The modern aversion to any form of human suffering is nothing new. The idea of suffering was not an enticing prospect for Jesus’ apostles either—they all forsook Jesus and fled on the night of His arrest (Mark 14:50). They were completely unable to reconcile suffering with God’s sovereign purposes. John, in particular, not only had an aversion to suffering, he had also harbored strong ambitions for glory.
Both desires are perfectly understandable. After all, John had seen Jesus’ glory firsthand on the Mount of Transfiguration, and he treasured Jesus’ promise that he would share that glory (Matthew 19:28–29). How could he not desire such a blessing? On the other hand, suffering is a hallmark of hell and absent in heaven—why would anyone want to embrace it now?
There was nothing inherently sinful about John’s desire to participate in the glory of Jesus’ eternal kingdom. Christ had promised him a throne and an inheritance in glory. Moreover, it is my conviction that when we see Christ’s glory fully unveiled we will finally understand why the glory of Christ is the greatest reward of all in heaven. One glimpse of Jesus in the fullness of His glory will be worth all the pain and sorrow and suffering we have endured here on earth (cf. Psalm 17:15; 1 John 3:2). Participation in Christ’s glory is therefore a fitting desire for every child of God.
But if we desire to participate in heavenly glory, we must also be willing to partake of earthly sufferings. This was the apostle Paul’s desire: “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Philippians 3:10). Paul wasn’t saying he had a masochistic lust for pain; he was simply recognizing that glory and suffering are inseparable. Those who desire the reward of glory must be willing to endure the suffering.
Suffering is the price of glory. We are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (Romans 8:17). Jesus taught this principle again and again:
If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it (Matthew 16:24–25).
Suffering is the prelude to glory. Our suffering as believers is the assurance of the glory that is yet to come (1 Peter 1:6–7). And “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Meanwhile, those who thirst for glory must balance that desire with a willingness to suffer.
All the disciples needed to learn this. Remember, they all wanted the chief seats in glory. But Jesus said there is a price for those seats. Not only are those seats reserved for the humble, but those who sit in those seats will first be prepared for the place of honor by enduring the humility of suffering. That is why Jesus told James and John that before they would receive any throne at all, they would be required to “drink the cup that I drink” and “be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” (Mark 10:38).
How eagerly and how naively James and John assured the Lord that they would be able to drink of the cup He would drink and be baptized with a baptism of suffering! “They said to Him, ‘We are able’” (Mark 10:39). At that moment they had no real clue what they were volunteering for. They were like Peter, boasting that they would follow Jesus to the death—but when faced with the opportunity, they all forsook Him and fled.
Thankfully, Christ does not regard such failures as final. All eleven of the disciples fled on the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. But every one of them was recovered, and every one of them ultimately learned to suffer willingly for Christ’s sake.
In fact, all of them except John suffered and ultimately died for the faith. They were martyred one by one in the prime of life. John was the only disciple who lived to old age. But he suffered, too, in ways the others did not. He was still enduring earthly anguish and persecution long after the others were already in glory.
On the night of Jesus’ arrest, John probably began to understand the bitterness of the cup he would have to drink. We know from his account of Jesus’ trial that he and Peter followed Jesus to the house of the high priest (John 18:15). There he watched as Jesus was bound and beaten. As far as we know, John was the only disciple who was an actual eyewitness to Jesus’ crucifixion. He was standing close enough to the cross for Jesus to see him (John 19:26). He probably watched as the Roman soldiers drove in the nails. He was there when a soldier finally pierced his Lord’s side with a spear. And perhaps as he watched he remembered that he had agreed to partake of this same baptism. If so, he surely realized then and there how awful the cup was he had so easily volunteered to drink!
When John’s brother James became the church’s first martyr, John bore the loss in a more personal way than the others. As the other disciples were martyred one by one, John suffered the grief and pain of additional loss. These were his friends and companions. Soon he alone was left. In some ways, that may have been the most painful suffering of all.
Virtually all reliable sources in early church history attest to the fact that John became the pastor of the church the apostle Paul had founded at Ephesus. From there, during a great persecution of the church under the Roman Emperor Domitian (brother and successor of Titus, who destroyed Jerusalem), John was banished to a prison community on Patmos. He lived in a cave there. It was while there that he received and recorded the apocalyptic visions described in the book of Revelation (cf. Revelation 1:9).
I have been to the cave in which he is thought to have lived and in which he is believed to have written the book of Revelation. It was a harsh environment for an aged man. He was cut off from those whom he loved, treated with cruelty and reproach, and made to sleep on a stone slab with a rock for a pillow as the years passed slowly.
But John learned to bear suffering willingly. There is no complaint about his sufferings anywhere in his epistles or the book of Revelation. It is certain that he wrote Revelation under the most extreme kind of hardship and deprivation. But he makes scant mention of his difficulties, referring to himself as “your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus” (Revelation 1:9).
Notice that in the same breath he mentioned “tribulation,” he speaks of the patience that enabled him to bear his sufferings willingly. He was looking forward calmly to the day when he would partake in the promised glory of the kingdom. That is the right balance and a healthy perspective. He had learned to look beyond his earthly sufferings in anticipation of the heavenly glory.
As we have seen in this series, the changes in John’s character as he matured form a worthy pattern for our lives. Zeal for truth must go hand in hand with love for people in order for both traits to bring glory to God. Likewise, our ambitions must be tempered with Christlike humility. And suffering should not surprise or discourage us, but encourage a sanctifying expectation for the glory to come. Believers have much to gain from the careful study of John’s teaching and his life. His theology is rich, revealing a man who was profoundly transformed by His relationship with Christ.