Does Jesus play favourites?
Have you ever wondered why John identified himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”?
He uses this description at least four times in his gospel (John 13:23, 19:26, 21:7, 21:20).
For a long time I thought that John was simply bragging. After all, Jesus loved all of the disciples. Differentiating himself from the others seemed a little arrogant. Then again, why would he say that if it weren’t true?
This thought made me uncomfortable. I knew myself better than anyone else—my flaws, my fears and my struggles. If Jesus did favour certain people over others, He would surely love others more than me.
Then one day, during my Bible study, I found the answer.
The word John uses for "loved" is the Greek verb eigapa. It simply means "to love". And it’s interesting to note that in every instance where John used this verb to describe himself, he used it in the imperfect indicative active tense. This is basically a fancy way of saying that a better rendering of the tense of this Greek verb would be, "the disciple whom Jesus kept on loving" or "the disciple whom Jesus was loving".
This insight puts a completely new spin on things. John wasn't trying to brag about being more special to Jesus than the other disciples; he was simply emphasising the attitude of Jesus toward him. He was saying, “Jesus kept on loving me and loving me and loving me." In spite of all his flaws, John was always loved by Jesus and this just blew him away.
The Bible describes John as one of the "Sons of Thunder". Why? Because he had a fiery temper! When a Samaritan village refused to welcome Jesus because He was on His way to Jerusalem, John and his brother James became angry. They wanted to call down fire from heaven to burn up these inhospitable Samaritans! And thanks to their mother’s ambition, the two men also wanted to sit in the most prominent place possible in Christ’s kingdom. And yet, as John spent time with Jesus day by day, a dramatic change took place in his heart.
As Ellen White puts it: "Evil temper, revenge, the spirit of criticism, were all in the beloved disciple. He was proud, and ambitious to be first in the kingdom of God. But day by day, in contrast with his own violent spirit, he beheld the tenderness and forbearance of Jesus, and heard His lessons of humility and patience. He opened his heart to the divine influence, and became not only a hearer but a doer of the Saviour’s words. Self was hid in Christ. He learned to wear the yoke of Christ and to bear His burden" (Desire of Ages, p 295).
John could have referred to himself as "an apostle" or as the "author of the book of Revelation" or "the disciple to whom Jesus entrusted the care of his mother". But as he walked daily with Jesus, beholding His character and His ways, John instead reflected upon his relationship with Jesus and upon his unworthiness to even be called His disciple. Therefore he referred to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus kept on loving”. It wasn’t a statement of arrogance but one of sincere humility and a reflection of an understanding that God’s amazing grace extended towards even him.
Does Jesus play favourites? Yes and no. Yes, because He loves us individually and irreplaceably. And no, because He loves us all the same, regardless of face, place or race.
As you walk with Jesus each day I pray that you may learn the lesson that John learned.
We too are disciples “whom Jesus keeps on loving”.
Charissa Fong is a regional coordinator for HopeChannel's Discovery Centre.