Come and See: The Unreturned Invitation
“Come and see.” I discovered something new as I studied these words in Gospel of John, and it totally changed how I think about them and what I think they mean.
In our gospel passage today, we read, “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’”
Nathanael is doubtful.
He has the prejudice that probably many of his friends had, that Nazareth was a do-nothing backwater town.
It would be like hearing that someone from the local junior high basketball team had just been drafted by the NBA.
Possible? Yes. Likely? No.
So Philip invites Nathanael to come and see for himself what the big deal is with Jesus.
But the I don’t believe Philip says those particular words or makes that invitation just out of his own inspiration.
Jesus has already said these words of invitation himself, just a few verses earlier: “The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’”
Philip’s “come and see” invitation to Nathanael is born out of Jesus’ “come and see” invitation to him. It all begins with Jesus.
And Jesus is not displaying a resume and a list of qualifications that make him the Lamb of God.
It is an invitation to experience it yourself, with no prerequisites at all.
Just show up, and see what Jesus is doing.
That is an invitation that Jesus is making to us all the time.
But the disciples, in their usual loveable cluelessness, spend the next weeks and months mostly failing to understand what Jesus is trying to do.
They’ve made a start—Jesus asked them to come and see, and they did. And Philip invites Nathanael to come and see—they have learned that they need to extend the invitation to others.
But the problem is that the invitation to “come and see” is all about Jesus in his role as a miracle-worker and potential king and rescuer of Israel.
It’s all about what Jesus can do that is eye-catching and extraordinary, that bends the laws of nature and gathers a crowd.
It’s not about actual relationship with Jesus.
Jesus invites the disciples to come and see, but they think he’s just inviting them to see miracles like walking on water or feeding five thousand people with just a few loaves and fish.
They will come and see, but they’re coming to see the wrong things.
Jesus wants something much deeper from them.
We start to edge a little closer to what Jesus really wants the next time the phrase “come and see” arrives in the Gospel of John. In chapter 4, we read the story of the woman at the well.
Jesus is sitting by a well in the heat of the day, when a Samaritan woman appears. He asks her to draw water for him to drink, and she protests because he is a Jewish man and she is a Samaritan woman. He tells her of the Living Water, and reveals that he is the Messiah. He shocks her by knowing without being told that she has had five husbands and now is with a man who has not married her.
His knowledge of her life convinces her that what he says must be true, and she runs back to the city, where again we find the familiar words: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
Come and see–there it is again, and we have made some progress.
This time the invitation is not based on Jesus’ miraculous deeds, but on his miraculous words.
She is inspired by their conversation, by Jesus’ prophetic understanding of her life.
It’s still being seduced by signs and wonders, but the woman at the well is closer to real relationship with Jesus than the disciples were at the beginning of the story.
Jesus didn’t multiply the water or conjure bread out of thin air.
He simply showed this woman that he knew her, really knew her to her depths, and that led her to invite others to “come and see” him.
But the problem is that it is still utilitarian.
The disciples and the woman at the well are drawn in by miracles and still see Jesus as a circus act.
None of them have learned to really trust Jesus, to actually share their lives and their hearts with him.
They’re watching him, they’re enjoying the spectacle of seeing people healed and fed and taught—and that’s all fine, all of that work mattered and was valuable.
But all this time, Jesus is longing for someone, anyone, to really relate to him as a person.
Jesus wants to share his heart with us, not just his power.
The turning point comes with the final “come and see” in the Gospel of John, and realizing how this happens changed a lot about how I understand this story.
The final “come and see” in John shows up in chapter 11, the story of the death and raising up of Lazarus.
“When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.”
The next verse reads, “So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’” And of course that’s true—Jesus is crying because Lazarus was his dear friend, and he was grieving Lazarus’s death.
But I think something else remarkable is happening here.
After the long months and years of being seen as nothing but a vending machine for miracles, at last, at long last, someone has said “come and see” to Jesus.
The words that he extended on the very first day of his ministry have at last been offered back to him. The people he has been trying to reach have said “come and see” to him.
And not only that, they have invited him to come and see their grief and their pain.
They, for once, do not have an ulterior motive.
Mary and Martha have revealed that there is no expectation that Jesus could bring Lazarus back to life—Martha says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
They’re not anticipating that Jesus could raise him up right here and now.
At last they are saying “come and see” to Jesus, but they’re saying it simply for the comfort and solace of his presence.
They no longer demand his deeds.
They want his heart.
And Jesus breaks down in tears.
This is his dream—his people loving him for himself, for who he is rather than what he can do, and allowing him to love them for who they are and where they are.
They ask him to come and see how badly they’re hurting, and to share his own pain and grief with them.
He is so moved by finally hearing them say the words “come and see” to him and really mean them that he weeps.
They are finally in real relationship with Jesus. Jesus and his people are sharing their broken hearts with one another, and it is a moment of profound healing and grace.
This matters for another reason—the people who have invited Jesus to come and see Lazarus who is dead are closer to understanding the meaning of the Cross.
Inviting Jesus to come and see our pain and grief means that we are no longer hiding and denying it.
And if we can trust Jesus to be loyal to us in our greatest suffering, there is a better chance of our being loyal to him in his greatest suffering–on the Cross.
Real relationship with Jesus is about far more than what he can do for us.
It is about inviting him into the dark and wounded corners of our hearts, where he longs to care for us and bring us to resurrection.
We have to face the Cross in our own lives before we can approach the Cross on Calvary.
So we see that “come and see” is far more than an invitation to come and see the show.
It is a journey we travel from a shallow and utilitarian relationship with God, based on “what have you done for me lately?”, to truly sharing our hearts.
Jesus is always saying “come and see” to you.
But he longs for you to say to him, “come and see,” in the places of your greatest pain and loss.
If you do that, you will find, as Lazarus’s friends do, that new life is not far behind.
And then when you spot the chance to say “come and see” to someone else who needs new life, your invitation will have an integrity and depth it never did before.
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