I love studying the apostle John’s life and writing. We have so much to learn from him. His intimacy with, yet wonder of the Lord is fascinating and inspiring. I wrote in an earlier post about how John found his identity not in his family, class, or profession, but in Christ. I don’t think he could get over how much Jesus loved him.
But, as it would be with any of us, I doubt this identity, this cause, passion, and purpose snapped into place for John immediately. It certainly didn’t seem to during Jesus’ earthly ministry. We read in Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-45 that John and his brother, James, asked to sit on Jesus’ right and left in his kingdom. They even got their mother to ask for them. Now, if it weren’t for Jesus’ response, we could maybe say that the sons of Zebedee just wanted to be close to Jesus. But Jesus knew better. He knew that, in their hearts, the root of this request was pride. They wanted the places of honor, respect, and power. It wasn’t about being close to Jesus. It was about making them look good.
How did Jesus respond? First of all, he reminded them that following him would require great sacrifice. If they were just in it to get good seats, it wasn’t worth it. He knew they would suffer greatly for his name (which they both did— James was killed for his faith and John was exiled). Then, he told them that his kingdom doesn’t work like a human kingdom:
“but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”— Mark 10:43-45, ESV
Oh. Snap. The first will be last and the last will be first. Greatness is about position, but a different position than the one John and his brother were chasing. It’s about the position of a servant, a slave. Those are the ones God views as great— not the ones pushing and shoving for the seat next to him, but those bowing at his feet.
It took time for John to really grasp this, but eventually he did. As a result, we have some of the most Christ-magnifying, service-focused words ever written. By the time John had the vision that became the subject of the book of Revelation, he definitely got it:
“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.’”— Revelation 1:17-19, ESV
Out of fear and awe, John fell at Christ’s feet. When he saw Christ in his glory, John wasn’t asking to take a seat beside him, he was face-first on the ground. He realized where he belonged. Christ took a prideful, self-serving man and turned him into a humble servant.
We could speculate when this transformation happened in John. Was it when Jesus washed John’s own grimy, calloused feet— the job of a lowest servant?
Was it watching his friend, teacher, and Lord be beaten, ridiculed, and tortured, without a word of opposition?
Was it huddling near the cross, looking up at his bleeding, suffocating Savior, as Jesus entrusted John with the care of his mother?
Was it running to Jesus’ tomb to find it empty, then seeing him— not dead, but alive, and tracing Jesus’ wounds with his fingers?
Was it following Jesus’ command to go, tell, and make disciples; watching people come to trust a Lord they’d never met; seeing his friends give their lives for Christ?
I’d say it was a process; a journey. John may not have fully grasped these words when Jesus first spoke them at the Last Supper, but years later, when he recorded them, he lived their truth and could count himself among the blessed:
“a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:16-17).
It’s fascinating to me that the “first and last” concept shows up not only in the Gospels, when Jesus instructs John and James on what greatness really is, but that Jesus identifies himself as “the first and the last” in this passage in Revelation, where John sees him and bows before him. I’m not going to begin to say I understand all the implications of that, but it’s something awesome to think about.
Truly, if we follow Christ, we will be like Christ. John is proof that God can take a heart for self and turn it into a heart for him.
This is the second installment in the Re:nowned series. You can also read Re:Favored (Joseph).