John’s somewhat brazen, uncompromising approach may seem uncharacteristic of the disciple whom Jesus loved (Jn 13:23). We’re prone to think of him as an always-gentle spirit tenderly resting his head on Christ’s bosom. Thanks to Renaissance paintings, we picture a young man with soft skin and delicate features. We’re drawn to the mild-mannered apostle who writes, “God is love” (1Jn 4:8). Perhaps we’ve forgotten that he also teaches, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1Jn 4:20).
These days, we have a terrible habit of pitting love and truth against each other as though they are mutually exclusive. We want our pastors to wear rose-colored glasses and smile as they affirm just enough of God’s word to make everyone feel good about themselves. Many preachers will gladly oblige because life in the ministry is much easier when you aren’t making enemies.
Making enemies has always been the least of John’s concerns. We are talking about the man who, along with his brother, James, earned for themselves the nickname, Sons of Thunder (Mk 3:17). Even before they had an opportunity to validate the title, Jesus saw something in their personalities to suggest they were bold to the point of destructive. From the beginning, John was a zealous warrior for the truth.
To prove his devotion, he once made it his personal mission to stop someone casting out demons in Christ’s name (Lk 9:49). He even bragged to Jesus about his supposed accomplishment, believing anyone who was not a member of the elite Twelve could not or perhaps should not perform such wonders (Mt 10:1). Jesus was quick to correct him, saying, ”Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you” (Lk 9:50).
Shortly after, James and John were ready to wipe a Samaritan village off the face of the planet for a single offense. When the people refused to receive Christ into their homes because he was a Jew, John and his brother asked the Lord, ”Do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Lk 9:53-54). I doubt many pastor search committees would include John on their short list of candidates.
Polycarp, a student of John himself, tells the story of “John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus [a heretic] within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing.” Polycarp’s second-century testimony quotes the apostle as shouting, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.”
Passion for the truth as well as hatred of heresy are godly attributes. God certainly calls his people to walk … with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, but never at the expense of truth (Eph 4:1-2). To sacrifice truth for the sake of unity, love, or anything else is to deny Christ who is the truth (Jn 14:6).
John never lost his thunderous nature. Christ and his Spirit merely refined it.
In his old age, John is just as willing to draw his sword, that is, the word of God as ever (Eph 6:17). He’ll swing it at anyone or anything possessing the spirit of error (1Jn 4:6). Only now he’s learned to wield his weapon with greater precision. Like a skilled surgeon in the operating room, his first epistle slices distinct lines between light and darkness, truth and error, as well as those from the world and those from God (1Jn 1:5; 4:5-6).
Yet no book of the New Testament speaks of love more than 1 John. Evidently, John paid close attention to Jesus’s words during their last evening together (Jn 13-17). He echos and further expounds on the Savior’s new commandment to love one another (Jn 13:34; 1Jn 2:7-11). Seven times he addresses his readers as little children as though he thinks of himself as a concerned father (1Jn 2:1; 12; 28; 3:7; 18; 4:4; 5:21). Serving as an example for all of us to follow, he displays a healthy balance of both boldness and tender affection.
Truth and love are not mutually exclusive. As John proves, one can hardly exist without the other.