THE SON OF THUNDER
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-28-90 10:50 a.m.
You are now part of our dear First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled John, the Son of Thunder.
In our preaching in Mark, in the third chapter, beginning at verse 14, our Lord “ordained twelve”—the twelve apostles—“that they should be with Him, and that He should send them forth to preach” [Mark 3:14]. That’s what apostle means: a sent one. “Simon He surnamed Peter; and James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James, He surnamed [them] Boanerges, which is, The Sons of Thunder” [Mark 3:16-17]. The Hebrew, bene regesh, bene regesh, take it through the Greek, take it through the Latin, finally into English—Boanerges; John, the Son of Thunder.
Some generalities about him. When the insurrection came to pass in Israel against the Roman yoke, in 68 AD, Vespasian was sent by the emperor to quell it. And John, at that time, fled from Israel to make his home in Ephesus. And he lived there in that capital of the Asian province of Rome beyond one hundred years of age. You read that in your passage of Scripture just now. They thought Jesus said he would never die. Though Jesus didn’t say, “Thou shalt never die,” but said, “If I will that he tarry until I come, what is that to thee? Simon Peter, you follow Me unto crucifixion and death” [John 21:22].
Vespasian was called back to Rome upon the death of the emperor, and his son Titus was left as general of the Roman armies that destroyed the nation, destroyed Jerusalem. It remained in annihilation until your lifetime, in May of 1948.
When Titus died in 89 AD, he was followed by Domitian, and Domitian remained as emperor until 98. It was in the days of Domitian that John was exiled to Patmos [Revelation 1:9]. Suetonius, who is a Roman historian, says that every document and every discourse presented by Domitian was to begin with, “Our Lord and God, Domitian.”
Upon the death of Domitian, Nerva was crowned as emperor of the empire. He was a noble Roman and interdicted all of the decrees of Domitian. So under Nerva, John had opportunity to return from Patmos, where he was exiled to die of exposure and starvation [Revelation 1:9]. John was privileged to return back to Ephesus. And he remained there when Nerva died in 98. He had reigned just a while. Trajan came to be the emperor of his great empire. And Irenaeus, the church father, says that John died under the reign of Trajan beyond a hundred years of age. When you remember that Simon Peter was crucified in about 65 AD, you see how much longer John lived than any other of the apostles.
John’s name is the most commonly bestowed upon a boy out of all of the nomenclatures in humanity. John: the name means in Hebrew, “Jehovah is gracious.” And how many times do you see a lad named John, and a man named John? John Chrysostom, John the “Golden Mouth,” the incomparable preacher in Constantinople in the 300s. John Wycliffe. John Huss. John Calvin. John Knox. John Wesley. The first president of the Baptist World Alliance, John Clifford. The name is more common than any other name in human history.
He belonged to a very fine family. Here in the Gospel of Mark, in chapter 1, his father is spoken of as having hired servants in his fishing business [Mark 1:20]. His mother’s name was Salome [Mark 15:40 with Matthew 27:56]. She was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus [John 19:25], which would make James and John and Jesus cousins. James is hardly known because he was martyred under Herod Agrippa I, told to us in the twelfth chapter in the Book of Acts [Acts 12:1-2].
John was endowed with one of the most brilliant minds in human history. Plato, the great Greek philosopher was taught by Socrates; John was taught by Jesus. In the fourth chapter of the Book of Acts it says when Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin, they took knowledge of them, cognizance of them, that they were private and unlearned, unschooled men. But they had been with Jesus [Acts 4:13]. Think of having your teacher the Lord Jesus, incarnate God.
The tremendously gifted Jewish philosopher, Philo, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and who was a contemporary of John—this Philo wrote a book on the logos. But it is a notion under Philo; it is an impersonal attempt to represent God. But under John, the Logos is the personal Lord God incarnate in Christ Jesus. And as he describes the Logos, the Word, in the first chapter of his Gospel [John 1:1-4], and in the first chapter of 1 John, his letter [1 John 1:1-4], there is nothing in human literature or in human language to equal the brilliance of that marvelous revelation and presentation.
Looking at him as the world perceives him, John is always depicted as very feminine. In stained-glass windows and in art and in literature, there is no exception to it. I have never seen an exception. John is always presented as youthful, unbearded. I have never seen him pictured with a beard. His features are delicate and quiet and mystic, feminine. Always, he is depicted as very young.
The actual John in the Bible is altogether different. He is John, the son of thunder, Boanerges [Mark 3:17]. James and John, those sons of Zebedee, when there was a Samaritan village that would not receive the Lord Jesus, they asked the Lord, “Lord, give us power to bring fire down from heaven and burn them up, as it was in the days of Elijah” [Luke 9:54]. That’s John.
One of the occasions of John’s life is presented in the Bible. There was a man they came across who was casting out demons in the name of the Lord Jesus. And John accosted him and forbade him and interdicted him because he wasn’t a follower, really, of the Lord [Luke 9:49]. That’s John. He was volitive, he was thunderous. And one of the things you will read here in the Bible, here in Mark, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said, “Would You give us what we desire?” [Mark 10:35].
And the Lord said, “What would it be?” [Mark 10:36].
And they said, “Grant us that one of us would sit on Your right hand and one of us would sit on Your left hand when You come into Your glory” [Mark 10:37]. They were ambitious, not only thunderous and not only volitive, but they were very ambitious.
Well, what of that? There is a side to that that is good, that is excellent, superb. A ship that is crossing the ocean, if it is moving, you can steer it, you can change its course, but a ship that is dead and in a trough and drifting, you can’t do anything with it. Take again, a piece of steel, like a surgeon’s instrument that has temper. You can sharpen it to an edge. But if it is a piece of dull, mass iron, there is not anything you can do with it. Our Lord said to the church at Laodicea, “Because you are neither cold, nor hot, I will spew thee out of My mouth” [Revelation 3:15-16]. You make Me sick.
If someone is volitive and viable and full of life and energy, you can do something with them. But if they are dead and inert and unmoved, there is not anything that you can do with them. That’s John. He was full of intensest life and vigor.
I speak now of the Gospel that he wrote, the Fourth Gospel. John when he wrote that Gospel was in his old, old age, nearing a hundred years of age. He had meditated upon the life and meaning of the ministry of our Lord for decades and decades, and he wrote out of that long communion and personal relationship with our Lord God, the precious Savior in heaven. The most wonderful organ of the body is the eye. And the most marvelous faculty of the soul is the eye of the heart. And John writes, out of his love and experience with Jesus, that Fourth Gospel. It is the profoundest revelation and discussion and presentation of the inscrutable doctrine of the Trinity to be found in human literature. There is nothing like it.
The language of the Fourth Gospel is plain beyond compare. The Greek of the Fourth Gospel of John is very, very simple. Yet he takes that tremendous doctrine of the Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—and presents it in a precious and beautiful form.
I speak first of his presentation of God the Father. How beautifully does he write that the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth! “For the Father seeketh such to worship Him” [John 4:23].
“My Father, who gave these to Me, is greater than all. And no”—you have it “man,” in italics—“no one, no power, not in heaven, and not in hell, and not in earth is able to pluck them out of the Father’s hand” [John 10:29]. That is why we Baptists preach the eternal security of the saints. When we are in the hands of our Father God, we are safe and secure forever.
“I and My Father are one” [John 10:30]. The only God there is, is God the Father [1 Timothy 1:17; Jude 1:25]. The only God you will ever see is God the Son [John 1:18]. And the only God you will ever feel is the Holy Spirit in your heart [John 14:17]. “I and My Father are one” [John 10:30].
[Philip] saith unto Him, Lord, show us the Father, and it will sufficeth us. . .
Jesus saith unto him . . . he that hath seen Me hath seen the Father. . .
Believe Me that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me. . .
Verily, I say unto you, He that so believes the works that I do shall he do; and greater. . .because I go unto My Father.
And whatsoever ye shall ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
The doctrine of the Trinity; our Father God in heaven.
Then the doctrine of the Holy Spirit: “I will pray the Father, and He will give you another parakletos.” Para, alongside, kletos, called. The One called alongside—translated here in the King James Version, “the Comforter,” the Advocate, the Helper, the Strengthener:
I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you for ever:
Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive. . .neither know, but you know Him because He dwells with you, and shall be in you.
[John 14:16, 17]
When you accept the Lord as your Savior, He comes into your heart and life and dwells in your soul, the Comforter. Again, “When the Comforter,” the parakletos, “is come, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, He will testify of Me” [John 15:26]. He confirms to us those great doctrines and revelations of the person of Jesus our Lord. “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away. . .And if I go away, the Comforter,” the parakletos, the Paraclete, “will come” [John 16:7-8]. This is John.
And now I speak, having described from this blessed Word, the Father God in heaven, and God the Holy Spirit in our hearts and our souls—I speak now of John’s presentation of God the Son, Jesus, our Lord and Savior, incarnate God. In those four Gospels, Matthew presents the Lord Jesus as the Messiah, the One who fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. Over and over again Matthew will say: “That it might be fulfilled, which was spoken by the prophets” [Matthew 2:15, 23, 4:14, 8:17, 27:35]. Mark presents the Lord Jesus as a Roman would see Him. He writes for the Romans. Jesus, in Mark, is a doer; He is a mover; He is active. He is everything that a Roman would admire. Luke presents the Lord Jesus as the sympathizing Savior. He is the beloved physician, Luke is [Colossians 4:14]; and he looks upon Jesus as the One who is precious to the needs of our human life. And the Fourth Gospel, John, presents the Lord Jesus as deity. He is God manifest in the flesh [John 1:1, 14]. And the worship of the Lord Jesus in John is the most beautiful of all of the things that heart could imagine. John’s relationship with the Lord Jesus was personal, heavenly, moving, spiritual, indescribably dear.
When John the Baptist introduced the Lord Jesus as, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” [John 1:29], John was there and followed the Lord Jesus. Throughout the miraculous ministry of our Savior, John was there. It is he alone that presents the great [Judean] ministry. All the other three do not even mention it. It is John who described the resurrection of Lazarus by the power of our Lord [John 11:43-44]. It is John that describes for us the wonderful transfiguration [John 1:14]. John was there [Luke 9:28]. It was John who describes intimately that Last Supper, when he lay upon the breast of our Savior [John 13:23-30].
Five different times in the Gospel, never naming his name, he always speaks of himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” [John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20]. John was there in Gethsemane when Jesus cried and prayed before God [Matthew 26:36-45; Hebrews 5:7]. John was the only disciple who was present at the cross. All the others forsook Him, and fled [Matthew 26:56], but John stood by the Lord at the cross [John 19:25-27].
John was there when the Lord said, “Behold [your] mother, and mother behold your son. And from that hour, he took her to his own home” [John 19:26-27]. John was known to the high priest [John 18:15-16], and was there when they condemned Jesus to death [John 18:38-40]. And John was there when they buried Him in the tomb.
One of the most unusual things, I think, in the life of our Lord: John entered into the tomb of our Lord Jesus after He was raised from the dead. And when he saw the napkin folded up carefully and placed in a place by itself, it says John believed that Jesus was raised from the dead, the first one to believe [John 20:6-8]. When John saw that napkin—Jesus evidently had a way of folding up a napkin—when John saw that napkin that had shrouded the head of our Lord when He was buried, carefully folded and placed in a place by itself, the Book says John believed that He was raised from the dead [John 20:6-9]. And John’s glorious description of our risen Lord in the first chapter of the Revelation is—O God in heaven!—what an interview, what a meeting!
I John, who am your brother, and companion in tribulation . . . was in the isle of Patmos, for the word. . .and testimony of Jesus Christ . . .
And I heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,
Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last: and What thou seest, write in a book, and send it to the seven churches of Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, to Laodicea.
And I turned to see the voice that spake unto me. And being turned, I saw seven lampstands, golden lampstands:
And in the midst of the midst of the lampstands, One standing, like unto the Son of [Man]. He was clothed with a garment down to the feet, and around His breast was a golden girdle.
His head and His hairs were white as snow; His eyes were as a flame of fire.
His feet as though they burned in a furnace . . .
And His countenance was as the sun shining in its strength.
And when I saw Him, I fell as one dead at His feet. And He put His right hand upon me.
How many times, in the days of His flesh, had the Lord put His hand upon the shoulder of John? “And He put His right hand upon me and said, Fear not . . . I am He that liveth and was dead: and, behold I am alive for evermore, Amen; and I have the keys of Hell and of Death’” [Revelation 1:17, 18]; the triumphant Lord. John says: “I have written these things that you would believe that He is the Son of God; and that believing you might have life in His name” [John 20:31].
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when the nailed Him to the cross?
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
Were you there when [God] raised Him from the dead?
O sometimes it makes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when God raised Him from the dead?
[Negro spiritual, anonymous]
May I close with a reference to a beautiful, beautiful poem written by the Christian poet, Robert Browning? It is entitled, “A Death in the Desert.” And it is the poem that describes the death of John and his last words. There is a persecution raging in the Roman province of Asia. And John, in his old age, is in a coma. And five of his faithful disciples have brought him into a cave, there to be buried. Then, and the poet says, “Stung by the splendor of a sudden thought,” one of those five disciples brings a copy of John’s Gospel, and reads it. And when he comes to the place in John’s Gospel—that would be chapter 11— when the Lord says, “I am the resurrection, and the life” [John 11:25]. Then the poem continues:
Where upon John opened his eyes wide at once.
Sat up of himself, and looked at us;
And thenceforth nobody said a word:
Then continuing, Browning has John to say: “I say,” against those who believed in rationalism and rejected the faith—
I say, the acknowledgment of God in Christ
Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
All questions in the earth and out of it,
And has so far advanced thee to be wise.
Then, further along, it continues. John says:
For if there be a further woe than unbelief,
Wherein my brothers struggling need a hand,
So long as any pulse is left in mine
May I be absent even longer from heaven.
Plucking the blind ones back from the abyss.
Though I should tarry another hundred years.
. . .
Then, it closes:
But He was dead; ‘twas about noon, the day
Somewhat declining: we five buried Him
That eve, and then, dividing, went five separate ways,
And, I, disguised, returned to Ephesus,
By this, the cave’s mouth must be filled with sand.
. . .
So, lest the memory of this be forgotten,
Seeing that I to-morrow fight with beasts,
I tell the same to Phoebus, who is to tell you . . .
For all was as I say, and now the man—
the Apostle John—
Lies as he once lay, breast to breast with God.
. . .
[from “A Death In the Desert,” Robert Browning]
What a triumph of the Christian faith! Our greatest hour is the hour when we meet Jesus. Death, no longer is for us a dreaded enemy [1 Corinthians 15:26]. It is the entrance into heaven. It is the opening of the gate to glory. And in that moment, face to face, we shall meet and greet our living Lord, breast to breast with God.
And to you who have listened on television, may the Lord bring to your heart that incomparable, indescribable comfort of the Christian faith. And if you do not know how to accept Christ as your Savior, there is a number on the screen; call. There will be a dedicated, consecrated man or woman who will answer that phone and lead you into the preciousness of the comfort and faith of Jesus our Lord. And I will see you in heaven someday.
And to the throng and press of people on this lower floor and the balcony round, to give your heart and life to Jesus [Romans 10:9-13], or to come into the fellowship of the church or to answer God’s call in your heart, answer now with your life. And may angels attend you in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.