Read John 21:20–25.
We’ve now arrived at the last bit of the Fourth Gospel, but this final stretch takes us on an unexpected and disorienting turn. There is no Great Commission here, as in Matthew; no summary of future apostolic ministry, as in Mark; and no ascension of the Lord, as in Luke. Instead, Peter looks over at “the disciple whom Jesus loves” (John 21:20) and asks the Lord about his future.
Jesus has just finished telling Peter about the gruesome martyr’s death he will one day endure as a faithful witness. The image, now lodged in Peter’s mind, has him wondering about the other disciples. And so he asks Jesus about the Beloved Disciple. Jesus’ answer is anything but straightforward: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (v. 22).
A simple, “Will he be killed too?” was answered with, “If I want to endow this disciple whom I love with immortality so that he’ll survive for centuries—millennia even—what’s it to you?” John then tells us that a rumor started floating around that the Beloved Disciple would not die. What’s more, he also declares that he is that disciple: “This is the disciples who testifies to these things and who wrote them down” (v. 24).
John readily admits there isn’t enough room in all the world to include everything Jesus did (v. 25). Why, then, given the limited space he has on his papyrus scroll, did he decide to include this odd exchange in his gospel?
Throughout this study, we have been assuming that John is the author of the Fourth Gospel. After all, in our English Bibles, his name is right there at the top of the page. Tradition attributes this work to the younger son of Zebedee as well. But the gospel itself does not list John as its author. Like the other gospels, the book is technically anonymous. I believe this closing passage is an invitation to discover the identity of the book’s author—and from where I sit, John seems highly unlikely.
Consider what we might expect (and not expect) if the Fourth Gospel were indeed authored by John, the son of Zebedee.
- Since John was from Galilee, we would expect him to include lots and lots of events from Jesus’ ministry in the region. But instead, we find the vast majority of the gospel taking place in Judea.
- According to the other gospels, John was one of three witnesses to the transfiguration of Jesus—an amazing and unparalleled event by any reckoning, completely unique in the ministry of the Lord (and in the cosmos, for that matter)—and yet the Fourth Gospel doesn’t spare a single verse to mention it!
- This unnamed disciple was “known to the high priest” and was therefore admitted to go “with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard” (18:15). If this is supposed to be John, it seems odd that a fisherman from Galilee had such a high-level connection in Jerusalem. It’s equally strange that his brother, James, did not have the same connection.
- In the Fourth Gospel, the Beloved Disciple stayed with Jesus and was one of the faithful who remained with Him at the cross. If we are to take the other gospel accounts at face value, this cannot be John, for they insist “all the disciples deserted him and fled” (Matthew 26:56; cf. Mark 14:50).
- From the cross, Jesus charged “the disciple whom he loved” with caring or His mother, Mary. The text tells us, “From that time on, this disciple took her into his home” (John 19:27). In Greek, it reads, “From that hour.” But John’s home was nowhere near Jerusalem; he could not have taken Mary into his home from that hour.
Each of these issues might be explained away on their own, but taken together, they should lead us to wonder if John was really the author of the gospel that today bears his name.
I recognize that many people have been taught that to question the authorship of a gospel is akin to questioning the validity of the Bible itself. But what I’m asking us to do is take the words of Scripture more seriously, not less. A straightforward reading of the Fourth Gospel presents us with a mystery. Mentions of a beloved disciple are laced through the text, providing clues to the author’s identity and a deeper meaning behind the structure of the gospel. John 21:24 is an open door into the mystery. I believe that when we step through it, we will discover that the gospel is more beautiful than we previously imagined.
To be continued tomorrow…