The Disciples of Jesus

by Ed Gallagher

Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me.

John 15:4
James Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles, ca. 1890, Wikimedia Commons

John’s Gospel introduces readers to many followers and potential followers of Jesus, some of whom become models for the proper response to Jesus, while others demonstrate the wrong approach. As in the other Gospels, some among Jesus’ closest friends display misunderstanding and cowardice. Those who remain with Jesus progressively understand more about him and what commitment to his way entails. 

The Twelve 

Like the other Gospels, John’s Gospel acknowledges a special category of disciples called the Twelve (6:67–71; 20:24), but unlike the other Gospels (Matt 10:2–4; Mark 3:14–19; Luke 6:13–16; cf. Acts 1:13), this Gospel does not list all the names of the Twelve. Only three disciples are explicitly named as members of the Twelve: Simon Peter, Judas Iscariot (6:67–71), and (doubting) Thomas (20:24). But other named disciples known from other Gospels as part of the Twelve include Andrew, Philip, Judas not Iscariot (= Judas son of James), the sons of Zebedee (James and John, not individually named; 21:2). Possibly Nathanael (1:45–49; 21:2) is also a member of the Twelve, though that name does not appear in the apostle lists. (Could Nathanael be another name for Bartholomew? Or James son of Alphaeus? Both possibilities have been suggested. But this Gospel does not assert that Nathanael is one of the Twelve.) The Beloved Disciple (see below) has traditionally been identified with one of the Twelve, John of Zebedee. This Gospel names 7–8 (depending on Nathanael) members of the Twelve. This Gospel also frequently mentions “his disciples,” a likely reference to the Twelve. 

The disciples start out promisingly in chapter 1, which contains several confessions of faith: Andrew tells Simon that he has found the Messiah (1:41); Philip tells Nathanael that he has found the one written about in Scripture (1:45); and Nathanael declares that Jesus is the Son of God, King of Israel (1:45). When Jesus performs his first sign, “his disciples believed in him” (2:11). But soon they encounter difficulties understanding Jesus (4:32–33; 6:5–9; 11:11–14; 12:16). 

But the Twelve also demonstrate perseverance. When the other disciples leave because of Jesus’ hard saying (6:60–66), the Twelve remain with Jesus (6:67–71). This idea is one of the main teachings of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse (chapters 14–17). The disciples must “remain in me, and I in you,” so that they can bear fruit (15:1–8). The word “remain” (Greek: menō) appears about 40x in John’s Gospel (11x in chapter 15 alone), much more than in the other Gospels (12x combined). They need perseverance especially during the coming tribulations (15:18–16:3). 

Disciples Outside the Twelve 

John’s Gospel uses the term “disciple” for more people than merely the Twelve. In fact, he baptized more disciples than did John the Baptist (4:1–2). The blind man healed by Jesus apparently became his disciple (9:27–28, 35–38). The Samaritan Woman behaves like a disciple by recruiting others to have faith (4:27–30, 39–42). The Bethany family (Mary, Martha, Lazarus) also express their faith in Jesus (11:27, 32; 12:1–3), as does Mary Magdalene (19:25; 20:1–2, 11–18). But not all of these disciples provide good examples. Some of them turn against Jesus when his words prove too difficult (6:60–61; 8:31–59). Joseph of Arimathea is called a secret disciple due to fear of “the Jews” (19:38). Earlier the Gospel had portrayed negatively the parents of the blind man because of this same fear (9:20–23). But, it may be that Joseph had previously kept his discipleship secret, but no longer; after all, his requesting the body of Jesus from Pilate does not seem like a private affair. At any rate, the Gospel shows that discipleship requires bravery—facing persecution—and endurance, remaining with Jesus. 

Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple 

The two most prominent disciples in this Gospel are Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple, and they provide contrasting images of following Jesus. The Beloved Disciple first appears (under that name) at the Last Supper (13:21–27), when he leans back on the bosom of Jesus (13:23), a posture referenced later in the Gospel (21:20; cf. 13:25) and which itself echoes the relationship between Jesus and the Father (1:18; cf. Luke 16:22–23). The posture and the nickname Beloved Disciple demonstrate the particularly intimate relationship Jesus enjoys with him—of course, Jesus loved all his disciples; 13:1, 34—and the relationship never wavers.

Peter’s relationship with Jesus does waver. Peter appears in chapters 1, 6, 13, 18, 20, 21. His first two appearances are rather positive: he receives his nickname (1:42) and he represents the Twelve in refusing to leave Jesus (6:67–71). But at the Last Supper, he misunderstands Jesus’ washing feet (13:6–10) and makes over-confident assertions.

Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

John 13:37

At the arrest, Peter has clearly misunderstood Jesus’ aims (18:10–11). He follows Jesus (18:15–16), but then denies him three times (18:17, 25–26). But the Beloved Disciple remains with Jesus even at the crucifixion, and receives a charge over Jesus’ mother (19:26–27, 35). A couple days later, both Peter and the Beloved Disciple run to the empty tomb; only the Beloved Disciple believes (20:8), though neither of them understands (v. 9). The final episode of the Gospel once again shows these two disciples together (21:7). Peter’s threefold confession (21:15–17) echoes—and reverses—his threefold denial, down to the charcoal fire (21:9; cf. 18:18). Just as he earlier boasted (13:37), Peter will lay down his life for Jesus (21:18–19; cf. 15:13). Peter seems to have zeal without knowledge, but he becomes a model for disciples that need to be restored to Jesus. 


The disciples in the Gospel of John struggle to understand Jesus, just as everyone does. Some disciples turn against Jesus because they do not understand his words (8:31–59), others simply abandon him (6:60–66). But the Gospel also provides some models for good behavior, such as Peter, who perseveres through his mistakes and is restored to Jesus and commissioned by him, and the Beloved Disciple, who always remains with Jesus and enjoys unusual intimacy with him.

Questions for Discussion

Jesus has many disciples other than the Twelve (see 4:1–2), but not all of these disciples remain with Jesus (6:60–66; 8:31). Why do they leave?

Disciples—or would-be disciples—often misunderstand the words of Jesus (2:19–22; 3:3–4; 4:10–15; 4:31–38; 6:43–56; 11:4–16). Why do these people have so much trouble understanding Jesus? 

What character traits does the Beloved Disciple display? See 13:21–27; 19:26–27, 35; 20:1–10; 21: 7, 23.

What are the positive and negative characteristics of Simon Peter? See 1:40–42; 6:67–71; 13:6–10, 36–38; 18:10–11, 17, 25–26; 20:1–10; 21:1–22. 

Thomas appears a few times in this Gospel (11:16; 14:5; 20:24–29; 21:2). Is he a positive or a negative example?

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