Of the disciples, John son of Zebedee, James' brother is portrayed as closest to Jesus, leaning on him at the last supper, asking him questions. Tradition regards John as the youngest disciple.
The Gospel bearing John's name declares it is eyewitness testimony, especially the passion story. In it John speaks of himself as 'the beloved disciple'. Generally his Gospel contains stories and sayings similar to the other three. Instead of sharing passages of text or storyline, John organises and re-tells stories differently, adding reflections and comments, attributing to Jesus some powerful discourses and spiritual sayings. Its poetic and mystical qualities set it apart, to the extent that its universal acceptance by the churches was debated and came later than the other three Gospels.
It was initially suspected that it was an esoteric gnostic text to be avoided because its version of Jesus' story was not fully grounded in reality. Yet, John's account of Jesus' engagement with life, death and the rootedness of the truth he tells, belongs in real experience rather than fantasy or philosophy. They disclose a writer inspired to evangelise both gnostic and conservative Judaic thinkers. He confronts them creatively to tell the story of Jesus. He begins, proclaiming Jesus as the divine Word revealed in the entire life and body of one person, at home in the reality of this world.
If John was the youngest disciple, he certainly grew up in those three years spent together. As Jesus was dying on the cross he entrusted John with the care of his mother Mary. Tradition has it that he stayed with her until she died in Ephesus, and lived himself to a great age. When he began to write, whether he had companions who shared in writing the Gospel with whom he reflected upon his experiences and all Jesus had discussed with him is not known. His Gospel was the last to become widely known, but it may have been half a century or more in taking its familiar form.
We know much of Jesus' words and deeds, far less about the man. He was habitually self effacing, referring to himself as 'Son of the Man', perpetually pointing beyond himself to the Father. Likewise we know little of John the closest to Jesus, except that his apostolic life revolves entirely about making known the depths of divine reality in Jesus. When speaking poetically of Jesus' ministry and identity, John dares to put into Jesus' mouth words other evangelists are shy of: 'I am', words the God of their forefathers used to reveal His presence to Moses. John had confidence in this truth which others took time to realise and accept. It came from his lifetime's personal experience.
The development of faith with understanding starts from Jesus' humanity and finds fulfilment in acclaiming his divinity. This was how it was for John, and how it is for us too.