The well-known early-4th-century church historian, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, shares in his classic book Ecclesiastical History what he reports is a widely-accepted story about St. John the Theologian in the twighlight of his long life. The following is lightly adapted from Eusebius and gives us a glimpse into the heart of true Christian pastorship and sincere repentance.
The Apostle John, the Bishop, & the Bandit
After taking care of a number of matters in one Smyrna congregation, the Apostle John appointed a particular man to serve as bishop. At the same time, a young orphan, handsome and well-built, struck St. John as a youth with great potential. Looking at the newly-ordained bishop, John said “In earnestness, I commit this youth to you, in the presence of all here and Christ.” The bishop accepted the responsibility and promised to care for and train the boy in the ways of Christ. After John left, as promised, the bishop indeed took the boy in and trained him and loved him as a son. In time, the youth received Baptism.
However, the bishop relaxed his duty of guiding and discipling the youth, thinking that the Lord’s seal would protect him. But this inattention proved foolish. Eventually, the youth began to keep company with men who slowly corrupted him. It started small, enjoying the pleasures of life, then led to highway robbery by night. As his conscience was hardened by sin upon sin, the young man and his gang of friends escalated their evils, and as time went on, he no longer cared about God. Before long, the young man was so advanced in evils, that he was acclaimed leader of the bandits. A sinner of the worst kind, a captain of thieves, he was the cruelest and the bloodiest of them all, engaging in pillaging, lying, coveting, cruelty, thieving and yes, even murdering. He was once a follower of Christ, but now he lived as an apostate, on the path to perdition.
A number of years later, the Apostle John was called back to Smyrna to deal with another matter. While in the region, he naturally inquired about the young man he had entrusted to the bishop’s care. At St. John’s request, the bishop–the leader who failed at his duty– burst into tears and said “He is dead. He is dead to God; he turned to wickedness and abandoned The Way. He is now a leader of a gang of bandits that live in that mountain over there,” he said while pointing to the nearby mountain. With that, the bishop once again burst out with more tears of sorrow.
In distress, the apostle was beside himself and lamented with passion. With disapproving sarcasm he said “You were a fine guard of a brother’s soul!” In the next breath, the aged John–with the vigor of a much younger man–said “bring me a horse and a guide. I want to find the hideout of our young man and his gang!” Off he and the guide rode without second thought, spurring their horses forward. As they neared the gang’s camp, some of the youth’s fellow henchmen sprang out of hiding and captured the two riders.
Without waiting and with great authority John cried out “Lead me to your captain.” Surprised, the bandits brought the apostle forward to their leader, who was armed and waiting for yet another victim. But with one look at the determined old man, the young man who once had once believed in Christ, with frightened recognition and ashamed guilt, took flight. The old apostle, forgetting his age, for he only had one goal in mind, cut loose after the young man. Both the gang and the apostle’s guide stood in disbelief at the scene. St. John cried after his charge: “My son, why do you flee from me, your father, old and unarmed? Pity me my son! Fear not, you still have hope of life, I will pray for Christ’s forgiveness. If needs be, I will take your death, as the Lord died for us. For you, my son, I will surrender my life! Stop now and believe, Christ has sent me to you today!”
With that, the man stopped and fell to the ground. Humbled, embarrassed, and with no strength left, he shook and wept bitterly. The aged apostle slowly approached him, fell to his knees next to the repentant sinner and hugged him as a prodigal’s father could only do. The young man lamented and confessed his wretchedness, and was–as it were–baptized the second time by his own river of tears. St. John pledged to the young man that he would find forgiveness from the Savior.
The young man, now purified by repentance, was led back to his congregation. After prayer and fasting, the lost lamb, the prodigal, was restored back into the Church, a trophy of Christ’s abundant love and mercy to those who repent and turn back