We launch into a new week with a wonderful Bible question. It comes to us from Juliet in Canada. “Dear Pastor John, hello! In John 21:7 we read about a ‘disciple whom Jesus loved.’ Can you tell me who this is? And why is he referenced like this? I assume Jesus loved all his disciples. Is there any takeaway for us in the love designation directed to this one disciple? I have always wondered about this, and I thought if I am ever going to ask, you would be the person to ask!”
Thank you, Juliet. Perhaps the first thing to observe is that whoever this disciple is — namely, the one who is identified five times in this Gospel as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20) — we know he was the one who wrote the Gospel.
“My most important identity is not my name but my being loved by Jesus the Son of God.”
In John 21:20, the last chapter, it says, “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them” — that is, following Peter and Jesus. And then four verses later it says, “This is the disciple [namely, the one who was following Peter, the one whom Jesus loved] who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things” (John 21:24). So, there is an explicit claim in the Gospel that this particular disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, is the author of the Gospel.
Plenty of Love for All
Now, before we move toward an identification of who it is, let’s just be clear that when the author calls himself five times “the one whom Jesus loved,” he’s not saying that Jesus doesn’t love the others.
- It’s this very author who says in John 11:5 that Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus.
- It’s this very author who says in John 13:1, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” — sometimes translated, “to the uttermost.” That’s all of them.
- And in John 15:9, he quotes Jesus as saying, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” — plural, all of you, my disciples.
- And in John 15:12, he says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” — all of you.
In other words, this writer is not trying to claim for himself the love of Jesus while excluding others from it. Something else is going on. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Peter and the Loved Disciple
But back to the question of, Who is it? Whom are we talking about? We know from the other Gospels that Peter, James, and John were the closest associates of Jesus. For example, those three — Peter, James, and John — went up with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–8).
It appears from the way this Gospel presents this unnamed disciple that he had quite a close relationship with Peter. For example, John 13:23–24, at the Last Supper, says, “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,” when Jesus mentioned that there’s going to be a betrayer. So, the unnamed disciple is close at Jesus’s side, and Peter has this exchange of communication with him. Then on the morning of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene runs to report what she has seen, and it says, “So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” (John 20:2). So, there they are, apparently hanging out together, this unnamed disciple and Peter.
“This is why I minister, why I live. Christ’s love for me controls me.”
Then the author of this Gospel tells us in John 21:2–3 that the sons of Zebedee (who would be James and John, as we know from Matthew 4:21) go fishing with Peter and four other disciples; they’re going to go fishing after the resurrection. And when Jesus called out from the shore to them, it says in verse 7, “[The] disciple whom Jesus loved . . . said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’” And then finally in 21:20, the disciple whom Jesus loved is seen following Peter and Jesus.
So, you have this repeated close relationship between the disciple whom Jesus loved and Peter. And we know that Peter, James, and John had a very close relationship with each other and with Jesus. And we know that John, one of the sons of Zebedee, was on the boat fishing when a disciple who is identified as the one whom Jesus loved was there. And we know that by the time this Gospel was written, James had been killed (Acts 12:2), so he’s not an option for this very close relationship with Peter, the one who’s called “the one whom Jesus loved.”
That leaves us with the high probability that John the apostle is the disciple whom Jesus loved and is the author of this Gospel. And the tradition outside the Bible has almost uniformly agreed with this conclusion ever since the beginning.
‘Christ’s Love Controls Me’
This leads us back, now, to the question, Why does this author, John the apostle, call himself five times “the disciple whom Jesus loved”? And let me just give you three closing suggestions.
First, it identifies the author as an eyewitness throughout the ministry of Jesus. He refers to himself in this oblique way at the Last Supper, at the cross as he receives Jesus’s mother into his family, at the empty tomb, and in the face-to-face contact with Jesus after the resurrection. He was there, and this Gospel is his eyewitness account.
Second, perhaps this is John’s way of saying, “My most important identity is not my name but my being loved by Jesus the Son of God.” He’s not trying to rob anybody else of this privilege; he is simply exulting in it: “I’m loved, I’m loved, I’m loved — that’s who I am. I’m loved by Jesus.”
And third, perhaps he was speaking like the apostle Paul, when Paul said, “The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14–15). In other words, John would be saying, “I identify myself as loved by Christ because this is the all-constraining, all-controlling reality in my life. This is why I am writing the Gospel. This is why I minister, why I live. Christ’s love for me controls me.”