Many of us like to hear a good “rags to riches” story. When the underdog marries the perfect sweetheart, or the kid with the poor childhood works his/her way to financial and social success, they are usually the ones that we are cheering on. Maybe there is a part of each of us who relates to the challenges of the protagonist, and wants to know that we too can achieve all of our dreams…someday.
On the other hand (at least, from a purely cultural point of view), John the Apostle sort of had a “riches to rags” story. However, in doing so, he helped change the world.
We are introduced to John (and some others, including John’s brother James) when Jesus calls them to become His (Jesus’) disciples:
A little farther up the shore he saw two other brothers, James and John, sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, repairing their nets. And he called them to come, too. They immediately followed him, leaving the boat and their father behind.
Matthew 4:21-22 NLT
Fishing might not seem like a terribly lucrative business, but it offers honest work in an industry that had regular demand. The fact that there were multiple people in this business (see Luke 5:8-10) suggests that it was more than a single-rowboat organization. So, when John left his boat to follow Jesus, I think of this like someone leaving a good-paying job to go to seminary. (In fact, someone in my family did exactly that – giving up an income to study for a more advanced ministry degree.)
Now, in the first century, being selected as a pupil of a well-known rabbi was an honorable occupation – a privilege. So, following Jesus might not have been a path to wealth, but it certainly offered a chance for respect and recognition.
After John had been following Jesus for a few years, though, things really seemed to go off the rails. Jesus was opposed by other religious leaders in the region, and publicly executed by the Romans. Crucifixion was the sort of treatment that was specifically intended to cut off uprisings.
Still, John and many other followers of Jesus had been so impressed with His teachings, and empowered by the Holy Spirit with knowledge and abilities beyond what they had learned, that they continued to spread the message throughout the Roman Empire, and beyond. In an effort to suppress the growing expansion of Christianity, many of Jesus’ followers were martyred for their faith.
John, though, remained alive, but he was exiled to an island. This may have been intended to further limit the spread of the message of Jesus Christ. Instead, God shared an incredible message of prophecy (one that was difficult to describe) with John, which has offered instructions, hope, and an opportunity for much study to generations of Christ-followers.
I, John, am your brother and your partner in suffering and in God’s Kingdom and in the patient endurance to which Jesus calls us. I was exiled to the island of Patmos for preaching the word of God and for my testimony about Jesus.
Revelation 1:9 NLT
John the Fisherman came a long way from the Sea of Galilee to the Island of Patmos. I suspect that there were many who frowned on his choices – whether to leave the income of fishing to study religion, or to continue to teach others about Jesus after persecution set in. Still, both from the 5 books of the Bible that John wrote (under the inspiration of God), and from his direct influence on others from the first century, John had – and continues to have – an unmistakable positive impact on the lives of centuries of people who have benefited from his choices.
So, if it seems like your path in life isn’t leading towards fame and fortune, consider that the biggest impact that you and I might have – the most significant legacy that we may leave – could come from making choices that lead us from riches to rags. The joy of doing the right thing and the blessings of knowing that God is working for good through us are available here on earth. And, when the eternal accounting is made, rewards in Heaven will far exceed any fleeting wealth we might accumulate here in this fallen world. Let us strive to make the right decisions in each case, and to seize opportunities that God offers us, so that no matter the lifestyle we end up with, we are making a difference in God’s kingdom!