Traditionally, John the Gospel writer was the disciple whom Jesus loved. However, upon closer study, there is another follower of Jesus that is a stronger candidate that you have likely not considered: Lazarus.
The identity of the “beloved disciple” or the one John calls “disciple whom Jesus loved” is unnamed and has remained a mystery. Irenaeus and Eusebius both identified the beloved disciple as John as early as the second and fourth century respectively. Scholars, such as Raymond Brown, have written heavily upon John as the one whom Jesus loved. Despite the fact John does not self-identify nor names himself as the writer of the Gospel of John or the beloved disciple, we have relied on tradition and church history.
If we are to rely on the tradition of the identification of the beloved disciple, what about the internal evidence of scripture? Surprisingly, scripture does offer dramatic clues to the mystery of the beloved disciple.
Based on John’s gospel, the only gospel that mentions this “beloved” disciple we read of five instances:
John 13:23 One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; (Lazarus also reclined with Jesus in John 12)
John 19:26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”
John 20:2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
John 21:7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.
John 21:20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?”
However, there is the sixth instance that this expression of the one who Jesus loved. John 11
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill. 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
Now, before you call me a heretic, I want to remind you that John is never explicitly named as the beloved disciple, but only tradition names him. I want you to consider for a moment Lazarus was the disciple whom Jesus loved. You may say, Lazarus was not one of the twelve disciples. Let’s consider and reflect who and what a disciple is.
The word disciple comes from the Greek word μαθητής (mathētēs) which means a student of a teacher or master. As we know, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi (teacher) who had many students: the three “inner disciples” (Peter, James, and John) and the rest of the nine other core disciples. The twelve were the first disciples. There were The Disciples of Jesus and there were the disciples Jesus. In Luke 10, we are reminded of the 70 other disciples who went out into the towns and villages. Other disciples or students included women: Mary, Martha, Joanna, and many others. These women were also part of the inner core of Jesus ministry and supported the movement financially (Luke 8).
Mary and Martha are key to understanding the mystery of the beloved disciple. Most forget that it is Mary and other women who are the first evangelists of the resurrection of Jesus: they are Lazarus’ sisters. We know that Jesus’ movement involved families: James and John were brothers, Mary and Martha were sisters, and several early church leaders were related by birth or marriage. If Mary was at the cross when Jesus was crucified then it is plausible to believe Lazarus was there as the beloved disciple. If Lazarus was to be killed with Jesus according to John 12:10, then it was smart for the writer of John to name Lazarus as the disciple whom Jesus loved. Since the oral tradition was circulated among early believers it would have been advantageous not to name Lazarus as part of the inner group of disciples.
Lazarus holds a greater role in the life of Jesus than you might think. In the Gospels, Jesus only cries three times. Actually, he weeps – a more sorrowful crying. In Luke 19:41, Jesus wept over Jerusalem. At the cross, scripture states that Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, My God, why have your forsaken me” in Matthew 27:46. Lastly, in John 11:35 Jesus weeps over the death of his “friend” – the one who Jesus loved, Lazarus. Out of all the people in the Gospel, Lazarus holds the distinction of:
- Being the only named person in scripture as “he whom you love” (Jesus loved everyone, but this phrase is unique)
- Being the only person named by a group of people exclaiming, “See how he [Jesus] loved him [Lazarus].” (John 11:36)
- Being the only person who Jesus personally cried and grieved for.
- Being the only person Jesus was willing to be stoned for.
- Being the only disciple or person who was to be killed with Jesus. (John 12:10)
- Being the only one friend/disciple of Jesus who was a recipient of a healing miracle. (Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law)
- The mentioning of the disciple “whom Jesus loved” is mentioned only after the raising of Lazarus in the Book of John.
The love that is mentioned in John’s Gospel regarding Lazarus and the Beloved Disciple is phileo – a deep affection, a love of a dear friend, or a brotherly love. John continues to use phileo throughout his Gospel when referring to the disciple whom Jesus loved, including at the resurrection. John used phileo when recording the love between the Father and Son in John 3:35. In this light, Lazarus’ unique relationship with Jesus is most likely one of the most overlooked and under-studied topics in the Gospels.
If Lazarus is the disciple whom Jesus loved, then the identity of the mystery disciple with Peter at the tomb of Jesus makes sense: It’s Lazarus. If a rabbi brought you back to life, you would want to follow that person around – even become their student. You would be eternally grateful for that person. You would even feel compelled to take care of this person’s mother because this healer did so much for you. If there was a rumor that Jesus was alive you would want to be first at the tomb since Jesus was there at your tomb. If Jesus could bring you back from the dead surely he could bring himself back from death. Lazarus certainly has ample reasons to hang around and continue to have a friendship with Jesus.
The friendship of Jesus and Lazarus is overlooked because we do not know why Jesus loved Lazarus so much. It is plausible to think that Lazarus was a disciple of Jesus because of Jesus’ relationship with his sister Mary, who is named throughout the Gospels at key moments. Or, it is the other way around: Jesus is close with Mary and Martha because of his friendship with Lazarus! Regardless, the Gospels offer subtle clues to the mystery of the beloved disciple’s identity. Lazarus’ story, family relationships, and Jesus’ love of him makes Lazarus a fitting choice as the beloved disciple.