The year was 155 AD and the place was Smyrna, in the Roman province of Asia. There was a new wave of persecution that was sweeping against the Christian church, and the proconsul of Smyrna was especially vicious in his pursuit and persecution of the followers of Jesus. He focused on the bishop of Smyrna, a man named Polycarp, who was almost 100 years old. When the Christians of Smyrna found out that an arrest warrant had been issued for Polycarp, they whisked him away and hid him in a barn on a farm outside of Smyrna. But the police found him and brought him into the city, to the center of an arena where there were tens of thousands of people screaming for his execution. As the old man stood in the middle of the arena, anticipating that soon he would die, the proconsul had a moment of sympathy for the old man. He raised up his arm and he silenced the crowd. When everything was quiet, the proconsul shouted out, "Polycarp! Curse the Christ and live!"
Polycarp, with a strong voice, answered back, "Eighty and six years have I served my master and king, and he has done me no wrong. I dare not blaspheme him now." With that refusal to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ, the proconsul brought down his arm, and Polycarp was executed as a Christian martyr.
I have often wondered, How did he do that? How did he remain so trusting? Where did he muster the faith and the strength to be faithful to Jesus Christ, under the worst of circumstances? I have a theory: I think Polycarp acted in line with what his mentor had taught him—and his mentor was none other than the apostle John!
The apostle John had had a most unusual relationship with Jesus. For a while, there were thousands who thronged around Jesus and hundreds who were counted as his broader network of disciples and a dozen who were his closest followers and three who were in his inner circle. But there was one who was described as "the disciple whom Jesus loved," and that was John.
John trusted Jesus.
John and Jesus had a most extraordinary relationship. It was extraordinary, I think, in that John trusted Jesus in so many ways.
John trusted Jesus enough to forsake prosperity. If you connect the dots on the biography of John, you discover in Mark 1:20 that he lived in the home of Zebedee, where they had servants. This was a time when most everyone was poor, and yet he was in a family that owned their own fishing business and had household servants to take care of daily chores. When you read on in the New Testament, in John 18 and 19, you find they not only had a business and a house up north on Galilee Lake, but they also had a city residence in the city of Jerusalem. They have two houses at a time when there was virtually no middle class! And in John 18, you discover this man had access to the court and Caiaphas, the high priest. So he was connected to the most important people in society. Yet one day he heard a call from this itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, who said, "Come and follow me." And he walked away from houses and business and servants and wealth in order to follow Jesus.
A couple of years ago, I was in one of the most populous Muslim nations in the world—in a city that probably most of us have never heard of. In a restaurant in that city, I met a couple from Ohio. I introduced myself and began talking with them. I said, "What are you doing here?"
"We came to represent Jesus Christ and to serve these people and to communicate the love of God," they replied.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
They told me they were from Columbus.
"What did you do before you came here?" I asked.
One of them was a surgeon and the other was a dentist. They had left behind high incomes, expensive practices, enormous earning potential, and a luxurious lifestyle. I realized that there are still people who, like John, trust Jesus enough to forsake prosperity.
But it wasn't just that. John also trusted Jesus enough to risk his life. You may recall that when Jesus was dying on the cross, there were many women who came and surrounded him at the foot of the cross. But there was only one of his followers—only one of the dozen who had spent three years with him—who gathered at the cross. The rest were holed up somewhere because they were afraid they were next. There could be a fourth or a fifth or a sixth cross up on that hill, and they were hiding to save their own skins. But not John! John was willing to risk his life because he trusted Jesus in the worst of circumstances.
It is a comparatively easy thing to trust in someone who is changing water to wine and walking on the surface of the sea and has crowds of thousands standing there and cheering him while he feeds them with minimal resources and when he raises the dead, but when he's stark naked and crucified and the powerful people of society have turned against him, it's a lot more difficult to show up and trust. But that's what John did; he trusted Jesus enough to risk his life.
There were five of us traveling across the Sahel of Africa, just south of the Sahara Desert. We had started out in Niamey, Niger, and we were working our way toward the Dogon in Mali. We were traveling through Burkina Faso in a Toyota Land Cruiser. The air conditioning system was broken, and the temperature outside was 120 degrees plus. It was dusty, the windows were open, and it was hard to carry on a conversation. There were three people jammed in the back and three of us in the front—the driver, our guide, Judy Anderson, the wife of the director for West Africa of the World Relief Corporation, and me. You could only talk to the person right next to you because of the road noise. I was seated next to Judy, listening to a story that made the whole trip worthwhile.
Judy said she had grown up as the daughter of missionaries from the Evangelical Covenant Church in the old Congo. When she was a little girl, there was a celebration held for the 100th anniversary of the coming of Christian missionaries to that part of the Congo. She said that in typical African fashion, it was an all-day event—starting at sunrise and going all the way until sunset. There was food and music and speeches and parties. It was a great time of celebration. Near the end of the day, when it was almost dark and time for everyone to go home, a very old man asked if he could come and speak to the gathered crowd. When he came up there he said, "There's something I know that no one else knows, and I'm soon going to die. If I don't tell you, then I will take this to the grave with me. A hundred years ago, when the missionaries first came to our people, we had never heard of their God or of their book or had seen anyone who had looked anything like them. Our people didn't know whether to believe what they had to say or not. So our leaders got together, and they conspired to come up with a test to find out the credibility of these newcomers. The test was they would poison one of them and see how everybody reacted."
What ensued was one day a little girl got sick, and her parents thought it was an ordinary illness. But nothing they could do—nothing in the missionary medical book that they brought along—seemed to cover this situation. Their daughter, just a child—a preschooler—got sicker and sicker, and she died. Here they thought they had come to establish a community, and they started out by establishing a cemetery.
A few weeks later, a husband in another family got sick, and it was a similar sickness. He just got sicker and sicker, and he died. Then the wife of the third couple and another child—until this old man explained how they all died. His people watched how they died and decided the message must be true. It was then, the old man said, that they decided to follow Jesus.
I think if I were them, I would have come home. I would have called this off. If my daughter had died—if my wife and colleagues had died—I would have left. But they trusted Jesus enough to risk their lives, and enough to do it even if nobody found out about it for 100 years!
That's the way it was with John. He trusted Jesus enough to forsake prosperity and enough to risk his life and enough to remain anonymous.
When you open your Bible to the fourth Gospel, it says—depending on the version you have—at the top of the page, The Gospel According to St. John. You know that's not part of the gospel. That's something an editor added. In fact, when you read through that fourth gospel, you will never find John's name once. His name is never mentioned.
For most of us, our names are really important to us. Leith is an unusual name. My mother is from England. Leith is the seaport of Edinburgh, Scotland. It's like living in the United States, being named "Long Beach" or "Hoboken" or "Port of Miami" or something like that. It's an unusual name. Most of you, at some time in your life, have called someone else by your name. You have said, "John" or "David" or "Mary" or "Jane" or "Miguel" or "Aimed." You have said your name to somebody else. I have never done that once in my entire life. When I was a college student, I did meet someone else with this name, and I never said it. I just could not bring myself to do it. To this day, I cannot understand how that person's parents could give my name to—her.
We're touchy about our names. We want people to know who we are. We want our names to be spelled correctly. We want recognition. But John was willing to never have his name mentioned once in his gospel. If the name of Jesus became prominent and was remembered for history, that was good enough for him. If his name was completely forgotten, that was up to Jesus. By contrast, if his name became so prominent that mothers and fathers would name their sons after him for 2,000 years, then so be it. That would be entrusted to Jesus. John trusted Jesus enough to forsake prosperity, risk his life, and remain anonymous.
Jesus trusted John.
So far, you haven't heard a thing you haven't heard before. You've heard this 10,000 times before. Do you trust Jesus? I hope your answer is, "Of course I do! I trust Jesus as my Savior and Lord! I would follow him anywhere! I'll put my life at risk—anything! I trust Jesus." But there was more to the relationship than that. It was not just that John trusted Jesus. What was amazing is that Jesus trusted John.
Jesus trusted John with his gospel. You learn in Bible classes there are four Gospels. The first are the synoptics. They are synonymous or similar to each other—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Ninety-five percent of the Gospel of Mark is word-for-word the same with the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are amazingly similar and earlier in their writings. But Jesus wanted someone to tell the rest of the story. He wanted to include information like the marriage feast at Cana or what was whispered at the table at the Last Supper. He wanted to include information that was not included in the other Gospels. He needed someone who would get it right. And there's one man he knew he could trust, and that was John.
In the closing line of John's gospel, it says, "If everything else that Jesus did were written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books." Talk about an editorial challenge! He had an entire world full of things that Jesus did and had to narrow it down to 21 chapters. Jesus had to trust someone who would exclude miracles he performed and exclude teachings he made and include what needed to be included. But John got it right, and it's because John got it right that we can say, "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." If John hadn't been trustworthy, we wouldn't have John 3:16.
It's an amazing thing to be trusted with the gospel of Jesus Christ, but Jesus also trusted John with his love. I'm actually a little uncomfortable reminding you how John is described in the New Testament. He's described as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." I want to think that Jesus loves everybody exactly the same, but there is a clear implication that John was special and different. He was Jesus' best friend.
Jesus, in his humanity, has as much right to a best friend as any of us. A best friend is someone you can tell something to that you would never tell anyone else. It's the person with whom you can share the very core of your soul and your deepest secrets—and you'll still be accepted and you'll still be okay. Jesus needed that kind of friend.
Now, think of the potential for abuse. What if John decided he was going to ask for special favors from the Son of God? But Jesus knew he could trust him—that he wouldn't abuse the relationship.
Imagine if somehow, out of all of us in this room, Jesus were to put us in rank order in terms of who he likes the best and the least. And imagine if you came out number one. God loves everybody, but you're his favorite. What are you going to do as soon as chapel is over? You know what you're going to do—you're going to go on MySpace.com and say, "Jesus loves me more than anybody else; I'm his favorite." You're going to write a book or you're going to come out with a CD and go on tour. Think of the potential that is in this! But Jesus could trust John—that he wouldn't take inappropriate advantage of what has got to be one of the most amazing statements and relationships we could ever imagine: "the disciple whom he loved."
Jesus trusted John with his gospel, with his love, and with his mother. When Jesus was crucified, he suffered what thousands of others suffered. Crucifixion was a terrible form of capital punishment, invented by the Phoenicians and perfected by the Romans. We know a lot about crucifixion. We know that sometimes people, like Jesus, were almost beaten to death before they were crucified. Then, when they were taken to the cross, the cross was put down on the ground and the executioners followed a common routine. Holding the man down—for it was almost always men, and not women, who were crucified—the executioner would first bend the elbow and hold the hand down, feeling for the soft spot. Every one of us has this—a soft spot at the base of the wrist, between our bones. When that soft spot was found, the executioner would take a spike and a sledge and drive the spike through that soft spot, so that no bones were broken. He would do the same to the opposite elbow. Then he would move on to the legs, always bending them at the knees, driving either a single or two spikes through the feet. Then the executioners would lift up the cross, and they would drop it into a prepared socket in the ground.
Then crucifixion proceeded. Sometimes it lasted for days. Sometimes people would die of thirst. It was an assault from insects and severe sunburn. But most men who were crucified didn't die from exposure or loss of blood; they died from asphyxiation. In a Journal of the American Medical Association article, modern physicians have told us the man who was crucified would hang by his wrists until a paralysis would come down his arms and across his pectoral muscles, making it impossible to exhale. He could bring in a breath, but you know the horrible fear that comes when you can't breathe; he couldn't get the breath back out. The man being executed would then push up on his feet and straighten his legs. That would relieve the pressure on his arms and pectoral muscles long enough that he could get his breath back out again. But the excruciating pain of putting all the body's weight on one's feet was so horrible, it couldn't be maintained. The crucified man would then drop back down, staying there until the paralysis forced him to push back up.
I describe all of that to say those who were being crucified didn't talk much because they couldn't. They spoke seldom and little. That's why Jesus spoke only seven times during the entire crucifixion. One of those times is recorded in 19: "Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, 'Dear woman, here is your son,' and to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.'" From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
Jesus came into a culture and a language, and in that culture, it was expected that the eldest son would take care of his widowed mother until she died; but Jesus couldn't, and his own brothers weren't there. So he just needed somebody to take care of his mother in his absence. There was one man whom he knew he could trust, and that was John.
The ancient traditions tell us that when the disciples spread out—when Peter went to Rome, when Thomas went to India, when they went to Africa and across the Roman Empire—John stayed put in Jerusalem until Mary died, so he could fulfill the trust of Jesus.
You've been asked 10,000 times: "Do you trust Jesus?" I hope you say, "I do; I trust." But let there be this one time when the question is asked, "Can Jesus trust you?" Can he trust you with his gospel? Because he needs people he can trust to tell the story today. He needs people he can trust in the best of places and the worst of places. He needs people who will demonstrate what it means to be a Christian with good looks and a healthy body and a long life, and people who struggle with disabilities and difficulties and chronic illnesses and are still faithful to him. He needs those who will go to the easy places and those who will go to the successful places. He needs those who will be faithful to him and trustworthy in the heat of the moment of sexual temptation and still be pure. Jesus needs those who will marry and have children and fulfill every parent's dream that these will be children who have straight As, straight teeth, and a straight sexual orientation. But who can he trust to be the Christian mother and father of a prodigal daughter or wayward son? Can Jesus trust you? Let the answer be, "Yes, we trust Jesus." And let the answer be, "Yes, Jesus, you can trust us."
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Leith Anderson is president emeritus of the National Association of Evangelicals and Baptist pastor emeritus of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.