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The disciple whom Jesus loved

John, the writer of the fourth gospel refers to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved. That’s a nice way for any follower of Christ to think about themselves, but there’s more to this little phrase than meets the eye. It’s more than just another way of saying, "Jesus loves me."

The phrase occurs four times in the gospel:

  • at the Passover meal (13:23),
  • at the cross (19:26),
  • at the empty tomb (20:2),
  • and at the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus by Lake Galilee (21:7,20).

You'll note that all of the occasions were crucial times in the ministry of Jesus. This makes John eminently qualified to write about Jesus. His presence at critical times makes him a credible witness. He knows what he is talking about.

This is important because in all likelihood John wrote his gospel much later than Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote theirs. And one of the reasons he wrote was to combat a false teaching known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism took a look at all of the bad stuff happening in the world and threw its hands up in despair (we've all had those kinds of days, haven’t we?). Then it went a little overboard. It said that everything material was inherently evil and unclean and God had nothing to do with any of it (i.e., He didn’t create it or sustain it). Only what was spiritual (not material), was good and from God.

Of course, that had huge implications in regard to the incarnation. Because of their philosophical presuppositions, Gnostics believed that Jesus wasn’t really human in the sense that He was made of flesh and bone like the rest of us. They thought He simply looked like a human, but in reality was just a spirit. This robbed Jesus of His priesthood --- He wasn’t really like us to begin with so His sinlessness wasn’t really that impressive and His death really didn’t have the power to free us (see all of this developed by the Hebrew writer in 2:14-18).

Not surprisingly, we find John making all kinds of references to Jesus' humanity in his gospel. He says things like "the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us," (1:14), or talks about Jesus being tired and thirsty (4:6-7), or about blood and water coming from His side (19:34). In his first letter, he says this (emphasis mine):

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us, (1 John 1:1-3).

John makes the humanity of Jesus as absolute as his witness --- he was there and he knows what he saw, touched, and heard!

What does any of this have to do with us today? Well, it means that what John wrote, what we believe and build our lives around is real. Not "real" in the existential sense that we really believe it, but real in the historical sense that it happened without a doubt. People witnessed Jesus’ life and wrote about it. Then they circulated the story among other contemporaries who had witnessed some or much of the story. Rather than dispute it, they preserved it and passed it on. Some even died for it.

I recently had a discussion with someone who was treating one of the gospel accounts as one would something said on a talk show or read in a tabloid. He was under the impression that the writer was not a contemporary of Christ and what he recorded were stories and accounts that had been embellished and distorted over time and the author wasn't in a position to know the difference. It was like he heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend type of thing. Well, if John’s stories are embellished or distorted, it’s not because he was chronologically detached from the events of which he writes --- he was there. So if we choose to doubt his witness we’ll have to come up with something other than he didn’t know what he has written about because he wasn't there.

What I’m suggesting in this little piece is that when John speaks of himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved, it’s more than sweet sentiment he’s offering. The phrase also has a witness dimension to it that points to his rock solid testimony. It's John's way of letting us know that as one in whom Jesus confided he’s qualified to write in regard to Him. TDWJL connects the historical events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with the heart of God. Because in the end, love isn’t all you need --- it needs to anchored in truth or it becomes simply sentiment.
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