Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. John 20:30,31
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Acts 1:8
By Believing, You May Have Life in His Name
One of the problems with aging is that we’ve been to a few too many memorable places, heard a few too many memorable people say a few too many memorable things, and have read a few too many memorable articles and books – and then when we’d like to cite some memorable thing we saw or heard or read, we can’t seem to remember where to find it again. I am certain that sometime in my past, I heard or read from someone who had done comprehensive study of early Quaker writings that George Fox and the earliest Friends knew the entire New Testament quite well but were drawn especially to John’s Gospel, the Book of Acts, the epistle to the Hebrews, and the Book of Revelation. I thought of that quote this past week as I studied John and Acts, but I could not find the source to cite it. I recall, though, that the reason those two books were so important to Friends was John’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s role in redemptive history through the time of Jesus, and Luke’s record in Acts of the Spirit’s gathering, equipping, and empowering of the early Church to continue Jesus’ mission of drawing all people to himself.
The fourth Gospel in the New Testament is believed by most to have been written by the fisherman-turned-disciple John, the brother of James, and the son of Zebedee. John and James worked for their father in his fishing business at Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. When Mark listed the twelve disciples Jesus called (Mark 3:16-19), he wrote that Jesus gave James and John the name Boanerges, meaning “sons of Thunder.” Scholars think that was because they were the brash, temperamental ones who wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village that rejected Jesus, who stopped a man from casting out demons in Jesus’ name because he was not one of the Twelve (Luke 9:49-54), and who asked Jesus for prestigious positions in his kingdom (Mark 10:35-45).
Researchers believe that John wrote his Gospel in the late 80s AD, at least 20 years after Luke had completed his account of Jesus’ birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection. The first three Gospels are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they summarize the story of Jesus in a similar chronological order of events. Mark wrote first, probably in about 55 AD. It is thought that Matthew and Luke then used Mark’s Gospel in the mid-60s AD as a starting point for their own, adding new information from their own memories and research, and tailoring their accounts of Jesus’ life for the greatest impact on their unique intended audiences of Roman Gentiles, Hebrews, and educated Greeks.
By the time John wrote the fourth Gospel, much had changed in the world. The Church had been scattered and planted across Asia Minor and southern Europe. Christians were persecuted for their monotheistic faith, and both Paul and Peter had been martyred near Rome. The Roman occupiers of Jerusalem had decided to deploy their resources elsewhere, so they destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD as a final insult and injury to the Hebrew people to inhibit future opposition from rising up there. It is thought that John ended up in Ephesus on the northeast Aegean coast and in his old age helped nurture and watch over the churches Paul had planted in that region. Several erroneous teachings and theological assumptions about Jesus which had troubled Paul still persisted in the region. It is believed that John decided, as one of the few remaining now-elderly eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry, to write his Gospel to confront those false teachings with the truth he had experienced and learned straight from the Master.
John’s Unique Gospel There are many differences between John and the other three Gospels. Rather than a chronological record, the events of Jesus’ life are told by John topically in order to build the theological case that Jesus was who he claimed to be. John wrote to convince readers that Jesus should be believed and obeyed, and that the promises he made to his disciples had indeed been kept. Eerdman’s Bible Handbook asserts that John’s focus was more on interpreting the meaning of the events of Jesus’ life than on the events themselves. It also points out something to which I had never paid attention, that none of Jesus’ classic parables appear in John. Author Lyell Rader observes in The Book of Books that the events reported in John took place on only twenty days of Jesus’ three-year public ministry, and that those events were carefully chosen by John to support his theological argument that Jesus was the Logos, the living Word of God made flesh. In Gospel Characters, Leonard Griffith notes that only John wrote about Jesus’ conversations with Nicodemus (John 3) and the Samaritan woman at a well (John 4); his raising of Lazarus from death (John 11); his post-resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene near his tomb, then a week later to Thomas (John 20); and his appearance to the disciples as they fished on the Sea of Tiberias, followed by his reinstatement and commissioning of Peter (John 21).
Last Supper Perhaps more important than any of those things, however, is John’s detailed recollection of what happened at the final Passover meal the disciples shared with Jesus (John 13-17). He washed their feet – a slave’s job – to teach them about servant leadership. He promised them that even though he soon would return to his Father and would not be physically, visibly with them any longer, it was to their advantage because he soon would come back to indwell them as the Holy Spirit, Jesus without his human body. As such, he would be able to live within each of them and be with them at all times, in all places, so long as they welcomed his presence. In his lengthy discourse, Jesus called his returning Spirit the Counselor (Greek paraclete, one who walks alongside to help), the Spirit of truth. In referring to the Spirit, Jesus used the pronouns “I” and “he” interchangeably. He promised that as he indwelt them, he would remind them of everything he had taught them in their three years as his disciples, would continue to teach them all things, and would keep them in his peace which the world could not provide them (14:26,27). He told them that his Spirit would be “the lifegiving sap in the vine of their lives,” able to make them fruitful for God, even in the face of opposition, so long as they remained attached to the Source of Life (John 15). As he lived in them, he would strengthen them to resist sin, empower them to live rightly, and give them confidence to stand before God unashamed. He would “guide them into all truth,” and bring glory to God in doing so (16:7-16). And then Jesus prayed (John 17) – for courage to face his impending death, for his disciples to be protected by God until the Spirit was poured out, and for us even today to be as sure of his presence and love as the disciples would be.
It was this witness — that God can be known in a loving, lifechanging friendship between our spirits and Jesus’ indwelling Spirit — that led the early Friends to be strongly drawn to John’s Gospel, and to the Acts account of the Spirit’s outpouring on Pentecost (Acts 2). The story of his arrival into the souls of those disciples who allowed Christ to be their Present Teacher and to make them his witnesses both at home and “to the ends of the earth” became known to 17th century Friends as “New Testament Christianity revived,” the spiritual life to which they aspired.
Transformer of Character Several times in John’s Gospel, he refers to himself as “the disciple Jesus loved.” The careful reader must wonder what exactly that meant, and how Jesus who washed their feet and praised humility could allow John, who had selfishly sought a favored position in the Kingdom, to use that phrase about himself. No dramatic confession of arrogance by John is ever described, but his three years of living with Jesus and seeking to become like him had slowly transformed that brash, selfish man into a servant. The final year or more of Jesus’ life found him inviting John, along with Peter and James, to accompany him to the raising of Jairus’ daughter from death, to his transfiguration, and to a night of prayer in Gethsemane before his arrest. Scholars agree that Jesus loved every disciple completely, but he clearly developed a deep spiritual/emotional bond with John. As Jesus hung on his cross and John stood there beside Jesus’ mother Mary, it was John to whom Jesus entrusted her care (19:26,27).
As a young adult, George Fox had a deep sense of his sinfulness and could not find inner peace. For several months, he walked around England seeking answers from various clergy and other counselors, but all he got was frustration. In his journal, he recorded that in 1647 he sat down in a remote place in total despair, ready to give up. Then suddenly, he heard a voice saying “there is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” From that moment on, Fox began building a real, constant, communicative friendship with the Spirit that transformed his life and his future, eventually leading to formation of the Society of Friends. That is still today the way God transforms human souls.
Present Teacher Fox began speaking to all who would listen about his awakening to the living Spirit of Christ, and he found many people who longed as he had to experience Jesus’ promise in John 14 of the Paraclete, a spiritual life based in a living relationship rather than mere information. According to his journal, everywhere he went, some of the first words out of Fox’s mouth were “Christ is present to teach his people himself,” his personal expression of Jesus’ promise. Scripture, other books, Christian teachers, and other resources can indeed be helpful, but without submission to the Inward Teacher, they end up being only exchanges of information. The constant appeal of today’s digital communications makes it even more difficult to discipline ourselves to listen to our inner Counselor. Friends’ witness that “Christ is present to teach his people himself” may be more important now than ever.
Glue of Community After Pentecost, the early Church for a time attracted a lot of people who sought the life Peter spoke about, and they found oneness in experiencing the Spirit’s teaching. In Acts 2:42-47, Luke wrote that together they were motivated to devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. They shared their possessions with others who had unmet needs, worshiped together regularly, and witnessed boldly. When the early Friends began working towards New Testament Christianity revived, that combination of worship, instruction, fellowship, and unselfish compassion was the pattern their Inward Teacher led them to seek.
Fuel for Witness Before Pentecost, Peter was so afraid of admitting he followed Jesus that he denied the Lord three times. After Pentecost, Peter stood up in front of the officials he had feared and boldly proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection and the Holy Spirit’s arrival. Even when threatened, Peter and John told them they “could not help speaking about what they had seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). In a similar manner, Fox and the early Friends were soon traveling around England telling others about the inner life they had discovered and experienced. Sometimes nowadays, it is tempting to wonder if the scarcity of personal witness means Christ’s followers have nothing to report.
If I ever find that reference about the early Quakers’ love for John, Acts, Hebrews, and Revelation, I’ll be sure to pass it along to you. In the meantime, it would be wonderful as the pandemic slowly winds down if we all would begin seriously taking the messages of John and Acts to heart. When devoted followers of Jesus listen attentively and regularly to the Inward Teacher and share what they’ve learned with one another, they usually begin to experience common leadings that can result in important new ministries. I do believe 2020 and 2021 could stand a Quaker revival of New Testament Christianity in 2022!
–Ron Ferguson, 14 November 2021
Queries for Worship-Sharing and Reflection
1) In John 20:31 (top of page one), is “believing” the same as real spiritual life, or does belief open the door to spiritual life?
2) What are the traits of New Testament Christianity? Which traits are worth reviving, are still essential to practice today?
3) How does real spiritual community differ from a service or social club? What is the unique glue of spiritual community?
4) In your experience, does the plethora of means of communication today encourage or discourage nurturing our inner life?