The name John is translated from the Greek Iōan[n]ēs, from the Hebrew Yohanan or y’hohanan, meaning “Yahweh has favored.”1 Being a fairly common name in ancient Palestine,2 this study concerns John the son of Zebedee and Salome and younger brother of James (Matt. 4:21; 27:56; cf. Mark 15:40). He worked as a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee with his father and brother, plus Simon [Peter] and Andrew and hired servants. One day as John was mending fishing nets in a boat on the shore, Jesus invited him to join his newly developing band of followers, and John dutifully complied (Matt. 4:18-2; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11).
Boanērges, Aramaic for "sons of thunder," is the description Jesus applied to John and his older brother (Mark 3:17), presumably because of their explosive dispositions. They were easily angered and brash (Luke 9:54), not to mention pretentious and self-seeking (Mark 10:35-44). One might wonder why these two volatile individuals, along with the erratic Simon Peter, were allowed into Christ’s “inner circle” and afforded opportunities unavailable to anyone else (Mark 1:29-31; 5:37; 9:2; 13:3; 14:33). Perhaps it was due to the fact that they were especially flawed and thus required the Lord’s extra attention.3
John was married and owned a house, and he was responsible and gracious enough to take in Jesus’ mother and siblings after the Lord’s death (John 19:25-27; 20:10; 1 Cor. 9:5; cf. Acts 1:13-14). He would go on to prove himself as a pillar in the Lord’s church (Gal. 2:9) and contribute five documents to the New Testament: a Gospel, three epistles, and the book of Revelation.5 His self-description as “the beloved disciple” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20) may seem a bit arrogant from a modern, westernized perspective, but within the context of John’s particular life-setting it is seen as a humble and appreciative way of saying, “Christ loved even me.”
John’s brother was brutally martyred (Acts 12:1-2), but that did not deter John from faithfully continuing his apostolic ministry. According to tradition he moved to Ephesus in the Roman province of Asia during the Jewish War of 66-70 and spent the remainder of his days in that area.5 His writings were said to be at the request of area congregations as a summary of his teachings to meet special needs prominent near the close of the first century.6 In his latter years he was banished to the Mediterranean isle of Patmos (Rev. 1:9), a rugged, rocky island about 40 miles/24 kilometers southwest of Ephesus in the Aegean Sea, used by the Romans as a place of exile (cf. Pliny, Natural History 4.23).
John’s ministry spanned an impressive seven decades. He reportedly lived into the reign of Trajan (98-117),7 and Jerome marks the apostle’s death at the year 98 (De vir. ill. 9). It is commonly believed that John is the only apostle to have died naturally of old age, although an alternative tradition (attributed to Papias of Hierapolis) claims that he was murdered by the Jews.
John’s initial self-centeredness and ill temperament were no match for the transforming influence of Jesus Christ. John will always be affectionately remembered as the apostle of love.8 At the same time, his writings vigorously challenge anyone who misconstrues biblical love as a soft, permissive, or shallow ambiguity. The inspired words of the apostle of love are simple yet forthright, authoritative, absolute, and uncompromising. As one whom “Yahweh has favored,” we will do well to learn from John’s example and to diligently study and apply his perpetually-relevant teachings.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 It is possible that the name is also a variant form of Iōnas or Jonah (Heb. Yonah = dove/pigeon). Compare Matt. 16:17; John 1:42; 21:15-17.
2 John Hyrcanus, John the baptizer, John the apostle, John Mark, an associate of the high priest (Acts 4:6), etc.
3 See Christ's Inner Circle. John, James, and Peter are the only original apostles mentioned by name in the New Testament outside the Gospels and beyond Acts 1:13.
4 The author of the Fourth Gospel was a Palestinian Jew (1:19-28; 4:9, 20; etc.), an eyewitness (1:14; 19:35; etc.), and one of the twelve (13:23; 18:15-16; 19:26-27; 20:2-9). The epistle of 1 John shares a number of striking similarities in theme, vocabulary, and syntax with John’s Gospel, and the other two epistles are linked to 1 John in vocabulary and theme. Revelation explicitly claims to be from John (1:1, 4, 9; 21:2; 22:8).
5 See Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.31.3; 5.24.2; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.1.1.
6 Sources include Clement of Alexandria (cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.14), the Muratorian Canon, the Anti-Marcionite Porlogue, Jerome (Comm. Matt. Prol.), Epiphanius of Salamis (Adv. Haer. 41.12), Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 3.1.2), and Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. 3.1.1; 3.24).
7 Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 2.22.5; 3.1.1; 3.3.4; Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.23.3.
8 Cf. John 5:43; 8:42; 10:17; 13:34-35; 14:15, 21, 23, 31; 15:9, 10, 12, 13, 17, 19; 17:26; 21:15-17; 1 John 2:5, 15; 3:1, 11, 14, 16, 17, 18, 23; 4:7-12, 16-21; 5:2-3; 2 John 1, 3, 5, 6; 3 John 1.