Updated: May 30, 2020
After a recent deep-dive into the book of John, I like many others came to realize how many times John refers to himself as the one whom Jesus loved. Each time I read these words, I almost inherently rolled my eyes at John. I often asked the text, "why does John deem himself so important to signify Jesus's love for him as being worth mentioning over and over?" Furthermore, "why is John alone in the Bible as being the only one that uses this phrase to describe himself?" Upon first reading this descriptor over and over again throughout the book of John, it's easy to interpret that John regarded himself as being especially loved by Jesus; uniquely to the other disciples. "How vein," I thought.
Then it struck me.
What if John wasn't being vein at all? What if John was referring to himself as the one whom Jesus loved not because he looked at the love Jesus had for him as being greater than he had for others but rather because he regarded the love that Jesus had for him as the most important identifier to place upon yourself? What if John called himself the disciple whom Jesus loved because He had fully grasped that being loved by Jesus is the most important love and identity to live under? I cannot speak for the state of the John's heart as he wrote this book, but I think there's something to describing ourselves more as the one whom Jesus loves than smart, wise, athletic, successful, beautiful, or any other adjective we seek after throughout our lives.
John refers to himself as the one or the disciple whom Jesus loved in chapters 13, 19, 20, and 21. I think in order to uncover if there's something to identifying primarily with being ones whom Jesus loves and what that even means and looks like now to us, we need to study the chapters and passages in which John says it. In this blog post, I'm not going to unpack every single aspect of each of these chapters, but I encourage all of you to go read each of the four chapters and ask yourself these questions:
1. What is Jesus doing in these chapters/passages?
2. What is the context around the times in which John refers to himself as this?
3. What glory of Christ is potentially being displayed here?
4. How is Christ's love for us being shown in these passages/chapters?
Whom Jesus Loves?
First, it is important to note that John does not refer to himself as the one whom Jesus loved until the last supper and thereafter. I'm sure that throughout Christ's ministry and all of the extensive time John spent with him, he would have seen many displays of love by Christ towards him and others. At this point, the disciples had seen Christ heal many, teach, spend time with God, reach out to those considered least of them, and even raise a man from the dead. In Matthew 5, Christ taught on the importance of loving your enemies. In Luke 10, Jesus teaches on the parable of the good Samaritan. In it, when asked who our neighbor is that we are to love, Jesus told a parable of showing love by displaying mercy and compassion to the stripped and wounded man who fell among the thieves. There are many times prior to the last supper that Jesus did and would have displayed to John his love both for him and others. So, why then was it only during the last supper, soon to be death, crucifixion, and eventually resurrection that John started to refer to himself as the one whom Jesus loved? Was it maybe because as John was personally witnessing the sacrifice Christ was making for him and others through his death and then raising from life that he started to grasp just how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is and to know this love is to grasp true knowledge of oneself?
Let's look at contextually what was happening in all of these chapters.
Chapter 13: This chapter starts with Jesus washing his disciple's feet. As a display of humbling oneself to the utmost, Christ got on the ground and washed the feet of both John and the other disciples. Even as he knew he would be denied by Peter and betrayed by Judas, he washed their feet. The chapter starts with saying, "Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end." (John 13: 1) Even as Christ was approaching death and taking on a burden we cannot begin to fathom, he humbled himself before his disciples and loved them to the end. It is easy to see how John would have started to grasp Christ's sacrificial and humbling love that he extended to others. After Jesus washed their feet, He was troubled in spirit and told the disciples that he would be betrayed by one of them. Upon Jesus saying this, John refers to himself as the one whom Jesus loved for the first time. As John said this, he was in such close proximity to Christ that he had his head laying on his chest. Intimate, close, and in deep friendship, John felt comforted by the touch of Christ.
Chapter 19: In this chapter, Christ is mocked, sentenced to death by cross, and then eventually displayed the greatest act of love for us who believe in him through his words, "It is finished." As Christ approached his death by crucifixion, his disciples saw the mocking, beating, and physical pain that he was enduring. Over chapters and books, it is quite evident that the disciples didn't full understand what exactly Jesus was doing for them and others. Although Jesus talked to them about his eventual death many times, they may have yet to fully understand the weight and burden that Christ was taking on for both them and others. I can imagine both John and the other disciples were feeling a level of desperation and deep grief as they watched their Rabbi, friend, and Messiah be tortured and killed. As John writes about his first-hand account of all of this, he continues to describe himself as being someone Jesus loved. Specifically, right before Christ said it was finished and closed his eyes to human death, John stood by the cross with Jesus's mother and others. I cannot imagine what it was like to be in such close proximity to Jesus as he hung his head giving into death of the flesh. Before he died, Jesus spoke to John referring to his own mother as now John's. These were the last instructions Jesus gave to his disciple John before he died, and I'm sure John felt and grew in knowledge of Jesus's love both for him and his own mother that day.
Chapter 20: The empty tomb. Jesus has risen! As Mary Magdalene uncovers an empty tomb, she runs to Simon Peter and the one whom Jesus loves to tell them. Running to the tombs themselves, both John and Peter saw that Jesus was missing. Unaware that Jesus had actually risen indeed, they probably left both scared, worried, and bewildered. Later in the chapter, the disciples were gathered in fear of the Jews and Jesus came to stand in their midst. In addition, Jesus told the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit and sent them to continue the work he did while on the earth. The disciples, including John, now knew what it was that Christ had done for them and others! They understood why Christ had to die and rise from the dead. They were sad over his death days before and now were growing in the greatest act of love that he displayed for them on the cross. In close proximity, John witnessed Christ's excruciating death. Similarly, in close proximity he now experienced the best news of his resurrection. The one whom Jesus loved; loved so much that he died the death that John and we deserve so that we can all have eternal life.
Chapter 21: Jesus's last time spent on the earth before he ascended into heaven. John's last time spent with Christ before he started his ministry with the Holy Spirit inside of him and Jesus at the right hand of God. In the last chapter in the book of John, Jesus has breakfast with the disciples by the sea and restores Peter after his denial of him. As the chapter ends, Jesus is talking to Peter about the way he would die and the importance of following him not comparing his death to others - seeking him fully regardless of other's walks. It's interesting to note, that when Peter turned around to see John following both him and Jesus, he referred to him as the one that too laid on Christ's chest during the last supper. During the first mention of him being the one whom Jesus loved, we found John with his head on Christ's chest. As John's time ends with Jesus on earth, he refers to that precious time he had with Jesus at the last supper. As John grew in physical and relational closeness with Christ on earth, he began to also grow in his knowledge of Christ's love. As he walked with Christ during his ministry, watched him be mocked and tortured to the point of death, and stood among him during his rising after death, John started to grow more in the knowledge of how wide, how deep, how long, and how high Christ's love was for both him and others.
When reading the amount of times John refers to himself as the one whom Jesus loved, it can be easy to assume he was speaking more highly of himself than of the others that walked with Christ during his time on earth. I think instead, that as John learned and watched how Christ displayed love to others he started to uncover how finding our identities in and under that love is that in which we should place highest regard. Furthermore, as John wrote this book in the Bible, he had been removed from his time spent with Christ in the flesh for some years. He had the opportunity to reflect on his time before, during, and after his death. He wrote from first-hand account and reflection on Christ as his friend, teacher, and savior.
As John watched Christ humble himself before the disciples by washing their feet, he experienced his love first-hand. As John watched Christ be mocked, beaten, and put to death he saw his love for him extend beyond the barriers of human flesh. As John stood with the risen Christ and gained full knowledge through the Holy Spirit of all that Christ was and did for them through his death, he experienced the love of Christ through the gift of eternal life. As John ate one last meal with the risen Christ on earth, he reflected on his time spent laying his head on his chest during the last supper before his death. To know love is to know Christ. To find your true identity is to find it in the love that Christ displayed while on earth through his death and resurrection for both John and others. So, I believe John referred to himself as the the disciple whom Jesus loved not because he was vein but rather because he experienced first-hand that to find true love is to find eternal life in the death and resurrection of Christ. The one whom Jesus loved is a statement we as believers of Christ can also live under. Find your identity in that my friends. We are the ones whom Jesus loved so much that he died for us so that we can draw near in intimacy with him while on earth and eventually in closeness when we arrive in heaven.