It is remarkable that John is nicknamed “the apostle of love.” Indeed, he wrote more than any other New Testament author about the importance of love—laying particular stress on the Christian’s love for Christ, Christ’s love for His church, and the love for one another that is the hallmark of true believers. The theme of love flows through his writings.
But love was a quality he learned from Christ, not something that came naturally to him. In his younger years, he was as much a Son of Thunder as James. If you imagine John as he is portrayed in medieval art—a meek, mild, pale-skinned, effeminate person, lying around on Jesus’ shoulder looking up at Him with a dove-eyed stare—forget that caricature. He was rugged and hard-edged, just like the rest of the fishermen-turned-disciples. And again, he was every bit as intolerant, ambitious, zealous, and explosive as his elder brother.
In fact, the one and only time the synoptic gospel writers recorded John speaking for himself, he displayed his trademark aggressive, self-assertive, impertinent intolerance. That was when he confessed to the Lord that he had rebuked a man for casting out demons in Jesus’ name, because the man was not part of the disciples’ group (Mark 9:38).
So it is clear from the gospel accounts that John was capable of behaving in the most sectarian, narrow-minded, unbending, reckless, and impetuous fashion. He was volatile. He was brash. He was aggressive. He was passionate, zealous, and personally ambitious—just like his brother James. They were cut from the same bolt of cloth.
But John aged well. Under the control of the Holy Spirit, all his liabilities were exchanged for assets. Compare the young disciple with the aged patriarch, and you’ll see that as he matured, his areas of greatest weakness all developed into his greatest strengths. He’s an amazing example of what should happen to us as we grow in Christ—allowing the Lord’s strength to be made perfect in our weakness.
When we think of the apostle John today, we usually think of a tender-hearted, elderly apostle. As the elder statesman of the church near the end of the first century, he was universally beloved and respected for his devotion to Christ and his great love for the saints worldwide. That is precisely why he earned the epithet, “apostle of love.”
But love did not nullify the apostle John’s passion for truth. Rather, it gave him the balance he needed. He retained to the end of his life a deep and abiding love for God’s truth, and he remained bold in proclaiming it to the very end.
John’s zeal for the truth shaped the way he wrote. Of all the writers of the New Testament, he is the most black and white in his thinking. He thinks and writes in absolutes. He deals with certainties. Everything is cut-and-dried with him. There aren’t many gray areas in his teaching, because he tends to state things in unqualified, antithetical language.
For example, in his gospel, he sets light against darkness, life against death, the kingdom of God against the kingdom of the devil, the children of God against the children of Satan, the judgment of the righteous against the judgment of the wicked, the resurrection of life against the resurrection of damnation, receiving Christ against rejecting Christ, fruit against fruitlessness, obedience against disobedience, and love against hatred. He loves dealing with truth in absolutes and opposites. He understands the necessity of drawing a clear line.
The same approach carries through in his epistles. He tells us we are either walking in the light or dwelling in darkness. If we are born of God, we do not sin—indeed, we cannot sin (1 John 3:9). We are either “from God” or “of the world” (1 John 4:4–5). If we love, we are born of God; and if we don’t love, we are not born of God (1 John 4:7–8). John writes, “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or known Him” (1 John 3:6).
In John’s second epistle, he calls for complete, total separation from all that is false:
Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds. (2 John 9–11)
He ends his third epistle with these words in verse 11: “The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God.”
John is just that black and white.
But the way John wrote was a reflection of his personality. Truth was his passion, and he seemed to bend over backwards not to nuance or blur lines. He spoke absolute and certain terms. He did not waste ink coloring in all the gray areas. He gave rules of thumb without listing all the exceptions. Jesus Himself often spoke in absolutes just like that, and John no doubt learned his teaching style from the Lord.
Although John always wrote with a warm, personal, pastoral tone, what he wrote does not always make for soothing reading. It does, however, always reflect his deep convictions and his absolute devotion to the truth.
It is probably fair to say that one of the dangerous tendencies for a man with John’s personality is that he would have a natural inclination to push things to extremes. And indeed, it does seem that John in his younger years was a bit of an extremist. He seemed to lack a sense of spiritual equilibrium. His zeal, his sectarianism, his intolerance, and his selfish ambition were all sins of imbalance. They were all potential virtues, pushed to sinful extremes. That is why the greatest strengths of his character sometimes ironically caused his most prominent failures.
We all fall prey to this principle from time to time. It is one of the effects of human depravity. Even our best characteristics, corrupted by sin, become an occasion of stumbling. It is wonderful to have a high regard for the truth, but zeal for the truth must be balanced by a love for people, or it can give way to judgmentalism, harshness, and a lack of compassion. It is fine to be hardworking and ambitious, but if ambition is not balanced with humility, it becomes sinful pride—self-promotion at the expense of others. Confidence is a wonderful virtue, too, but when confidence becomes a sinful self-confidence, we become smug and spiritually careless.
Clearly, there is nothing inherently wrong with zeal for the truth, a desire to succeed, or a sense of confidence. Those are all legitimate virtues. But even a virtue out of balance can become an impediment to spiritual health—just as truth out of balance can lead to serious error. A person out of balance is unsteady. Imbalance in one’s personal character is a form of intemperance—a lack of self-control—and that is a sin in and of itself. So it is a very dangerous thing to push any point of truth or any character quality to an undue extreme.
That is what we see in the life of the younger disciple John. In his early years he was the most unlikely candidate to be remembered as the apostle of love. But three years with Jesus began to transform a self-centered fanatic into a mature man of balance. Three years with Jesus moved this Son of Thunder toward becoming an apostle of love. At the very points where he was most imbalanced, Christ gave him equilibrium, and in the process John was transformed from a bigoted hothead into a loving, godly elder statesman for the early church.
In the days ahead we’ll take a closer look at how Christ brought that much-needed equilibrium to John’s life. Indeed it is necessary for all of us to find that balance.