In context, it’s easy to miss the question.
Jesus is departing, after meeting his cousin John and being baptized by him. He notices two disciples following Him. Jesus turns around and asks what most people would in that situation: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38).
What are you looking for? What are we looking for today?
The question jumps out at us when we reread the verse. Its position in the opening narrative of John is significant. Preceding it is John’s majestic prologue retelling the genealogy of Christ in cosmic terms, followed by the account of his earthly forerunner, John the Baptist, and concluding with the baptism of Jesus.
So the question Jesus poses to his disciples contains His first words in the entire gospel (as this commentator observes). It marks the very beginning of His ministry.
What are you looking for?
I propose that the entire gospel of John can, in a way, be read as a series of responses to this question.
Are you looking for bread, for the basic needs of life? Jesus is the bread (John 6:35).
In fact, Jesus has a very distinctive way of offering Himself up as the bread. Jesus doesn’t say He will provide bread. He doesn’t say He is like bread. He actually says, “I am the bread of life.” There are up to ten such ‘I am’ statements in the Gospel of John. Each of these can be read in a similar manner:
Are you looking for enlightenment? I am the light (John 8:12).
Are you looking for hope in the darkness of this world? I am the light of the world (John 8:12).
Are you looking for the way to live? I am the way. (John 14:6).
Are you looking for the truth? I am … the truth (John 14:6).
Are you looking for an abundance of life? I am … the life (John 14:6).
Are you looking for meaning in the face of death? I am the resurrection (John 11:25).
Are you hoping for life after death? I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25).
Some of the other ‘I am’ statements must be read more metaphorically, but they nonetheless have meaning for us today.
A sense of belonging
In John 10:14, Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd. As Pope Benedict XVI notes in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, in the Greek the sheep are identified as belonging to the shepherd. But they belong not in the same way that a possession belongs to its owner. As Benedict explains,
The true shepherd does not ‘possess’ the sheep as if they were a thing to be used and consumed; rather, they ‘belong’ to him, in the context of their knowing each other, and this ‘knowing’ is an inner acceptance. It signifies an inner belonging that goes much deeper than the possession of things (Jesus of Nazareth, 281).
A desire for communion
A closely related set of images comes five chapters later, when Jesus declares Himself as the true vine with the Father as the vinedresser. This metaphor recalls the bridal imagery of Song of Songs and the Eucharistic wine, a recurrent theme of John. Together, these themes combine to drive home the message that just as Christ has identified Himself with humanity through the Incarnation so we in turn are called to unite ourselves with Him. As Jesus says in verse 4, Abide in me and I in you. (I’m again indebted to Pope Benedict’s treatment of this topic in Jesus of Nazareth, 248-263).
Deliverance from evil
In addition to being the shepherd, Jesus is also the gate to the sheepfold. In John 10, this imagery emphasizes the way in which Christ saves us from evil:
So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:7-10).
Here deliverance from evil is paired with its opposite: participation in the good, which Aristotle defined as ‘human flourishing.’ That is clearly promised here: ‘I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.’ (Another source for this section is this outline, which has a breakdown of additional possible spiritual meanings for the ‘I am’ statements.)
Ultimately, of course, what we should seek is God. The above ‘I am’ statements confirm that Jesus is the way to God and is God. These statements do this in a double move. First, they allude back to Exodus 3:14 where God reveals Himself as ‘I am Who I am’—self-existent Being. Second, they also set up a contrast between Jesus and the Egyptian God Isis, for whom a similar set of ‘I am’ statements existed. The point here is that Jesus is the true God, as opposed to the false God of Isis. (For a source on this, see this scholarly introduction to the New Testament.)
Jesus is the destination for all desire because He is God. Not all of us realize that the end of all our seeking is God, but one way or another, all paths lead to God. There is one way—Jesus—but there are many ways to Jesus.
Whatever you are seeking, whether the bare necessities of life, a sense of belonging and meaning, life after death, or the truth about the universe, the answer rests in Jesus, Who is God-made-man.
What are you looking for?