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9. Who Sees Jesus Sees the Father

Throughout his ministry Jesus had spoken about his Father. Everything he did was for his Father, to the glory of his Father, revealing his Father. The disciples knew the Father was God, the Amighty Power reigning in Heaven. Exalted above all earthly realities God was well beyond the reach of human perception. Moreover, seeing him would be so overwhelming that it would kill a human being. "No one can see God and live" (Judg 13,22). So imagine their surprise when at the Last Supper Jesus announced: "From now on you know the Father and you have seen him".

It was Philip, the Greek speaking apostle who took up the challenge. "Lord, make us see the Father. That is all we ask for".

"For such a long time I have been with you", Jesus answered, "And you still don't know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father. How then can you say,'Make us see the Father'?" (Jn14,7-9).

Seeing Jesus meant seeing the Father. It is one of the most revealing insights of John's Gospel. What are the implications of this astonishing fact? What does it tell us about the Father and Jesus? What does it mean for our Christian faith?

In chapter six we meditated on the implications of Jesus being "the Son of Man", the messenger from the Father who came down from heaven and returned there. We saw how this expressed the functional aspect of Jesus' life: that everything he was and did was for our sake, to save us and to take us with him to the Father. We discovered that Jesus is a guide who joins us on our earthly journey to show us the way to God.

We also reflected on Jesus' relationship of complete dependence on God - a God whom he revealed to us as the Father (in chapter seven). The Father meant everything to Jesus. Jesus interpreted his whole life as an effort to please his Father. He knew he had received all he possessed from his Father. Jesus stated he was happy to go back to his Father "for the Father is greater than I am" (Jn14,28).

Jesus tells us that seeing him meant seeing the Father. We are now in a position to ask directly: Who was and who is Jesus? In what sense can he be called God? If, in some way or other, this guide who leads us on our way is God himself,(1) how then does he differ from "the Father"? These are the questions we have to tackle in this chapter.

A unique claim

"Who sees me sees the Father". A clue to what is meant might be hidden in John's using the absolute forms: "the Father" and "the Son". John derived this from Jesus himself. In a passage that is generally admitted to be very ancient (2) Jesus claims an exclusive relationship to God, using the same absolute terms. "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son wants to reveal him" (Mt 11,27). Jesus claims to know God and to be able to reveal him as no one else can. Because he is "the Son".

That this claim was made by Jesus himself can also be seen from other traditions that go back to the historical Jesus. He would come to judge all people (Mt 25,31-36). He called himself greater than the Temple (Mt 12,6) and Solomon (Mt 12,42). He demanded absolute loyalty to himself (Mt 10,37-39 and attached everlasting reward or punishment to success or failure in living up to that loyalty (Lk 9,26; Mt 16,27). The miracles he performed were those that reveal divine power. Calming the sea is the work of the creator (Job 38,8-11; Ps 93,3-4). Only God can raise the dead to life (Dt 32,39). Only God can forgive sins (Mt 9,1-8). By calling himself "the Son" (see also Mt 21,37-39), he claimed a unique relationship to God as no one else had.

What Jesus had claimed somewhat implicitly, John understood to be a central truth; he focussed all his attention on it and tried to give it the fullest expression possible. After all, Jesus' resurrection had shown that his life and ministry should be seen as one act of divine revelation. John therefore took Jesus' terminology "the Father" and "the Son", which as far as we know Jesus had only employed occasionally, and made it the key to understanding the whole Gospel.

The Son as revealer

John had other good reasons for doing so. Hellenistic circles showed great interest in the question of how people in this dark world here below could get in touch with the realm of light above. Who would inform people about "the Father of all"? Who would show them how to extricate themselves from the pollution of matter and become spirit again? Different theories of revelation arose. John responded to this. No one would be able to talk about the Father better than "the Son", a divine emanation from God, descending to earth for a while. The concept of "the Son" revealing the true nature of "the Father" was congenial to Hellenistic thought. By elaborating this terminology about Jesus, John could be sure his message would strike home.(3)

The Son reveals the Father. The way John understands this is that the whole nature of the Son consists in revealing the Father. That is why he is "the Word 136 The Word was with the Father from the beginning. He was the same as the Father (Jn1,1). He revealed the Father by creating the universe, by producing different forms of life and light (Jn1,3-5). But he revealed the Father most of all by becoming flesh, by becoming a human being of flesh and blood (Jn1,14). No one has ever been able to see the Father. But the only Son,(4) who is the same as the Father and who lives in the Father, has made him known (Jn1,18).(5)

To have a good grasp of what John is really saying, we should remember the problem Hellenistic thinkers had regarding creation and revelation. They knew Almighty God must remain unchanged for all eternity. Once a change were to take place in him he would no longer be perfect. But what happens when he creates? Earlier he was no creator; now he has become a creator! Therefore, either before or afterwards he was more perfect! And what if he communicates to his creatures? Beforehand he was silence; now he has become a speaker! To solve this philosophical problem the Greeks invented the theory of intermediary divine beings. God himself did not create. But some power emanated from him which was the creator. God himself did not speak. But a word flowed from him that brought revelation. This is how Philo of Alexandria sees God's creative "Word". "God's shadow is his Word which he uses as an instrument to build the univers" (leges Allegoricae 111, 31). Philo derived much of his thought from the Old Testament Word proceeding from God's mouth (Prov 8, 22-31; Sir24, 1-7), as did John. The point is that both for John and Philo thinking like that had also become a conceptual necessity on account of the Hellenistic problem of God's unchangeability.

John is aware of problem. But his solution is simpler and more direct. Instead of speculating about theoretical creating and revealing divine powers, we have the fact of Jesus. He appeared among us as "the Son", "the Word", God's act of revelation. Perhaps we may compare it to the Old Testament notion of the divine appearance, the 'malakh', often wrongly translated as the angel of God. Since God himself cannot be seen, his 'appearance' malakh, shows itself to chosen individuals. While they look at his 'appearance", in and through that appearance they are actively looking at God (Judg 13,8-22). So Jesus, too, was in a far more direct sense the appearance in flesh of the Father. "Who sees me sees the Father"

Reality breaks through

The same idea is worked out by the elusive term "truth" in John's Gospel. Although John's interpretation of this term shows traces of Old Testament and rabbinical usage, its connotations are decidedly Hellenistic.(6) Again, we have to remember the dichotomy between the above and the below. Things in this world are transitory and perishing. In the divine realm we find a reality that stays, the immutable ideas of which all earthly things are only a copy. The true and eternal reality in heaven is called the truth (aletheia). Only that is "true" which is in conformity with that eternal reality.

When John says that Jesus told the truth (Jn8,40.45.46; 16,7) and that he bore witness to the truth (Jn5,33; 18,37), he means much more than that Jesus' words did not contain lies. He says that Jesus revealed to us the eternal reality which is with the Father. "Who is of the truth hears me" (Jn18,37) is exactly parallel to "Who listens to my Father comes to me" (Jn6,45). The Father is true (Jn7,28; 8,26; 17,3). Knowing that truth, that is: being in touch with the eternal reality of the Father, will set people free (Jn8,32). It is in that truth that the Father will sanctify and consecrate the disciples (Jn17,17.19). Because Jesus revealed this eternal reality through his own person, John can say: "Truth came through Jesus Christ" (means: eternal reality came to us in Christ); and "I am the Truth" (means:Jesus himself is the eternal reality made visible.)

In this sense also we should interpret Jesus being the true light (Jn1,9). The other forms of light we see in the world are only weak reflections of the light that is with God. But Jesus was the true light. He carried in himself that eternal reality from which all transitory forms of light took their origin. He is the true bread that came down from heaven (Jn6,32). All food on earth is limited. It can only still hunger for a short while and cannot give life forever. But Jesus is himself the gift of eternal nourishment that guarantees everlasting life. Jesus is the true vine (Jn15,1). All other vines, all other stems of whatever kind, support life imperfectly. The support Jesus gives will last forever, because it is the support of eternal reality itself. It is from this self-awareness, as we will see later, that John makes Jesus say his "I AM" statements. "I am the bread of life (Jn6,35). "I am the light of the world" (Jn8,12). "I am the good shepherd" (Jn10,11). "I am the resurrection and the life" (Jn11,25). "I am the way, the truth and the life" (Jn14,6). All these are aspects of the eternal reality which is with the Father, yes, which in a way is the Father. Jesus is all of them because he has in him that external reality. As God in the Old Testament could simply say "I am who I am" (Ex 3,14), so Jesus can say that he is. "Before Abraham was I am" (Jn8,58).

Making the Father known

The whole purpose of Jesus' life was to make the Father known (Jn17,6.26). We realise now that this was not only, or first and foremost, a question of oral communication. Jesus made the Father known by all he said and did. Who heard Jesus speak heard the Father speak (7,16). Who saw Jesus saw the Father (Jn14,9). To make the Father known Jesus often presented him implicitly, as it were in comparisons, images, figures of speech. But after his resurrection the full realisation of how Jesus revealed the Father would be known. "The time will come when I will speak to you plainly about the Father" (Jn16,25).

If we understand how Jesus was revealing the Father all the time, in his person, we also grasp why all he said and did had a symbolic value. Everything pointed to the higher reality he represented. John purposely uses the word"sign" to denote the extraordinary works Jesus did, as changing water into wine (Jn2,11) and curing the son who was on the point of death (Jn4,54; see also Jn10,41). But there can be no doubt that for John a similar kind of value attached to all Jesus' deeds (Jn20,30). In everything the Father shone through.

If we look on Jesus' life in this way, we are struck once more by the pre-eminence of the Father. For the mystery is precisely that in Jesus we meet the Father. By knowing Jesus we know what the Father is like. By meeting this carpenter from Nazareth we are suddenly in direct contact with God in heaven (Jn1,43-51). This means that we have to learn to look at Jesus in a new way. We have to learn to see the Father in what he does, to hear the Father speak in what he says. Our devotion to Jesus should be Father-centered.

It also gives us a new appreciation of Jesus himself. For he is the Father revealing himself to us. He is the Father pitching his tent in our midst (Jn1,14).(7) He is the mysterious ground of our being, suddenly made visible and approachable in human form. I know we will be inclined to immediately assert the distinction between the Father and the Son. But do we not too easily forget that there is only one God? Even traditional theology has always maintained that all God's activities outside God are activities of the whole Trinity. In Jesus God made himself known in a unique way. His visible manifestation among us as the Son we can see, the Word we can hear, points to the Father who loves us and calls us to be his children. "Whoever sees me sees also him who sent me" (Jn12,44). "If you know me, you know the Father too", Jesus said (8,19). We can see the Father and know the Father by seeing and knowing Jesus.

Concepts to support our faith

It is refreshing to think and speak about Jesus again as John does. Because our understanding of Jesus and our devotion to him may have been hampered by clumsy theological formulas of the past. The first five centuries of Church history record fierce theological battles on who Jesus was and is. The outcome has been laid down in the professions of faith pronounced at Nicea (325 AD), Ephesus (431 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD). These statements of faith serve a very good purpose. They ensured that the followers of Christ would not deny either his full humanity or his claim to divinity. But the theological terms used derived from the philosophy of the time. Any human reflection on divine realities is bound to be inadequate and time-bound: is clumsy of necessity. While retaining what these ancient Church Councils wanted to affirm about our faith, we should feel free to express these convictions in words and thoughts meaningful to us today. The original formulation of the inspired Gospels can help us to do this.

Let me give one example. The traditional formulation stated that in Jesus there were two natures (one divine and one human), but only one person. In scholastic theology this was then further explained by saying that though Jesus had a complete human nature, he did not possess a human personality: its place was taken by the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. This kind of speaking makes no sense to us today. Because in our way of thinking personality is the most important part of being human. If we believe that Jesus was fully human, he must have possessed a full human personality. In fact, reading John's Gospel we see how much Jesus addresses us precisely through his powerful and unique human personality.

Then what about his being God? Is there another Person in Jesus next to his human personality? (This was the conceptual nightmare the ancient Councils and scholastics wanted to avoid). John gives us the answer with a directness and simplicity that cuts through the speculations of philosophers. Who sees Jesus sees the Father. This means: who sees the human Jesus sees God. The humanity of Jesus, including his full human personality, allows God to show through. No, more than that, Jesus' humanity itself is the expression of God's revelation. The Word became flesh.(8) In the human Jesus God the Father himself spoke to us and made us his own. In that sense Jesus and the Father are one. Because in everything Jesus was and did be brought the Father present in a very realistic way.

Christian consciousness in our time has focussed again with renewed awareness on the fact that Jesus was truly human, that he was one of us This has gone hand in hand with criticism on incorrect images of divinity attributed to Jesus in popular devotion. Jesus is not a little God sitting in the tabernacle, distinct from the big God in heaven. Jesus was not a divine Person carrying the mask of humanity while walking our earth. Jesus is not the kind God who sheds his blood for us to appease the strict Father God who stays aloof. What we are looking for is the correct image of his divinity the does not minimise his complete identity with us as a human person. I suggest that John's way of speaking will be helpful to us, while we allow the theologians to work out new formulations.(9)

A new awareness of how Jesus reveals the Father will make us also sensitive to imperfections in the way we perceive the Blessed Trinity. In spite of always repeating the truth that Father,Son and Spirit are one God, we do often in our imagination separate them into a number of Gods.(10) One of the reasons of this is once more the use of the misleading term "person''. For by saying that there are three "Persons" in God we cannot help attribute to each of them a separate ability to think, decide and act. But everything that belongs to God's nature - and this includes knowing, willing, loving, acting, and so on - is one and not three. Also, we may forget that we know about this "threeness" of God only through the different ways in which he communicated himself to us. We know him as Father in his sovereignty, as Word in his self-communication in history and as Holy Spirit in his self-communication to us in our deepest self (more about the Spirit in chapter thirteen). But why should such external manifestations reflect Absolute and Eternal constituents of God?

We affirm something very important when we say that the Son is God; namely, that in Jesus we meet God himself. not some created intermediary being. When we profess that the Spirit is God, we assert that, likewise' in our religious experience God himself communicates with us, not a derivation from God. Our conceptualizing of "processions" in God or "relationships" that produce the three "Persons", carries in it the danger of creating a mental image that distorts the most basic truth: that God is One and revealed himself as the One God.

Here again, a return to a Johannine way of speaking may liberate us from unwanted connotations. The prince of orthodoxy, Karl Rahner, put it so well:

"One can respect the official language of the Church concerning the classical doctrine of the Trinity and yet hold, at the same time, that to speak of "three Persons", and even of Trinity (a term absent from the New Testament!), is not absolutely necessary in order to state what Christianity really intends by this doctrine.

In religious language one could safely speak of the Father who himself is ineffably near to us in history in his Word and within us in his Spirit. One could profess that this Word and Spirit, much as they have to be distinguished from the Father and from one another and must not be allowed to become a dead sameness, yet are God himself.... With this profession one would remain nearer to New Testament usage and yet state expressly the substance of the Christian dogma of the Trinity.(11)

For reflection. God's Word dwelling with us.

In Exodus 33 - 34 we read how God stayed with his people by his Presence in the Tent of Meeting. Moses spoke to God face to face and communicated God's will to the people. By revealing himself to us in Jesus God came even closer. He pitched his tent among us and gave us much more than Moses could give. For he shared with us the fullness of God (read 1,14-18)

Christian faith professes both Jesus' humanity and divinity. Can I affirm both with equal clarity and conviction? If not, what is the reason of the imbalance?

Do I find traces in myself of an inadequate image of Jesus' divinity? How did I acquire this image? Can I correct it consciously now?

If anyone asks me what is specific in Christian belief, can I confidently and clearly explain the centrality of Jesus in God's self-revelation?

Jesus stated, "Who sees me sees the Father". Does this have practical implications for my spiritual life? How does it affect my prayer and the way I receive the sacraments?

Foot Notes

1. A. C. SUNDBERG maintains there are two Christologies in John: the subordinate agent of God and the Son equal to the Father; "Christology in the Fourth Gospel", Biblical Research 21 (1976) 29-37. Whether they are distinct in origin or not? connecting these two images lies at the heart of understanding Christ.

2. J. JEREMIAS, Abba. Studien zur neutestamentlichen Theologie und Zeitgeschichte, Gottingen 1966, pp.47-54.

3. R. SCHNACKENBURG, TheGospel according to St John (note 24) vol. II Excursus "The Son," pp.172-186

4. Not "only begotten", but "unique". I. J. DU PLESSIS, "Christ as the 'Only Begotten'," Neotestamentica 2 (1968) 22-31; R. L. ROBERTS, "The Rendering 'Only Begotten in John 3:16", Restoration Quarterly 16 (1973) 2-22.

5. He "narrates" about the Father. J. P. LOUW, "Narrator of the Father - EXEGEISTHAI and related terms in Johannine Christology", Neotestamenti 2 (1968) 32-40.

6. I. DE LA POTTERIE favours an almost exclusively Old Testament derivation; cf. Prov 23,23; Sir 4,28; Wis 6,22; etc. "La verita in S. Giovanni"? Rivista Biblica 11 (1963) 3-24; La verite dans St Jean, Biblical Institute, Rome 1977. I find C. H. DODD'S arguments for a Hellenistic interpretation more convincing; Interpretation (note 35), pp.133-143.

7. The image is derived from Ex 33 - 34. A. T. HANSON, "John i,14-18 and Exodus XXXIV", New Testament Studies 23 (1976) 90-101; R. F. COLLINS, "'He Came to Dwell Among Us' (Jn 1:14)", Melita Theologica 28 (1976) 44-59; H. MOWVLEY, "John 1:14-18 in the light of Exodus 33:7 - 34:35", Expository Times 95 (1984) 135-137.

8. Even the term "Word" does not so much indicate an eternal Logos, as a revealer, i.e. Jesus incarnate. G. NEYRAND, "Le sense de 'logos' dans le prologue de Jean", Nouvelle Revue de Theologie 106 (1984) 59-71.

9. A good introduction on how modern theology tries to cope with this challenge is given by J. A. T, ROBINSON (The Human Face of God, SCM, London 1972), even if his conclusions need to be treated with caution.

10. This is also the way outsiders, such as Jews and Muslims, cannot help interpreting the doctrine. L. A. GRADY, "Martin Buber and the Gospel of St. John", Thought 53 (1978) 283-291.

11. K. RAHNER, "God's Oneness and Trinity", extract from Schriften zur Theologie, vol. XIII, pp.129-147; Vidyajyoti 46 (1982) 366-379. See also S. ANAND, "The Trinity as God in History", Vidyajyoti 48 (1984) 166-177.


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