In the second half of his gospel, the apostle John seems to delight in hiding his identity under the descriptive phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. Such a description occurs five times and each time reveals something different about John. The lessons to be learnt are as relevant to young Christians as to older ones.
1. The Man of Closest Communion, John 13. 21-26. Note v. 23. “The disciple whom Jesus loved” was the closest to Him – He leaned on “Jesus’ bosom”, vv. 23 and 25, and it was to such an one that Jesus revealed His secrets. So it is still. Consider the scene. Two phrases reveal the intensity of the moment – “troubled in spirit” and “testified”, v. 21. Three times John writes of the Lord Jesus speaking of being “troubled”, cf. 11. 33; 12. 27. The whole length and breadth of our Lord’s troubles and sorrows during His earthly ministry are far beyond our conception. His death and suffering on the cross were the heading up and completion of His sorrows. All throughout His life He was in a unique sense “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. But the trouble here was a singular and exceptional one. It was the bitter sorrow of seeing a chosen follower deliberately becoming a traitor. The thought that one of His chosen friends should betray Him disturbed the serenity of mind that was unruffled before the taunts of Pharisees and high priests. That it was a foreseen sorrow from the beginning is true, but sorrow is not less acute because long foreseen. We shall never know how many cups of sorrow He drained to the dregs in His brief ministry here, besides the mighty cup of bearing our sins.
Then there is the word “testified”. The word implies the delivery of some solemn and important announcement. Then it came – one of them would betray Him. But who was it? They were perplexed and puzzled, and this led to Peter’s request to John. It was “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, the man of closest communion, who was told the secret which was revealed to none other of the apostolic band.
2. The Man of Deepest Devotion, John 19. 25-27. Note v. 26. All had forsaken the Lord and fled, but one disciple returned to the scenes of trial and crucifixion. It was “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. He was the disciple of deepest devotion, and to him the Lord committed a most sacred trust. There were many who went to Calvary that day – the Lord did not die in obscurity. There were some who had come to mark and to mock His shame, and His feelings must have found a voice in the words of The Lamentations, “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow”, Lam. 1. 12. Few had come who were marked by real concern, but the loving presence of a small handful of friends must have brought Him great consolation. John was the only man among them. It was always a dangerous thing to be an associate of a man whom the Roman government believed to be so great a criminal that he deserved a cross. It was always a dangerous thing to demonstrate one’s love for one whom the religious leaders regarded as a sinner and a heretic. But “perfect love casts out fear”, and John was at the cross.
It was to this disciple of deepest devotion that the Lord Jesus committed the care of His mother. She was commended to John as the closest friend of the Lord Jesus. These two would be in fullest sympathy, both devoted to Him. Nothing is so true a bond between human hearts as sympathy with Christ. But why did the Lord not pass her to the care of one of her sons or daughters? Was it not that up to that time they were unbelievers? Later, after the resurrection they would be numbered amongst His disciples, Acts I. 14. The Lord, however, recognised the deeper spiritual tie. He had already repudiated the mere earthly relationship as establishing any prior claim upon Him, Matt. 12. 46-50; cf. 2 Cor. 5. 16, and John is given his sacred trust. We trust Him. Can he trust us?
3. The Man of Clearest Comprehension, John 20. 1-10. Note vv. 2, 8. It was John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, and who loved the Lord, who was the first to believe in the resurrection. Consider what happened. John outran Peter to the tomb, and “bending down to look carefully at”, John 20. 5 lit. (cf. the use of the same Greek word in 1 Peter 1. 12), “he saw”, that is at a glance, “the linen clothes lying”. Peter came and “he seeth”, that is, taking in a complete survey, a long contemplative glance. Finally John entered the sepulchre and he “saw”, that is apprehendingly, understandably, “and believed”, v. 8. Three different Greek words translated “saw” are used in the context, but the most significant is used of John in verse 8. What did he see? On the surface there was no disturbance there. The graveclothes were not dishevelled or disarranged; they were lying still in their folds, the clothes where the body had been, and the napkin where the head had been. But the body of the Lord was no longer there. The whole point of the description is that the graveclothes did not look as if they had been put off, or taken off – they were simply lying there in the regular folds as if the body of Jesus had simply evaporated out of them and left them lying. The napkin, especially, wrapped together and put aside, attested not a precipitate removal, but a calm and holy awakening. There were no traces of haste. The deserted tomb bore the marks of perfect calm. No disciple had been there to remove the body, nor had any enemy visited the tomb to rob it. In either case the bandages would no longer have been present. Seeing these things, what else, then, did John see and understand? Here was infinitely more than an open grave, an absent corpse, an unoccupied winding sheet, a folded napkin – here was resurrection! John believed the tremendous fact that Jesus lived again. He was the first to understand and believe. Love gave him the eyes to believe and a mind to understand.
4. The Man of Spiritual Perception, John 21. 5-7. Note v. 7. It was John who recognized the Figure on the shore that morning as the Lord. Again Peter and John were together, but it was John who perceived. Peter and John complement each other. John contemplates, Peter acts, and that with impulsive energy. Peter generally acts before John does. John generally understands before Peter does. But why was John the first to recognize the Lord? Because his spiritual perception was much more acute. He it was who leaned on Jesus’ bosom, and had had deep communion with his Lord. Hence he was not slow to associate the miraculous draught of fish with the Risen Lord. “It is the Lord”, he says. “The Lord” is the title which after the resurrection seems to be the habitual designation of the Risen One. It is John who says this; the disciple admitted to a peculiar, personal intimacy, yet even for John, Jesus is “the Lord”. There is no undue familiarity. There is a wondering awe and reverence. Is it not so with us as we grow in knowledge and in love of Him? Intimacy between sinner and sinner may often lead to decrease of respect; intimacy between the redeemed sinner and Jesus Christ, and the more He is known as He is, can only lead to a deeper and a more unreserved reverence and adoration – He is “the Lord".
5. The Man of Faithful Communication, John 21. 20-25. Note v. 24. Peter was told what would happen to him. “Another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not”. He would have a violent death, and the Lord places it clearly before him. The Lord calls for no recruits under false pretences, and does not coax men into His service by feigned tales of advantages and outward benefits. He does not hide the possible (and in some cases the certain) issues, but says in effect, “If you follow Me, you may have to suffer a great deal; you may have to lay down your life”. What right, then, has He to lay such a masterful hand upon His followers and tell them that, if they have to die for Him, they are yet in the right in following Him? What warrant has He? He has every right – He died for them before He asked them to be ready to die for Him. It is only the Risen Lord, the Christ of Calvary, who has such a right. But what was John, who was also following, to do? Peter wants to know. We are too often asking Peter’s question when we should be asking Paul’s question, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”. Peter must not be so interested in God’s secret counsel concerning John that he fails to pay attention to God’s revealed will concerning himself. It is a lesson we must all learn. Our duty is to obey without knowing, or wanting to know, what orders or promises may be given to others.
"If I will that he tarry’, says the Lord to Peter. For an ordinary man to use such language would be blasphemy, but here is One who speaks in His own right with the very authority of God. “My will is to rule your future, Peter, and John’s also. So, Peter, follow thou Me".