“He’s dead!” the bishop whispered.
“How, and by what kind of death?” whispered John.
“He’s dead…to God! For he turned wicked and abandoned, and at last became a robber. And now, instead of the church, he haunts the mountain with a band like himself.”
This incident from the life of John, one of the close disciples of Jesus and the final apostle, comes to us through the writings of the Roman historian Eusebius and was originally included in a book by Clement of Alexandria.
After John returns from exile on the isle of Patmos—as related in the book of Revelation—he visits the city of Smyrna and meets a young man “of powerful physique, of pleasing appearance, and of ardent temperament.” This young man has great leadership potential, and John makes special arrangements with the church bishop for his upkeep and training. And the young man applies himself most diligently… at first.
It’s hard to know why the young man began to wander. Our sinful desires are something of a mystery, defying both love and logic (2 Thess. 2:7). Eusebius writes, “At first they enticed him by costly entertainments; then, when they went forth at night for robbery, they took him with them, and finally they demanded that he should unite with them in some great crime.”
Which he did. Again. And again. The young man “rushed more violently down into the depths.” Finally, assuming that he was truly lost to God, the young man formed “a band of robbers [and] became a bold bandit-chief, the most violent, most bloody, most cruel of them all.”
Then, the apostle John returns to the church and inquires about the young man. At this point, the bishop shares the sad words we read at the beginning of this post: “He is dead…to God!”
When you’re a spouse or a parent who love a prodigal, you understand these words. To you, your loved one may seem dead to God. If that’s how you’re feeling today, I want to leave you with an encouragement: Don’t give up. With God, there is always hope.
Prodigals provoke a response, even by their absence. Upon hearing the report about the young man, John “rent his clothes and beat his head with great lamentation.” When someone we love is lost in sin, we grieve.
But God’s love is greater than our grief.
John turns from his grief and asks where he might find the young man and his gang. Riding directly to that location, he’s seized by the members of the gang and taken prisoner. Eusebius tells us that John “neither fled nor made entreaty, but cried out, ‘For this did I come; lead me to your captain.’”
When the young man sees John, he flees in shame. “But John, forgetting his age, pursued him with all his might, crying out, ‘Why, my son, dost thou flee from me, thine own father, unarmed, aged? Pity me, my son; fear not; thou has still hope of life… I will willingly endure thy death as the Lord suffered death for us… Stand, believe; Christ hath sent me.’”
Eusebius tells us that the young man broke down and “embraced [John], making confession with lamentations as he was able, baptizing himself a second time with tears.”
In a Hollywood movie, the screen would fade to black at this moment. The prodigal repents, the church rejoices, and everyone lives happily ever after. But Hollywood is not real life. Real life begins at the moment of repentance, and a prodigal needs help knowing how to come home and stay home.
“But John… did not depart, as they say, until he had restored him to the church, furnishing a great example of true repentance and a great proof of regeneration, a trophy of a visible resurrection.”
Yes, it’s a classic testimony. But notice that reaching this point took time and required copious prayers and fasting. John struggled together with the young man, speaking truth to his mind. Rugged love not only covers the multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8); it stays around to rumble until the resurrection is complete.
Your prodigal situation is not new or unexpected. God is in the business of saving prodigals; it’s what he does best. And his grace is magnified in this work.
God uses stories like this to kindle the embers buried deep within us. He starts with an exchange, a swapping of our perspective for God’s. We suspend judgement upon God and in faith believe that he has a purpose for our pain: “But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9b). We dare to believe that his resurrecting power is not confined to the ministry of the apostle John.
Remember that God’s rugged love carries his resurrecting power. And if you feel like you’re dying each day, be encouraged. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
Even in the pain of wayward family, we remember the power that links the apostle John’s story to our own: The God we rely upon is the God who raises the dead.
Adapted from the final chapter of Letting Go: Rugged Love for Wayward Souls (Zondervan, 2016)