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“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.” (John 20:1-8)
If you were at NewLife this past Easter Sunday and were listening closely to the reading of John 20, you may have noticed that one of the characters in the passage is referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This mystery disciple, according to John 20, is the first of the twelve apostles to see the empty tomb, and also figures prominently at the Last Supper (John 13:23-25), the cross (John 19:26-27), and the resurrection (John 21:7, 20). “The disciple Jesus loved” is a curious phrase; after all, did not Jesus love all of the disciples? And why doesn’t John just give this disciple’s name instead of giving him such a mysterious designation?
The answer to the mystery is that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is none other than John, the author of the Gospel of John. John, along with Peter and James, is one of the three disciples who figures most prominently in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John and the other two seem to be the closest friends to Jesus, as Jesus invites them to join him for a few intimate experiences, including his transfiguration in Matthew 17 and his time of prayer in Gethsemane in Mark 14. But despite this close relationship, John’s name never shows up in the Gospel of John.
What is most remarkable to me about John is the simple yet beautiful way in which he refers to himself: “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” I do not believe John means to set himself apart from the others as someone Jesus loved more than the rest, only that this is how he wishes to be known in his own story. He is not John, nor John the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, or John the fisherman. No – he is “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
So much of knowing God, following Jesus, and having the Holy Spirit living inside of you has to do with your identity. At the core of your being, who are you? What defines you? Is it your job? Your relationships? Your looks? Your reputation? Your nationality or ethnicity? Upon what have you built your identity, and from where do you receive your value and self-worth? Are you valuable because you are a successful business man? Because you are married? Because people respect you? Because you are good-looking? Because you are a decent, upstanding person of integrity?
The Bible teaches us that to build our identity on anything other than God is a dangerous place to be. If we receive our value from having a spouse who loves us, or a job that gives us wealth and status, or children who are good kids, or from our reputation, we have built our identity upon shaky ground, upon sand. When those foundations are threatened – when our marriage goes bad, or our kids rebel, or we lose our job, or people think badly of us – we are shaken to our very core, because we no longer know whether or not we are valuable. Building our foundation on something other than God causes all kinds of anxiety, anger, and life imbalance as we protect and defend and live to defend that identity.
This is why John’s self-description is so incredible. He is, above all else, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He is the beloved of God. And that is an identity that can never be lost, a foundation that will never be shaken, a value that can never be threatened, not by job loss, marital difficulty, rebellious children, not even by moral failure or a crisis of faith. Or, as Paul already put it:
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
Who are you? You are the beloved of God. You are the one Jesus loves. You are worth dying for. Do not let anything or anyone tell you otherwise or define you differently.
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