Friendship with the Beloved Disciple as Type in a Theology of Friendship

In the Fourth Gospel, the nameless character is introduced at the Last Supper as “the one whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). He is explicitly named again under the Cross (John 19:26), at the empty tomb (John 20:2), and post-resurrection on the lakeshore in Galilee (John 21:7- 20). Each time this Beloved Disciple appears in the narrative, his friendship with Jesus is defined more fully through the context of the scene as well as in the repetition of his title as the “Disciple whom Jesus loved.”

From the beginning of the fourth Gospel, Jesus is depicted as having access to the innermost being and secrets of God. In John 1:18, Jesus’s relationship with God is translated in several synonymous ways, any one of which conveys that he enjoys the deepest of intimacy: “in closest relation with the Father” or “at the side of the Father” or, more poetically, “in the bosom of the Father.” A similar portrait is given at the Last Supper. There, in John 13:23, the Beloved Disciple appears “reclining next to the breast of Jesus.” By using the same language that has previously characterized Jesus’s relationship with the Father, the Johannine author recalls the relationship of the Father and the Son that is reflected, also, in the Beloved Disciple’s privileged position near the heart of Jesus.

The reciprocal dimension of their friendship is revealed in the second appearance where the Beloved Disciple stands near the mother of the crucified Jesus. In his last earthly action, Jesus entrusts the care of his mother to this Beloved Disciple (John 19:26-27), and the Beloved Disciple receives her. Indeed, Jesus’s action conforms to one of the duties of friendship that was found in the Greco-Roman culture:  a man readily assumed filial responsibilities in taking care of a deceased friend’s relatives. However, the Gospel echoes the language of Jewish family law and so goes even deeper than the classical understanding. Jesus uses precise words, addressed generically to “woman” and “son” (John 19:26): “Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” It is in his choice of these words that Jesus speaks his final instruction in love:  to legally fulfill the duty of caring for another reveals a level of intimacy that characterizes the closest of friends.

The Beloved Disciple appears for the third time in John 20:1-10, where he and Peter race to the tomb on hearing the news from Mary Magdalene that Jesus was alive. Here, the Beloved Disciple’s absolute love for Jesus is spotlighted in John 20:8 where the Beloved Disciple “saw and believed,” even though there is no explicit reference to “what” the Beloved Disciple believed. Was it in the resurrection of Jesus? Or, did he simply believe what Mary Magdalene had reported? Cumulatively, it is the Beloved Disciple’s faith, expressed in his belief which is seen throughout this pericope: running to the tomb, waiting outside the tomb, entering the tomb, seeing and believing—all these, interpreted theologically, portray him as an ideal disciple, which is itself based on his relationship of friendship with Jesus.

The recurrent theme in the Fourth Gospel of Jesus’s relationship with the unnamed character, gives an “everyman” quality to the Beloved Disciple, who becomes a type for all believers in all times and places. Who is the beloved disciple? He is the one who is loved by Jesus, who enjoys a special place next to Jesus, is given the responsibility for Jesus’s Mother’s care, believes in the risen Lord, and who follows him. He also has a special role as a witness to Jesus’s words and deeds, which he records in detail. He exemplifies the hope that such a sublime friendship with Jesus is, in fact, not impossible, even though Jesus’s special friendship with the Beloved Disciple is embedded in a wider relationship of all-inclusive love: that between Jesus and the whole group of disciples. The setting of the Last Supper reveals the details and terms of Jesus’s inclusive love.

Johannine scholars have often noted that the theme of the Last Supper is typical of the farewell or testament of a hero who is about to die, a recurrent theme in biblical, extra-biblical Jewish literature, and Greco-Roman literature. Such discourses are underscored as particularly noteworthy because they typically encapsulate the hero’s most significant teachings. The author of this text, likewise, colors the relation between Jesus and the disciples in a unique and distinctive way, beginning with the washing of the feet.

The scene opens and is introduced using friendship language: “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (εἰς τέλος). The ambiguity in the prepositional phrase serves a dual purpose and meaning. First, Jesus’s love for his disciples is the extreme offering of his life on their behalf; second, “to the end” demonstrates the extent and nature of Jesus’s love: he loved them “completely.” The emphasis on complete love places Jesus’s relationship with his disciples within the context of his completion in relationship with the Father. That is, Jesus’s act of friendship in the scene that follows and his declarations of friendship in the Farewell Discourse both flow out of his unity, mutuality, and equality with the Father.

Finally, the setting of the foot-washing as prelude to a shared meal is itself significant; it not only fulfills the custom of the time, but goes beyond it toward a new dimension. It was a sign of genuine friendship in the Roman period, as well as the custom of the rest of the Judeo and classical world, to have friends attend a meal. Jesus’s Farewell Discourse both defines the precincts of ideal friendship and invites his disciples into that proffered ideal. What better setting for this eternal proposal than a meal—an event shared by friends? However, Jesus knew that the inequality that divided them needed to be remedied, in order that the right relationship of friends, as equals, could be established.

Authentic friendship in the Greco-Roman period was understood as possible only between men of equal rank and status. If that equality was lacking, there were some avenues in classical society by which to bridge it so that a friendship might be enjoyed. Cicero noted in “On Friendship” that the initiative in such situations originated with the person of higher status: “those who are superior should [both] lower themselves… [and] lift up their inferiors.”[I]

In the foot-washing pericope, Jesus both lowers himself and elevates his disciples. He, who is the superior man, takes on the role of a servant, lowering himself to the status of a slave. The degree to which Jesus lowers himself is highlighted by the details of the Johannine Jesus just prior to his washing of their feet. The author relates that Jesus first “took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself” and then “poured water into a basin.” The master becomes a servant so that he and his disciples might enjoy the kind of intimate relationship about which he has been speaking and teaching.

The setting of the Last Supper prefigures the eternal dwelling; Jesus spoke of entering “my Father’s House” where he is going to prepare a place for them. The washing of his disciples’ feet can be read as Jesus himself preparing them to walk in the ways of God. The action itself summons the disciples and prepares them for the events that lie just ahead for them: an intimate relationship with both the Father and the Son together as a community, and a specific apostolic task of evangelization ahead. All these things are profoundly connected with Jesus’s action and in the following Farewell Discourse of John 13:31–17:26.

In the Fourth Gospel, narrative symbols and motifs are frequently expressed in dualistic terms (light/darkness, above/below). The motif of friendship, likewise, includes references both to what it means to be a friend, and what it means to be a non-friend. By all classical definition of friendship in the Greco-Roman world, Judas is a non-friend, being opposed to all a friend is supposed to be. Rather than being willing to die for his friend, he initiates the events that lead to Jesus’s death. In John 13:21-30, Judas’s treachery is revealed and he is dismissed; Jesus then turns to the task of giving the disciples his urgent, final instructions.

Jesus’s request for Judas to leave their group situates the intimate discourse that follows exclusively among true friends. Jesus announces that his time has come, and his disciples respond with declarations of absolute friendship: “Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you’” (John 13:37). By making this claim of absolute loyalty, Peter declares himself to be a true friend of Jesus. Yet, when the crisis ensues, it is not only Judas who falls short. As Jesus predicts to him, Peter fails, too, and all but the Beloved Disciple run away, when put to the test. Jesus’s response to Peter’s declaration of friendship helps established the unilateral basis for the intimacy that the followers enjoy with Jesus. It is Jesus who lowers himself to his followers’ level through the act of foot-washing, and subsequently raises his disciples through declarations of friendship. He is the one who acts as a true friend and extends the offer of friendship to his followers. They, on the other hand, have little or no role in establishing the friendship. However, Peter’s declaration of friendship and Jesus’s rejection of the veracity of this declaration, set the stage for Jesus’s own elucidation of what it means to be a friend.

The friendship between Jesus and his disciples is based on Jesus’s ability to be a friend, not on the disciples’ ability to be ideal friends. In John 15:1-8, Jesus’s friendship with his disciples is expressed in the symbolism of the vine and the branches. As the branches cannot bear fruit when detached from the vine, so Jesus’s disciples/friends cannot function without their relationship with Jesus. This parable of love, as brought out through the image of the vine and branches, discloses the unity that exists between Jesus and his disciples. That unity is twined and one in friendship, a friendship that has its archetype in the love of the Father and the Son.

The unity between the Father and the Son, and the Son and his disciples, is also used to characterize the disciples’ relationships among themselves (John 15: 12). Indeed, Jesus’s actions and prayers are meant, in part, to facilitate the same type of unity among the disciples that exists between Jesus and the Father. The foundation for Jesus’s teaching on the unity of believers has already been laid in John 10:16: “So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.” Their unity is then extended to an even broader set of friends, spanning time and space: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us” (John 17:20-21). This brings out the communion dimension of friendship; that it is both exclusive and yet inclusive of others, an important aspect on which classical friendship also depended. It is also linked with other characteristics, including steadfastness, oneness, and indwelling; the Johannine indwelling language in the Fourth Gospel is a poignant description of the deepest levels of intimacy.

Unity of relationship naturally leads to a sharing of possessions. The Son, who is with God and is God, shares everything with the Father. Remarkably, this perfect friendship is not portrayed as a closed relationship from which others are excluded. The Johannine Jesus explicitly extends the mutuality that he shares with the Father to include his disciples. As the Father had given his words to Jesus, so Jesus shares the word of the Father with his disciples: “I have given them the words which thou gave me” (John 17:8). This mutuality knows no bounds. Jesus, who as God shares the Father’s distinctive and unique glory, as recorded by Isaiah, even shares that glory with his disciples: “And the glory which you have given me, I have given to them” (John 17:22); in this sublime gift of his own glory, Jesus unites them with himself and with God.

This mutuality between the Son and his disciples also includes perfect transparency, or “frankness of speech” (παρρησίᾳ) which characterizes an ideal friendship. While earlier in the Gospel this familiar friendship convention is used to describe the intimacy between the Father and the Son (cf. John 5:19), in the Farewell Discourse, the Johannine Jesus grants the same intimacy to his followers: “I have called you friends because all things, whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you” (John 15:15).  In John 16:25, Jesus goes on to promise them that “the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in figures but tell you plainly of the Father.”

Despite the endowment of gifts, the distinction between Jesus and his disciples remains. Even though he has invited and granted them friendship, Jesus still has the authority to command them. The friendship between Jesus and the disciples is expressed in conditional terms: “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). Yet, while obedience is a component of the friendship between Jesus and his disciples, their friendship cannot be reduced to a relationship of obedience. If they abide in the Father’s love, friendship is sustained and willingness to respond to God is assumed in their response to Jesus’s being: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14: 15).

The mutual responsibilities of Jesus and his disciples are not inconsistent with the “patron system” of the classical world, in which a powerful benefactor defends his dependents, who in turn have their own responsibility. Jesus gives them the Paraclete (John 14:16), loves them and reveals himself to them (John 14:21), reveals the Father to them (John 15:15), protects them (John 17:12), comes with the Father to abide within them (John 16:23), and gives them whatever they ask in his name (John 16:24). Yet, within the context of the entire Fourth Gospel, and the Farewell Discourse in particular, striking clues point beyond mere patronage, to a relationship of the most intimate nature.

The disciples are three times called friends by the Johannine Jesus. They do not decide to be friends of Jesus; he calls them to be friends. Thus, their status originates not in self-assignation but from a divine gift and calling. In response, those who love Jesus are required, and desire, to keep his commandments. The new status that Jesus’ disciples enjoy redefines what it means to serve him as Lord. Indeed, friendship with Jesus does not dissolve the distinction between divine and human. Disciples may well be friends of Jesus, abiding in love, but they remain disciples, nevertheless, and followers of the Lord who is the source and model of their love.

The proof or evidence of friendship is indeed linked to the lifestyle of the disciples being aligned with the teaching of the master, and the status of friend is inextricably linked to a manner of living that honors the master and that supernaturally flows from being loved by Jesus. Obedience is certainly required, for there is no question of independence, but this obedience is rooted in the shared knowledge of friends rather than the blind obedience of servants. Indeed, friendship is seen in the revelation of Jesus to his disciples. They are not kept in the dark, but given access to understanding and insight, so that the allegiance they render is intelligent and perceptive.

It is during the Last Supper that the Johannine author lays out his description of Jesus’s friendship with his disciples; he records that Jesus explicitly directs his disciples to love one another as he loves them. This is more than a fortuitous group bonding; it describes a new way of being in community as friends, with God and with each other. If Jesus’s disciples are to be his friends, they are to keep his commandments and abide in his love just as Jesus has kept the commandments of his Father and abides in his love.

The reason they are no longer considered “servants” but “friends” hinges on the lengthy communication by which Jesus shares with them intimate knowledge given to him by the Father. This knowledge was previously available only to him, but he now intends to share it—in unity and reciprocal love—with his intimate friends. Through this conversation, Jesus elevates the status of his followers and incorporates them into the relationship between him and the Father. The disciples’ mission now is no longer an answer to a call from the master but a direct share in the same mission of Jesus emanating from the very love and obedience, which he himself lives out in his relationship with the Father.

There is nothing to equal the Johannine Jesus Christ in expounding the Christian understanding of friendship. It is the highest form of becoming incorporated into God and of becoming one with Christ in his essential being and his mission. Beyond all political and domestic divisions, this is this kind of understanding of friendship that can inspire unity and joyful discipleship in the Christian community even to this day, from America to Malta and everywhere else. In the hope of this friendship with the Divine Master, may the whole world know the Gospel and upon it may we build our homes and communities!


This is part 3 of a three-part series on friendship in the Gospel of John. Part 1 is available here and part 2 here. 

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[i] Cicero, On Friendship, (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1923) 181.


Jonathan Sammut

Jonathan Sammut is a member of the Society of Christian Doctrine (founded by St. George Preca) in Malta where he lives and works. He studied Theology at the University of Notre Dame in the Summer of 2016 and holds the M.A. in Theology from the University of Malta.

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