Commentary on John 1:29-42
“It is not about me.” That is the message whenever people in the Fourth Gospel ask John the Baptist who he is.
He is not the Christ, not Elijah, not the prophet, not even a man worthy enough to untie the sandals of the One who is to come: no matter what people think of his ministry out there across the river.
Again and again he points away from himself to this Other, whether responding to the religious authorities from Jerusalem (John 1:19) or to his own disciples (John 3:25). To many North American ears, John’s refusal to claim his own status is almost laughable. Hasn’t he heard about the need for good self-esteem or the importance of tooting one’s own horn? If John the Baptist had a social-networking page on the Internet, his avatar would be an image of a long finger, pointing away from himself, and every response to a comment from his friends would be something like, “Go on over to the Lamb’s place.”
Whenever he testifies, John is a witness for the defense. He tells others what he has seen, gives evidence on behalf of the one who sent him, points always toward the Lamb of God who gives up his life for the sin of the world. As is true today for pastors all over the globe, John baptizes with water, and his work is not for its own sake, but for the sake of the testimony about the light that comes into the world. Even when his own followers come to him, complaining that Jesus and his disciples are baptizing more people than he is (John 3:25ff; cf. 4:1-2), John continues to affirm the ministry of his supposed competition.
Questioning the Question
In this Gospel, Jesus’ first words appear in the form of a question, an ordinary question with extraordinary significance: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). English translations obscure the meaning of the Greek, which is better translated, “What are you seeking?” Jesus’ ministry begins not with a mighty command to silence a demon, as in Mark; nor with a sermon to the crowds who have gathered on a mountain, as in Matthew; and not with a quotation from Isaiah to proclaim his anointing for the year of God’s favor, as in Luke, but it begins with a question: “What are you seeking?” What are you looking for? What do you need? It is a question worth wrestling with — as individuals, as congregations, as communities — since our answers will have a great deal to do with what we find as well as with the journey we take to get there. What are you seeking? What motivates you? What is that you really need, not just on the surface, but deep down into the core of your being? What are you looking for?
Jesus poses his question to two of John’s disciples, who, having just learned that Jesus is the Lamb of God, are determined to follow him. Before the story moves very far we will learn that others also are looking for Jesus, but for very different reasons. The crowds are seeking to have their bellies filled with a little more bread (John 6:26), while the religious authorities are seeking to kill him (John 5:18; 7:1; cf. 7:11, 19, 20, 25, etc.): one group seeks life, the other, death. These two disciples, for their part, want something different than either the crowds or the authorities. They want simply to be with Jesus. Like contestants in a television game show, they answer Jesus’ question with one of their own: “Where are you staying?”
Again, the English obscures the significance of the phrase. The Greek verb is meno: abide, remain, endure, continue, dwell, in the sense of permanence or stability. John the Baptist recognizes Jesus when the Holy Spirit remains (meno) upon him (John 1:32). After Jesus provides bread enough to satisfy a crowd, with plenty left over, he cautions the people to work not for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures (meno) for eternal life (John 6:27). He promises that he will abide (meno) in those who abide (meno) in him (John 15:4-10). Wherever Jesus stays (meno), people have the opportunity to believe (John 4:40; 10:40).
When the disciples respond to Jesus’ query with their own question, they are not asking Jesus for the location of his tent, or the address of the guest house at which he is visiting; they want to know about the enduring, permanent, eternal, undying dwelling place of this Lamb of God. Where are you staying? Where can we find you? Where shall we go to be with you, to receive what you have to offer? Where can we be in the very presence of God?
Jesus’ question is one the preacher might ask of the congregation: What are you seeking? In a culture dominated by the acquisition of things, for example, where a search for meaning can (supposedly) be satisfied by a search for “stuff,” the exchange of questions between Jesus and his would-be followers provides an opportunity to explore a variety of possible responses in different contexts today, as well as the answer that Jesus provides.1
Come and See
Note the many verbs for “seeing” found in this short pericope: blepo (1:29); ide (1:29, 36); theaomai (1:32, 38); orao/eidon (1:33-34, 39, ); emblepo (1:36, 42). The combined weight of so many references gives added emphasis to Jesus’ answer: “Come and see.” Indeed, this answer captures a primary message of John’s Gospel: If you want to know the word made flesh, come and see Jesus. If you want to know what love is like, come and see Jesus. If you want to experience God’s glory, to be filled with bread that never perishes, to quench your thirst with living water, to be born again, to abide in love, to behold the light of the world, to experience the way, the truth, and the life, to enter into life everlasting, . . . if you want to know God, come and see Jesus.
1 Many of the ideas in this section are prompted by an unpublished sermon by the Rev. Dr. Frank L. Crouch, “What are you Seeking?”, preached at the occasion of his installation to the position of dean, Moravian Theological Seminary, October 22, 2001.