The Disciple Whom Jesus Kept On Loving
Tommy: “I ain’t going.”
Teacher: “Don’t say ‘ain’t.’ Say, ‘I am not going, you are not going, he is not going.’”
Tommy: “Ain’t nobody going?”
Or maybe you heard the one about the man who went on trial for having pulled a woman down the street by her hair. When the judge asked the arresting officer, “Was she drugged?” the policeman answered, “Yes sir, a whole block!”
Both yarns rely on the fact that verbs in English are crazy, fraught with puzzling unpredictability. Some verbs form their past tense by adding –d, -ed, or –t, as in walk, walked; bend, bent. Others go back in time through an internal vowel change—begin, began; sing, sang. Another cluster adds –d or –t and undergoes an internal vowel change—lose, lost; bring, brought. And still others, more stubborn than the rest, refuse to change at all—set, set; put, put.
Greek verbs are no less confusing than their English counterparts. If you don’t agree, just ask a Greek student to form the past tense of the Greek verb for eat or bring without their breath quickening or their eyes glazing. The slopes of the mountainous terrain we call verbs are filled with the dead and the dying—people who have been conjugated, parsed, and inflected into oblivion.
As I have attempted to explain in my little book It’s Still Greek to Me, one of the wonderful things about verbs in Greek is that they not only have tense but also what grammarians call “aspect.” In other words, while Greek verbs can describe an event in terms of past, present, and future time (just as in English), they can also emphasize how an action is thought to have taken place. Thus, for example, Matthew describes the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand as follows: Jesus took the bread, blessed the bread, broke the bread, and gave the bread to His disciples to distribute. Mark, on the other hand, writes that Jesus took the bread, blessed the bread, broke the bread, and kept on giving the bread—as if to emphasize the miracle taking place in the very hands of Jesus as He kept on passing out the bread and it never ran out!
This brings me to one of the most interesting and, I believe, instructive examples in the entire New Testament of this matter of verbal aspect, namely that little expression found five times in John’s Gospel: “The disciple whom Jesus loved.” This, of course, is held by most Johannine scholars to be a reference to the apostle John, the writer of the Fourth Gospel. It was his way of describing himself without saying, in so many words, “I am John.”
Now most translations of the New Testament I am familiar with seem to miss something quite important about this rather obscure expression. Just as in the previous example Mark used a past tense verb that emphasized continuous action (“Jesus kept on giving the bread”), so here John uses the very same tense to describe himself. The expression, literally rendered, might better be translated, “The disciple whom Jesus kept on loving.” The implication, one might say, is almost, “He kept on loving me despite myself.” And little wonder. We should not think of John as some kind of soft, sentimental, wishy-washy weakling. He was called a “son of thunder” (Hebrew for a person with a boisterous personality). He wanted to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans. He sought the place of prominence at the right (or, if need be, at the left) hand of Jesus in the kingdom.
John the weakling? Hardly.
And now, writing many years later at the end of his long life (John outlived all the other apostles), he has one chance to describe himself to his audience. He could have done this in several different ways, each with its own emphasis. For example, I might introduce myself, depending on the occasion, as a surfer from Hawaii, a Greek professor, a Baptist preacher, a lousy tennis player, and so forth.
And John? Did he write “apostle of Jesus Christ,” or “first bishop of the church at Ephesus,” or “author of the Book of Revelation”? He could have, but he wrote none of these. Reflecting back on his somewhat impetuous relationship with the Lord and perhaps on his unworthiness even to be called a follower of Christ, he simply wrote, “The disciple whom Jesus kept on loving.” The description implies, not arrogance (as if John meant to say “the disciple whom Jesus loved more than the others”), but a profound sense of divine grace.
Is that not your identity and mine—we who know Jesus as our Savior and Lord, and who also know our own weaknesses and shortcomings? We are but disciples whom Jesus keeps on loving, and loving, and loving.
Loved with everlasting
O this full and perfect
G. W. Robinson (1838-77)
July 6, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.