By Mike Ruffin
You probably know that there are four Gospels in the New Testament. Three of them—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tell the story of Jesus in such similar ways that interpreters refer to them as the Synoptic Gospels (“synoptic” means “seeing together”). The Gospel of John, on the other hand, tells the story of Jesus in a way that differs greatly from the Synoptic Gospels. Scholars sometimes refer to John’s Gospel as the Fourth Gospel to differentiate it from the Synoptic Gospels.
One of the ways that the Fourth Gospel differs from the Synoptic Gospels is its inclusion of a figure that it calls “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This figure appears several times in the Gospel of John, but none of the other Gospels refer to anyone in that way. Scholars refer to this figure as the Beloved Disciple (I reckon “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is too wordy), which they sometimes abbreviate “BD” (I reckon they tire of saying “Beloved Disciple”).
Readers naturally want to know who the Beloved Disciple is. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know. The reason we don’t know is that the Fourth Gospel never tells us who the person is. Were I forced to make a guess (and I can’t imagine why anyone would compel me to do so), I’d go with Lazarus, a friend of Jesus whom Jesus raised from the dead. I would nominate Lazarus because when his sisters Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that he was sick, they referred to Lazarus as “he whom you love” (John 11:3). That’s scant evidence, I know, but it is evidence, nonetheless.
Now, some (and perhaps many) of you are thinking, “But I’ve always thought that the Beloved Disciple was John, the author of the Gospel of John.” That’s what I heard during my growing-up years too, and it’s what I assumed until I attended seminary and learned about other options. The Fourth Gospel does say that the Beloved Disciple provided source material for it. At the conclusion of the Gospel, right after telling a story involving the Beloved Disciple, the narrator says, “This the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Beloved Disciple is John. Nowhere does the Fourth Gospel claim that John wrote it (the titles of the Gospels were added later). And nowhere does the Fourth Gospel say that the disciple named John and the Beloved Disciple are the same person.
It can be difficult to move beyond what you first heard or learned. It’s been some fifty years since I was taught to assume that the apostle John was the Beloved Disciple. It’s been about forty years since I was given other options and decided that Lazarus was the best candidate. It’s been about thirty-five years since I decided to always refer to the Beloved Disciple as the Beloved Disciple in sermons and lectures. You’d think the habit would be well-established to the point of being automatic by now.
You’d be wrong.
And so it happened that I was preaching on Easter Sunday 2022. The text for the sermon was John 20:1-18. The passage reports Mary Magdalene’s discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb. The story includes Mary’s going to tell Jesus’ disciples Peter and the Beloved Disciple about her discovery. It also reports that the Beloved Disciple and Peter engaged in a footrace to the tomb to investigate Mary’s announcement for themselves. My sermon notes contained several references to the Beloved Disciple, which is how I referred to that individual in my sermon most of the time. But despite my long-held belief that the Beloved Disciple probably isn’t John and despite my intention and commitment to call that person the Beloved Disciple (since I think, but can’t be sure, that he is Lazarus), guess what happened. Yep, twice I said “John” when I intended to say “the Beloved Disciple.” Old habits and early learning die hard.
If we accept the Fourth Gospel’s testimony (and I believe we should accept every Gospel’s testimony about everything, even though we need to do the work of coming to terms with what they actually say) that the Beloved Disciple provided source material for the Gospel, we are left wondering why that disciple chose to remain anonymous. The first explanation I remember hearing was that humility inspired this disciple to choose anonymity. A cynic might wonder if the opposite is true—if the disciple might have used the designation “the Beloved Disciple” as a way of claiming that Jesus loved the Beloved Disciple more than he loved the other disciples. If I have to choose between those two options, I’ll go with humility.
Still, at first glance, the designation “the disciple whom Jesus loved” seems to claim that Jesus and that disciple had a special relationship. But when you stop and think about it, you realize that all disciples of Jesus have such a special relationship with Jesus—that is, Jesus loves all of us. Jesus gave his life for all of us, and Jesus is committed to all of us. We can’t know for sure who the Beloved Disciple in the Fourth Gospel is, but we can know for sure that every one of Jesus’ disciples is his beloved disciple.
I am Jesus’ beloved disciple. You are Jesus’ beloved disciple.
As was the case with the original Beloved Disciple, so too we can rest in the assurance that Jesus loves us.
And as was the case with the original Beloved Disciple, so too we can testify to the difference that experiencing Jesus’ love makes in our life.