“John: The Once and Future Witness,” Ensign, Dec. 1991, 51
As one of the original Twelve Apostles, John has shared his witness of the Lord’s divinity through many long centuries of time. He was with Jesus at the beginning of His ministry and was still serving at the end of the first century A.D. In this dispensation, as a translated being, he continues his work with the tribes of Israel in preparation for the Lord’s second coming.
John’s writings are also noted for their scope: his Gospel focuses on important doctrines not recorded in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; his three epistles proclaim the light and love of Christ; and his Revelation uniquely prophesies of events preceding the millennial era. Only Paul contributed more books to the New Testament. Without John’s writings, modern Saints would lack some of the most profound teachings in the New Testament.
We first learn of John when he was part of a family fishing business at the Sea of Galilee. (Mark 1:19–20.) He was also a disciple of John the Baptist, but he later joined Jesus at the beginning of the Savior’s ministry. (John 1:35–39; Bible Dictionary, p. 685.) John, his brother James, and Peter formed an inner circle of Apostles who were with Jesus when he raised Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:37–42), was transfigured (Mark 9:2), and suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32–33). After Christ’s death, the three were known as the pillars of the Christian Church. (Gal. 2:9.)
After James was slain by King Herod Agrippa around A.D. 44 (Acts 12:2–3), John probably became leader of the Church in Jerusalem. Sometime between A.D. 50 and 60 he moved to Ephesus, where he directed the Church in Asia Minor. From Eusebius, we learn that John traveled throughout the northern Mediterranean lands preaching the gospel and performing works of faith, including raising one man from the dead. (Ecclesiastical History of the Church, 5.18.)
After Peter was martyred during the mid-60s, John became the presiding Apostle. Eusebius records that during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian, around A.D. 95, John was confined on the island of Patmos. (Ibid., 3.18.) After Domitian’s death, John returned to Ephesus (Ibid., 3.20), where he lived until the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98–117), when he disappeared in fulfillment of the prophecy in John 21:23–24.
Because of the volume and complexity of John’s writings, this article can survey only key events and teachings in his major writings. The intent is to help clarify John’s areas of emphasis so readers can approach their study of his work more systematically.
It is generally believed that John wrote his Gospel in the mid-80s, while at Ephesus. His testament was the last one written and contains a number of unique contributions. While the other evangelists preserved historical facts of Jesus’ ministry, John wrote an account based on deeper spiritual teachings for mature members of the Church who were already familiar with the other Gospels. In this way, John complements rather than completes the three synoptic Gospels.1
John records long doctrinal discourses and dialogues. His stated purpose is twofold: (1) that readers “might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” and (2) that believers “might have life through his name.” (John 20:31.) John emphasizes the commandment of love and stresses the importance of the Holy Spirit’s companionship. (John 13:34–35; John 14:25–26; John 15:9–17; John 16:7–15.) He seeks vigorously to show that power over evil comes primarily through faith in the Son of God. (John 3:18–21; John 17:15–19.) Appropriately, Joseph Smith identified the Gospel of John as the Testimony of John in his inspired translation of the Bible.
Scholars often organize the Gospel of John into four areas:
Miraculous Signs of the Lord
Five of seven signs of the Lord recorded by John are found only in his Gospel.2 These miracles illustrate the Savior’s power and also parallel the increasing public awareness of Christ’s ministry as time goes by. For example, the first sign—the Savior’s turning water into wine—demonstrated the Savior’s power over the material elements, but only his mother and the servants were aware of the miracle. The second sign, healing the nobleman’s son, showed the Master’s powers over the physical body and over time and space. This time more people were aware of the healing. The third sign, healing the crippled man, demonstrated the Savior’s healing powers and caused much public attention. The fourth sign, feeding the multitudes, was an obvious miracle witnessed by thousands. The fifth sign, the Savior’s walking on the water, was not witnessed by many; but it is a spectacular event that most think of when they remember the miracles of Jesus. The sixth sign, Christ’s healing the blind man, was a powerful miracle that quickly generated much excitement throughout Jerusalem. The seventh sign was the high point in a crescendo of messianic expectations: the Savior raised Lazarus from the grave.
Ultimately, of course, the greatest miracle of all is the atonement and resurrection of Christ, toward which these seven miracles point and which serve as the capstone of John’s testimony of the Son of God.
Aside from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) and the Master’s parables, most of the Lord’s teachings are found in John’s Gospel. In recording these discourses, John used a teaching technique that juxtaposed opposite or contrasting ideas. Early in the Savior’s ministry, for example, Nicodemus, a leader in the Jewish Sanhedrin, came to him in the dark of night. Shortly afterward, Jesus approached a stranger, a Samaritan woman, in the brightness of day. The contrasts between these two situations are both obvious and implied: man/woman; night/day; Jew/Samaritan; rich/poor; curious investigator/indifferent stranger; coming to Jesus/approached by Jesus; no word of commitment by Nicodemus/public testimony by the woman. (John 3:1–21; John 4:5–30, 39–42.) The list could go on. By using such a technique, John seems to suggest that at any time, in any set of circumstances, Jesus would share profound truths with any person willing to listen.
A few months later, Jesus entered Jerusalem to declare some bold doctrines about his special relationship with God, his Father. Here, as in his bread of life discourse and his teachings during the feast of tabernacles, the contrasts are even more powerful as he talks about good and evil, light and darkness, faith and unbelief, and the greatest extremes of existence—life and death. (John 5:19–43.) In his last discourses to the Apostles, he taught about love for others while his enemies plotted with a traitor to bring about the Savior’s death. (John 13:3–35.)
The “I AM” Pronouncements
Found mostly in the discourses just described are seven references to the divine nature of Jesus—all using the significant preface “I AM.” This emphatic form of speech is unusual in Greek, since the personal subject of the verb, the pronoun I, is not normally expressed. However, this pattern is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, particularly when rendering words spoken by God. The phrase “I AM” echoes earlier Israelite history when Moses asked Jehovah who he should say had sent him as a prophet to Israel. The Lord told him to say, “I AM hath sent me unto you.” (Ex. 3:14.) Similar references to “the Great I AM”—Jesus Christ—appear in the Doctrine and Covenants. (D&C 29:1; D&C 38:1; D&C 39:1.)
The declaration that best encompasses these pronouncements is found in John 14:6. Jesus, in talking to the Apostles about his critical role in their salvation, says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” Eternal life comes only through Christ. (See also Moses 1:39.)
John begins his Gospel by describing the premortal Jesus as being “with God,” then goes on to record a number of events in Jesus’ life that give us unique insights into the Master’s attitudes and feelings. For example, we see Jesus’ wisdom when he is confronted by Jewish leaders who have discovered an adulterous woman. He knows that his enemies will criticize any sentence he pronounces, so he wisely puts the burden of responsibility on them, at the same time exhibiting a sensitive concern for the woman’s embarrassment. Whereas she had been the focal point of a public scandal and trial, she was now able to quietly return home and, with the Savior’s encouragement, repent of her sins. (John 8:3–11.)
We see Jesus’ courage as he teaches plainly and powerfully in the presence of his enemies during the feast of dedication. (John 10:22–39.) His tender feelings and high priorities are shown as he visits his friends in Bethany. (John 12:1–11.) His attitudes toward service are seen in the events in the Upper Room. (John 13:2–17, 23–35.) His incredible compassion is revealed during his arrest and crucifixion. In particular, we appreciate the concern Jesus showed for his mother. (John 19:25–27.)
As a counterpoint, John shows us contrasting human responses to Christ in two episodes—Mary Magdalene’s immediate acceptance of the Savior’s resurrection, even though she doesn’t touch him; and Thomas’s slow and deliberate acceptance, postponed until he could actually touch the Master’s wounds. (John 20:1–17, 24–29.)
John also recorded Jesus’ post-resurrection ministry near the Sea of Galilee, including the resurrected Savior’s eating fish with his disciples (John 21:7–14), Peter’s being told to “feed my sheep” and “follow me” (John 21:15–19), and Christ’s alluding to John’s future translation (John 21:20–24; comp. 3 Ne. 28:1–10, D&C 7).
John probably wrote his three letters of exhortation and explanation around A.D. 95. These epistles are thus among the latest writings recorded in the New Testament. The first and longest letter was a commentary on the main themes of his Gospel. Addressed to all believers, it not only countered the secessionist and gnostic heresies spreading in Asia Minor, but also amplified Christ’s testimony of himself as a God of light and love. It also included John’s testimony of how and why believers should respond to their own witness of Christ’s divinity.
In his first epistle, John focuses on the fellowship and eternal life to be found in the Savior’s light and love. (John 1:1–7; John 2:25; John 4:7–21; John 5:11, 13, 20.) Scholars often divide the letter into the following segments:
Prologue (1 John 1:1–4). This introduction is similar to the first chapter in John’s Gospel.3 The claim to eyewitness testimony harmonizes with the fact that John was Jesus’ disciple from the earliest days of the Savior’s public ministry.
God is light (1 John 1:5–2:11). Contrasting light and sin, John gives five ways to recognize Christ’s followers: His disciples are those who walk in the light (1 John 1:5–7), confess their sins (1 John 1:8–10), repent of their sins (JST, 1 John. 2:1–2), keep the commandments (1 John 2:3–6), and love each other (1 John 2: 7–11).4 These steps summarize the experience of any Saint who has “seen the light” and entered the path of Christian discipleship.
Commendations, admonitions, and warnings (1 John 2:12–27). The authoritative tone of these passages is what would be expected from a senior, seasoned Apostle. His description of heretics as anti-Christs and liars is consistent with John’s appellation as a “son of thunder.” (Mark 3:17.)
Children of God (1 John 2:28–3:24). God’s children are recognized by their righteous conduct—by living up to the standard exemplified by Christ. Specifically, they will have confidence in Christ (1 John 2:28–29), become like him (1 John 3:1–3), do right (1 John 3:4–10), love one another (1 John 3:11–18), and keep the commandments (1 John 3:19–24).
Discerning between God and the anti-Christ (1 John 4:1–6). The importance of knowing the difference between truth and lies, life and death, light and darkness, love and hate is a constant theme in John’s writings. He uses two Greek verbs, usually translated as know, forty-two times in this letter alone.
God is love (1 John 4:7–5:5). The early part of this epistle is dominated by the theme that God is light, the latter part by the affirmation that “God is love.” Part of our purpose on earth is to come to know God. John emphasizes that love (1 John 4:7, 12) and faith (1 John 4:15; 1 John 5:1, 5) are the means to that knowledge. They are, in fact, the path to eternal life (John 17:3.) The word love is used thirty-four times in these twenty verses, which highlight at least five characteristics of love: God, through his Son, is the source of love (1 John 4:7–12); love is a gift of faith received through the Spirit (1 John 4:13–16); love brings confidence and dispels fear (1 John 4:17–18); love of God is manifest in our love for others (1 John 4:19–21); and the ultimate reward of keeping God’s commandment to love is to share in his Son’s victory (1 John 5:1–5). For John, these are the cardinal principles of Christian discipleship.
Epilogue (1 John 5:6–21). John compares three elements involved in physical birth—water, blood, and spirit—with the elements necessary for rebirth as a child of God. (Compare Moses 6:59–60.) This spiritual rebirth involves baptism in water, the atoning blood of Christ, and the confirming power of the Spirit. In this context, John reviews the divine nature of the Godhead and admonishes the Saints to overcome sin and follow Christ.
In the Upper Room, John had heard the Savior say, “Love one another.” (John 13:34.) Over and over again John echoed that commandment. It was the central theme of his first epistle. Indeed, it was the message of his life.
These two letters are brief and less significant than John’s other writings. The second epistle was written to counter the influence of false teachers. Some of the missionaries traveling among the Saints were true representatives of the Apostles. Others, however, came from apostate groups who were trying to win followers for their particular philosophies. John cautioned the Saints not to house apostates unintentionally and thus contribute to the propagation of their heresies.
John’s third letter addresses a congregation having trouble with a local leader. John first commends Gaius, a concerned member, for his hospitality to John’s messengers. Then he chastises Diotrephes, the abusive leader, for his arrogance, inhospitality, slanderings, and dictatorial practices.
Like those persons originally addressed, most Latter-day Saints have also struggled to distinguish the Lord’s teachings from worldly philosophies. John’s letters can help us separate light from darkness and better emulate the Son of God.5
Around A.D. 95, Roman authorities began to enforce a cult of emperor worship. Since true Christians would worship only the Lord, the Emperor Domitian banished many and confiscated their property. John was sentenced to confinement on the island of Patmos, where he remained at least a year. It was here that he received the great apocalyptic visions recorded in the book of Revelation.
Revelation is often organized into seven main parts. Symbolic numbers and images are scattered throughout the book, representing key powers, persons, and events in the last days. One dominant figure is the number seven (symbolizing wholeness or completeness), which appears fifty-two times.6
Prologue (Rev. 1:1–8)
The introduction includes a preface, a brief greeting to the seven churches in Asia Minor, and a doxology (praises to the Lord). John received these words from an angel and from Jesus. (JST, Rev. 1:5.) The Joseph Smith Translation adds that the words of Revelation will bless those who understand them, for the time of the Lord’s coming is drawing near. The JST doxology also presents a more complete summary of the events that will occur at Christ’s second coming.
John received this vision on the Lord’s day, or Sunday. As the vision opens, John describes the resurrected Christ with a clarity rarely found in the scriptures. He also describes Christ’s eternal power and purposes. For example, verse 8 identifies the Lord as Alpha and Omega (the beginning and the end)—a Greek phrase found only in this last book of the Bible. This verse also uses titles for the Lord from the earliest part of the Bible. One of these comes from Genesis—the Hebrew title El Shaddai, God Almighty. (Gen. 17:1; Gen. 28:3; Gen. 35:11; Gen. 49:25.) Thus, imagery from the entire Bible is compacted into this one verse to identify Jesus as the Creator, the God of Israel, the resurrected Savior, the Everlasting Father of those who follow him.
The Epistles to the Seven Churches (Rev. 2:1–3:22)
A part of John’s vision was a series of letters to seven Christian centers in Asia Minor. A four-part pattern is repeated in each epistle: The Church members in that area are addressed, usually borrowing terminology from John’s vision of Christ (Rev. 1:13–18); the works of the members are identified; a call to repentance is issued; and a blessing is promised to those who overcome evil and adversity.
John observed that the Ephesians had rejected apostates, but in avoiding confrontation they had also lost their previous zeal. The Saints in Smyrna were commended for their faithfulness in times of poverty and were also warned of impending persecution. The members in Pergamos had endured sufferings but also harbored apostates. The Church members in Thyatira included both charitable and immoral members. The congregation in Sardis was spiritually dead, although a few Saints had maintained their worthiness. The Philadelphians had remained obedient and steadfast. The Laodiceans, however, were lukewarm and materialistic.
We face similar challenges today. But we are also heirs to the same promises John made to the faithful in his day: the righteous will eat from the tree of life (Rev. 2:7); avoid the second death, which is spiritual death (Rev. 2:11); enjoy heavenly nourishment and receive a special white stone (Rev. 2:17); share divine authority (Rev. 2:26); wear white robes and have Jesus as their advocate (Rev. 3:5); receive new names in God’s temple (Rev. 3:12); and enjoy the presence of the Father and the Son (Rev. 3:21).
The Vision of Heaven and Earth (Rev. 4:1–16:21)
This vision highlights key events to occur immediately preceding the Millennium: conversations in the divine throne room (Rev. 4:1–5:14), the opening of seals representing seven thousand years of history (Rev. 6:1–8:1), the blowing of trumpets announcing seven catastrophes (Rev. 8:2–9:21, Rev. 11:15), a mighty angel standing on land and sea (Rev. 10:1–11:19), symbols of the great struggles between the forces of good and evil (Rev. 12:1–13:18), voices of victory announcing the Lord’s judgments (Rev. 14:1–15:8), and seven terrible plagues to be sent upon the wicked (Rev. 16:1–21).
Of particular interest is chapter 10, which contains a prophecy of John’s mission in the restoration of all things. [Rev. 10] In D&C 7:5, Joseph Smith indicates that John has a greater work to do in the last days than that which he had done previously. That work included helping to restore the Melchizedek Priesthood and transferring special priesthood keys. (See headings of D&C 13 and D&C 18; see also D&C 27:12; D&C 128:20.) John’s greatest latter-day work may be his efforts to prepare the tribes of Israel for their gathering. (D&C 77:14.)
The Vision from the Wilderness (Rev. 17:1–21:8)
In this vision, John views scenes of the earth’s end. The scenes are arranged in a chiastic pattern:
a. Babylon, the wicked world, is unveiled (Rev. 17:1–18)
b. Babylon is judged (Rev. 18:1–24)
c. Rejoicing takes place in heaven (Rev. 19:1–10)
d. Christ’s victory is completed (Rev. 19:11–21)
c. The millennial era takes place (Rev. 20:7–15)
b. Satan and his followers receive a final judgment (Rev. 20:7–15)
a. A new celestial world is unveiled (Rev. 21:1–8).
The pivotal point (d) is the marvelous appearance of the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings as he prevails over his enemies. These two titles represent Christ’s spiritual power as the head of his church and his political power as the supreme ruler on earth.
Vision from a Mountain (Rev. 21:9–22:17)
John next sees the New Jerusalem descending from heaven filled with the glory of Christ’s presence. (Rev. 21:9–27.) This is the Jerusalem of the eternities, where those who have faithfully followed Jesus and received celestial bodies can enjoy the highest blessings of spiritual life and glory. John also describes a river and tree of life surrounded by the light of Christ’s radiance. (Rev. 22:1–5.) He concludes with various angelic and messianic witnesses, inviting all to the waters of life. (Rev. 22:6–17.)
Epilogue (Rev. 22:18–21)
John concludes the book of Revelation by warning scribes not to change any of his prophecies. He testifies of Christ’s coming and gives his apostolic blessing.
John’s witness of the Lord is unique. His Gospel and epistles record some of the Savior’s noblest feelings and doctrines, especially His message of love. His great apocalyptic vision reveals key events of the last days. And his role in the gospel’s restoration, especially his service among the lost tribes of Israel, paves the way for Christ’s millennial reign. Truly, John is a once and future witness, preparing God’s children throughout the ages to receive their Lord and King.8