The Beloved Disciple In the Gospel he wrote about the life of Jesus, the apostle John never mentions himself by name, but refers to himself often as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” (John 13:23; 19:26-27; 20:2).
For years, when I read these verses and others like them, I assumed John talked about himself in this way because he was somehow favored by Jesus. But a few years ago, I realized that it is possible that John called himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved” not because Jesus showed favoritism towards him, but because John himself couldn’t get over the simple fact that Jesus loved him.
It didn’t matter that he was John of Galilee, the fisherman, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, a Jew, the youngest disciple and the one to live the longest, the one to receive the revelation of the future. All these things were important parts of who he was, yes, but John knew that when it came down to it, the only thing that truly matter was that Jesus loved him. No title or piece of his identity could compare to that. None of the rest of it mattered if that one fact wasn’t true. But it was true, and John’s life was defined by this fact, so what better way to describe himself?
John wrote, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16). He just couldn’t get over the fact that Jesus loved someone like him enough to die for him. That fact motivated the rest of John’s life. Nothing else about John mattered, except that he was loved by Jesus. He found his entire identity in Christ. And he longed for others to do the same.
As we study 1 John, we see the emphasis John places on relationships-- with God and with one another. These relationships are centered around love, namely the incredible love God has for us. His love pours into our lives and that love overflows as we live with one another. A love like that changes who we are. It gives us identity and responsibility.
When I think about the fact that the Creator of the universe and every living thing; the holy, righteous, sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient God who exists outside of time yet still works in it; the One who caused a worldwide flood, split the Red Sea, brought down kingdoms, cities, and armies, enabled the weak to lead the strong, and raised people from the dead— when I really think about the fact that he loved me enough to send his only son to die in my place and now calls me his child and lives in me— I can’t get over it. And I’m guessing John couldn’t either. He couldn’t get over the fact that Jesus loved a poor, dirty, fish-smelling guy like him. And his life proved it.
But this identity, cause, passion, and purpose didn't snap into place for John immediately. We read in Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-45 that John and his brother wanted to sit on Jesus’ right and left in his kingdom. Jesus knew that in their hearts, the root of this request was pride. They wanted the places of honor, respect, and power. It wasn’t about being close to Jesus because He loved them. It was about making themselves look good.
But Jesus reminded them that following him would require great sacrifice. If they were just in it to get good seats, it wasn’t worth it. He knew they would suffer greatly for his name (which they both did— James was killed for his faith and John was exiled). Then, he told them that his kingdom doesn’t work like a human kingdom: the first will be last and the last will be first. These are the ones God views as great— not the ones pushing and shoving for the seat next to him, but those bowing at his feet.
It took time for John to really grasp this, but eventually he did. As a result, we have some of the most Christ-magnifying, service-focused words ever written. By the time John had the vision that became the subject of the book of Revelation, he definitely got it. Out of fear and awe, John fell at Christ’s feet (Revelation 1:17). When he saw Christ in his glory, John wasn’t asking to take a seat beside him, he was face-first on the ground. He realized where he belonged. Christ took a prideful, self-serving man and turned him into a humble servant in awe of His love.
We could speculate when this transformation happened in John. Was it when Jesus washed John’s own grimy, calloused feet— the job of a lowest servant?
Was it watching his friend, teacher, and Lord be beaten, ridiculed, and tortured, without a word of opposition?
Was it huddling near the cross, looking up at his bleeding, suffocating Savior, as Jesus entrusted John with the care of his own mother?
Was it running to Jesus’ tomb to find it empty, then seeing him alive and tracing Jesus’ wounds with his fingers?
Was it following Jesus’ command to go, tell, and make disciples; watching people come to trust a Lord they’d never met; seeing his friends give their lives for Christ?
I’d say it was a process; a journey. John may not have fully grasped these words when Jesus first spoke them, but years later when he recorded them, he had lived their truth:
“a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them”-- John 13:16-17
Truly, if we follow Christ, we will be like Christ. John is proof that God can take a heart for self and turn it into a heart for Him. He transforms our identity.
Adapted from posts previously published on LauraCoulterwrites.com. Used with permission.