The question, “What are you looking for?” are the first words of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The question is addressed to potential disciples, two of John the Baptist’s disciples, who ask him, “Where are you staying?”
Jesus, extending a gracious invitation, says to them, “Come and see.” And so begins the adventurous journey of the first disciples in the Gospel of John.
Jesus’ question “What are you looking for?” reverberates on many levels in the minds and hearts of people down through the centuries. It’s a question that stirs us as well. What are we looking for? What are we seeking? The gracious invitation to come and see—to investigate Jesus’ teaching, person, and hopes for humankind—fills the pages of the Fourth Gospel. When one is invited to find out where Jesus stays (abides) one is invited into the joyful, challenging adventure of discipleship. Throughout this Gospel people are invited into a journey of spiritual discovery that quenches one’s thirst and feeds one’s soul.
Jesus and the disciples feature prominently in this Greco-Roman biography. The presentation of Jesus in the Gospel of John has been foundational for the church’s Christological formulations. The role the disciples play in this Gospel informs the church’s understanding of Christian discipleship.
But the Gospel of John can also be puzzling. It can be read in a very simple, straightforward way which comforts and challenges its reader. It can also bring up issues that are difficult to understand or nearly impossible to resolve. The common analogy made by Johannine students and scholars is that “the Gospel of John is like a pool that a child can wade in and an elephant can swim in.” It’s simple, yet profound and complex.
The one who invites others to come and see also challenges them to love one another as he loves them. The one who asks the question, “Do you want to be well?” also judges others as having the devil as their father. The one who says “I am the Good Shepherd” also says that you cannot go where I am going right now. And so it goes in the Fourth Gospel.
One of the challenges readers of this Gospel face is how to understand the Gospel of John in relation to other Gospels, especially the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Can it really be that Jesus only taught in parables, did exorcisms, and preached about the kingdom of God as we see in the Synoptic Gospels? Or can it be that Jesus never spoke in parables, did no exorcisms, and never preached about the kingdom of God as we see in the Gospel of John? Historically it really can’t be both ways, can it?
So, what is going on in the Gospel of John and how are we to understand it on its own terms. The best course may be to “let John be John” while reflecting on the disparities between the Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels.
Wrestling with the issues raised through reading the Gospel of John has led to much scholarly debate. But for many followers of Jesus, answering the question of what one is seeking in the welcoming environment of “Come and see” enables journeying more fully into life and light and love. Seeing the portrait of Jesus painted in this Gospel, in all its hues and complexities, enables us to delve deep into the meaning of who Jesus is and to discover what it means to believe, to abide, to love, and to witness. The academic issues wrestled with enhance one’s ability to follow more concretely and completely.
When we study this Gospel in depth, using modern scholarly methods and spiritual insights, we find that this Gospel disturbs and delights, challenges and comforts, as it beckons us to live into the dangerous joy and disturbing light emanating from it. And that is its power.
This fall Tom Elson is teaching “The Gospel of John” for New College Berkeley and the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley where he is the Mission Pastor, Temporary Supply.