Niall Williams studied scripture under people like Raymund Brown before writing this novel on John the Evangelist. It begins on Patmos with John and a few of his disciples on the Island of Patmos during the time of their banishment there. John is nearly a century old, he is blind and feeble. The group still believe Jesus is returning, and in his second coming will save them.
However, their physical suffering on the barren island, subject to storms, plagues and starvation makes them wonder if John is right, and whether they aren’t wasting their lives supporting him. Leprosy makes an unwelcome intrusion into that life claiming two of his closest followers. Another, Matthias begins to get ideas that he is more powerful than Jesus Christ, and claims to have brought another back to life. He challenges John and then having divided the group leaves the island with those who choose to follow him. Who could blame them, the situation is dire.
However, Diocetian, the Emperor dies and the persecution is over. The disciples are free to leave Patmos, and so they return to Ephesus. In the story we begin to see how difficult it is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are many preachers and many Gospels. People demand miracles, and Matthias has preceded them taking away some of those who had remained faithful.
A young follower, Papias had contracted leprosy and goes through aching suffering, fearing too that he will infect the others. He disappears and this breaks John’s heart.
But in a moment of inspiration, John writes his beautiful epistles – love is the answer! The story ends with some new followers and hope returning.
I want to recommend this novel, it seems to reflect the actual situation of the early church. We think the Holy Spirit was everywhere, accompanying the early preachers and bringing many to the fledgling church. The apostles and people were supposed to have done wonderful signs to accompany the preaching of the Gospel. But Niall Williams says otherwise. They seemed to be on a hopeless mission, they were filled with doubts, they made many mistakes.
For those of us trying to preach the Gospel today, it can also seem hopeless. Gospel preachers who are misguided, church leadership arrogant and demanding, is the Spirit really with us? It is no different in our day! And yet the message of John, the message of love has to underline all our faith and its preaching. It still is a message of hope!