“When Jesus turned and saw them following, he 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 see.’ (John 1:38–39).
“Come and see” is the key invitation spoken by Jesus in these opening scenes in the book of signs. First, in Judea, Jesus extends an invitation to Andrew, at that stage a follower of John, and one other, a fellow-disciple of John (1:35–40). Later, in Galilee, Jesus calls Philip to follow him (1:43), and when Philip is asked by Nathaniel about this interaction, Philip invites Nathaniel to “come and see” (1:46).
Some years later, “we wish to see Jesus” is the request made by some Greeks to Philip in Jerusalem at the Passover (12:21). And then, after the momentous events that ensure, “come, see” is the invitation that Jesus makes to his disciple Thomas, at the end of the book of signs, when he invites his doubting friend to “put your finger here and see my hands” (20:27).
This reading from the book of signs (which we know as the Gospel according to John) is an appropriate offering for this coming Sunday, the second Sunday in the season of Epiphany. The season celebrates the manifestation of God in Jesus, the one chosen by God to show God’s love to the world. The reading contains a number of pointers to that key theme of the book of signs—stories that reveal how God was present in Jesus.
In that interaction between Philip and “some Greeks”, Philip gathers Andrew, and together they approach Jesus to report the request made of them to “see Jesus” (12:22). Jesus informs them that what they will see, if they look with care, is “the hour … for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23)—a moment that occurs soon after, when the crowd mistakes “the voice from heaven” for thunder (12:28–29), but which is actually the light that shines in the darkness (12:35–36).
In Hebrew Scripture, the “glory of God” is the shekinah, the visible sign of the presence of God amongst God’s people (Exod 25:8)—in the stories of the wilderness wanderings, the shekinah was “the pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light” (Exod 13:21–22). In John’s Gospel, when Jesus is glorified, he reveals the divine presence amongst human beings (John 1:14; 2:11; 11:4, 40; 12:16, 28, 41–43; 17:5, 22–24).
This is the climactic revelation of Jesus in the book of signs; and whilst this is signalled in the poetic prologue to the book (1:14), in the prose narrative that ensues in this opening chapter (1:19–51), a number of revelations of the identity and significance of Jesus are made.
Indeed, there is a series of Jewish titles which are embedded in this prose narrative, as key characters confess the significance of Jesus throughout this extended preface (1:19–51). Jesus is addressed as “Rabbi” (1:38, 49), “Messiah” (1:41), “King of Israel” (1:49), and “Son of God” (1:49). It is worth noting that these claims about Jesus are each made also within the Synoptic traditions. Indeed, the Johannine Jesus himself refers, in the allusive synoptic fashion, to the “Son of Man” (thirteen times, from 1:51 to 13:31), which we must presume to be a self–reference.
In later scenes, Jesus is also addressed by these Jewish terms, when he is called “prophet” (4:19), “Messiah” (4:29; 11:27), and “Rabbouni” (my teacher, 20:16). Then, the ultimate Christological confession of the Gospel is uttered by Thomas, when he moves beyond this viewpoint in the phrase, “my Lord and my God” (20:28), echoing the perception of the Jews, that Jesus was “making himself equal to God” (5:18).
Perhaps we tend to remember the fourth Gospel as the one which reveals the extensive cosmic significance of Jesus—the Word made flesh (1:14), the one closest to the heart of the Father who has “made the Father known” (1:18), and most famously, the one through whom God shows that “God so loved the world” (3:16). This Gospel seems to offer much in terms of a Saviour for the whole world (4:42), a sign for Greeks (that is, Gentiles) from beyond Judaism (12:20).
Yet, for the most part of this Gospel, Jesus is presented in terms drawn from within a Jewish context. Indeed, even the final, climactic confession by Thomas can be understood within a particular stream of Jewish tradition, for the hellenistic Jewish author Philo uses the terms “Lord” and “God” to designate the two major divine powers of creation (signified by “God”) and eschatological judgement (signified by “Lord”). In light of this usage of the terms by Philo, Jerome Neyrey wisely concludes that “Jesus is correctly called ‘God’ because he exercises creative power, and ‘Lord’ because he has full eschatological power”; see https://www3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/MyLord.God.htm
So an important clue to a central motif running throughout this Gospel is placed in the mouth of Philip, when he says to Nathanael, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (1:45). The Jewish terms point to this reality about how Jesus was understood in the community within which the book of signs was written: Jesus is to be regarded as the fulfilment of scripture.
Notice that the author of this Gospel takes Philip, an almost anonymous figure in the Synoptic Gospels, and places in his mouth these key sayings, about the fulfilment of the scriptures (1:45), and the relevance of Jesus to Gentiles (12:20–26), and, indeed, the fundamental request, “Lord, show us the Father” (14:8). Philip articulates what the author of the book of signs seeks.
Now, it is true that the affirmation that Jesus fulfils scripture is common to all four canonical Gospels. It is very clear in the Synoptic accounts; we should not, however, diminish its significance on the fourth Gospel. This interpretive stance is hinted at as early as the Prologue, in the comparison between Jesus and Moses (1:17). It is stated explicitly, as we have noted, in the claim put on the mouth of Philip, “we have found him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote” (1:45), and later in the words attributed to Jesus, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (5:39).
There are fifteen clear quotations from Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel. There are eight explicit references to scripture in the early chapters (1:23; 2:17; 6:31; 6:45; 7:38; 7:42; 10:34; 12:13–15), while a “fulfilment formula” is used in later chapters, to introduce seven such scriptural quotations (12:38–40; 13:18; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 28, 36–37). There is also a passing note that Judas died after betraying Jesus “so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12).
However, the total significance of the Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel is much greater than these sixteen occurrences, as the Gospel contains numerous allusions to specific scripture passages, such as references to Jacob’s ladder (1:51) and the sacrificial lamb (1:29, 36), as well as more generalised allusions to scripture. These allusions are much freer in their form and indicate that, for the author of this Gospel, the Hebrew Scriptures had become an integral part of his mind and heart, for he treats them with a freedom born from intimate familiarity.
So this Gospel passage for the second Sunday in Epiphany reminds us of the Jewish origins of Jesus and also the continuing appreciation of Jesus in Jewish terms, throughout the early decades of the movement that was initiated by his proclamation and action in Galilee and (especially in John’s account) in Jerusalem, over some years. In our Christian appropriation of the figure of Jesus, we would do well to remember his Jewish origins, and the strongly Jewish nature of early Christian interpretation of Jesus. We owe much to Judaism, both as our ancient heritage and indeed as an enduring living faith which continues to proclaim faith in the God whom Jesus knew, and loved, and revealed.