Several years ago I visited the ruins of Ephesus on a trip “in the footsteps of Paul.” This location, where both the Apostles Paul and John lived, worked and taught, was at one time “an emporium that had few equals in the world” (NIV Introduction to Ephesians). It was the home of the temple of Artemis (Diana), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world at the time. It was here that Paul was known to draw large crowds with his preaching, so much so that in one of the most dramatic of these times, a huge mob gathered in the outdoor theater and Paul barely escaped with his life.
But it’s the Apostle John that I’m thinking about today in conjunction with the holy habit of community life. John, after Jesus appointed him to care for his mother as he was dying on the cross, eventually settled in Ephesus with Mary. And it was here, amidst this community of pagan worshippers, that he finally wrote his Gospel to add to the ones already written by Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Anyone who has read and studied John’s Gospel knows that his stories are different from any of the ones recorded by the other gospel writers. They are personal and intimate, and they give us a depth of understanding into what a genuine relationship with Jesus entails that’s like no other. His Gospel and his letters combined also give us a beautiful picture of John’s “pastor’s heart” for the community he served.
“Repeated questions from his listeners over time,” author Michael Card says in his book, John, the Gospel of Wisdom, “made John aware of the background they needed to understand, words he needed to translate, eyewitness details that made the stories hold together.” Those questions, shared with John and each other, also forged relationships in the early church community of Ephesus. Can you picture it: a circle of friends and students sitting down with John to share a meal, pray for those who were far off from God, and discuss the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament long into the night? Those disciples of Jesus – and by extension disciples of John – knew and were known by each other!
So often we read the Bible without ever thinking about the actual people who wrote under the anointing of the Holy Spirit or why each book of the Bible is so unique, don’t we? But in the past few years I have discovered a new depth of richness in each text when paired with its author (if known) that has bolstered and enhanced my faith. John was a real man with real feelings and real challenges. One of them – his call to pastor the flock God had given him at Ephesus – led to his writing a Gospel that has blessed the world immeasurably, including me as I’ve studied it with others. Community life will do that to you, you know? If we will let it.