Despite the fact that the fourth Gospel does not make an explicit claim about the identity of its author, the early church was virtually unanimous is ascribing it to John, the Apostle, the son of Zebedee, the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (13:23; 19:26-27; 20:2; 21:7; and 21:20). But who was he, and what do we know about him?
John, the Son of Zebedee and brother of James appears 30 times in the New Testament. Our first glimpse of him is his call to be one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. John, along with his brother James, were fishermen who worked alongside their father Zebedee. One day, while the brothers were mending their nets, Jesus walked by and invited them to follow Him.
Matthew captured the radical nature of their response when he stated, “Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him” (Matt. 4:22). The importance of John in Jesus’ ministry cannot be overstated. In every list in the New Testament of the apostles, John appears among the first four named, along with Andrew, Peter and John’s brother James (Matt. 10:2-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1:13).
Also, Jesus gave John and James a special designation, similar to Simon receiving the name “Peter.” Mark related that “to James the son of Zebedee, and to his brother John, He (Jesus) gave the name ‘Boanerges’ (that is, ‘Sons of Thunder’)” (Mark 3:16-17). While the text does not explain the significance of “Sons of Thunder,” the fact that He changed their names singles them out for special recognition.
As part of Jesus’ inner circle, John was given VIP access to some of the most important moments in Jesus’ ministry. Mark’s Gospel highlights that James and John were with Jesus when He went to Peter’s home and healed Peter’s mother-in-law (1:29). Jesus chose John, along with James and Peter, to witness the transfiguration (Matt. 17:2-3; Mark 9: 2-4; Luke 9:28).
Once again, John, along with Peter, James and Andrew were given a private moment with Jesus sitting on the Mount of Olives. They were able to ask Jesus about the time of the destruction of the temple, a question that gave rise to the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13:5-37). Jesus chose Peter and John to go into Jerusalem and make the preparations for the Passover meal, the setting for Jesus’ prediction of His denial, Peter’s betrayal and the establishment of the bread and wine as remembrance of His coming death.
In his most trying moment, Jesus chose Peter, James and John while he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest and crucifixion. John’s Gospel highlights the beloved disciple as the only disciple present at the foot of the cross, a disciple Jesus had sufficient confidence in that He trusted the care of His mother to him (John 19:26-27). Finally, it was John, along with Peter, who were the first male disciples to discover and inspect the empty tomb on that first Easter Sunday morning (John 20:3-10).
Despite John’s commitment to follow Jesus, he had moments of failure and misunderstanding. In the days leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, John and James requested seats of honor when Jesus entered into His glory in Jerusalem (Mark 10:35-40). Their vision of Jesus’ ministry was one of military victory, and they wanted to share in the spoils. What they failed to see was Jesus’ glory was in fact suffering and humiliation. Oh, and that wanting to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan village because they didn’t respond positively to His preaching was not John’s finest moment (Luke 9:51-56).
Church tradition tells us the rest of the story of John’s life. After serving the church at Jerusalem and caring for Mary, the mother of Jesus, he ended up in Ephesus, where he wrote the fourth Gospel and three letters. Finally, he was banished to the Island of Patmos where he wrote the book of Revelation and finally died a martyr’s death.
John’s is a life that began with radical commitment to follow Jesus and ended with radical commitment to die for Jesus. In life and death, John lived up to the moniker, “beloved disciple.” Thankfully, this is not a title reserved for one man. In fact, late in his life John wrote, “And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him” (1 John 4:16-17).
By God’s grace, all those who respond to His call are “beloved.”