The Disciple Jesus Loved
“THE DISCIPLE JESUS LOVED”
John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7 and 20
The term “gospel” comes from a Greek word (“ευαγγελιον”) that means “good news.” In its classical sense, it was used of the “good news that brought joy”—such as the announcement of a military victory over an enemy—in contrast with the “bad news that brought sorrow and sadness”—such as hearing about the death of a loved one or friend.
Most of us are familiar with the term because we associate it with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its promise of salvation for all who believe. But even non-Christians occasionally employ it in a more colloquial sense—such as insisting that something they just heard is “gospel truth.”
I found it interesting this week while researching the term, that the ancient bearer of “good news” was frequently rewarded for the message he announced, whereas the bearer of “bad news” was punished for the message he brought...at times at the cost of his own life. Hence, the saying, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
The irony of that is that Jesus Christ brought “Good News” into the world, and rather than being rewarded by those to whom He proclaimed it, He was opposed, arrested, tried, and finally executed.
The first four books of the New Testament are called “Gospels.” That is not meant to suggest that there are four different messages that bring us to God, for we know that “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus Christ alone is “the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through (Him)” (John 14:6).
The first three of those Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)—although written for different audiences and serving different purposes—are similar in content and are commonly referred to as “synoptic,” that is written from the same perspective. Many of the events, miracles, and discourses of Jesus are repeated in them. Of the four Gospels, John stands as unique in a number of ways. For example, six of the many miracles of our Lord are recorded only by John.
It is widely held that John was the youngest of Jesus’ twelve disciples and that he outlived most of the others by three or more decades. It is also believed that his was the last of four Gospel accounts to have been written...most likely between 80 and 90 AD. It is a valid question to ask why there would have been need for a fourth Gospel well after the others had been circulating for so many years.
John certainly knew of the other Gospels and had probably taught from them before being led by the Holy Spirit to add details that had been omitted from the earlier accounts. The Synoptic writers had identified Jesus as the King of the Jews, the perfect Servant, and the Son or Man, but there remained the need to reveal Him as the Son of God manifest in human flesh...fully man and fully God.
John’s Gospel provides no genealogy, emphasizing the fact that Jesus had no beginning. It offers no childhood details and repeats none of Jesus’ parables, perhaps to illustrate His transcendent nature as God. The Gospel of John bypasses Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, His transfiguration on the mountain, His commissioning of the disciples after His resurrection, and His ascension from earth.
Instead, John writes from a theological perspective, placing emphasis on Jesus’ claims to Deity (namely, through seven “I am” statements) and demonstrations of those claims (through seven miraculous deeds that are referred to as “signs”). The writer wants his readers to know that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) in order to reveal God and to give eternal life to all who would “receive him” (John 1:12).
John actually states his purpose quite clearly near the conclusion of his Gospel. In John 20, verses 30 and 31, we read:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
John’s life was deeply impacted by this One of whom he writes. So much so, that five times in this book he refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” It wasn’t that he was making an exclusive claim for Jesus’ affection. Surely, Jesus loved and continues to love all those who are His. His point was to affirm his unwavering conviction and unshakable confidence that Jesus loved him.
Do you have that same confidence today? Are you certain that you are the object of Jesus’ love? It is my sincere prayer that as we begin to begin to dig into the Gospel of John this morning that you will discover your need for this One, come to know His mercy and His love, and find security in having a committed relationship with Him.
By way of introduction this morning, I would like for us to look briefly at those passages where John makes reference to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved;” and then ask ourselves, by way of application, why it was that he could speak so confidently. These five statements of affirmation are presented to us in four separate scenes. The first is found in John 13, and it is...
The scene of uncertainty (John 13:21-27).
Jesus is in the process of preparing His disciples for His impending death. He has just told them that “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). It was that “hour” for which He had come into the world, and He would not shy away from it (cf. John 12:27). As the time drew near, He tried to prepare them for what He knew they would find hard to believe...much less accept. He knew full well what awaited Him, and every human instinct cried out to avoid doing what He knew He must do.
Although they could not foresee what was about to happen, the disciples could sense their Master’s solemn mood. His unusual behavior in their presence—washing their feet (cf. John 13:1-20)—was strange enough, but the words He spoke as they broke bread together must have shocked them to their core. We enter the scene at verses 21:
After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side. So Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give the morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him.
What strikes us about this episode is how the disciples reacted to Jesus’ statement that one of them would betray Him. The text says that “they looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke.” Had they not come to love this Man whom they had followed for the past three years? Were they so distrustful of one another—and possibly of themselves—that they actually believed one of them would turn on Him?
We must keep in mind that John is recording this event from a historical perspective, reflecting back some fifty years after it had happened. Nevertheless, it had remained vivid in his memory and how often he must have recalled the feeling of uncertainty that had overtaken the band of twelve during that dark hour.
But time has a way of clarifying what in a moment of doubt and indecision seems so confusing. Writing now as a elderly and seasoned believer, he was aware that even as a young man, Jesus “loved” him. In fact, He loved him to death.
And that takes us to the second scene, this time in John 19. It is here that we find...
The scene of unification (John 19:23-27).
We are now at the foot of the cross. Jesus has gone through a series of mock-trails, been brutally beaten and crucified. His trusted disciples have fled and are in hiding out in terror of possibly suffering a similar fate. All of them, that is, except John. Here we find that one disciple beneath the cross, gathered with a small group of women, and looking up at Jesus’ contorted body and blood-stained face. Beginning at verse 23, we read:
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says
“They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
So the soldiers did these things, but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, you mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
How ironic that the executioners would argue whether or not to tear apart a seamless garment after having just torn apart the sinless body of Jesus. And how even more ironic that having been ruthlessly nailed to a cross, Jesus’ only concern was for those who loved Him...and those whom He loved. From his elevated position, He looks down at the mournful faces of Mary and the “beloved disciple.”
What is sometimes overlooked in this scene is that Jesus had younger brothers and sisters to whom He might have entrusted the care of his mother. And, if tradition is correct, John’s mother (believed to be Salome) was still living at the time. Mary already had sosn, and John already had a mother...so there must have been something more taking place at this moment than what first meets the eye.
I would like to suggest to you that Jesus may very well have been telling both Mary and John—and, by extension, everyone who would one day read this account—that being united with Him by faith surpasses every human distinction and relationship.
Both Matthew and Luke wrote of an earlier occasion when Jesus’ mother and brothers sought to speak with Him, perhaps about toning down His rhetoric. “But he replied...’Who is my mother and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:46-50).
On another occasion, His language was even stronger (cf. Luke 14:26). As counterintuitive as it may at first strike us, any earthly love that exceeds one’s love for Christ renders that individual unfit to be His disciple. I believe Jesus was alluding to that principle as He spoke these words.
Reflecting back on the scene at the foot of the cross, the elderly John was able to understand that he was a “beloved” disciple, because Jesus had both chosen him and charged him as a bona fide member of His family. Can you and I make that same claim?
The third scene is enacted before sunrise just three days later. It is...
The scene of unveiling (John 20:1-5).
Follow along as I read from John 20, verses 1 through 5:
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.
Although he would not see the living Christ until that same evening (cf. John 20:19), the vacated tomb in the early morning light provided sufficient evidence for him to recall the words that Jesus had said only a few nights before: “I will come again” (John 14:6).
Could it possibly be true that the very One he had watched die a torturous death only hours earlier had been raised from death to life? What thoughts must have flooded his mind as he gazed into the empty sepulcher and saw the burial cloths lying neatly folded as if Jesus had “tidied up” before departing His temporary place of rest.
For more than three years, John and the others had walked miles with Him, eaten with Him, been taught by Him, and empowered by Him to continue His ministry. But now things would be different. That difference is even reflected in the word he chooses to describe Jesus’ “love” for him. In four of the five references, the word is “αγαπαω,” but here it is “φιλεω.” There has been a great deal of discussion about the meaning of these two words. We find a similar interchange of the two terms in the next chapter in Jesus’ private conversation with Peter along the beach.
The solution is actually not all that complicated, even though some commentators go to great lengths to say prove it. The difference isn’t in the meaning of the two Greek words, per se, but rather in the intent of what the writer wants to convey. Although both words are deserving of fuller treatment, in simple terms “αγαπαω” may be defined as “love expressed in sacrificial action,” whereas “φιλεω”—the word found in chapter 20, verse 2—is “love expressed in familial affection.” Here John is describing the relational and emotional affect that he was experiencing at the moment. In other words, more so than in the other passages we are looking at, here at the empty tomb John is sensing Jesus’ “heartfelt love” for him as a member of His newly created family.
Jesus was alive from the dead and the unveiling of His glory would soon be seen. And with it, the recognition of Jesus’ love...a love that would penetrate the emotions at a level deeper than any family ties.
There is yet another scene in which John envisions himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” and it is found in the final chapter of the book. It takes place along a beach some days following Jesus’ resurrection. It appears that the disciples had not yet received their commission from the Lord and were perhaps beginning to wonder if they ever would. Most commentators seem to think that for them life had returned to what it had been before they met Jesus. Jesus was “gone”...they had to make a living. For John and Peter, along with some of the others, this meant resuming their family fishing business on the Sea of Galilee.
This final scene actually plays out in two separate parts, which we will consider together and call...
The scene of understanding (John 21:4-7 and 20-24).
The first three verses of chapter 21 tell us that it had been a frustrating night. The fishermen had toiled throughout the long hours before sunrise and “caught nothing” (John 21:3). We pick up the reading at verse 4:
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore, yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
We cannot say with certainty how much time had passed between Jesus’ appearance to the disciples at the end of chapter 20 and the scene that takes place in chapter 21. We do know from Acts 1:3 that He made many appearances over a forty day period prior to His ascension into heaven. We get the sense that several days—perhaps even a few weeks—had passed since the disciples had last seen Him.
But now, He shows up on the beach at dawn and repeats the miracle that first drew these fishermen to Himself...a miraculous catch of fish (cf. Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, and Luke 5:1-11). John seems to have been the first to have made the connection. While the others were slow to recognize that it was really Jesus, John identified him right away. “It is the Lord!” he confidently declared. Shortly, it would be clear to them all that were again in their Master’s presence.
As the scene unfolds, by the time the disciples had rowed ashore, Jesus had a fire going and was preparing a “fish breakfast” for them to feast upon. After they had hauled their catch to land, Jesus invited them “Come and have breakfast” (John 12:12). Even as they ate, there is a strange and uncomfortable awkwardness to this reunion. We get the impression that the only the only sounds were the gentle splashing of the sea waves on the shore and the squawking of the sea gulls flying above them.
At last, Jesus breaks the silence and directly addresses Peter, whose betrayal of His Lord still hung like an albatross around his neck. We will not at this time get into their conversation and the three questions that Jesus posed to him and the answers he gave. We’ll save that for when we arrive at that place in our study. For now I want us to focus on the aftermath of their conversation.
It is here that we find the final time that John makes reference to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Let’s read verses 20 through 24:
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.
John must have been able to overhear the interchange between Jesus and Peter, and probably paid special attention when his name was drawn into the conversation. Clearly, the content of their exchange centered on Jesus’ foretelling of Peter’s martyrdom. It is believed that Peter did indeed die by crucifixion at the hands of Rome some thirty years later. But it is what Jesus said about John, the “beloved disciple,” that concerns us most here.
Keep in mind that John penned this account fifty years after the fact. Were it not for our confidence that the Scriptures are an infallible and trustworthy record, we might be tempted to argue his recollections could be less than accurate. But time also has a way of clarifying perspective and yielding greater understanding. I believe that is what we find recorded in verse 20 through 24.
Time demonstrated that Jesus was “spot on” in His precise prediction of Peter’s death. John could attest to that by the time hw wrote his Gospel. But the Lord’s statement regarding John had been less clear. Peter’s question about John is curious, but Jesus’ response to him is not: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
The “If” (“εαν”) in that declaration says it all. As John explains, Jesus did not say that he would still be living when Jesus returned...He would only “if” it was the Lord’s will. Now, five decades later, John was still living and Jesus had not yet returned. So, the wait continued. And as it did, John understood more and more with every passing day that His Jesus was sovereign, and that His ways and His timing are perfect.
In a few short years, John—now an old man—would be exiled to the Isle of Patmos, where it is believed that he too would die a martyr’s death. While awaiting his fate, he was granted a spectacular vision of the glorified Christ and a panoramic view of the Church’s future. He recorded it in the book that bears the title, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” When he got to the end of this final volume of God’s revealed Word, John was still looking for Jesus to return. Perhaps with shaking hand, he wrote these words in Revelation 2:20:
He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come soon, Lord Jesus!”
This is the man whose record of the Gospel we will be studying during our foreseeable Sunday mornings together. It was important that we allow him to introduce himself to us today...important because he is going to introduce us to Jesus in a way that none of the Synoptic writers have done.
In contrast with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the structure of John’s Gospel is quite unique. We know that Jesus’ earthly ministry was relatively short—approximately three-and-a-half years. John devotes the first eleven chapters of his account to that period. When he gets to chapter 12 the action slows considerably. In fact, the next nine chapters of the book cover just one week of time...the final week...the last seven days of Jesus’ life.
Taking that into consideration, you will notice that all of John’s statements about being “the disciple whom Jesus loved” occur during that final week. Things like that cause me to ask “why?” And the conclusion that I draw is that John’s recognition of the depth of Jesus’ “love” for him is inextricably linked with the cross.
Have you made that discovery as well? Do you know yourself to be “that disciple whom Jesus love(s)”? His “love” for all who are His is intricately woven into His finished work on the cross. Has He relieved your uncertainty about who He is and who you are? Have you become unified with Him through faith and unified with His people by commitment to a local church of fellow believers? Have you experienced His unveiling, His revelation of Himself as Savior and Lord? Has your understanding of Him grown throughout the years so that, whether by life or by death, you are to His sovereign authority?
It has been suggested that John does not mention himself in his Gospel by name out of humility, but chooses instead to refer to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” And while that may be true, there is another reason...a much larger reason. It is because this story is not about John. As this book will show time and again, it’s a story about Jesus. It’s all about Jesus. And it’s always about Jesus.
Have you recognized that your story is about Jesus as well? Let’s suppose that you haven’t yet made that discovery. If that is the case, then would you be willing to give John a fair hearing? Here is a man who was an eyewitness of all that writes. He heard about Jesus, and then He saw and heard Jesus for himself. He came to know Jesus, and found Him to be God in the flesh and the Giver of eternal life to all who would trust in Him.
If you are still searching for answers to those questions that you most need to be asking, then know that this Jesus is still inviting those who will to “Come and... see” (John 1:39).
As John concludes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”