When John declares, “we beheld his glory” (John 1:14), he is making an eyewitness claim that is echoed later in the Gospel (John 19:35; 21:24). But he is also suggesting something about the character of testimony he is giving. Like Moses, Isaiah, and others, John beheld a theophany, a revelation of God’s glory. Instead of this revelation coming as a single visionary event, however, it came in the flesh, in the entire life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
Some Greeks spoke about a pure, heavenly realm that could be envisioned only by the pure mind, freed from earthly constraints. John’s Gospel uses similar language, but points out that no one has truly seen or revealed heavenly things except Jesus, the man from heaven (John 3:11-13). Some, however, have seen a foretaste of heaven in Jesus, a point the Gospel regularly emphasizes and grounds in the Old Testament.
Seeing Jesus is the Same as Seeing the Father
In 1:14-18, John evokes Moses’s vision of God. When God revealed his “glory” to Moses, it was “full of grace and truth” (Exodus 34:6); no one could see God fully, however (Exodus 33:20), so Moses saw only part of God’s glory (Exodus 33:23). But when Jesus came in the flesh, God unveiled his full glory; John says, “we beheld his glory … full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). John goes on to declare that no one has seen God, but that now Jesus, who is perfectly intimate with the Father, has revealed him (John 1:18).
Likewise, Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’s day (John 8:56). When Jesus announced this, his hearers were scandalized: Abraham died perhaps sixteen or more centuries earlier, and Jesus was not yet fifty years old (John 8:57)! But Jesus spoke of Abraham’s encounters with God, such as when Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:1-21). “Before Abraham was,” Jesus responded, “I already am” (John 8:58).
“Those who continue to recognize his glory in the present will be ready to see him unashamed when he returns.”
Yet John complains that Jesus’s contemporaries were too blind to “see” and perceive who he really was, just like the prophet Isaiah warned (John 12:40, quoting Isaiah 6:10). Isaiah had this revelation, John adds, when Isaiah “saw his glory” (John 12:41). That is, the theophany that Isaiah experienced in Isa 6:1-10 was a revelation of Jesus himself! In this Gospel, Jesus emphasizes that seeing him is the same as seeing the Father (John 14:7-9); the works he did revealed that they shared the same nature (John 14:10-11). In a much lesser sense, he has given us the same works to carry on, to draw attention to himself and his Father (John 14:12-13).
Seeing Jesus Transforms Us
The first epistle of John offers a theological lesson from these truths: Those who have “seen” Jesus by conversion and continue to recognize his glory in the present will be ready to see him unashamed when he returns (1 John 3:2-3, 6). Philosophers thought that meditating on the divine transformed a person to be like the divine; John shows that instead of some abstract conception of the “divine,” we can know God personally in Jesus Christ. Just like Moses reflected God’s glory the more he saw it, knowing Jesus transforms us to be like him (1 John 3:3).
Now that Jesus has gone to the Father, how can the world see him? A good start would be learning to love one another. No one has seen God, 1 John 4:12 emphasizes, but if we love one another (i.e., as he loved us), God dwells in us. How do we carry on Jesus’ mission in the world today? Jesus said that our love for one another is how the world will recognize that we are his disciples (John 13:35), and our unity is how they will recognize that the Father sent Jesus (John 17:23).