Page images

ceremo nies. Such a view of him seems to have been exaggerated as time wore on, and controversies on the virtue of fasting and other austerities gained ground in the church. We are told by Eusebius, H. E., v. 24, that, in common with the other chief saints of Asia, he observed Easter, like our own ancestors of the ancient British Church, according to the Jewish system of ascertaining the day, not according to that which has since prevailed. It might well be (as has been remarked †) that in his old age, living in a foreign country, St. John adhered tenaciously in such unimportant matters to the recollections of his early life, fondly valuing every association which could unite him with his beloved native land, now desolated by heathen invaders.

Now, it must not be supposed that we bring forward these common anecdotes, which have been handed down respecting St. John's latter years, as if they were perfectly certain matter of history. It is very difficult to obtain such accuracy as to the details of any man's life, except in those public parts of it which are connected with great public events, or where we gather our information from the man's own writings. When a man has left a great many letters behind him, as, amongst the great heathen characters, was the case with Pliny-Pliny the Younger, in the very age of which we are now speaking- and with Cicero, 100 years earlier, or, amongst the Christians, with St. Paul, in the first half of the first century, then we can usually ascertain such details more easily. Of St. John, there are only three very short letters, said to have been composed in this period of his life. The Book of the Revelation is from the beginning to the end of it a description of a vision, and the scene of the Gospel of St. John, which gives us abundant details, lies in his early life, and has nothing to do with those last fifty years of it of which alone we are now speaking. Hence we may not have the same minuteness of accurate historical detail respecting the life of St. John as we have of his heathen contemporary Pliny: but Pliny's is a very rare case, for he was continually writing letters, and being apparently proud of them as compositions, took care to preserve them. Speaking generally, we know far more of these days of St. John's life than we do of the lives of most of his heathen contemporaries- quite as much, I think, as we know of the private life of Trajan, more than we know of Juvenal or Ta

* Stanley, p. 282. † Stanley, p. 286.

citus. Whether the anecdotes given above are historically accurate or no, they give us no unfair representation of what must have been his life. We have the same sort of ground to believe that he lived in some such way at Ephesus during the latter years of the first century, as we have for knowing that Nerva and Trajan were in those days emperors that Pliny was Roman governor of the province of Bithynia - that Tacitus was the great Roman historian of the age, and Juvenal the great satirist.

It is in a man's own writings, if he leave any, that we expect to trace with most historical detail the incidents of his own life. This expectation is, however, by no means always realised. Many a great writer is so wrapt up in his subject that he, as it were, loses all thought of himself. We have an instance of this in Thucydides. Though he actually fought and commanded in the war which he describes with such consummate skill, it requires very narrow examination to trace in it any record of his own doings. Again, a man's subject is often such as to carry him quite away from himself. In Bishop Butler's "Analogy," for example, while he speaks to us of the ways of God, we have no hint of the course of life of him who is speaking to us. We might almost expect that the same would hold of the writings of St. John. In his Gospel, all the history centres in the sayings and doings of his Lord and Master. The Apostle keeps himself wonderfully in the background. He does not, I think, once mention either his own or his brother James's name throughout the Gospel. Still, though he thus evidently withdraws himself into the shade, it cannot but be that his own life during these eventful three years of his Lord's earthly ministry must be much illustrated by the history of one who loved him above his fellow-disciples, and kept him near his person, and whom he intensely loved in return. But the direct history of the Gospel, we have said, is the history of three years of his early youth. What we are now treating of is his old age. Thus, we should have no reason to be disappointed if we found nothing about the circumstances of his old age in the Gospel which bears his name. Again, as to the Revelation, the peculiar circumstances under which this book professes to have been written will be mentioned more at length presently. We have said it is not a history, but the narration of a vision, in which the writer's whole thoughts are absorbed and directed from himself to the glorious image of Him who is the chief personage in the vision, and in the great events

of the long drama of the world's and the church's destiny, which was in vision set before him. We should have no reason, therefore, to be disappointed if there were no information as to the author's personal history to be gained from the Revelation. Again, the three letters of St. John (the Epistle General, that to the Elect Lady, and that to Gaius) are very short, containing in all only seven chapters. It might, therefore, not unnaturally be expected, that neither from these nor from his other writings could we gain much insight into the history of St. John's life at Ephesus. This, however, is not the case. Attentively considered, these several writings greatly illustrate that history. There is much in them which agrees with the traditional history of him who is their reputed author. We will consider the Gospel first.

The following account is given by Jerome of the composition of St. John's Gospel. It is said that the Apostle called together the presbyters of the church of Ephesus for a common fast. They requested him to compose a narrative of the Lord's life, and then suddenly, as if by miracle, he broke forth, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Jerome lived about three hundred years after St. John. We are safer, therefore, in adopting the simpler account of Irenæus, who was separated from the Apostle by no long interval of time, and he relates merely the general fact of St. John's being asked by the church of Ephesus to compose a new Gospel.

Taking for granted that this Gospel was written by St. John, it is most probable that it was the work of the latter portion of his protracted life, and that it was composed at Ephesus. Looking at the work itself, we learn that obviously it was written at a distance from Judæa. This the explanations indicate which it so often gives when Jewish places, names, and customs are mentioned. These would not have been needed if it had been written in Judæa while the Jews were still a nation. Some, indeed, have thought that this Gospel could not have been composed after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans; otherwise, they urge, it must have distinctly mentioned that event, so overwhelming in its interest to every Jew. But the critical arguments on the other side outweigh this consideration. It will appear from an examination of the book that obviously it was written after the other Gospels, for we cannot naturally explain its peculiar structure unless, with all the great commen

tators from the earliest times, we look upon it as supplementary to these; hold that it was composed to fill up what the other Evangelists had omitted in their accounts of our Saviour's life. This we learn from looking at the contents of the book. Obviously, also, we learn from the whole tone of the Gospel that it was written with a view to counteract certain erroneous doctrines, which did not spring up in the church till the first century was far advanced, and of which the main seat was Ephesus and the surrounding districts. This last point, as borne out by an examination of the book itself, is one of great importance, and we must look at it leisurely.

St. John's name has come down to us as the Apostle of Love, but he may also be called the Apostle of Philosophy. That strange mixture of the eastern heathen philosophy with the pure Gospel of Christ, which led so many astray at the close of the first and the beginning of the second century, was nowhere more actively dangerous than in the provinces of Asia. St. John, living there, seemed reserved to a good old age for this special purpose, that he might meet these rising dangers. Now it is clear as to the author of this Gospel, that his own turn of mind, as shown throughout the treatise, was that of a man fully able to enter into all the difficulties of that somewhat mystical line of speculation which had led so many astray. He was accustomed, evidently, in the meditations of his own deep-searching spirit, to gaze intently on those great truths as to the nature of the Godhead, and his influence on the human soul, which, with all their faults, the eastern Gnostics still delighted to think of. It appears from very many passages in the Gospel, nay, from the whole tone of it, that the author was not devoid of sympathy for these men. To judge from his writings, he must have known well those longings of the philosophic spirit, which, in religious men, guided by the Spirit of God, lead to so lofty a devotion, while in the self-confident and the worldly they but result in hopeless mysticism. The eagle gazing on the sun is the well-known emblem by which the early church delighted to typify St. John gazing on the bright mysteries of heaven. Now read the first chapter of the Gospel. Read his account of the discourse of our Lord with Nicodemus, or with the woman of Samaria, or with the Jews after the cure of the man who was born blind, or with the disciples on the night before the Crucifixion. The human instrument employed to record

the account of these wonderful discourses must, from the way in which he treats of them, evidently have had a mind which found its highest delight in the contemplation of the highest mysteries of religion. St. John amongst inspired writers, has often been compared to Plato amongst the heathens; and doubtless there is in both this kindred element, that neither is contented even with the best and noblest of things seen and felt; both, delighting to penetrate to things unseen, allowed their speculative faculties to range aloft in those brighter regions beyond the ken of man, which are near the very central habitation of the Godhead, or to look with reverence into the innermost recesses of the spirit and soul in human nature. Hence those who have loved Plato amongst human philosophers, have ever loved St. John amongst inspired divines. The heathen, however we prize his reverent spirit, falls immeasurably short of the Apostle, both in his aspirations and in what he finds himself privileged to unfold; but both the. heathen philosopher and the Apostle, so far as this is possible in cases so dissimilar, set to work in the same way. There is in the two an evident similarity in the cast of thought; though the heathen is but groping after God, if haply he may find Him, and the Apostle feels that he has long known and loved Him as revealed in Jesus Christ. Now this peculiar character which marks the fourth Gospel suited its author well to be the champion of Christ's pure truth against the Gnostic teachers, in whose near neighbourhood, all extant history or tradition tells us, St. John spent his latter years. And if we examine the writings attributed to St. John we find them to abound with evident allusions to their errors. All critics have pointed out many in the Gospel. It is impossible to go through these in detail here, but there is the strongest reason to conclude, from internal as well as from external evidence, that is, from examining the Gospel itself as well as from what other writers tell us of it, that this Gospel was written in those later years when St. John dwelt at Ephesus. And what work could be more suitable for the old age of this great Apostle, the beloved earthly friend of Christ? How must his heart have swelled as the Spirit of God recalled to his memory the scenes of his early youth! What rapture to live over again in minute detail those three years in which he was privileged to move daily in the most intimate society of one such as the world, except at that eventful time, had never seen! How must it

have soothed his spirit and strengthened his faith to recall those wonderful discourses, scarcely understood when they were first heard, but now bursting clearly with all their force on his matured spirit, seeing that he had not known for many years that He who spoke them was the Son of God! And how must the dramatic force in which all these long-passed events now crowded on his memory have cheered him with bright anticipations for the future. It was the pride and delight of his life to remember that He whom his eyes had seen in the flesh, his ears heard, and his hands handled whom he had beheld at once suffering such dreadful things, and yet manifested so plainly, even in his human nature, to have such marvellous power was still living his all-powerful friend, and would soon call him to himself that he might be freed from all suffering and sin! Thus notwithstanding all discouragements of growing heresy, St. John's old age must have enjoyed the purest spiritual delight; and what more natural than that he should have spent it in writing down such a record as we possess in the fourth Gospel ?

If it is a delight to a man of genius to compose a great work at any time, what must it have been to an inspired Apostle to compose such a work? He must have known that God destined it to give comfort and bright heavenly thoughts to men under all trials till the end of time. Truly, of all books that have been ever written, this Gospel may be pronounced the noblest. No tongue can tell the value of its twenty-one brief chapters. No poem, no work of philosophy, no history that was ever written, is to be compared with this short book in the power with which it has stirred men's hearts and spirits in their retirement, and guided their actions, and thus affected the destinies of man's race.

Besides the Gospel attributed to St. John, we have the three Epistles. These also would naturally be referred to his old age. The first Epistle, it has been well remarked, is almost a practical commentary on the Gospel. Also, as we read it, we have vividly brought before us the image of the aged Apostle addressing words of deepest spiritual import to three generations of men, above all of whom he stood in age as much as dignity-"I write unto you, fathers; I write unto you, young men ; I write unto you, little children." To all he speaks of the deep mystery of the union

* Stanley, p. 254.

† 1 John ii. 13.

And the Apostle warms into still greater severity than heretofore against those who despise this doctrine and fall into evil ways. (Verses 10, 11)" If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds." The aged Apostle, the elder (ó πpeoßútepos), as he calls himself in the first verse, still speaks as one who was able to move from place to place visiting the churches. (Ver. 12). Having many things to write, I would not write with paper and ink; but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face."

between the Father and the Son. He in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God." speaks of Christ, both here and in the There is the same source of consolation as Gospel, by a new name the Word of life. in the First Epistle offered to those who He reminds them how privileged he had remain faithful, the prospect of a union in been in his early years to hear, see, and han-heart of such with God through Christdle this Divine Being in the days of his flesh." He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, While he speaks of pardon through the Re- he hath both the Father and the Son." deemer's intercession, he urges on all the necessity of holy living. To all he speaks as one whose especial mission it was to preach of love; (chap. iii.) the love of God to men, and (chap. ii. 10) the love which men ought to have one to another. And then throughout the whole there is a sad impression that some dangerous system opposing itself to pure Christianity was busily at work.* "Ye have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now are there many Antichrists." t "Men who have gone out from us, because they were not of us," are spoken of as spreading a doctrine of lies. He points out how the Spirit of God changing the heart, and uniting it to God and Christ, is the only safeguard against sinful practice and ruinous false doctrine. § For warning, lest men should recklessly persist in despising God, he speaks severely of sin which is unto death, which it is vain to pray for; and ends with affectionate entreaty to his people to beware of the snares of the heathen world in the midst of which they lived -"Little children, keep yourselves from idols."

When we examine, then, the contents of this Epistle, we find that all the parts of it agree with the idea of its being written by an Apostle of Christ when he was an old man, and was living in such a state of society as prevailed at Ephesus in the end of the first century.

Again, we learn from the contents even of the few verses of the Second and Third Epistles that we shall not be wrong if we refer their composition to the same time and place. Impossible as it is for us to ascertain who was the elect lady to whom the Second Epistle was written, or who the well-beloved Gaius of the Third, we still have clear intimations in these short letters of the sort of dangers to which the persons thus addressed were exposed. Thus, Second Epistle, ver. 7:"Many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh." Here is a clear allusion to Gnostic subtleties, explaining away the history of Christ's human life. This is a deceiver and an Antichrist. Look to yourselves. Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not


[blocks in formation]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

[ocr errors]

Thus, if we regard this Second Epistle as written by St. John in his old age in Asia, we shall, considering how very short it is, find more intimations agreeing with this hypothesis and with the account before given of the position which St. John so long occupied in the Asiatic churches, than we could have expected in so brief a space. The same is to be said of the Third Epistle. Gaius is the old apostle's child (ver. 4). The writer exercises authority over the churches of the neighbourhood, and does not scruple when necessary to exercise that authority with sternness. He is represented (ver. 9) as in the habit of writing to the churches to communicate his apostolic commands, and from time to time visiting them. Some factious man, Diotrephes, setting himself up as a leader, has disputed this authority, and claimed an unwarranted lordship in the church. "Wherefore," he says (ver. 10), "if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church."

A careful critical examination, then, of these writings, brings before us many facts which agree well with what tradition and all early history tell us of the place where St. John passed his latter years, of the sort of position which he occupied in the churches, of the dangers with which he had to contend, and of the mode in which he applied himself to meet these dangers.

Certainly also the beginning of the Book of the Revelation confirms the same views.

against him the passions of the heathens. In the tenth verse, the Apostle warns the church of Smyrna that such days of persecution were coming on. They might be delayed for a time; but certainly when they did come, the church would recall the Apostle's words, and Polycarp, whether they were addressed directly to him or no, would be much comforted by them when he was led to the stake, some years after this epistle was written. The words in the close of the tenth verse must have then sounded in his ears, "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life."

We learn from this book that circumstances | enemies, and that day maliciously inflamed have separated the writer for a time from these Asiatic churches: he is in the island of Patmos, and writes to them from a distance by the command of the Great Being to whom his life is devoted, and whom he sees in vision on the Lord's-day. The churches addressed are the seven churches of Asia; * and their circumstances, as represented in the addresses of the second and third chapters, are such as the other historical data we have already examined, with regard to the state of these churches at the close of the first century, would lead us to expect. Even in Ephesus, where St. Paul had so successfully laboured, and where now St. John himself habitually dwelt, the first love of the church to his heavenly Master had grown somewhat cold. Therefore the Apostle solemnly, and even sternly, warns the Ephesians, in Christ's name, that Christ will come and remove their candlestick out of its place unless they repent. But still he speaks to them in praise. They are beset with dangers of false teaching, and are, on the whole, faith-ried off to Egypt and presented to his misfully resisting it. He speaks of evil men among them, whom they have tried and cannot bear, who say they are apostles and are not, and have been found to be liars; and the name of these heretics is given they are of the sect of the Nicolaitans. To the other churches he writes in language which is similar, varying with their several circumstances. To the church of Smyrna he speaks of the blasphemous teaching of men which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.

[ocr errors]

Smyrna, still a great city of Asia Minor, about sixty miles north of Ephesus, was, in those days as now, famous for its commerce. It may be remembered that Smyrna was the church of Polycarp, the disciple and intimate friend of St. John, martyred in his old age. § Polycarp may well have been bishop of that church at this very time. Some have even thought they see an allusion to his name in the ninth verse. "But thou art rich" (the Greek name Polycarp means "rich in fruits"). Certainly he was appointed to his office in this church in St. John's days. The mention of the Jews in this place (whose rage against the church of God, and blasphemy against Christ, showed them not to be of the true Israel, but the synagogue of Satan), agrees well with what we read in the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, that the Jews were the most violent of his

Revelation i. 4.

The next church mentioned is that in Pergamos, which is again about sixty miles west of Smyrna. It had been the capital of an ancient kingdom, the last independent king of which had not very long since appointed the sovereign Roman people to be his heir. The city was still important, though it had lost its greatest treasure, the famous library of its kings, which Mark Antony had car

tress Cleopatra. There was in the city at
this time a famous temple to the heathen god
of the healing art, Esculapius, worshipped
under his emblem of the Serpent. It seems
not unnatural to conclude that it is to this
temple and the temptations of its worship
that the writer of the Revelation alludes
when he says, ver. 13, "I know where thou
dwellest, even where Satan's seat is," that is,
where the worship of devils has its seat, and
the heathen god is worshipped under the
emblem appropriated to the devil, the old ser-
pent. Verse 13 speaks of some violent out-
break against the church, in which some
faithful servant of Christ had lost his life.
Antipas may be a real name, or, as some
have supposed, it may be, like other names
which occur in the Revelation, a symbolical
name, denoting that the person spoken of
had struggled against all, contending with
an evil world against all its wickedness.†
In this church also, as much as at Ephesus,
we are told, ver. 14, that the Nicolaitans
were at work, and the licentious character
of their lives and teaching, as well as their
laxity in mixing Christianity with hea-
thenism -
a point in which they resembled
so many of the late Gnostics is set forth
in the fourteenth verse," I have a few things
against thee, because thou hast them that
hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught

Hengstenberg, in loc.

+ Hengstenberg maintains that úvrínas is

Hengstenberg in Rev., Transl. Edin, 1851, vol. i. formed regularly like úvríxploroc.

Revelation ii. 5.
Hengstenberg in loc.

See Hengstenberg for the common opinion that "Nicolaitans" is a translation from "Bafaamite."

« PreviousContinue »