|Topical Bible Study||September 1957|
The People of the Bible
Peter, James and John
THERE is very little in the Gospel records pertaining to several of the apostles. Of Bartholomew and “Simon the Canaanite” we know little or nothing. Thaddaeus Lebbaeus is believed to be Jude, who wrote the Epistle of Jude. Thomas is known mostly for his role of doubter in connection with the resurrection of Jesus. And Judas, of course, is the apostle who served the Twelve as treasurer and, in the end, betrayed our Lord.
Matthew is identified as a publican and collector of taxes when called to be an apostle. His great contribution to the church is his scholarly record of the life and ministry of Jesus. Aside from his Gospel, however, there is little in the Bible to reveal the extent of his ministry.
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was with Peter, James, and John when they asked Jesus “privately” concerning the signs of his second presence. (Mark 13:3) Near the close of Jesus’ ministry, when certain Greeks desired an interview with Jesus, Andrew was one of the apostles who conveyed this information to the Master. (John 12:21,22) Andrew also expressed his misgivings when Jesus inquired concerning the amount of food they had on hand just before the feeding of the five thousand. (John 6:8) These brief glimpses are about all the Bible furnishes on Andrew’s activities as one of Jesus’ apostles.
Philip was a zealous apostle. It was he who “discovered” Nathanael and “saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the Law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45) While able to discern that Jesus was the Messiah, without the revealing power of the Holy Spirit Philip was unable to grasp the deeper truths of the Master’s teachings. When Jesus said, “If ye had known me, ye should have known the Father,” Philip replied, “Lord, show us the Father.” To this Jesus answered, “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip?”—John 14:7-9
Of the apostles, the names Peter, James, and John are linked together in the Gospels by reason of the fact that they seemed to be closer to Jesus than some of the others. For example, when Jesus went up into the Mount of Transfiguration he took with him “Peter, James, and John.” (Matt. 17:1) When he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, “Peter, James, and John” were the only ones he allowed in the room. (Mark 5:37) Jesus took these three with him deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane than he did the others.—Mark 14:33
Possibly there was something in the personalities of these three apostles that drew Jesus closer to them than to the others on special occasions. However, we believe that the chief reason for this seeming favoritism is the fact that the Lord was preparing them for a wider field of service in later years than the others may have been capable of filling. How effectively, for example, Peter later used his experience on the Mount of Transfiguration! (II Pet. 1:16-18) Divine wisdom never errs.
And these three were greatly used by the Lord beginning with Pentecost, particularly Peter and John. It was Peter who acted as spokesman for the apostles on the Day of Pentecost, delivering that marvelous sermon, the central theme of which was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. When the people heard the clear and powerful reasoning of Peter, three thousand of them were pricked in their hearts and asked, “What shall we do?”—Acts 2:37-41
Shortly after this, probably within days, Peter and John went together into the temple. Just outside by the gate called “Beautiful” they healed a man who had been lame from birth. This led to another sermon by Peter, on the object of our Lord’s return, in which he showed that its result would be “times of restitution of all things.”—Acts 3
When the religious rulers noted the boldness of Peter and John, “they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus” and had learned of him. (Acts 4:13) Here, perhaps, comes to light one of the reasons Jesus had for the special consideration he gave to these. He wanted them to learn his ways and to imbibe his courage, his boldness, in declaring unpopular truth.
Surely the intimate association which Peter, James, and John enjoyed with Jesus did help much in equipping them for the service that had been designed for them. But these three men were, by nature, very different, and this we will discover best by noting some of the individual characteristics of each of them.
We are first introduced to Peter at the time Jesus called him to be one of his apostles. (Matt. 4:18) He and his brother Andrew were in the fishing business, and Jesus said unto them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” This record states that he was “called” Peter. Mark 3:16 explains that it was Jesus who surnamed him Peter, his family name being Simon. In the Greek text it is Petros, meaning a piece of rock.
The significance of Peter’s name was used by Jesus to teach an important point of truth. (Matt. 16:13-19) This was some time after Jesus began his ministry. He had become fairly well known and he inquired of his apostles as to who the people thought he was. They answered, “Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.”
This was far from being an unfavorable report, for it indicated that the people seemed agreed that Jesus was a prophet sent by God, even though they did not agree as to his exact identity. But Jesus was not satisfied, so he inquired further, “Whom say ye that I am?” It was in reply to this that Peter said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
This was Jesus’ true identity, and he was pleased; so he said to Peter, “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
This observation has been misused in an attempt to exalt Peter to a position of prominence and authority among the apostles which Jesus did not actually give to him. The expression, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” has been mistakenly applied to Peter as though Jesus had constituted him the foundation of the church, whereas Jesus, as the divine Christ, is in reality that foundation (see I Cor. 3:11). It was Peter’s confession of this great truth to which Jesus referred as “this rock.” Here the Greek word is petra, meaning a large rock, or boulder, unlike Peter’s name, which signifies merely a piece of rock.
Nor are the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” what many have supposed them to be. Peter is not the doorkeeper of heaven. In the first place, it was the “kingdom of heaven” that Jesus mentioned, not “heaven.” In Luke 16:16 we read that “the law and the prophets were until John,” and that since then “the kingdom of God is preached.” The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are synonymous. See Matt. 13:31-33 and Luke 13:18-21. The purpose of this preaching has been to gather out from the world a people to be associated with Jesus in the heavenly phase of his kingdom.
Jesus said to the religious leaders of his day, “Ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.” (Matt. 23:13) To “enter” the kingdom of heaven, to live and reign with Christ, it is essential to accept Jesus as Redeemer and Lord; and the scribes and Pharisees did all they could to turn the people away from Jesus and to prejudice them against him. Thus they “shut up” the “kingdom of heaven.”
But in contrast to this, Peter was given “keys” to “unlock” the kingdom of heaven. He did this by presenting the truth concerning Jesus and giving the people an opportunity to become his followers. He used one of these “keys” on the Day of Pentecost when he presented the truth concerning Jesus to a vast assembly of Jews, three thousand of whom believed. Later it was Peter whom the Lord sent to Cornelius, the first Gentile convert. Here he used another “key” and “unlocked” the kingdom of heaven to the Gentiles.
We get an intimate glimpse of Peter at the time Jesus walked out on the waters of Galilee, rescued his disciples, and calmed the sea. (Matt. 14:22-31) The apostles saw Jesus approaching their ship, and they were fearful. But Jesus said, “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.”
Peter’s nature did not allow him simply to remain in the ship and wait for his Master, so he cried out, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.” Jesus invited Peter to come, but when he found himself surrounded by the wind and waves, his faith failed and he began to sink. Jesus rescued him and said, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” Surely later this experience must have been a great source of strength to this intrepid apostle!
Peter was loyal to his Master. This was true even at the close of Jesus’ ministry when Peter seriously disagreed with the course he was taking. Jesus announced to his apostles that he was going to Jerusalem, where he expected his enemies to put him to death; and Peter objected, saying, “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.” Responding to this Jesus said to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense unto me.”—Matt. 16:22,23
Explaining this rebuke, Jesus said to Peter, “Thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” In other words, in trying to dissuade Jesus from surrendering to his enemies, Peter was expressing a human viewpoint. To him it was unthinkable that Jesus, who had done no wrong but instead had unselfishly served the people, should be put to death. He did not yet realize that it was necessary for Jesus to die in order to redeem the world from sin and death.
In the Upper Room, when Jesus partook of the passover supper with his disciples for the last time, he said to Peter, “Satan hath desired to have you that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” Peter replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with thee both into prison, and to death.” Then Jesus prophesied, “I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me.”—Luke 22:31-34
Peter meant it when he said that he would be willing to die with Jesus. Later, when his Master was about to be arrested, Peter drew his sword and demonstrated his willingness to do everything in his power to prevent Jesus from surrendering to his enemies. Jesus commanded him to put away his sword, which was another rebuke to this faithful disciple.—Matt. 26:52
But despite this thwarting of his effort to prevent Jesus’ arrest, Peter followed him to the judgment hall of the high priest. The record states that he “went in, and sat with the servants, to see the end.” (Matt. 26:58) In this we see a wonderful spirit of devotion. Perhaps Peter thought that by being nearby there still might be something he could do for his Master, perhaps even save him from what now seemed to be the inevitable.
Apparently Peter did not realize that he was likely to be recognized as one of Jesus’ disciples and thus be placed in danger, and when he was recognized he denied that he knew him. Fear is the motive usually ascribed to this denial, although the record gives not motive. Some have suggested that Peter endeavored to conceal his identity in the hope that he still might have an opportunity to rescue his Master from the cruel hands of his enemies.
But regardless of his motive, Peter realized that his denial had been foretold by Jesus, and that it was wrong. (Matt. 26:69-75) He “wept bitterly,” the record states. Remorseful for his own wrongdoing, he also now realized that he could do nothing to prevent the death of his beloved Lord; so he was overwhelmed with sorrow.
After the Resurrection
In one of Jesus’ appearances to his apostles after his resurrection, he engaged in a revealing conversation with Peter. (John 21:15-19) “Lovest thou me?” Jesus inquired of Peter. Upon being asked this question the third time, Peter replied, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.” Perhaps here Peter’s mind went back to the “Upper Room,” when Jesus had prophesied his denial, and realized that his Master was indeed able to read his heart.
Yes, Peter did love his Master despite the fact that his efforts to save him from the cross had been thwarted and that Jesus had referred to him as “Satan.” Prior to his crucifixion Jesus had said to Peter that when he was “converted” he was to strengthen his brethren. And now Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” It might seem strange that Peter, who accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah, who had served with his Master in preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, who had been empowered to perform miracles, should still need to be “converted.”
While Peter was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, he did not understand that it was necessary for him to suffer and die as the world’s Redeemer. Doubtless Peter realized that if a man did wrong he should suffer for it, but his human reasoning told him that those who do only good should not suffer. This is why he endeavored to prevent Jesus’ death. While his experiences in connection with this futile effort would help to prepare him for “conversion,” he did not fully understand this matter until he received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Then he knew why it was necessary for Jesus to die, and he quoted a prophecy from the Old Testament relating to the death and resurrection of Jesus.—Acts 2:25-28; Ps. 16:10
Later, when Peter himself was imprisoned and threatened with death, we find him so submissive to the divine will that he slept while chained to guards within the prison. (Acts 12:4-6) This was the “converted” Peter, who now knew that in the divine plan for the recovery of man from sin and death, suffering for righteousness’ sake is necessary.
And now this “converted” Peter was equipped, both by experience and by revelation, to “strengthen” his brethren in this essential aspect of the Christian life. One of his services along this line is found in his first epistle. In the opening chapter of this letter he refers to the prophetic testimony concerning the “sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.” (I Pet. 1:11) In this epistle Peter explains that the followers of Jesus have the privilege of sharing in this foretold suffering.
“Ye also,” Peter wrote, “as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” (ch. 2:5) Again: “This is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.”—ch. 2:19-21
His Sacrificial Death
In his discussion with Peter after his resurrection, Jesus said: “When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” John adds, “This spake he [Jesus], signifying by what death he [Peter] should glorify God.”—John 21:18,19
This is generally understood to mean that Jesus foretold Peter’s death by crucifixion, this thought being taken from the expression, “Thou shalt stretch forth thy hands.” Tradition has it that Peter was crucified head down. Whether or not this be true, we know that Peter was symbolically crucified, in the sense that Paul wrote of himself, saying, “I am crucified with Christ.”—Gal. 2:20
To “stretch forth” the hands could also well represent the thought of surrender to another. While Jesus surrendered to his enemies and allowed them to put him to death, this was but a reflection of his surrender to his Heavenly Father, whose will it was for him to die as the world’s Redeemer. Likewise, Peter also surrendered himself to God and understood that the divine will for him, too, was that he should die a sacrificial death, a death that was contrary to the desires of his flesh.
But it was by such a death that Peter was able to glorify God, even as Jesus had foretold. Perhaps Peter had this in mind when he wrote, “What glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye take it patiently?” The implication here is that “glory” does result from suffering for righteousness’ sake, that it is thus that God is glorified. Surely to follow thus the example of Jesus is to the glory of God.
There were two apostles named James—“James, the son of Zebedee,” and “James, the son of Alphaeus.” “James the son of Zebedee” was a brother of the Apostle John. To these two Jesus gave the name Boanerges, meaning “sons of thunder.” This burning, impetuous spirit twice manifested itself. (Mark 10:37; Luke 9:54) This spirited brother of John did not continue long after Pentecost, for he was put to death by Herod Agrippa I. (Acts 12:1,2) Almost nothing is known of his activities after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
James, the son of Alphaeus, is generally accredited with writing “The Epistle of James.” It seems quite evident that it is this apostle who was also known as “James the Less,” perhaps because he was younger, or smaller in stature, than James the son of Zebedee. This apostle was more prominent among the brethren after Pentecost than were some of the others. Jesus seems to have appeared specially to him after his resurrection. (I Cor. 15:7) It would appear that he was an elder in the Jerusalem church.
When the apostles gathered at Jerusalem to decide on some course of action with respect to Gentile converts who were coming into the church in various places, James presided over the conference. It was at this conference that he stood up and said: “Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.”—Acts 15:13-18
The last record we have of this apostle is when Paul went to Jerusalem bearing gifts from the various churches, and James, together with the other brethren, advised him to go into the temple for the ceremony of purification. This, the brethren reasoned, would help to clear Paul of the charge that he was opposed to the Law of Moses. Instead of serving to avoid trouble, this resulted in rioting against Paul and his protective arrest by the Roman authorities. (Acts 21:17-40) After this we know nothing of James’ activity.
The apostle John, as we have seen, was the son of Zebedee and one of the “sons of thunder.” We have already noted his close association with Peter, both during the earthly ministry of Jesus and after Pentecost. His Gospel account of the life and teachings of Jesus represents one of his major contributions to the spiritual upbuilding of the entire church of Christ.
While the fourth Gospel bears John’s name as the author, nowhere in it does he directly identify himself as the writer. When necessary to refer to any part which he played in connection with the experiences of Jesus, he refers to himself as “that disciple which Jesus loved.” Some have used this in an attempt to prove that John was not the author of the Fourth Gospel, arguing that he was too humble to speak of himself as being specially loved by Jesus. But this seems like a weak argument. How much more humble is the attitude thus reflected than if he had used the pronoun “I.”
John’s humility is further reflected in his three epistles. In the first he makes no reference to himself at all; and in the second and third he identifies the writer simply as an “elder.” In the Book of Revelation, which this apostle also wrote, he refers to himself simply as “His servant John,” or just “John.”—Rev. 1:1,4
The Lord in his wisdom has chosen to emphasize various aspects of his plan through the varying personalities of those whom he has used as his inspired servants. For example, David’s background as a shepherd lent itself admirably to this end. Peter’s difficulty in connection with Jesus’ suffering and death later served to enrich his ministry in connection with the “sufferings of Christ,” and the glory that should follow.” We find a further reflection of this in the personality of John.
While John was one of the “sons of thunder,” he also evidently had a loving disposition which appreciated companionship. We see this exemplified in his closeness to Jesus on various occasions. It would be just such a personality that could the better appreciate the precious truth which Jesus taught concerning the partnership his disciples were to enjoy with him, both now and when glorified with him in the kingdom.
John picked up this thought from the Master and reveled in it. This fact is reflected in his Gospel and also in his epistles. He saw Jesus, both as the Logos and, forever, as the Son of God. He perceived that as many of the Jewish nation as believed on Jesus were given the authority to become the sons of God, members of the divine family. (John 1:11,12) In his first epistle he wrote, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God.”—I John 3:1-3
Those intimate lessons of partnership which Jesus taught to his disciples in the Upper Room the night before he was crucified were recorded only by John. “I am the vine, ye are the branches,” and, “My Father is the husbandman.” (John 15:1-8) “As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.” (vs. 9) “I go to prepare a place for you.” “I will come again, and receive you unto myself.” (ch. 14:1-4) “Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me.”—ch. 17:24
No wonder John later wrote, “It doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” (I John 3:2) John realized that in preparation for this glorious future association and partnership with Jesus, we need to enjoy the fellowship of one another, and of the Father and the Son, even now. He wrote, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship [Greek, partnership] with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.”—I John 1:3
But let us not assume that because John was an apostle of love he could not be firm in his defense of the truth and in safeguarding the interests of his brethren. To “the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth,” John wrote, “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him Godspeed: for he that biddeth him Godspeed is partaker of his evil deeds.”—II John 1:10,11
How this beloved apostle must have rejoiced in the privilege that was given to him by the resurrected Jesus of recording those precious promises to the seven churches:
“To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”—Rev. 2:7
“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”—Rev. 2:10
“To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”—Rev. 2:17
“He that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father.”—Rev. 2:26,27
“He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.”—Rev. 3:5
“Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.”—Rev. 3:12
“To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.”—Rev. 3:21
There is every good reason to believe that John lived to a very old age, continuing faithfully in the service of his Lord to the very end. The exact time of his death lies within the region of conjecture rather than of history. The dates which have been assigned to his death range from A.D. 89 to A.D. 120. But this is not important. Actually, like the other inspired writers of the Bible, his service to the Lord’s people has never ceased.