Reclining On Christ: Saint John’s Example of Intimacy with Jesus

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Saint John was an apostle, an evangelist, and a bosom friend to Jesus, who set an example of reclining on Christ. John’s feast is December 27th, and we also remember him on Maundy Thursday and any time we read from his Gospel.

A Bosom-Friend

I call John a bosom friend because it was he, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” who at the Last Supper “reclined on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13:23, KJV).

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For moderns, the term “bosom” (Greek kolpos) is usually associated with the marital term “buxom”; hence, recent translations often substitute the bland “side.” But in the Bible, men could also share one another’s bosom. The beggar Lazarus died and was “carried to the bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22). And the protective Good Shepherd will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom (Isaiah 49:11).

So, John’s proximity to the bosom of Jesus was unique among the disciples but not unheard of between men in the Bible. Describing the friendship of David and Jonathan, the Bible says: “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1).

From the Bosom of the Son to the Bosom of the Father

Not only did John rest on Jesus’ bosom, but he also wrote in his Gospel of God’s bosom. This appears in the final verse of the prologue in John 1:

No man has seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom (kolpon) of the Father, he has made him known (John 1:18 RSV).

If we wonder how the Son is in the bosom of the Father, we find the answer in the opening words of the prologue, describing the divine intimacy:

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

This intimate union of God and His Word was “in the beginning before the beginning,” that is, “before all ages,” as the Nicene Creed puts it. Indeed, it is in and through this divine intimacy that all things were created.

John’s Intimacy With Jesus

When John says in the climax of the prologue, “And the Word became flesh,” this thought struck me: John had literally pressed the flesh of Jesus, not the flesh of the hand but of the heart (John 1:14).

He had listened not only to Jesus’ public preaching but was privy to His “Personal” thoughts: “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11), “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6), “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

He alone among the apostles had stood with Mary on Calvary and witnessed Jesus’ corpse, pierced and oozing water and blood, taken down. When he and Peter raced to the empty tomb, it was he who “saw and believed” that Jesus had risen bodily from the dead (John 20:8).

The Intimacy of John’s Gospel

In this sense, John’s Gospel soars like an eagle above the Synoptic Gospels, essential as they are. John’s Gospel became the prime source of the doctrine of the Trinity. Perhaps we could paraphrase John’s message for us: “From the bosom of the Son to the bosom of the Father.”

John was known to have lived to old age (John 21:23-25). I suspect there was a temptation among John’s own disciples to want to lean back on the old man’s bosom and soak up every memory he had of Jesus. He alludes to this himself when he writes:

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25).

But John resisted the temptation and wrote just one book for our sake. Placing his signature on the Gospel, he says

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

An Invitation to Recline on Christ

John invites us not to rest in him but rather to recline on Christ, to join John in the bosom of Jesus. We do so by coming to Christ as the living Word who speaks to us in scripture and sacrament. We draw near to him, and he gives us rest. As we sing in the old hymn:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto me and rest;
lay down, O weary one, lay down
your head upon my breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
weary and worn and sad;
I found in him a resting place,
and he has made me glad.


Image: From Tile Mosaic at St James Spanish Place, photo credit Sedmak on iStock.

Published on

December 27, 2023

Author

Stephen Noll

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry.

View more from Stephen Noll

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