THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY – A SINGLE LIMITLESS WORD John 1:29-42 “What are you looking for?”
“Everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal. / Whoever reads my words is inventing them.” Jorge Luis Borges: Happiness.
“From the unseen horizon / and from the very center of my being, / an infinite voice pronounced these things– / things, not words. This is my feeble translation, / time-bound, of what was a single limitless Word.” Jorge Luis Borges: Matthew XXV:30
“What are you looking for?” 1:38. These are the very first words Jesus spoke in the gospel of John. And what are the very last? “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 20:29. Together they constitute “a single limitless Word that is himself. It is he to whom John came to bear witness. 1:7-8. John’s witness was necessary because neither “the world” nor “his own people” accepted Jesus. 1:10-11. I have chosen to investigate this passage from the point of view of verse 38. As early as verse 19 John is presented as one who is there to testify. A committee of priests and Levites had been sent from Jerusalem to Bethany to question John as to his identity. He denied to them that he was the Messiah, or Elijah, or “the prophet,” who appears only here and is otherwise completely unknown. He claimed only to be “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” Next, the committee wanted to know why he as baptizing. To this John did not give a direct reason. He claimed only to be one who baptizes with water, while pointing to someone unknown to them, but already standing among them, who will follow him. “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This was John’s entire testimony to the committee. He revealed nothing about himself; for his denial is not a revelation. Neither did he reveal anything about Jesus.
The next day, where our passage begins, John saw Jesus coming towards him. Now his testimony is very extensive. “Here’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The title “Lamb of God” is used twice in this scene and never again in the New Testament. The one “who takes away the sin of the world” can be none other than the Messiah long awaited. “Lamb of God” must be a title known to refer to the Messiah, for this is what Andrew said to Simon: he did not say we have found the Lamb of God; he said, “We have found the Messiah.” The word “messias” is used only in chapters 1:41 and 4:25 of this gospel, and nowhere else in the New Testament, which again goes to the uniqueness of this gospel. Because the title is used exclusively here it is not possible to trace it back to its source. The gospel of John stands alone in its uniqueness. There is much in it that is not found elsewhere. Much in chapters 7-11, chapters 13-17, chapters 18-20 are unique to this gospel. The Prologue, 1:1-14 is used here and nowhere else and never occurs again in the gospel, as if it never existed. The Marriage at Cana, 2:1-12 and the Raising of Lazarus, 11:38-44, are two of the miracles that are unique to John. There is a reason for this uniqueness; John presents Jesus differently. For this reason the gospel must be interpreted from within itself. Though much has been made of it, Isaiah 53, especially verse 7, cannot be used as a source for the title because the lamb there was never described as taking away the sin of the world, and was never given any messianic significance. What Isaiah 53 says of the lamb is that the proper attitude in the face of suffering and persecution is silence. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Hab. 2:20. “For God alone my soul waits in silence.” Ps. 62:1. The prophet to whom the revelation of the divine is entrusted understands the silence. Isaiah goes no further than this.
John, the apocalyptic prophet, presents the “Lamb of God” as a completely new title, one especially developed to present the eschatological redeemer. The title is not simply “Lamb” but more specifically “Lamb of God.” It is likely that in John’s apocalyptic circle the title “Lamb of God” was a hidden reference to the divine itself. It would have been coded language which only the initiates understood and used. That is why Andrew can say “We have found the Messiah.” The Messiah, according to John’s gospel, is the divine who has been incarnated. In verses 1-14 there is a clear identity of the Messiah with the Word of God that existed from the beginning. “The Word was God,” as is also “The Lamb of God,” and the Messiah. When the title “Lamb of God” is examined from its unique use only here in the New Testament, it must be seen to stand uniquely for the divine. John’s gospel is clear on this point. The taking away of the sin of the world is not through the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. Such sacrifice plays little role in the gospel. Rather, humanity is redeemed solely by the incarnate Word. The Word of God, that is, the divine itself that brought into being creation is also who brings into being salvation. “The world came into being through him,” 1:10, and “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” 1:12. They were all born “not of blood” that is, not by sacrifice, “but of God.” 1:13. This is the eschatological proclamation of John the Baptist.
But there are still questions. No one else is in the scene, so to whom is John testifying? The use of the word “again” in 1:35 suggests that John was with his disciples. He is bearing testimony to his disciples. Nothing else is said of an audience. “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is ahead of me because he was before me.’” He is pointing directly to Jesus who is coming towards him. His disciples could not have misunderstood this. Historically it is clear that John came ahead of Jesus by approximately six months. “He was before” must have a totally different meaning, outside of history. John is pointing out that the Jesus who is coming towards him is already one who transcends time and history. What transcends time and history must have its home in the realm of the divine. This is something that cannot be known except through revelation. John clarifies this; “The one who sent me to baptize with water said to me.” I interpret “said to me” as a statement of revelation. Something was revealed to John that allows him to say, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” What is it that he saw? “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” And this revelation is not widely shared, but only to his disciples. John can now say, “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The revelation to his disciples is now complete; the “Lamb of God” is none other than the “Son of God.” But the work of the prophet is far from complete. His prophecy is that Jesus “might be revealed to Israel.”1:31. This prophetic task is still to be completed.
Verse 35 continues the event into the next day. Again the location is not known. John was with two of his disciples. He saw Jesus going by, and exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Immediately, “The two disciples heard him say this, and the followed Jesus.” I think the question as to whom John is testifying can now be answered without a doubt. John is testifying about Jesus to his own disciples. He does not have a wider audience. The ones who received his testimony are his own disciples, who immediately leave him and follow Jesus. In Genesis 3:9, the Lord sought out humanity in Eden, asking, “Where are you?” Humanity’s Eden shall not fade from memory because its origin is also its abode. It will exist as long as there is one human being left who longs for salvation. Eden, which is and has always remained the original holy ground, calls quietly to its children, sometimes out of anguish, often out of compassion. Eden is that which always waits, like a stubborn hope or a starving child, for an answer, an arrival that never arrives. I remember a line from Borges that goes “I walk slowly, like one who comes from so far away he doesn’t expect to arrive.” Eden awaits its exiles. Or perhaps, its exiles await Eden.
Two disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” They too have memories of Eden. They want to be with him in his home. The disciples are already aware that he is the Messiah. “Come and see” (i.e., “Come” is imperative, and “see” is future tense, “you will see.”), come and you will see, he said to them. His words contain a command and a promise. And they followed him. Nothing is said of what they saw. Perhaps nothing can be said. I interpret the verb “to see” in this gospel as “to receive an insight.” Unlike the two disciples we know nothing of the earthly dwelling of Jesus. However, the gospel itself gives us an insight into the transcendent abode of the divine. In 13: 33, 36, Jesus says, “Where I am going you cannot come.” In the next chapter he identifies this destination. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places….I go to prepare a place for you….I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” 14:1-4. Later he prays, “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am.” 17:34. In his trial before Pilate, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” 18:36. After the resurrection he tells Mary, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” 20:17. The gospel as a whole presents Jesus himself as the dwelling in whom all the faithful will abide. This is no longer history but eschatology. No one can say that this is what the disciples saw when they spent a whole day with Jesus. The central question in this whole passage is the one Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” The two disciples never answered him directly. They ask instead, “Where are you staying?” I interpret this as holding the content of their answer. They are looking for the abode of the Messiah, the dwelling of the transcendent one. Perhaps what they saw is the answer to that question. “What are you looking for?” still remains the central question that precedes Christian piety. One seeks something from Jesus without which one cannot enter upon the path to Christian life.
In verse 39 the verbs are important. “They came.” “They saw.” They remained.” They responded to the command of Jesus, after which they received the promise, and as a consequence, they remained with him the remainder of the day. Only one of the two is identified and he is Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. Nothing is said or known of the other, though throughout the history of interpretation many suggestions have been made. I take the text as it is. The writer or editor identified only one person, and there must have been a particular reason. In many ways the biblical and Christian tradition grants priority to Simon Peter, and this may have played a role in the writer’s thinking. I have seen a pattern in the four gospels that indicates those who “come and see” immediately “go and tell.” This pattern holds not only with the call of the disciples, but also with anyone who encounters Jesus, such as persons in healing stories. It is not said how soon after Andrew left the house, but if they remained with him all day, and they were called at the tenth hour, they might have remained the night. The tenth hour has symbolic significance in both Greek and Hebrew. The meaning cannot be deduced from this context. However, I am content to let the text say “the tenth hour” rather than translate it as 4:00 o’clock, which seems meaningless. If they did remain the night, then Andrew would have gone out early the next day to look for his brother. When he found him, Andrew announced, “We have found the Messiah.” (messias). (I have pointed out earlier that messias is used only twice in this gospel). The writer translated this as “the Anointed” which leads to the idea that that his audience may not have understood Aramaic. It is curious that later, in 1:45, Philip does not use the word “messias” when he was speaking with Nathanael. He simply said, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael also had his own description of the messias. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 1:49. The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well also spoke of the messias. “I know that the Messiah is coming (who is called Christ). When he comes he will proclaim all things to us.” 4:25. Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 4:26. Nowhere else in the New Testament does Jesus say this. A further insight into the use of names is that there are only two places in this gospel where the name “Jesus Christ” is used. The first is at 1:17, “The law was given by Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The other is at 17:3, where Jesus prays, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The writer is extremely careful about the use of these names. The caution is understandable given the disagreements within early Christianity itself, and also in its conflict with Judaism, about who Jesus is.
Andrew did not identify the “we” who had discovered the Messiah, though it is assumed that it was Andrew and the other unnamed disciple. Verse 42 says, “He brought Simon to Jesus.” Perhaps Simon Peter was also seeking the Messiah, and Andrew knew this, so he was happy to share his discovery. Nothing is said of Simon’s reaction throughout the entire episode, and he himself says nothing. The text says that Jesus looked at Simon, and knew him. “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas.” Cephas is Peter. “To be called” is future passive hence the meaning is that in the future Simon will be called Peter. There are a number of occasions in this gospel when Jesus is shown to have knowledge of people and events ahead of time. In 1:47, he knows Nathanael whom he has never seen. In 4:17-19, he knows about the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob. In chapter 11 he is aware that his friend Lazarus has died, even though he was far away from Bethany. I’m sure the examples can be multiplied. I believe that such knowledge is the content of that “grace and truth” with which he entered the world as the incarnate Son of God. He is the Word that was in the beginning with God and what he knows he knows from the beginning, that is, he who has come to give us eternal life has also come to bring eternal Word. It is the “single limitless Word” that has existed eternally and continues to be revealed wherever he is present and to whomever comes to him.