In calling himself the disciple whom Jesus loved, I do not think that John was claiming a special relationship between himself and Jesus. Rather, the fact that John referred himself in this way reflects his awareness of being loved and the key role that Jesus' love played in shaping his identity.
John wrote that love can only be understood and defined by God’s love for us:
- God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 Jn 4:9-10)
If it is God’s love for us that defines what love is, it was Jesus’ love for John that defined who John was. But John never described that love in exclusive terms; it was always a love for the disciples as a whole. That love was especially evident in his words to them at the last supper, recounted at length in John’s gospel:
- Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (Jn 13:1)
- As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. (Jn 15:9)
- “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (Jn 15: 12-13)
Not just in these verses, but throughout the passages of John 14 through 16, Jesus’ words conveyed his tender love for his disciples and his efforts to comfort and prepare them for the trials that lay ahead:
- Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (Jn 14:27)
In his description of that night, one verse in particular captured John’s sense of being held in the heart of Jesus:
- There was reclining one of His disciples whom Jesus loved in the bosom of Jesus. (Jn 13:23, Berean Literal Bible)
Of the twelve, John would be the only disciple to stand beneath the cross. There he would witness and later testify to the love that flowed in the form of blood and water from the opened heart of Jesus:
- Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) (Jn 19:34-35)
The love John described was never for himself alone, yet it clearly transformed and defined who he was. Rather than a special relationship, perhaps what John had was a special grace and calling: to give witness to the redeeming love of God.