, to be your Lord and your Savior.