John had a unique relationship with Jesus. He was one of three disciples who were part of Christ's inner circle. Together with Peter and James, John witnessed the raising of Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:37) and the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–9). He was also present in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–37) during Jesus' agonizing, prayer-filled night before the crucifixion.
In John's Gospel, he refers to himself as "the disciple Jesus loved" a handful of times. It's evident that there was a unique friendship between Jesus and this apostle.
Here are three lessons we can learn from John's life:
1. Christian leadership is about being a good shepherd
Throughout his Gospel, John weaves a consistent motif about shepherding. You can't read his account of Christ's story without recognizing that this metaphor had a significant impact on the way John saw Jesus—and the way he thought about leadership.
In John 10:1–18, the apostle records one of Christ's monologues about being the "good shepherd." In this monologue, Jesus likens Himself to a gate through which His sheep enter into pasture and a good shepherd who lays down His life for those sheep.
Later, Jesus returns to this metaphor when the Jews begin pressing Him to admit He's the Messiah. Jesus responds: "I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father's name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:25–28).
After His resurrection, Jesus revisits this analogy again. Only this time He's using it as a commission. After His arrest, Peter had denied having known Him (as Jesus predicted he'd do). And Jesus returns to the shepherd image to reinstate this heartbroken disciple:
"When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?'
'Yes, Lord,' he said, 'you know that I love you.'
Jesus said, 'Feed my lambs.'
Again Jesus said, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?'
He answered, 'Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.'
Jesus said, 'Take care of my sheep.'
The third time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?'
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, 'Do you love me?' He said, 'Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.'
Jesus said, 'Feed my sheep'" (John 21:15–17).
In this way, John brilliantly weaves this shepherding motif into his Gospel's final and most tender moment. It’s as if he's reminding us that Jesus is the good shepherd, those who wish to follow after Him will need to be good shepherds, too. This means that Christian leadership isn't about position and power; it's about guiding and caring for Christ's flock and, if need be, laying down your life for them.
2. Discipleship touches every area of our lives
What does it look like to be a disciple of Jesus? It’s easy to compartmentalize following Jesus, dividing our time between our secular and sacred pursuits. The truth is that there isn’t an aspect of our lives that’s untouched by being a disciple. Christ's call impacts every area of our lives.
The disciples gave up everything to follow Jesus. They walked away from professions and family relationships for Him. But there's a moment at the crucifixion that gives us a glimpse of what discipleship truly looks like:
"Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, 'Woman, here is your son,' and to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.' From that time on, this disciple took her into his home" (John 19:25–27).
From the cross, Jesus charges John with the care of His mother. There wasn't a discussion or a negotiation. We see discipleship infringing upon John's home life. Part of John's service to the Lord was loving and caring for Jesus' mother. And John says that from that moment on, he cared for Mary.
We don't get to set the boundaries around what it means to follow Jesus. It's an all-or-nothing proposition. When we invite Jesus into our world, it's comprehensive. And our devotion to Jesus impacts every aspect of our lives.
3. Jesus is more than we can begin to comprehend
As we've already alluded to, John and Jesus had a special friendship. John often identified himself as "the disciple Jesus loved" (John 13:23–25, 19:26–27, 20:1–10, 21:20–23). It's apparent that John felt a closeness with the Lord.
In the 3.5 years that John spent with Jesus, he witnessed the most amazing feats. Not only did he see miracle after miracle, but he also was party to the Transfiguration where Jesus became radiant in glory and spoke with Elijah and Moses. To top it all off, he was a witness to Christ's resurrection.
But his exposure to these mind-blowing experiences and his close relationship to the Lord didn't prepare him for the truth. He knew Jesus—but he didn't really know Jesus.
John wrote the Book of Revelation based on visions that he had while exiled on the island of Patmos. The beginning of this vision reads like this:
"I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: 'Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades'" (Revelation 1:12–18, emphasis added).
Why would Jesus have to tell John not to be afraid? Because despite all that he knew about the Lord, he was just not prepared to see Him as he truly is. The moment he's exposed to the glorified, heavenly Jesus, his legs give out, and he falls on his face as if he's dead.
Knowing that John had such close relationship with the Lord and was still caught off guard by seeing the glorified Christ should give us pause. The reality of Jesus is so much more than we could ever hope to understand or imagine. John's Gospel clearly identifies Jesus as God, but he still couldn’t fathom what that meant.
We cannot overemphasize or belabor Christ’s power and majesty. We only understand a fraction of what it means to worship Jesus as Lord. As Paul says so profoundly, "For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The wonderful thing about following Jesus is that there is always more to learn. Like John, we can be close to Jesus and still discover facets of His person and character that we never knew existed. Walking with Jesus promises us a lifetime of new breakthroughs and revelations—and there is no better way to live.
If you’re interested in learning more about following Jesus, check out "3 Lessons from the Apostle Peter.”