“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” – Jesus, Luke 15.4-5
“Listen to a tale, which is not a mere tale,” begins Eusebius in his 4th book Church History, “but a narrative concerning John the apostle, which has been handed down and treasured up in memory.” (III.23.6)
It’s the late first century and John the Apostle has just returned from exile on the island of Patmos (where he received Revelation), and he’s traveling around appointing bishops. In one city, he gives the new bishops a special charge to look after the spiritual health of a particular young man: “This one I commit to you in all earnestness in the presence of the Church and with Christ as witness.”
The bishop taught the young man the faith and baptized him. But, unfortunately, soon after, the young man fell in with the wrong crowd. He first indulged with them in worldly pleasures, and then fell into robbery and other crimes.
The young man still had a conscience, though, and realized that what he was doing was wrong. But rather than repent and turn back to Christ, he despaired of God’s mercy, thinking his crimes were beyond forgiveness, and plunged himself deeper into his sinful lifestyle. He eventually “became a bold bandit-chief, the most violent, most bloody, most cruel of them all.”
Some time passed and John visited the city again. And soon after he arrived, he asked about the young man. The bishop “groaning deeply and at the same time bursting into tears” told John what had happened.
And here’s how Eusebius describes John’s reaction: “The Apostle rent his clothes, and beating his head with great lamentation, he said, ‘A fine guard I left for a brother’s soul! But let a horse be brought me, and let some one show me the way.’ He rode away from the church just as he was, and coming to the place, he was taken prisoner by the robbers’ outpost.”
Captured, John didn’t resist, but merely asked to be taken to their leader. The young man was armed waiting to see the new prisoner, but when he saw it was John, “he turned in shame to flee.”
“John, forgetting his age, pursued him with all his might,” Eusebius writes, “crying out, ‘Why, my son, do you flee from me, your own father, unarmed, aged? Pity me, my son; fear not; you have still hope of life. I will give account to Christ for you. If need be, I will willingly endure your death as the Lord suffered death for us. For you will I give up my life. Stand, believe; Christ has sent me.'”
John’s words penetrated the young man’s hardened heart: “When he heard, first stopped and looked down; then he threw away his arms, and then trembled and wept bitterly. And when the old man approached, he embraced him, making confession with lamentations as he was able, baptizing himself a second time with tears, and concealing only his right hand. John, pledging himself, and assuring him on oath that he would find forgiveness with the Savior, besought him, fell upon his knees, kissed his right hand itself as if now purified by repentance, and led him back to the church.”
But John wasn’t done with him yet.
“And making intercession for him with copious prayers,” Eusebius explains, “and struggling together with him in continual fasting, and subduing his mind by various utterances, he 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.”
What an incredible story! May we all take the salvation of souls as seriously as John, both our own and our neighbor’s.