The Mystery of the Beloved Disciple—Part 2 (John 21:20–25)

Read John 21:20–25.

I’ve sat through enough New Testament courses to know that one of the main reasons Bible readers think John is the Beloved Disciple is because of John 13:23, where “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is reclining next to Jesus at the table. This is the first apparent mention of this mysterious disciple, and his identity as John, the son of Zebedee, comes by process of elimination.

The other gospel accounts seem to indicate the guest list for the Last Supper included Jesus and the Twelve, so that would limit the possibilities to that select group. That position at the table—right next to Jesus—was a place of honor and would have been given to someone especially close to the Lord. We know that Peter, James, and John formed Jesus’ inner circle, so one of those three seems most likely. Given that Peter is specifically named in this passage apart from the disciple whom Jesus loved, it seems unlikely to be Peter. And since James was martyred in 44 AD, it’s doubtful he could have authored the Fourth Gospel. That only leaves John.

But there are a few problems with this line of thinking. For starters, it’s not altogether clear that the only attendees at the Last Supper were the Twelve. The fact that others are not mentioned explicitly does not mean no others were there. In addition, the term disciple is not used exclusively of the Twelve in the Fourth Gospel (for example, see John 6:66; 8:31). This opens up the possibility that someone else is in view.

Flip back two chapters, and we find something interesting. Hoping Jesus will come quickly and heal Lazarus, Mary and Martha sent a messenger to let Him know Lazarus is sick. Interestingly, though, they didn’t refer to their brother by name. Instead, “the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick’” (11:3, emphasis added). Later, after Lazarus died, Jesus wept, and the Jews who had gathered to mourn remarked to one another, “See how he loved him!” (v. 36). Could it be that Lazarus is the Beloved Disciple? Could it be that the truth’s been staring us in the face the whole time?

Here’s why Lazarus as the author of the Fourth Gospel makes a lot of sense:

  • Lazarus was from Bethany, so we would expect a gospel from his perspective would include lots of action in Judea, and that’s exactly what the Fourth Gospel has.
  • Lazarus being the author would also explain why there is no mention of the Transfiguration atop (most likely) Mount Hermon. While John was there, Lazarus wasn’t.
  • It’s also more conceivable that Lazarus, an apparently wealthy man from just outside of Jerusalem, would have been known to Annas (see 18:15–16), especially given Lazarus’s miraculous healing. (Remember his sister Mary’s pint of pure nard, “worth a year’s wages” [12:5]?) While this is still speculative, it makes more sense than the idea that John, a fisherman from Galilee with no known connections to Jerusalem, was known to the high priest.
  • There is no conflict between the Fourth Gospel and the other three if it’s Lazarus who remained with Jesus at the cross rather than John (see Matthew 26:56; cf. Mark 14:50). Plus, given that Jesus brought Lazarus back from death, his bold resolve to stay with Jesus would have been understandable, expected even.
  • Since Lazarus’s home was just across the Kidron Valley from the city, it is easy to see how he could have taken Jesus’ mother, Mary, into his home “from that time on” (19:27), or more literally, “from that hour.”

But there are other good reason why Lazarus as the Beloved Disciple makes good sense, and they have to do with the strangest bits of the Fourth Gospel.

On Easter morning, when Mary finds that the stone has been removed from the entrance, she doesn’t go inside. Instead, she immediately finds “Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved,” and tells them what she had just seen (20:2). Upon hearing the news, Peter and the Beloved Disciple take off running. Here’s the odd thing: “Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first” (v. 3).

Many times, I’ve heard pastors and Bible teachers say this line is a bit of ancient trash talk preserved for us down through the centuries. John included it to tell everyone across time and space that he was a faster runner than Peter. It’s just a taste of the friendly rivalry that must have existed between Peter and John, and it shows us that the two young men were human after all; they were good friends who were always trying to get the best of one another.

I’ve always found that explanation a bit wanting. I find it hard to believe that John, in describing the most important event in all of human history—the resurrection of Jesus—would add a throwaway line with no other purpose than to stick it to his good friend. Up to this point, no other detail in the gospel has been so empty. Why would he start here? But if Lazarus is the Beloved Disciple, suddenly that detail is not so empty.

Lazarus had been dead, but a little more than a week before Easter, Jesus visited his tomb and called him back to life. What kind of life was it? Was he still “mostly dead,” like Westley from The Princess Bride? Did he have trouble breathing, a limp in his gait, aches and pains all over? We know what it can be like to recover from a serious illness; it doesn’t usually happen all at once. So what is recovering from death like? Lazarus tells us. He feels like a brand-new man. He’s in in tip-top shape with no limitations. He is as fit as can be, to the point that he can outrun Peter to the tomb—and not just by a few seconds; he has time to look around.

There’s also the strange conversation between Peter and Jesus here at the end of John 21. When Peter asks Jesus about the destiny of the Beloved Disciple, Jesus replies, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” (v. 22). This exchange makes little sense if the disciple in view is John, the son of Zebedee. On the other hand, if they’re talking about Lazarus of Bethany, a man who has already succumbed to death and risen to new life, it makes total sense.

It’s possible some people wondered if Lazarus would now live forever. After all, Jesus’ resurrection was permanent: “he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him” (Romans 6:9). Lazarus’s resurrection was of another kind. He was restored to life but not given a new body of glory. His earthly life, however miraculously restored, was only temporary. Though death would indeed come for him in time, his resurrection is perhaps why “the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die” (John 21:23).

Though this final back-and-forth in John 21 has long been something of a mystery, it may actually be the key to unlock a deeper understanding of all that has come before. And so, next we’ll turn that key. 

What’s this all about?

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