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The Ministry of John

Aug 30, 2007

The main problem facing the first-century Church was how to relate to Judaism (if at all). James and Paul often appear in opposition to each other, but in reality they both believed Christianity to be the continuance of the biblical belief system and the fulfillment of "the hope of Israel," as Paul called it. The entire sacrificial system in the law pointed to the death of the true Lamb of God, and His resurrection from the dead gave us that Hope.

But insofar as structure is concerned (which is the realm of "religion"), James retained the old structure of Judaism, while Paul launched out into new territory, largely forsaking the temple organization and its rituals. Both James and Paul understood the basic truth that the New Covenant had replaced the Old, and that the New Jerusalem had replaced the Old. However, in practical life, James had to live in Jerusalem, while Paul spent much of his time in foreign lands. This had an effect upon them that seemed to put them in conflict.

Both James and Paul lived by the principle of "being all things to all men." Because James lived in Jerusalem, it was necessary for him to be more scrupulous than his contemporaries to show that this new Way was not a violation of Moses or the law itself, but was rather a fulfillment of the law. This new Way did not give men a license to sin, but showed a better and permanent manner of justification from sin. The Way had a better Lamb that did not need to be repeated daily.

James had a point to prove to the Judeans, which he did very well--that Christianity did not put away the law. Paul also had a point to prove--that Christianity did not need Judaism's religious structure. In fact, the structure was no longer adequate to house the increased anointing that God had poured out at Pentecost. The New Covenant did not alter the moral requirements of God, for it was still necessary to have the law written on one's heart.

What changed was the manner in which that law would become part of our nature. No longer would God make man responsible by his own decision and self-discipline to become righteous. Now God would take full responsibility to write the law in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. The old way was proven to be ineffective by 1500 years of history. Man's inadequacy had been proven fully, and now God would show His power to change mankind by His own will and action.

Paul himself was led to accommodate the people of Judea when he went to Jerusalem, as we have seen. So in that, he was in agreement with James. And James agreed with Paul on the matter of circumcision, the sign of the covenant, which had changed from outward to inward--as the law itself had prophesied in Deut. 30:6.

Through all of this, we find John in the background. In the early days of Pentecost, Peter and John were the two leading apostles, but Peter was always named first, and he always seems to have done the speaking. He was with Peter in Acts 3 to heal the lame man at the Gate called "Beautiful." He was brought before the Sanhedrin with Peter to answer for his "crime" of bearing witness to the Truth (Acts 4:13). The other apostles sent Peter and John to Samaria to confirm the work of Philip there (Acts 8:14).

Yet John makes no speeches and did not seem to take an active role in the first Church council in Acts 15. In fact, it appears that he only took charge of the churches in Asia after the death of Peter and Paul in 64 A.D. It is as if John were held in reserve for a later time. And so his greatest ministry took place in the chaotic days following the destruction of Jerusalem. It was left to him to bring completion to the foundations of the early church by bringing together the two streams of thought which were the legacies primarily of James and Paul.

In particular, he spent his time in Ephesus, making that the de facto center of Christianity--whereas Antioch had been the main center in earlier days. Though Paul had ministered for three years in Ephesus, the character of the church there was shaped by John. Philip Schaff tells us,

"But the theology of the second and third centuries evidently presupposes the writings of John and starts from his Christology rather than from Paul's anthropology and soteriology, which were almost buried out of sight until Augustine, in Africa, revived them." (History of the Christian Church, Vol. 1, p. 426)

By "anthropology," Schaff was referring to Paul's doctrines on the mortal nature of man that causes him to sin (Rom. 5:12). By "soteriology," Schaff was referring to Paul's doctrines on salvation. These were important, of course, but John's teachings centered mostly around the nature and character of Christ, that is, "Christology." For this reason, John focuses on the idea of Love, which was actually the glue that united James and Paul in spite of their very different types of ministry.

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in the second century, tells us that John was exiled to Patmos toward the end of the reign of Domitian, who ruled Rome from 81-96 A.D. (Against Heresies, V, xxx, 3). Irenaeus (120-202 A.D.) was a pupil under Polycarp (65-155 A.D.), who was in turn a disciple of the Apostle John. And so John's Revelation is dated about 96 A.D.

Domitian himself was very bad-tempered and said to be unfit to rule Rome. Even his father, Vespasian, passed him over and made his other son, Titus, the emperor in 79 when he died. But Titus died in 81, and Domitian then became emperor. When he died in 96, the Roman senate obliterated his name from all public buildings and denied him a state funeral.

Domitian was also obsessed with preventing any further revolt in Judea, for he sought out anyone that was of the house of David and executed any who might lead another revolt. In regard to this, Eusebius quotes Hegesippus in Eccl. Hist., III, xix and xx,

" 'And there still survived of the Lord's family the grandsons of Jude, who was said to be His brother, humanly speaking. These were informed against as being of David's line, and brought by theevocatus before Domitian Caesar, who was as afraid of the advent of Christ as Herod had been. Domitian asked them whether they were descended from David, and they admitted it. Then he asked them what property they owned and what funds they had at their disposal. They replied that they had only 9,000 denarii between them, half belonging to each; this, they said, was not available in cash, but was the estimated value of only thirty-nine plethra of land, from which they raised the money to pay their taxes and the wherewithal to support themselves by their own toil.'

"Then, the writer continues, they showed him their hands, putting forward as proof of their toil the hardness of their bodies and the calluses impressed on their hands by incessant labour. When asked about Christ and His Kingdom--what it was like, and where and when it would appear--they explained that it was not of this world or anywhere on earth but angelic and in heaven, and would be established at the end of the world, when He would come in glory to judge the quick and the dead and give every man payment according to his conduct. On hearing this, Domitian found no fault with them, but despising them as beneath his notice, let them go free and issued orders terminating the persecution of the Church. On their release they became leaders of the churches, both because they had borne testimony and because they were of the Lord's family; and thanks to the establishment of peace, they lived on into Trajan's time."

Eusebius says that John returned to Ephesus from Patmos upon the death of Domitian and finally died during the reign of Trajan (98-117 A.D.).


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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