The Beloved Disciple
J. R. Miller
The name of John is not once mentioned in all his gospel. Again and again the writer refers to himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." He has been criticized for this, as if he had been vain and self-conceited in thus speaking of his own distinction among the disciples. But no grace is more marked in John, than humility. He does not speak of himself as the disciple who loved Jesus. This would have been to claim preeminence among the disciples and would have shown a boastful and self-confident spirit. He said he was the disciple whom Jesus loved. He glorified the grace of Christ. He was what he was—only because Christ loved him.
Right here we have one of the deepest truths of Christian life, one of the great secrets of Christian peace, an essential quality of faith: that our hope does not rest in our love for Christ—but in His love for us. People are often discouraged when they find in themselves so little that is good and beautiful. They cannot see that they love Christ any more this year, than they did last. They do not find in themselves the beautiful fruits of the Spirit which they wish they could find. But there is another way to look at our lives, which gives us more hope. It is John's way—not our love for Christ—but Christ's love for us!
Ar the best our love is variable in its moods and experiences. Today it glows with warmth and affection for Jesus, and we say that we could die for our Master. We know we love Him. Tomorrow, in some depression, we question whether we really love Him at all, our feelings respond so feebly to His name. A peace which depends on our loving Christ—is as variable as our own moods. But when it is Christ's love for us that is our dependence, our peace is undisturbed by any earthly changes.
The usual conception of John, is that he was gentle and affectionate, but not strong. Yet this is a mistaken conception. He was a man of magnificent strength. When we see John at first, he had his faults. He was not always the disciple of gentleness and love. He was impetuous, fiery, intemperate in his zeal. We have an illustration of this quality in him, in his impatience with the people of the Samaritan village to which his Master was not hospitably welcomed. His anger flamed hotly against them. He wished to call down fire from heaven upon the town and the people! He had not then learned the mind that was in Jesus Christ.
Another blemish in John at first was his desire for greatness. He supposed that Christ was to be an earthly king, ruling over the world. In this great kingdom John and his brother were ambitious to fill the highest offices. "Grant unto us to sit at your right hand and at your left." This, too, was contrary to the spirit of Christ. The places nearest to Him—are reached by the paths of humility and service. He who becomes as a little child—is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
In our disappointment with ourselves—it comforts us to be reminded that even the disciple whom Jesus loved, was once a hot-headed zealot, ready to burn anyone who would not become a Christian, and a man with a worldly ambition clamoring for high office in Christ's kingdom! We need a religion that will take us as we are, with all our faults and imperfections, and make of us such a man as John's religion made of him.
It is not every kind of religion that produces such men as John, "the disciple whom Jesus loved." Some people are Christians a long while, and yet never grow into sweetness of spirit, never become gentle, kind, patient, thoughtful, unselfish. Not always does the resentful spirit—become the spirit of mercy, forgiveness and charity, even after years. Not always does the eagerness for first places, for prominence, for distinction, grow into the lowly humility which we see in John in his later life.
Instead of holding a prominent place among the apostles, he appears as a quiet, modest man, keeping close to Peter, walking in his shadow, sweetly accepting the second place. Instead of wishing to call down fire on those who would not honor his Master, he preached love as the great duty—as the one thing of Christian life.
You know how this "disciple whom Jesus loved" came to stand at last as the ideal of love, not only in his teaching, but also in his life. We all want a religion that will do for us—what John's religion did for him. We desire that our life, with its resentments, its insincerities, its selfishness, its irritability, its vanity, its pride, its worldly ambition—can be made into the life of love which John attained. We are not satisfied with our faulty character, our poor living. We are not the kind of Christians we know we ought to be. Our religion does not seem to make us grow ever better. We attend church, we sing the hymns and join in the prayers, we enjoy the worship, we give to the cause of Christ, we go through the rounds of services and ordinances—but somehow we do not become sweeter, gentler, truer, braver, stronger, more Christlike.
What was the secret of John's religion? We may put it into one phrase, "Christ and John were friends!" It was a great, all-absorbing, overmastering friendship began that day, when the Baptist said to two young men, as Jesus passed near, "Behold the Lamb of God" (1:29). The two young men followed Him and were invited to His lodgings, spending the afternoon with Him. What took place during those hours we do not know, but we do know that a friendship began between John—scarcely more than a boy then—and Jesus, whose bonds have never slackened since. For three years this friendship grew in sweetness and tenderness, and during those years it was that the wonderful transformation took place in the disciple.
We know a little about the power of a strong, rich, noble, human friendship in shaping, inspiring, uplifting lives. There are many lives that are being saved, refined, sweetened, enriched by a human friendship. One of the best of the younger Christian men I have known—I have seen lifted up from a life of ordinary ability and education, into refinement, power and large usefulness by a gentle friendship. The girl whom he loved was rich-hearted, inspiring, showing in her own life the best ideals, and her love for him and his love for her—lifted him up to love's nobility. She stayed with him only a few years, and then went home to God—but he walks among men today with a strength, an energy, and a force of character, born of the holy friendship which meant so much to him.
George Eliot's Silas Marner is about a miser who hoarded his money. Someone stole away his hoard, and his heart grew bitter over the wrong to him. Then a little child was left at his door. His poor, starved heart took in the little one, and love for her redeemed him from sordidness, bitterness and anguish of spirit. God saves many a life—by sending to it a sweet human friendship.
A Christian climbed the rickety stairs to the miserable room where a woman lay in rags on a pile of straw. She bent over the poor woman, all vile with sin, said a loving word, and kissed her. That kiss saved her. Christ comes to sinners—and saves them with love. That is the way He saved the prodigals of His time. He came to them—and became their friend.
It is to a personal friendship with Himself, that Christ is always inviting men. He does not come merely to make reforms, to start beneficent movements, to make the conditions of life better. He does not try to save the world by giving it better laws, by founding schools, by securing wholesome literature. Christ saves men—by becoming their friend. John surrendered his heart and life to this friendship with Jesus. He opened every window and door to his new Master.
Another thing which helped on John's friendship with Christ, was his trust. He never doubted. Thomas doubted and was slow to believe. This hindered the growth of his friendship with Jesus. Peter was one of our Savior's closest friends, but he was always saying rash words and doing rash things, which interrupted his fellowship with Christ. But John loved on in silence—and trusted. At the Last Supper he leaned on the Master's bosom. That is the place of confidence: the bosom is only for those who have a right to closest intimacy. It is the place of love—near the heart. It is the place of safety—in the secret place of the Most High. The bosom is the place of comfort. It was the darkest night the world ever saw, that John lay on the bosom of Jesus. But he found comfort there. Trust in the secret of peace. "You will keep in perfect peace—all who trust in you, whose thoughts are fixed on you!" (Isaiah 26:3).
That is what leaning on bosom means. Do not think that that place of innermost love was for John alone, and has never been filled since that night. It is like heaven's gates—it is never closed, and whoever will, may come and lie there! It is a place for those who sorrow—oh, that all who have grief knew that they may creep in where John lay, and nestle there!
John's transformation is the model for all of us. No matter how many imperfections mar the beauty of our lives, we should not be discouraged. But we should never consent to let the faults remain. That is the way too many of us do. We condone our weaknesses and imperfections, pity them—and keep them. We should give ourselves no rest until they are cured. But how can we get these evil things out of our lives? How did John get rid of his faults? By letting the love of Christ possess him. Lying upon Christ's bosom—Christ's sweet, pure, wholesome life permeated John's life—and made it sweet, pure and wholesome.
So it is the friendship of Christ alone which can transform us. You are a Christian not because you belong to a church, not because you have a good creed, not because you are living a fair moral life; you are a Christian because you and Christ are friends. What can a friend be to a friend? Let us think of the best that earth's richest-hearted friend can be to us, and do for us. Then lift up this conception, multiplying it a thousand times! If it were possible to gather out of all history and from all the world, the best and holiest things of pure, true friendship, and combine them all in one of great friendship— Christ's friendship would surpass the sum of them all.
Even our human friendships we prize as the dearest things on earth. They are more precious than rarest gems. We would lose everything else we have rather than give them up. Life without friendships would be empty and lonely. Yet the best earthly friendships are but little fragments of the friendship of Christ. It is perfect. Its touch is always gentle and full of healing. Its help is always wise. Its tenderness is like the warmth of a heavenly summer. If we have the friendship of Christ, we cannot be utterly bereft, though all human friends be taken away. To be Christ's friend—is to be God's child, with all a child's privileges. This is one essential in being a Christian.
We could not say Paul is our friend, or John—but Jesus is living, and is with us evermore. He is our Friend as really as He was Mary's or John's. Christ is our Friend. That means He will supply everything we really need. No want can be unsupplied. No sorrow can be uncomforted. No evil can overmaster us. For time and for eternity—we are safe! It will not be the streets of gold, and the gates of pearl, and the river and the trees—which will make heaven for us—it will be the companionship, the friendship of Christ!
But we must not forget the other part of this friendship. We are to be Christ's friends, too. It is not much we can give to Him or do for Him. But He would have us loyal and true.
If a sacred human friendship exerts such influence over a true life, surely the consciousness that Christ is our Friend and we are His—should check every evil thought, quell every bitter feeling, sweeten every emotion, and make all our life holy, true and heavenly!