One of the most extraordinary moments in the beginning of the Gospel of John is when Jesus attracts his first followers.
Unlike the other three gospels, where Jesus goes out looking for disciples, here the disciples take the initiative. Here is the account in John:
The next day John was there again with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come, and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. It was about four in the afternoon (John 1:35-39).
What is most striking about the above vignette is that Jesus asks them, What are you looking for? This seems surprising to us because it’s obvious what the men were seeking: Jesus! On one level, Jesus is interacting with them as any normal person would — if someone starts following you around, you would ask them what they’re doing. But we can also read his question on a deeper level: in following Jesus, were the two men looking for the right thing?* In other words, were they looking for a worldly messiah who would liberate Israel? Were they looking for a mere prophet? Were they even truly seeking?
What should we really be seeking?
As Christians, we know the answer is God.
But the Old Testament offered a more specific answer than this.
One of the most memorable expressions of this seeking is in Psalm 27:
One thing I ask of the Lord;
this I seek:
To dwell in the Lord’s house
all the days of my life,
To gaze on the Lord’s beauty,
to visit his temple.
“Come,” says my heart, “seek His face”;
Your face, Lord, do I seek!
Do not hide Your face from me;
do not repel Your servant in anger.
You are my salvation; do not cast me off;
do not forsake me, God my savior! (vv. 4, 8-9).
The psalms are full of variants of this plea for God to show His face to His people. For example, Psalm 4:7 states, “Many say, ‘May we see better times!/ Lord, show us the light of your face!’” And Psalm 44:25 says, “Why do you hide Your face;/ why forget our pain and misery?”
This petition to see the face of God is driven by a related set of desires and concerns. First, asking God to turn his face is another way of beseeching God to listen to him. Intriguingly, research has shown that for humans our inner ears move with our eardrums. Of course, God is a spirit, not a body, but the psalmist is speaking through metaphor.
Second, the turning of the face is a sign of favor. This is a universal fact of human interaction. Think about what happens when you do the opposite: what does it mean to turn your back on someone? It indicates that they have fallen out of your friendship — that you won’t share in fellowship with them or extend any favors.
Third, there are specific favors that are sought. Often the prayer to see the face of God is accompanied with a cry for redemption from sin or relief from some misery.
But, above all this, the yearning to see the face of God reflects the deep-seated desire to ‘behold the beauty of God,’ to experience His presence, to enter into communion with Him.
This seeking out of God’s face can be traced back to Moses’ encounter with God on Sinai:
Moses said, “Please let me see your glory!” The Lord answered: I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim my name, “Lord,” before you; I who show favor to whom I will, I who grant mercy to whom I will. But you cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live (Exodus 33:18-20)
This veiling of God’s face can be traced back even further, to the Genesis account, after Adam and Eve had sinned. The description of God in the aftermath of this event is among the oddest of the Old Testament. According to Genesis 3:8, Adam and Even ‘heard the sound of the Lord God walking about in the garden.’ In fact, a more literal reading of the Hebrew is even stranger. It would go something like this: ‘They heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden.’ (This is how the Douay-Rheims Bible, among others, renders it.)
Here God’s presence is limited to His voice. Though God might appeared to Adam and Eve in some kind of pre-incarnate bodily form, such communion is no longer possible.† All that remains is His voice and the sound of His footprints.
In the Incarnation, this is all reversed. The voice of God, his Word, takes on flesh. Likewise, whereas Moses had only been permitted to see God’s glory from behind, Christ made His face visible to men.
Is this interpretation one that is actually grounded in the text?
I believe so. First, it is a reasonable and obvious inference from the text of John that Jesus turned around and faced the disciples. There is no other way to really construe the physical circumstances of their encounter. Second, a number of Church Fathers noticed Jesus must have shown His face to them and attributed theological significance to this fact.
Third, the whole chapter seems arranged in such a way to bring us to just this conclusion. We tend to bracket off John 1 into three sections: the majestic prologue (vv. 1-18), John’s testimony (vv. 19-34), and the invitation to the first disciples (vv. 35-51). That’s how a typical Bible will break down the chapter—and it’s completely valid—but not at the expense of forgetting the beginning.
Listen again to the earlier verses, keeping in mind their potential bearing on our discussion.
First, there is John 1:14,
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.
In this reference to God’s glory, commentators see a particular allusion back to Moses’ story in the exodus. Pope Benedict XVI, for one, makes the connection, declaring that,
Something completely new happened, however, with the Incarnation. The search for God’s face was given an unimaginable turning-point, because this time this face could be seen: it is the face of Jesus, of the Son of God who became man.
(This is a major theme for Pope Benedict. He describes his book, Jesus of Nazareth, as “an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord.’”)
Indeed, John 1:18 reminds us that ‘no one has ever seen God’—to reinforce the extraordinary reality that through the Incarnation God can now be seen, even though in the past He could not. This is confirmed in John’s testimony which concludes with this statement, “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God” (v. 34). We then go from this to reading about how the first disciples ‘beheld the Lamb of God’ as John the Baptist called them to do.
This truth—that Jesus makes manifest the face of God—is affirmed later in the Gospel of John, in chapter 14, when one disciple asks to see the Father. Jesus responds, “Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (verse 9).
Likewise, Colossian 1:15 declares that Jesus is the ‘the image of the invisible God.’ A lesser known verse, 2 Corinthians 4:6, is even more explicit, “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,”’ has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Christ.”
Since the fall, the search for God had been a search for His face, His presence. It’s what Adam and Eve lost in the garden and it’s what Moses and the Israelites were ultimately seeking in the Promised Land. This quest was fulfilled by Jesus. When Jesus turned to the disciples and asked what they should seek, his question came with the answer and the answer was the light of his face as He turned to speak with them.
*I’m particularly indebted to the commentaries by Frederick Dale Bruner, D.A. Carson, and the Greek Expositor’s New Testament for understanding how to interpret this portion of the verse. Carson also is another source who confirmed the connection between the exodus and the prologue to the Gospel of John.
†In exactly what manner that Adam and Eve previously enjoyed communion with God is an interesting question that seems largely unanswered. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that they experienced something on a level with the Incarnation. A more likely view is the theory of many commentators that Christ appeared in the Old Testament in a ‘pre-incarnate’ form. For more, see here. And, for a commentator who says this about the Genesis account, see here.