At the beginning of the Gospel of John we are told of a couple of days on which John the Baptist was baptizing and preaching at Bethany. On one of those days John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” After having been repeatedly asked his identity and having repeatedly affirmed that he himself was not the Messiah, John gave clear testimony that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God. When he saw Jesus passing by on the very next day, John again said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” Two of John’s disciples heard John say this, and followed Jesus. We are not told whether or not they said anything to the Lord, just that they were following Him. One can imagine that they were walking along a little way behind Jesus, perhaps a bit sheepishly, certainly in awe of Him because of what they had heard John say. Maybe they didn’t exactly know what to do other than just to follow Him and see what happened.
What happened captures the imagination and transports us into the very sandals of those two disciples. Jesus turned around, saw the men following Him, and asked, “What do you want?” What was the first thing that came to their minds when Jesus asked them this question? What did they want from the Lamb of God?
Imagine yourself in their place. Jesus has been revealed to you as the Son of God, and you have set out to follow Him not knowing exactly what to do or what the result might be. In your mind’s eye, picture Jesus turning around. It takes you a moment to look Him full in the face, but when His gaze has caught your eye, you can’t look away. Then He asks, “What do you want?” It is a penetrating question.
This is not just an interesting scenario to stimulate our intellectual ruminations. For all who have, by God’s grace, become followers of Jesus, it is a question which requires an answer. In following after Jesus, what do you want? But this is also not a question for which we are answerable to one another. The benefit of imagining ourselves as one of the two disciples in this Gospel story is that we see that it is Jesus who asks this question. Each one of us must meet His gaze, be confronted with His question to us individually, and personally answer to Him.
The Gospel of John presents a dramatic and fascinating picture of contrasting motivations for pursuing Jesus. Most of the people, including many of His disciples at times, clearly showed and said that they followed Jesus because they wanted something from Him, like physical healings and other miraculous deeds. John tells us Jesus knew at one point that they even intended to come and make Him king by force, so He went off by Himself where they couldn’t find Him. But not all followed Jesus just for what they could get from Him. After Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well in John 4, the woman tells the Samaritan townspeople about her meeting with the Lord. In stark contrast to John’s descriptions of Jesus’ experiences with His fellow Jews who were always asking about miracles, John tells us that “when the Samaritans came to Him, they urged Him to stay with them… and because of His word many more became believers” (John 4:40, 41). The Jews, even Jesus’ own family, wanted Him to heal their illnesses and infirmities and to prove Himself to them by performing miracles. Their “belief” in Him was built upon their experience of His miraculous deeds, and many later turned away from Him because His words were too difficult or too offensive to them (for example, John 6:60-66). These outcast Samaritans did not ask Jesus for healing, they wanted Him to stay with them. Their belief in Him was not because of miracles He performed for them, but because of His word to them.
Looking back to the story of the two disciples confronted with Jesus’ question, we find a response from them which seems similar to the Samaritans. Jesus asked them, “What do you want?” The two replied, “Teacher, where are you staying?” In Jesus’ day, when a person became a disciple of a master (teacher or craftsman), he left his home and lived with his master. These two were saying that they were following Jesus to be His disciples, and they wanted to live with Him. Like the Samaritans, they did not want something from Jesus; they wanted Jesus. They wanted to be in relationship to Him as their Messiah and Master, and by His teaching (His word), to learn of Him.
It may be a bit of an oversimplification, but it seems that most of the Jews who followed Jesus did so primarily because they wanted something from Him. They put their “faith” in Him because of His ability to perform miracles. Jesus’ word, His teaching, was so difficult for them to accept that most turned back and no longer followed Him. The same could be said of a lot of people today. On the other hand, the Samaritans from Sychar and the two disciples of John the Baptist followed Jesus because they were drawn into a relationship with Him; they wanted Him to stay with them, and they wanted to live with Him. These were convinced that Jesus was the Savior of the world because of what they were told about Him and what He revealed to them Himself. When others turned away because of Jesus’ teaching, His words drew them to Him and persuaded them that He had the words of eternal life.
As the Lord draws my eyes to meet His, His question resounds in my ears. Perhaps you can hear His simple inquiry to you as well. “What do you want?” Our answer to this question probably means the difference between mere religion, like many of Jesus’ conditional followers, and genuine relationship with the Living God, like the Samaritan woman at the well and the two disciples.