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Jesus and the Disciples of John the Baptist

by Brant Pitre December 23, 2020 0 Comments

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So in John 1:35-42 we read these words:

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?" And they said to him, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, "So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas" (which means Peter).

Great episode here, lots we could say about it.  I'll try to offer a few observations that I think are interesting, significant.  First point about this story that's worth highlighting is the fact that John the Baptist had disciples.  It's really important for us to remember.  Sometimes we think about John as a prophet, out in the wilderness, you know, dressed in camel's hair, eating bugs for dinner, locust of course, the locust with honey.  We kind of imagine him as a solitary figure, right, and certainly not one that we would necessarily want to spend any time with — although obviously the crowds went down to him to be baptized — but the reality was that John himself wasn't just a prophet, he also had a circle of followers.  He had a circle of disciples.  The Greek word for disciple is mathētēs, it's from the Greek word manthanō, that means, to learn.  So it literally means a student, or a learner, and so these two disciples are followers of John, they are members of John's entourage, member of the circle of Jewish men.  It's probably mostly men here who are living out with him in the desert, who would have listened to his teachings and accepted his baptism of repentance, obviously, but also heeded his words, listen to what he had to say to them.

In this case the two disciples aren’t named yet, we’re going to find out in a minute that one of them is Andrew, one of them is Simon Peter's brother; the other disciple who is unnamed, scholars have speculated as to his identity; many scholars actually think that this is the first reference to the author of the Gospel of John himself, to the beloved disciple St. John, who will frequently refer to himself in the third person, and will not always identify himself explicitly.  Is there any way to prove that? No, we don't know for certain.  One of these is an anonymous disciple, the other one is Andrew but, in either case, they point out the fact that John the Baptist had disciples.  So in that context then, he's ministering and he sees Jesus and he tells his disciples behold, in other words, “Look…” (ide in Greek) “…Behold the Lamb of God!”

Okay, now for us as Catholics, we are so used to that language because we hear it at mass all the time during the communion rite, whenever the priest elevates the consecrated host, Body and Blood of Christ, and he says “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.  Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb,” and we respond, and we go to receive communion.  So we are used to the theological symbolism of Jesus as the Lamb, who offers his life in sacrifice for the sins of the world.  But put yourself in Andrew's position or the other disciple’s position at this point.  John points to this guy and says “look, there's a sheep,” I mean effectively, that's what he’s saying; that's a weird thing for John to say.  It's another example of John the Baptist, himself, using the Jewish custom of riddles and parables in order to teach his disciples about mysteries.  So a couple of chapters later in John's Gospel, he's going to say, if you want to know who the Messiah is, look for the bridegroom, because the one who has the bride is the bridegroom.  Now that's not a very helpful way to point to Jesus because Jesus isn't married, he doesn’t have a wife, right, so it's a riddle; the same thing is true here. 

So John is alluding, in all likelihood here, to two images.  First, Exodus 12, which is the Passover lamb, in the book of Exodus.  Through the sacrifice of the Passover lamb the people of Israel were delivered from death and they were set free from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt, and they begin their journey home to the promised land.  And that sacrifice later became to be associated, in certain ways, with a kind of atonement for sin; it’s the one that breaks the bondage of their idolatry and slavery to Pharaoh.  Another image is from Isaiah 53, the suffering servant, who literally takes the sins of the people upon himself, and it says that he was led to the slaughter.  He was silent like a lamb, led to the slaughter.  I think in this case it’s actually probably the more direct reference that John is identifying Jesus as the new Passover lamb, but also as the suffering servant, who's going to take away the sins of the people, because John's baptism was focused on a ministry of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and here is the one who is the Savior, here's the one John’s been pointing to; you know, someone greater than me is coming after me, he's going to be the Savior, the deliverer.

Alright, so what that means, basically, the two disciples here, Andrew and the other disciple, obey their master and they start to follow Jesus.  Now in this case, John always in his Gospel operates on multiple levels of meaning, so when he says they follow Jesus, literally what it means is they walked behind Jesus.  So Jesus is walking, they start to walk in his wake, but on a deeper level this is the beginning of them starting a new discipleship, no longer following John as their teacher and master, but following Jesus.  So Jesus, in that sense, turns and sees them following him and he says “what are you seeking?”  Or some translations say “What are you looking for?”  The Greek there is very powerful, ti zēteite, it literally means what are you seeking/what are you searching after, right.  Think about a heat-seeking missile; it's a missile that searches after and follows the heat – it pursues it.  That’s the imagery Jesus is using here, what are you pursuing, right?  And so they respond to him by saying “Rabbi…”, which means teacher, it is a Hebrew word meaning teacher, “…where are you staying?”  So they don't answer his question, notice that, they don’t say what they’re looking for.  They respond to his question with a question, asking, well where are you staying?  Which would literally mean where is your home?  Where are you residing for the night?  And so Jesus, then, in response to them, says a second word here, “come and see.”  It's an invitation to join him as disciples, to come and see where he's staying. 

Now there are so many things going on in John's Gospel, the symbolism is always multilevel.  But in this case, first, the literal, what’s happening here?  Well they're meeting Jesus.  They ask him, they start to follow him, he turns and sees them, he says, “What are you looking for?” because obviously they’re looking for him.  They say, “Where are you staying tonight?”  He says come and see; He invites them to be part of his circle, right, to be His disciple and to come and stay with him, wherever he's residing for the night.  That's the literal sense.  But on a deeper level, what's really going on here?  Well Jesus isn't just asking them what are they looking for or why are you following me?  He's trying to get them to say, “what are you really seeking”, and we’ll see the whole rest of the Gospel is going to be Him playing out that question.  What are people really looking for — just like with the Samaritan woman in John 4, what is she really thirsting for?  She's thirsting for the water of life.  What are these disciples really seeking?  Well obviously they’re seeking the truth, but they are also seeking after the Messiah, seeking after the suffering servant that John has been preaching about, and now encountering Jesus, they have found Him. 

The other level of meaning here that's interesting is that when the disciples say “where are you staying”, the Greek word that they use there is menó, it literally means “to remain”, and throughout the rest of John's Gospel that word is going to have great theological significance.  To remain or to abide is going to be a key theme.  Jesus will say things like, he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, or abides in me, and I abide in him.  Or in John 17, Jesus will say, he’ll pray that the disciples will remain in him as he remains in them, that they will still stay in him as he stays in them.  So the imagery of remaining means staying in close proximity to Jesus, being in intimacy with Him as a disciple, as a believer.  Interestingly, in John's Gospel we’ll see some people will believe in Jesus but they won’t remain with him.  In other words, they’ll accept the teachings about them but they don't stay with him.  Other people, like Jews, are going to stay with him, to remain with him, but they are not going to believe in him.  So you have to both believe in Jesus and remain in Jesus.  There was a great thesis just as a side note, this is not my insight, Fr. Bryce Higginbotham did a thesis under me at the Seminary where I teach, where he studied this in the Gospel of John.  It’s really a brilliant, wonderful insight into this theology of believing and remaining in Christ.  And so this opening passage here with John, in John, with Jesus and his disciples, is about much more than them saying, hey where are you staying for the night.  It's all about discipleship. It’s about the fact that they're not going to be students of John the Baptist anymore.  Now they're becoming students of Jesus.  Now they’re becoming followers of Jesus.  In order to be a follower of Jesus, you don’t just have to believe “hey, he is the Lamb of God,” you have to remain with him, you have to stay with him, you have to abide in him.   So Jesus invites them into that and says come and see, come and see where I remain, come and see where I abide, so you can learn to live like I live. 

Ultimately in John's Gospel as we’ll see, Jesus abides in the bosom of the Father, and that's where he wants his disciples, like the beloved disciple, to remain in him.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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