Knowing and Seeing
There is a wonderful passage in the first chapter of John’s Gospel in which John the Baptist points out Jesus to those around him. John had an important mission: he was calling the Children of Israel back to their fathers and preparing their hearts for the One who was to come. “I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes,” John had said, but he, more than anyone else, was preparing the way for him.
There was nobody else in all of Israel who knew more about the One who was coming than John the Baptist.
But in John 1:29-34, when John the Baptist points out Jesus and says, “He’s the One,” he also adds — not once, but twice — “And I myself did not know him” (John 1:31, 33).
In Koine Greek, it was not necessary to include the subject because the verb carried the subject within it. In cases like this, when the noun is included, it’s emphatic. He’s not just saying, “I didn’t know him.” He’s saying “I myself did not know him.”
He briefly describes how he came to know him, and he finishes his story by saying, “And I myself have seen him…” (v. 34). “Seeing” is very important in the Gospel of John. In fact, as two of John the Baptist’s hearers go and ask Jesus where he’s staying, Christ invites them to “Come and see” (v. 40). And shortly after this, when a prospective disciple questions whether any good thing can come out of Nazareth, he too is encouraged to “Come and see” (v. 47).
So John the Baptist tells whoever will listen, “And I myself have seen him…” But he also emphasizes, “And I myself did not know him.”
It seems to me that we who profess to follow Christ today have this exactly backwards. We haven’t seen him, but we’re quite certain that we know him. And we assure ourselves that anybody who doesn’t know him like we know him, doesn’t really know him.
Of course, there’s a lot more theology wrapped into the gospel writer’s use of the word “seeing” than just what’s apparent to the eye. Chapter 9 goes into this in detail when Christ heals a blind man and the religious rulers object. “Are you saying we’re blind?” they ask Jesus petulantly after a long discussion, and he tells them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but because you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:40-41).
So let’s just say that, in the Gospel of John, seeing is an important part of knowing, but seeing isn’t always just with the eye. It seems to me that the gospel writer is emphasizing a personal experience of Christ that goes beyond the intellectual kind of knowing. And we are indeed entitled to say that we know Christ or have seen him in a metaphorical sense if we’ve experienced him in certain ways. But because our experience of him is so heavily metaphorical — for we have not actually seen him — we should always strive for the kind of humility John the Baptist displays in this passage.
“I myself did not know him.”
The point of being a disciple is to increase our knowledge of him through firsthand experience, and that happens through the Holy Spirit as we make ourselves available through prayer and scripture study. But as I look back over the story of my own life, I am constantly prompted to confess to God, “I did not know you.” With each new revelation, I discover how little I knew, and how incompletely I saw — until now. Then, later on, it happens all over again.
“I myself did not know him.” That might make a good mantra for all of us who follow Christ today. It might do us some good to remind ourselves how little we still know him. And we never know what experiences he might bring into our lives next, that will help us to see him — and know him — a little more clearly than we do now.