The Beloved Disciple

by Henry Gustafson

The identity of the Beloved Disciple remains a mystery. He is unnamed. He appears only in the Fourth Gospel, and there only in a few narratives near the end of the Gospel story. We see him first at the last supper (John 13:21-26); then at the foot of the cross (19:25-27); next at the empty tomb (20:1-10); fourth in a boat on the sea of Galilee (21:7); and, finally, we learn that though he may have died shortly before the Gospel was written, he had left a witness upon which the Gospel writer or redactor relies (21:20-25).

Simon Peter also has a role in each of the first four references. The depiction of that role, however, stands in sharp contrast to his position in the Synoptic Gospels. There, Peter is the principal leader of the disciples and of the church. When Jesus asks his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" Peter answers: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Then Matthew’s Jesus responds: "Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock (petra) I will build my church" (Matt 16:15 ff. ).

But in these Johannine texts where Peter appears with the Beloved Disciple, Peter stands in the shadow or is usually given a secondary role. At the last supper he asks the Beloved Disciple to get some desired information from Jesus. At the foot of the cross, where the loyal Beloved Disciple is entrusted with a special task, Peter, having just denied that he even knew Jesus, is absent. At the empty tomb, Peter enters first, but it is the Beloved Disciple who believes that something wondrous has happened. And when in the boat on the sea of Galilee the disciples see a figure on the shore, it is the Beloved Disciple who is able to identify him, saying to Peter: "It is the Lord."

How should we think about this contrast between the Gospel presentations? As often observed, the author of the Gospel of John, at the end of the first century, does not choose to emphasize the importance of the early church leaders—of Peter, James, and John or the importance of the institutional church. He never uses the words: church, apostle, bishop, presbyter, deacon—words that were important in the minds and writings of contemporaries concerned about the authority and structure of the Christian communities.

What he chooses to emphasize is not position or power, but relationship, friendship, and discipleship. This accent is apparent in the four encounters of the Beloved Disciple with Jesus. In the text on the last supper the Beloved Disciple is introduced as "one of the disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—reclining next to Jesus." And then, as we have noted, he is the one through whom Peter had to go in order to learn some undisclosed information. This necessity, together with the clause "the disciple whom Jesus loved" indicates that the relationship of the Beloved Disciple to Jesus seemed very special in the eyes of the Gospel writer.

In the second encounter, this accent on relationship is explicit. At the foot of the cross, the two people addressed by Jesus are identified, not by name, but only in terms of their relationship to him. One is the mother of Jesus. The other is the disciple whom Jesus loved. Both are historical persons, I think, but their primary importance is in their symbolic roles—not in their historical careers. The role of Jesus’ mother is as the mother of the Beloved Disciple. The role of the Beloved Disciple is as the son of Jesus’ mother. He takes the place of Jesus and brings Jesus’ mother to his own home. Here is an allusion to the new family of the Christian community, under the Lordship of Christ. It calls to mind a text in Mark: "Those who do the will of God are my mother, and my brothers and sisters." The relationships are understood in terms of discipleship, of doing the will of God. The Beloved Disciple follows Jesus to the cross. It is his loyalty and responsible care for Christ’s family that gets our attention,

The Gospel writer elaborates on these relationship motifs in the farewell discourses with such sayings as: "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love;" "This is my command that you love one another as I have loved you;" "You are my friends if you do what I command…"

In the third and fourth encounters, the Beloved Disciple is characterized by another defining quality, viz., his insight, his ability to understand, to interpret what was happening.

On that first Sunday morning after Mary Magdalene had reported the tomb was empty, Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to check it out. They found it empty as she said. Only the linen cloths were lying there. Peter entered first, but it was the Beloved Disciple, the writer says, who saw and believed—believed that somehow death itself had been defeated.

For the writer of this Gospel the bleak emptiness of the tomb could not diminish the experience of that special relationship between the Beloved Disciple and Jesus, nor could it dim the memory of Jesus’ words to his disciples: "It is to your advantage that I go away." Throughout the Gospel the writer makes it clear that the significance of Jesus was not really available through his presence. Repeatedly he states that the disciples could not fully grasp the meaning of Jesus’ actions when they were with him. They did not understand about the cleansing of the temple or the loaves or the entrance into Jerusalem or the foot washing—but "meta tauta," "after these things"—after he had gone away, after they had been grasped by his Spirit, then they would understand what he was about. They would understand that God’s self--disclosure occurred not only in Christ’s coming, but also in his leaving. Through their memory of his words and ministry his Spirit would dwell with them and guide them. Does the Gospel writer want us to see in the Beloved Disciple’s response a foreshadowing of this truth? For already, at the tomb, he understands.

Similarly, in the fourth encounter when a few disciples of Jesus were in a boat fishing in the sea of Galilee and a figure appears on the shore, it is the disciple whom Jesus loved who recognizes him and then tells Peter: "It is the Lord." He seems to have had an eye open for wonder and surprise.

A question with which the reader of these narratives is left is: Does the Gospel writer tell us anything about how this friendship, loyalty, responsible love, and insight came about?

Perhaps in the first reference we have a clue. At the last supper, the Gospel writer states, that Jesus, knowing his hour had come, got up from the table, took a towel, poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet. He was greeted by Peter with a protest. "You will never wash my feet."

A very understandable response. It is not easy for most of us to follow a humble Christ, one who serves. We want someone whose majesty is always obvious so we can be proud of our relationship. Further, there is something in most of us that says, "I don’t want to be served" either because "I’m not worthy" or because "I can take care of myself, make it on my own." But Jesus says to his disciples and to us: "Unless I wash you, unless you accept my services, you have no part in me."

A poet who recognized this tendency to resist God’s insistent grace was George Herbert. I think his familiar lines may be illustrative here.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
"A guest," I answer’d, "worthy to be here."
Love said "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord: but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "Who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

If the Beloved Disciple had been washed, had tasted love’s meat, had come to share in Christ’s life, and had embraced the call to follow his example, then perhaps we may understand the Gospel’s portrayal: the disciple whom Jesus loved was prepared to be loyal—to follow Jesus even to the cross; was ready to accept the responsibility that loyalty entailed—taking care of those whom Christ loves; and was able to recognize God at work—in the bleak emptiness of the tomb, in all of Christ’s "distressing disguises," as well as in the glad appearance on the seashore.

In this portrayal of the Beloved Disciple set within the commentary of the Gospel and especially the farewell discourses, the Gospel writer, I think, may be inviting his readers to share in that friendship and its rich qualities of loyalty, love and insight.

Henry Gustafson is United Seminary of the Twin Cities Professor Emeritus of New Testament. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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