Nicknames and name changes appear to happen all over the Old and New Testaments. Simon and Peter, Esau and Edom, the “Sons of Thunder.” Almost everyone who follows Jesus seems to get an affectionate name, sometimes from Jesus himself. But in the fourth Gospel, we run into something else entirely.
The writer of the Gospel of John gives himself an odd nickname: “The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved.” In other translations, John refers to himself as the “Beloved Disciple.”
Upon first pass of this name, my much younger elementary-aged self thought, “that seems like an arrogant nickname to give to yourself. Did Jesus just not love the other disciples as much as him? Did John really think that?”
As is often the case, further research later on in life disproved my elementary school mindset. In this article, we’ll dive into the name the disciple John gives to himself, what the name means, the importance of nicknames in Scripture, and why this ultimately matters to us today as believers.
What Does John’s Nickname Mean?
At first glance, it appears that John wants to pump up his ego with his self-given nickname, "the disciple who Jesus loved". After all, Jesus had an inner circle of three disciples in which he showed his transfiguration (Matthew 17), and John was among them. Jesus even asks John to take care of his mother during Jesus’ crucifixion. So, did John use this name as a flex?
Scholars say no. So what does it actually mean that John would call himself "the disciple who Jesus loved"?
It was more likely, as William Barclay argues in this excerpt, a lovely title whose meaning did not cross over into our own culture. Perhaps through this phrase “beloved” John wants to highlight God’s love and how it has transformed his life, rather than his own personality or identity. More on this in the next section.
Preacher Charles Spurgeon explained that Jesus clearly loved all of his disciples. After all, on the night in which he was betrayed, he washed all of their feet. Yes, even Judas Iscariot’s.
Perhaps through this name, as mentioned in the Answers in Genesis article, John reminds readers of the enormous love they, too, experience. That we all have the identity of being disciples whom Jesus loved.
We don’t know the real meaning behind the name because John provides no explanation of it. But perhaps John uses this name as a reminder to himself and others of Jesus’ loving ministry here on earth and the disciples’ call to spread the message of that love to every nation.
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Why Did John Call Himself "The Disciple Who Jesus Loved"?
As we touched on in the previous section, we don’t have the exact reasons why John would bequeath himself this name. After all, no other Gospel account gives him this nickname. This means that John only referred to himself by this.
We can throw egotism out of the question – John didn’t use this name to draw attention to himself. The opposite, rather, seems more likely. John wanted to make himself anonymous. Those who read the Gospel who had born witness to the events would have known John’s identity from some key factors he points out. For instance, he doesn’t mention his name explicitly and mentions he leaned on Jesus’ bosom during the Last Supper.
But John appears to draw the spotlight away from himself in the narrative by removing his name and putting in a nickname instead, a trait: someone loved by Jesus.
Here he highlights the transformative power Jesus had over his life. Through God’s love he finds truth, his identity, and his purpose. He reminds readers and himself that all disciples of Jesus are loved, truly, wholly, and unconditionally.
Apart from this, scholars don’t have many other reasons for why John called himself by this nickname. John probably doesn’t give much of an explanation because he’d prefer the spotlight on Jesus rather than himself.
The Importance of Nicknames in the Bible
Nowadays we may call our spouse, those we play on sports leagues with, or even coworkers by nicknames. But back during the time of the Old and New Testament, nicknames had a far deeper meaning.
Names and nicknames in the Bible often reveal a person’s purpose or identity, explains Vincent Ketchie in his article. And those who change someone’s name or give them a nickname had a certain amount of power and authority over that person.
A certain amount of weight and authority carried in Jesus’ voice when he called Simon “Peter.”
So when someone gives themselves a new name or nickname (such as Paul and John) they emphasize an important part of their purpose. Similar to John, we don’t know why Paul changed his name from Saul, but we do know he experienced the transformational love of Jesus and decided that was enough to make a big change … a name change.
Why Should We Care About This?
Why should we care what John called himself in his Gospel account? After all, didn’t he create the name purposely to avoid drawing attention to himself?
We should care about nicknames, in particular this one, for a number of reasons.
First, John reminds us about the transformative power of God’s love. All of us could refer to ourselves as the disciple whom Jesus loved. Because he does. He extraordinarily, unconditionally loves us. John experienced that firsthand and had to proclaim the testimony of it, even in his name.
Second, we should know that names have incredible power. Our God, after all, goes by many titles. Elohim, El Shaddai, Yahweh, the list goes on. Each name for God highlights a different part of his character.
In a same and lesser way, when a human receives a nickname or another name in the Bible, they often have a new purpose, a new instrumental part of their character.
Finally, we shouldn’t disregard even the smallest of details in the Bible. If we can learn this much from one man’s nickname, imagine how much we can discover about God and his wonderful plans for us throughout Scripture?
This also shows how we need to explore the context of passages. When we see John’s nickname at first glance, we may think he needs to check his ego. But, in fact, he shows great humility by emphasizing Jesus rather than himself.
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Hope Bolinger is a multi-published novelist and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,200 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy is out with IlluminateYA. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in November of 2021. Find out more about her on her website.