Having a passion for disciple-making, one of my favorite narratives is that of the apostle John and the young man. The story is intriguing and compelling. It has plot twists, tension, insight, reflection, conviction, accountability, redemption, rescue, and love. Let me provide a summation and two primary observations if you’re unfamiliar with the story.
Clement of Alexandria records the account of John at the end of his writing, “Who is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved”? (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, Clement, XLII). Clement notes that the account is “not a tale but a narrative handed down and committed to the custody of memory, about the Apostle John.” After John’s exile to Patmos, he returned to Ephesus.
Upon his arrival, he appoints bishops and sets the churches in order. In one of the nearby cities, John finds a young man and assigns him to the care and protection of a bishop. Clement records John’s words, “This [youth] I commit to you in all earnestness, in the presence of the Church, and with Christ as a witness.” The bishop accepted the responsibility, promising to lead the man in spiritual formation as a disciple.
For a time, the young man flourished. The bishop cared for the young man in his home. The man held the testimony of Christ to be true and was baptized. However, over time, the bishop’s protection and accountability for the young man eased; as Clement notes, “he relaxed his stricter care and guardianship, under the idea that the seal of the Lord he had set on him was a complete protection to him.” Unfortunately, the relaxation of care propelled the young man’s demise.
Gathering with other unregenerate youth of his age, the young man committed to an “evil course” that was “corrupt” and wicked. The once devout youth assembled a band of robbers that caused havoc on the nearby mountain highways. Clement asserts the young man “was the prompt captain of the bandits, the fiercest, the bloodiest, the cruelest.”
Time passes, and John returns to the bishop to receive his “reward”—the discipled young man. It is apparent from Clement’s account that John expected the young man to be discipled by the bishop, holding him accountable.
John exclaimed, “I demand the young man, and the soul of the brother!” [The bishop] groaning deeply, and bursting into tears, said, “He is dead.” [John replies] “How and what kind of death?” [The bishops responds] “He is dead, to God. For he turned wicked and abandoned, and at last [is] a robber; and now he has taken possession of the mountain in front of the church, along with a band like him.” Rending, his clothes, and striking his head with great lamentation, the apostle declared, “It was a fine guard of a brother’s soul I left! But let a horse be brought [to] me, and let some one be my guide on the way.”
As the story continues, John is “arrested” by the band of robbers when he reaches the mountain pass. Clement expounds, “neither fleeing nor entreating, [John cried out], “It was for this I came. Lead me to your captain.” When the young man catches a glimpse of the apostle John, he immediately recognizes him and hangs his head in shame. Clement’s words describe the kind of Christ-like love that John exuded:
“Why, my son, do you flee from me, your father, unarmed and old? Son, pity me. Fear not; you still have hope of life. I will give account to Christ for you. If need be, I am willingly to endure your death, as the Lord did death for us. For you, I will surrender my life. Stand, believe; Christ has sent me.”
Of course, the narrative has a good ending. The young man trembles, weeps bitterly, and repents. He returns to the church and is placed back into the bishop’s care, providing him with a second chance. Clement concludes with the young man’s proclamation as a “great example of true repentance and a great token of regeneration, a trophy of the resurrection for which we hope.”
While disciple-making is multiplicative and reproducible, it is also two-sided. We know of the expectations for disciples, but there is an expectation that the disciple-maker is also accountable to the Lord. John’s expectation of the bishop indicates an entrusted care and “guard” of the soul. As Ezekiel’s watchman (Ezek. 33) or the parable of the ten talents (Matt 25), there is an expectancy of soul care for the believer.
Clement’s recording illustrates the early church held a view of accountability that probably does not exist today. As disciple-makers, what might we learn from the bishop’s relaxed care of the young man? What safeguards can we establish or develop in the hopes of preventing such a case from occurring? These are all excellent reflective observations.
Rescue & Restoration
Another observation is the selfless love of John regarding the rescue and restoration of the robber. While everyone seemed to accept the fate of the young man turned despicable marauder and “sinner,” John exemplifies the love of Christ—leaving the ninety-nine to rescue the one “lost sheep” (Lk. 15:4). Yet, the story is more than rescue and restoration to the church, it is an account of a man that loved Christ.
John labeled himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn. 13:23). Apparently, John’s actions became empirical evidence of his words. When John proclaims, “I will surrender my life” for yours, he embodies the gospel. Laying down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13), John was willing to die for the lost.
How might this account of John apply to our lives? In what ways have we given up on people that seem “lost”? Again, the story is highly applicable, as are the questions. Yet, I cannot help but feel convicted, even though I have personally put myself in harm’s way for the gospel. The gospel requires us to continually “die” for others (or at least be willing). With that stated, here’s the last and final question: what compels or controls us (2 Cor. 5:14); is it the love for Christ?