Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint John, The Apostle and Evangelist

detail of a stained glass window of Saint John the Apostle; date and artist unknown; church of Saint George, Castle Way, Hanworth, England; photographed on 10 December 2004 by John Salmon; swipe from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Died A.D. 100.

John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and the greatest of the Evangelists, was born in Bethsaida, a town of ancient Galilee. It stood upon a slight elevation overlooking the Sea of Galilee, a few miles beyond Nazareth. Today its site is only marked by some desolate ruins. But one lofty column, lone and magnificent, still points its shaft towards the skies, and kindly marks the historic birthplace of Saint John and his brother, Saint James the Great.

John’s father and mother were Zebedee and Salome. Salome seems to have been a generous-hearted woman whom love made ambitious to see her sons great, as we learn from an anecdote in the Gospel. Zebedee was a hardy, honest fisherman – a trade held in high estimation among the Jews. He owned a bark on the Sea of Galilee, and with the aid of his two sons and others enjoyed the luxury of daily toil and a modest competence. It appears there was a great intimacy between the family of Zebedee and that of Jona, the father of Peter and Andrew.

Our first sight of John, the future Apostle, is in the society of the greatest of prophets, John the Baptist. Besides the multitudes who flocked to receive baptism from the Holy Precursor of Christ, he had his disciples, whom he instructed in the secrets of a higher doctrine, preparing them in solitude and recollection for the approaching revelations of the kingdom of heaven. John was one of that faithful band.

He had listened for about a year to the preaching of John the Baptist and his praises of the Son of God. He now longed for the arrival of the great One, and the day of His appearance was at hand.

“The next day again,” writes our Evangelist himself, “John stood and two of his disciples.

“And seeing Jesus walking, he said; ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ – Behold the Lamb of God!

“And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.

“And Jesus, turning and seeing them following Him, said to them: ‘What seek you?’ Who said to Him: ‘Rabbi, where dwellest Thou?’

“He said to them: ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where He abode, and they stayed with Him that day. Now it was about the tenth hour.’

“And Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two who had heard of John, and followed him.”

There is no doubt that the other was Saint John. One he never names in his beautiful Gospel, and that one is himself.

Soon after Christ began his public life. He was one day walking on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Peter and Andrew were just casting their net into the water, as the great Master of Life called them to be “fishers of men,” and they followed Him Passing along some distance farther, He came to the ship of Zebedee. John and James were there with their father mending nets. Christ called the brothers, and leaving “their nets and father they followed Him” Such, in brief, is the simple story of how Saint John made the acquaintance of our Blessed Redeemer, and finally became His disciple, “the beloved disciple.”

Saint John is said to have been the youngest of all the Apostles. He was probably about twenty-five years of age when he was called by Christ, for he lived seventy years after the suffering of his Divine Master. Piety, wisdom, prudence, and simplicity made him in his youth equal to those who with gray hairs had been long exercised in the practice of virtue.

For him our Blessed Redeemer had an affection wholly particular. He was “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Nor was this without good reason. Love is gained by love. Saint John loved his Divine Master with a boundless love. He was the very soul of meekness, and his virginal purity and beautiful innocence made him dear to Christ.

“The singular privilege of his chastity,” says Saint Augustine, “rendered him worthy of the more particular love of Christ, because being chosen by Him a virgin, he always remained such.”

It is remarkable that our Lord was pleased to choose a virgin for His Mother, a virgin for His Precursor, and a virgin for His beloved disciple. And the Catholic Church, guided by her Divine Founder, only permits those who live perfectly chaste to minister at the altars of the Holy One. Purity, then, is a great virtue. It is a celestial virtue. In the words of Saint Francis de Sales, it is “the beautiful and white virtue of the soul.” “Blessed are the pure of heart,” said Jesus Christ, “for they shall see God.”

Saint John received new lessons in the school of the great Teacher. He grew in grace and virtue, for he followed Him who was “the way, the truth, and the life.” He saw the miracles, the holy life, and the heavenly charity of the Son of God. He was one of those who had the rare privilege of being present at the Transfiguration of Christ 7 and at His agony in the Garden. 8 Even at the Last Supper he was the favorite.

The awful hour of the crucifixion was not far distant. “Amen, amen,” exclaimed our Lord to the twelve, “I say to you, one of you shall betray me.”

“The disciples therefore looked one upon another,” writes our Evangelist, “doubting of whom He spoke.

“Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.

“Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, and said to him: ‘Who is it of whom He speaketh?’

“He therefore, leaning on the breast of Jesus, said to Him: ‘Lord, who is it?’

“Jesus answered: ‘He it is to whom I shall reach bread dipped.’ And when He had dipped the bread, He gave it to Judas Iscariot.”

In reading the Holy Book we discover a particular friendship between Saint John and Saint Peter. They were old companions. But their affection for each other doubtless had its foundation in the mutual love and zeal which they cherished for their Divine Master. If Saint Peter was the head of the infant Church, Saint John was its heart.

To the last he was faithful. Saint Chrysostom says that when our Lord was apprehended, and the other Apostles fled, Saint John never forsook Him He seems to have accompanied Christ through all his sufferings. He attended Him during His crucifixion. He stood under the cross. He confessed his Divine Master in the midst of arms and guards, and in the press of angry multitudes of His most fiendish enemies.

And the dear, dying, and adorable Redeemer, who “loved His own who were in the world, and loved them to the end,” did not forget His “beloved disciple.” He confided to him the care of His holy Mother.

“Behold thy Mother” was uttered from the cross. “And from that hour the disciple took her to his own,” and all mankind had a mother in the Most Blessed Virgin. It was the consummation of fidelity on the part of Saint John. Truly, it is good to stand at the foot of the cross and to suffer with Jesus Christ!

When Mary Magdalen brought word to Saint Peter and Saint John that she had not found Christ’s body in the sepulchre, they both hastily directed their steps to the sacred spot. John, being the younger and more active, outran Peter and arrived first. On examination they found nothing but “linen cloths.” The “beloved disciple,” to use his own words, “saw and believed.” The glorious Redeemer of mankind had indeed triumphed over sin and death!

Later Christ appeared to the Apostles as they were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. He stood on the shore and spoke to them; yet, according to the Sacred Book, “the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.” They had toiled all night and caught nothing. He requested them, however, to cast their net “on the right side of the ship.” It was done, and great was the multitude of fishes taken. This instantly opened the eyes of Saint John. His spiritual nature was touched, and he recognized the presence of something more than mortal. Turning to Saint Peter, he said: “It is the Lord!”

After the Ascension of Christ, Saint John seems to have remained for a long time at Jerusalem, though he sometimes preached in other cities. A sweet and sacred duty attached him to Judea, where he was detained near the Most Holy Virgin. But when the glorious Mother of God passed to her heavenly home, Saint John went to re side at Ephesus, a famous city of Asia Minor. We have already learned of the missionary labors of Saint Paul in this region.

Saint John took care of all the churches of Asia, founded new sees, and placed bishops in them Even in his extreme old age his zeal led him to make long journeys in the interest of religion.

During the second general persecution of the Christians, in the year 95, he was seized by the proconsul of Asia. It is asserted by some that the following letter, the original of which is in the British Museum, was sent by that pagan official to the Emperor Domitian in relation to the great Apostle:

“To the most pious Caesar Domitian ever Augustus, the proconsul of Ephesus, greeting:

“We make known to your glory that a man named John, of the race of the Jews, has come into Asia, where he preaches the crucified Jesus, affirming the later to be God and the Son of God. Through him the worship of our invincible gods is forsaken, and the venerable temples built by your predecessors are menaced with approaching ruin. That man succeeds by his preaching, and by his illusive magic is converting the people of Ephesus to the worship of a dead Man who was nailed to a cross. We ourselves, full of zeal for our immortal gods, have summoned that impious wretch before our tribunal, engaging him by caresses and threats to abjure his Christ and offer agreeable libations to the all-powerful gods of the empire. Unable to succeed in persuading him to do so, we have addressed these letters to your power, in order that it may please you to make known to us that which will be most pleasing to your Majesty.”

Saint John was summoned to Rome. His trial took place at the Latin Gate. He was commanded to sacrifice to the gods, and, on his refusal, was condemned to be executed. Preparations were made. The death of such a man was a public spectacle of importance. The day came. The cruel, pompous emperor was present, and the corrupt Roman nobility gathered in crowds.

The ceremony began by the emperor’s cutting off the hair from the venerable head of the Apostle. He was then brutally beaten with rods, and finally plunged into a caldron of boiling oil. But it was like a bath for refreshment. He did not find death therein. “The fiery, seething mass,” in the words of Bossuet, “suddenly changed into a gentle dew.” The glorious old Saint came forth from the appalling ordeal with renewed strength and courage, untouched and unharmed. This wonderful event took place in the month of May, about the year 96.

Thus Saint John was condemned to live, but he did not remain at Rome. The tyrant Domitian banished him to the isle of Patmos.

In this retirement, the Apostle was favored with those heavenly visions, which he has recounted in the “Apocalypse,” or Book of Revelations. They were manifested to him on a Sunday in the year 96. The first three chapters are evidently a prophetic instruction given to seven neighboring churches 18 of Asia Minor, and to the bishops by whom they were governed. The last three chapters celebrate the triumph of Christ, and the judgment and eternal reward of the saints. The intermediate chapters are variously expounded.

“Notwithstanding the depths of that divine book,” writes the great Bossuet of the “Apocalypse,” “we feel in reading it so sweet, yet at the same time so magnificent, an impression of the majesty of God, such high ideas of the mystery of Jesus Christ, so lively gratitude for the nation redeemed by His Blood – we find such noble images of His victories and of His reign, with such wonderful songs to celebrate His greatness – that it is calculated to ravish heaven and earth.

“All the beauty of the Scriptures is condensed in that book. Whatever is most touching, most vivid, and most majestic in the law and in the prophets receives therein new splendor, and repasses before our eyes to fill us with consolation and graces for ever.

“All the men inspired by God seem to have brought thither whatever they possess that is richest and grandest to compose the most beautiful picture imaginable of the glory of Jesus Christ; and one would say that to write this admirable book John had received the spirit of all the prophets.”

Saint John made his brief stay in Patmos remarkable. Even to-day his memory remains vivid, and the inhabitants point out spots which he blessed by labors and miracles.

The following anecdote is from the Venerable Bede. A magistrate of Patmos, named Aristodemus, seeing the miracles of John, grew enraged instead of being converted. He wished to put an end to them, and one day said to the Apostle: “Do you wish me to believe in your God? If you do, accept this trial. Here is a powerful poison. Take it, and if you do not die from its effects I will become one of your disciples.

“But that you may be clearly aware of its nature, I shall cause a solution of it to be swallowed by two condemned criminals. They will die immediately, and after them you shall drink it.”

The barbarous wretch thought to get rid of John by such a cruel artifice; but the Saint cheerfully accepted the proposition. The two criminals drank the poison, and expired in agonies. Then the holy bishop took the fatal cup in his turn, armed himself with the Sign of the Cross, and slowly drank the contents. Smilingly he handed it to the magistrate, after which he hastened to raise to life the two unhappy victims of the deadly beverage. When Aristodemus saw this, his eyes were opened, and grace touched his heart. He believed in Jesus Christ, and became a Christian.

The death of the tyrant Domitian, and the revocation of all his edicts by the Roman Senate, left Saint John once more in freedom He bade adieu to the isle of Patmos, and, after two years’ absence was enabled to visit Ephesus in the year 97.

The aged Apostle now recommenced his missionary courses through Asia Minor. Antiquity has preserved to us the remembrance of his closing and beautiful career. One after another he visited the churches, combating heresies, correcting errors, consoling the sorrowful, and everywhere bearing with him that truth and gentle kindness which he learned on the sacred bosom of his Divine Master.

The ancient Fathers inform us that was chiefly to confute the blasphemies of Ebion and other heretics who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, and even his pre-existence before his temporal birth, that the glorious Saint John composed his Gospel. There was still another reason. It was to supply certain omissions of the other three Gospels, which he had read and approved.

The original was written in Greek, and by the Greeks he is styled the theologian. Saint Jerome relates that when he was earnestly requested by the bishops of Asia to write the Gospel, he answered that he would do it if, by ordering a common fast, they would all put up their prayers together to the Almighty God. When it was ended, the great Apostle, enlightened from above, began his inspired and beautiful composition: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

A legend tells us that when Saint John began his Gospel, and proclaimed the eternal generation of our Blessed Redeemer by the sublime sentence, “In the beginning was the Word,” a clap of thunder resounded, and lightning suddenly flashed in the serene sky. That fact is an allusion to the name which Christ had bestowed upon him when He Himself styled him “the Son of Thunder,” and is the united emblem of the power and splendor of that heaven descended eloquence.

Such a book is not formed of merely human ideas. It requires the thought and dictation of God. It demands prayer and sacrifice. The Divine Spirit of Truth animated the writer with the most wonderful words ever heard on earth.

“The Gospel of Saint John,” says Origen, “is, so to speak, the flower of the Gospels. He alone could penetrate to that depth whose head had rested upon the bosom of Jesus, and to whom Jesus gave Mary as a mother. That confidential friend of Jesus and of Mary, that disciple treated as a second self by the Master, was alone capable of the thoughts and sentiments condensed in that book”

The Gospel of the “beloved Apostle” is the most noble and sublime writing which the earth has ever possessed, or ever will possess. There is nothing strange in this assertion. The more a word resembles a thought, a thought a soul, and a soul God, the more beautiful is the whole. Hence what equalled beauty and grandeur must emanate from a book whose words are the image of the thought and of the soul of God!

“The hand of an angel,” exclaims Herder, “has written it.”

Many interesting episodes marked the visitation of the churches of Asia Minor by the great Apostle. These reveal to us the state of souls, the singular customs of that time, and the almost boundless influence of Saint John. We give one as related by Clement of Alexandria.

In a city near Ephesus the Apostle, after having made a discourse, remarked a young man in the multitude that gathered near. He was handsome, of noble stature, pleasing countenance, and his soul was far more beautiful than his body.

Taking the youth with him, Saint John presented him to the bishop of that place, saying: “I confide this young man to your care, in the presence of Christ and before this congregation. Christ will be my witness in regard to the sacred deposit which I place in your hands. It is the treasure of my heart.”

The bishop promised to take care of him, but the venerable old Saint again repeated his injunction. He then departed for Ephesus.

The youth was received into the bishop’s own house. The prelate educated him, loved him, cherished him as his own soul, and at length conferred upon him the celestial grace of Baptism

When, however, the bishop had signed the young man with the divine seal of salvation, he began to relax somewhat of his former vigilance; and his charge, finding himself thus too early set at liberty, soon saw himself surrounded by young men of his own age, idle, daring, and corrupt.

At first they taught him the way to idleness, merrymaking, intemperance; after a time he became a criminal, and finally a robber. Like a spirited horse whose mettle carries him over the precipice, the young wanderer fell into the utmost excesses. He even tried to outdo his wild companions, thinking that for himself at least all was lost.

In vain the bishop tried to check him It was now too late.

At length the misguided young fellow assembled the herd of wretches among whom he moved, formed them into a troop of desperadoes, and became their bold and hardy leader. He was soon the terror of the country.

After a certain time, however, the aged Apostle was summoned to the same city.

Having ended his mission and settled various affairs, he solemnly addressed the bishop, saying: “Restore to me the deposit which Christ and myself confided to you in the presence of this church of which you are pastor.”

The bishop was sorely puzzled. He thought that perhaps it was a question of some deposit of money. But Saint John said: “I reclaim from you the soul of our youthful brother.” At these words the prelate lowered his eyes, wept, and answered: “He is dead!”

“How and by what manner of death?” enquired the Apostle. “Dead,” replied the other, “to God; for now he is but a wicked, lost wretch – in short, a robber. He has quitted the Church, and he dwells on the mountain, which he has seized with an armed troop of men like himself.”

On hearing this, Saint John, overcome with sorrow, wept bitterly, and exclaimed: “Is this the sort of guardian that I have set to watch over a brother’s soul!” He then asked for a horse and guide, and hastily took his way towards the mountains.

He reached the spot and was soon in the hands of the advance guard of the robbers. He coolly allowed them to take possession of all his, merely saying: “Lead me to your chief; it is for him that I have come.”

The armed chief awaited the captive. He saw him as the party approached, and, recognizing the holy and venerable Apostle he was seized with shame and ran away.

Saint John, however, urged on his steed, and, forgetting his great age, called out loudly: “My son, why do you flee from me – an unarmed old man? Have pity on me, my child. Do not fear. There is still hope for you. I will be your guarantee to Christ. If necessary I will cheerfully give my life for you, even as the Lord has given His life for us all. I will give my soul to purchase yours. Stop, my son. Believe me, it is Christ who sends me after you.”

These kind, earnest words had the desired effect. The hardened robber – the leader in many a wild and desperate deed – stopped and cast his eyes towards the ground. He then threw away his arms, and trembled as the big, round tears rolled down his still handsome, manly countenance.

Saint John approached, and the robber chief humbly embraced his feet. The poor penitent was bathed in his tears as in a second baptism, but he still kept his right hand, which had shed so much blood, concealed under his garments.

The Apostle encouraged him and pledged himself that he would obtain his pardon from the great God, whose mercy is above all His works. The holy old man even fell upon his knees, seized that crime-stained hand – for evermore purified – and tenderly kissed it.

“The young man,” says the ancient writer, “was brought back into the assembly of the saints. John prayed with him He fasted with him Together they did penance. He healed his soul by his words as if by a sovereign charm, and he no more quitted him till he had raised him to the life of grace and restored him to the Church.”

Cassian tells another pleasing anecdote of Saint John in his old age. One day while the Saint was playfully caressing a pet partridge, a hunter who observed him thus amusing him self expressed surprise.

“And you,’ asked the Apostle, “do you always carry that bow bent which I see in your hands?”

“Not always,” replied the hunter: “I unbend it and rest it, that it may preserve its spring and elasticity.”

“Then, young man,” resumed Saint John, “why do you wonder that I likewise unbend and repose my soul, that it may afterwards mount more freely towards heaven?”

Saint Jerome relates that when age and weakness grew upon the Apostle at Ephesus, so that he was no longer able to preach, he had himself carried to the church, and on such occasions he simply said to his flock: “My dear children, love one another.” After a time the people were wearied at constantly hearing the same words, and they asked him why he repeated this advice so often. “Because,” replied the beloved disciple, “it is the precept of the Lord, and if you put it into practice you do enough.”

One after another the Apostles had bidden adieu to earth and passed to their heavenly home of their Divine Master, and for many a year Saint John alone remained, the last of the glorious twelve. But one day the warning from above came. He was told that the hour of reward was not far distant. According to a beautiful belief, it was the Immaculate Virgin herself who whispered the welcome news. “O my son!” said the sweet Lady, “you welcomed me to your dwelling when I was upon earth. Come with me now to the mansion of the great God.”

The moment came. He said farewell to the weeping faces that crowded around, raised his eyes to heaven, and, with a prayer on his pure lips, gently expired. And thus passed away, at the age of ninety-four, in the year 100, the good Son of Thunder and the dear Apostle that Jesus loved.

What a shining and beautiful life! It was so full of faith, hope, love, zeal, purity, gentleness, simplicity, and heroism! Its splendor dazzles the eye of faith. But it was a life of action and suffering. Saint John was no sleepy Christian, nor did he seek an easy way to heaven. He had learned the divine philosophy of love and labor and suffering on the bosom of Christ.

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint John, The Apostle and Evangelist”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 24 September 2018. Web. 18 November 2018. <>