Then this saying went out among the brethren that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:23).
Never does the Bible give the church the opportunity to appeal to some passage in the Bible in order to turn patriarchs into saints, masters into models, fathers into benchmarks.
Israel had its patriarchs; and broad is the biblical account of them. But it never hid their horrible sins or painful follies. They were men of like movement as we are; demigods they were not; and certainly not in the biblical narrative itself.
As Israel had its patriarchs, so we have our apostles and the apostolic era. Yet even the apostles, who first were disciples, are never glorified in Scripture. They are not canonised. They are not the patrons of a ‘golden age’ to whom those who followed are to look up to time and again. And as for their special office – they may rightly claim it for themselves, but only insofar as they continue to serve the Word of God. If they could be caught deviating from the Word of God, misinterpreting any word of the Lord whom they have honoured as the Son of God, they would have appreciated being corrected.
The 21st chapter of John has been much debated and many have questioned whether it originally belonged in John’s gospel. In any case, it is remarkable how we are told so frankly how a not unimportant mistake infected, for years, the minds of the people of that first ‘golden era’.
Not those of the old women with their ‘old wives’ tales’. And not those of the ‘weak women who are always learning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth’, and who allow themselves to be so easily ‘captivated’ (2 Tim. 3:6,7).
No, it was the spirits of the apostles and prophets first of all. It was the spirits of those bearers of the first message and of the prophetic teaching authority for the whole Church; the spirits of those whom we ultimately depend upon for teaching the Word.
Those spirits were infected with a foolish, but very significant mistake.
And what a mistake it was!
It involved no less than the conversation between the Master and Simon Peter; the conversation in which the latter regained his office and about which Christians, whether ‘papist’ or not, were to argue for centuries.
And what a mistake!
It concerned the value of a person. The fact that Simon Peter [having denied the Lord three times] received the ministry again, was one miracle—a position the whole circle of disciples had to respect. But now, beside that one miracle, a second one comes to the fore; a rumour is circulated that the disciple John will not die …
What a mistake!
It places one person in the centre of attention, and weaves around him a halo—a mortal danger to the Church. Moreover, it presents the idea that Christ’s return will take place within a very foreseeable time, a time that can be roughly calculated—a second deadly danger to the church. And it also fosters a wrong eschatological enthusiasm—a third mortal danger for the church.
Now that circle of disciples has been—as apostles—called the ‘ears’ of the Church because they were to hear, for our sakes, that Jesus Christ lives. But when a rumour leaks into the Church from that circle of disciples, a rumour that conjures up an image of Christ’s glorified life in heaven cutting short this present phase of human life, an image that later proves to be incompatible with the facts, then one gets the impression that those ‘ears’ of the Church have not been listening too closely.
Yes, it is lamentable. Let’s not beat about the bush: we are smelling something in this that today indirectly reminds us of [the personalism of] Joseph Smith and Mormonism, ‘Pastor’ Russel and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And that’s good. For in this way the Church, after having been bitterly disappointed by it in the beginning, learns to renounce all personalism. It even taught the apostles, who were witnesses of Jesus Christ, to check whether what they said conformed to the Word. Even the apostles may only be trusted as the ‘ears’ of the church in so far that what they have heard can be related to the written Word. If they exceed this, their “authority” is immediately and publicly shamed.
And hence God still nurtured the fledgeling church through damage and disgrace. He taught the members a hard but useful lesson; namely this: that a church is never allowed to point to something as the work of the Holy Spirit except on the basis of God’s Word. Indeed, we learn that such a church cannot put its trust even in those office bearers of the first hour, the apostles themselves, since they too must address the church with the Word. They could expand the canon of the Word. However, also the New Testament exhorts them not to write a new letter that cannot be measured against the old, already existing, Word in which the new lay hidden. And as for the apostles’ teaching authority, that authority does not rest in their persons either—see how they can err—but it lies in the consistency of their ‘new’ message with the old, that of the Old Testament.
Only a Church that has cured itself of all personalism will be able to honour the apostle who never saw the Master except when his eyes were blinded…; ‘t was on the road to Damascus. That man himself later said that the series of Christ’s appearances was concluded when He appeared to him. And he himself, what was he like? Like one untimely born, he says himself.
All glory is excluded, and that also applies to the teaching authority of the apostles and prophets.
Source: Translated from “De eersten zijn geen modellen”, De Reformatie, XXI, 25 May 1946, republished in K Schilder’s Schiftoverdenkingen III, Oosterbaan en Le Cointre, Goes, 1958. Approximate translation from Dutch by Jelte Numan.