The Gospel according to Saint John is one of my most treasured books of the New Testament to use as a base for meditation and prayer. It is easy to dive into the synoptic Gospels with concordance, commentary and study Bible in hand to cross reference passages, compare events with other historical evidence and build up the three year mission that was Christ on earth. It is not as easy with the Gospel of John. But it is easy to get lost in the mystical, metaphysical and flat out supernatural depths of the Gospel of John. And we see this right from the opening passage of his account of Jesus:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
I could spend (and have) hours praying, thinking and expanding on that single line. Saint John grasps the concept of the Logos (Greek: “statement” or “utterance”) which was present in Greek and Roman culture as an association to the order of the universe. Very common to what we would call the natural law today. And what Saint John is telling the whole world (in a very catholic sense) is that Christ is the Logos, Jesus is the Word, the same Word that was present when the world was made (Genesis 1:1) and the same Word which all things were made through (the order, so to speak). This message is universal because shadows of it existed and still exists today within the world outside of the Church. This is because the Word is Truth and relevant in everything we do as creatures created by God through the Word.
But in this post I want to focus on just two very small parts of John’s Gospel that I think have profound implications for the mission of Christ and how we understand the relationships between the Covenant in the Old Testament and the New Covenant in the New Testament.
When we speak of the Gospels from a literary analysis perspective, all four can in fact be placed into a particular Greek genre known as bioi (Latin: vitae) which roughly means Lives. This genre of writings in Greek and Roman society were more than just a biographical sketch capturing the life of the individual from a unbiased perspective, rather the author sought to convey the virtues and greatness of the individual (desirable traits in ancient Greek/Roman society) by writing about key events in their life and demonstrating said virtues and greatness subjectively through the observance of their actions. Greek authors such as Xenophon and Plutarch (and Romans such as Tactius and Sueontius) were popular for these writings on significant Greek/Roman public figures. When studying the Gospels from a literary perspective, we can say that the four Gospels is the bioi of Jesus of Nazareth. It that bioi has hallmarks of Greek writing, such as placing an emphasis on the first words of an individual.
So with that in mind, what are the first words spoken by Christ in the Gospel of John? It happens after John the Baptist is introduced, while Jesus is seen walking along the shores of the Jorden River by some disciples of John;
The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” (John 1:35-38)
Jesus turns to the disciples of John, who have started to following Jesus along the shores of the Jordan, and He asks them clearly; what do you seek? What. This single line probably seems rather innocuous, it does not even get specific mention in my catholic study Bible. But let’s take a look at the first words spoken by Jesus after He has risen from the dead;
Saying this, she [Mary Magdalene] turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” (John 20:14-15)
The Risen Christ asks Mary not what she is looking for, He now asks whom are you looking for (whom do you seek)? I think that this transition from what to whom that we can see clearly in the Gospel of John from the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry to the start of Jesus’ heavenly one, signifies the transition of the Law to Christ. From the what to the whom.
For the Jew around the time of Christ, faith was all about what one had to do to gain salvation. It was about living a uniquely Jewish life as God’s chosen people among a sea of Gentiles and unholiness. This is why the Temple was divided into two major portions, one where people would give sacrifice and offerings to God around the outside of the core Inner Temple– where God resided. That place was only accessed once a year by the High Priest with a blood offering on behalf of all of the unworthy people outside. Day to day Jews laboured and toiled to live out in accordance with the law, and they were supported by the Priests who laboured to understand the Will of God when it came to His acceptance of their sacrifice. It was all about the what.
But Jesus came. And what Jesus literally did was enter into the Inner Temple on our behalf without any authority from the Priests of the day (because He had authority and power from His Father, God) and He did not bring with Him a blood offering, for the living Divine Blood coursing through His human veins was the offering and it would be the final offering. Thus ending the requirement for the Temple and shattering any concept of what when it came to seeking God. Now when we reach out to God we do ask for what do we seek, we ask for whom do we seek and the answer is Christ, our High Priest and Final Sacrifice that removed us from the bondage of sin once and for all.
The Old Testament, for the most part, is all about the what. It is telling us about what is to come, about what we have to do in the meantime and what went wrong to explain how we ended up where we are in the world. The New Testament, for the most part, is all about the whom– and that whom illuminates the Old Testament in retrospect. It no longer is about what is to come, but whom is to come. Not what we have to do in the meantime, but what the One who came showed us by example to do. And it is not about what what wrong in the world, but who came to finally save us from sin.
From what to whom. What a powerful and amazing change. And everything in between is justification for the change. Let’s today not ask what we have to do…let us ask about the one who gave His life for us and purchased everlasting life!