Don’t just look - see
There are a number of different Greek verbs that translate as ‘to see’, and John uses three main ones in his gospel, juxtaposing them to illustrate the differences between simply looking, attributing meaning to what we see and recognising the truth of what we see.
The two verbs used in this particular verse are:
θεωρέω - theoreo refers to seeing as in observing, discerning, considering. It describes more than simply looking - it includes thinking and deciphering what the visual cues mean. Theoreo is the root of the English word ‘theatre’, where spectators concentrate on meaning, as well as ‘theory’, in which a meaning is offered without confirmation. The seeing action is to attribute meaning through observation. The verb is used to describe someone not just seeing, but attempting to make sense of what they see - e.g. recognising a person or mistaking that person for someone else, recognising that what they observe has meaning, but not necessarily grasping the true meaning.
ὁράω - Horao is described as seeing with the mind, seeing spiritually, or with inward perception. The verb is used in the imperative to instruct the disciples or readers to do more than simply look with their eyes. The seeing action is to grasp the truth of an observation.
Horao is also used in the aorist form (eido) to describe knowing, or a seeing that becomes knowledge. Like the English expression ‘I see what you mean’, eido is described as ‘a gateway to grasp spiritual truth (reality) from a physical plane’ - a bridge to mental and spiritual seeing.
Meaning vs truth
This distinction between theoreo and horao is outlined across John 6.
And a multitude followed him, because they saw (theoreo) the signs which he did on those who were diseased. (John 6:2)
The people didn’t just see what Jesus did - they saw them as signs, attributing meaning to them, which was why they followed him. When this crowd later witnessed Jesus feed the multitude, some even grasped the truth that he was sent from God:
When the people saw (horao) the sign which he had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 6:14)
Others failed to grasp this truth, and Jesus points this out after they ask him when (implying the question of how) he got to the other side of the lake:
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw (horao) signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. (John 6:26)
Even his disciples struggled to grasp the truth of what they saw, and this was evident when they saw him walk on water:
When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw (theoreo) Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat. They were frightened, but he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” (John 6:19)
The disciples were frightened by the meaning they attributed to what they saw. If this meaning had been the truth, then it would have been written as horao, and Jesus would not have needed to reassure them.
Both different from just looking
Both of these verbs are distinct in meaning from βλέπω (blepo) which refers to one’s physical sense of sight only. When this verb is used, the intention is to look at what is objectively visible, without necessarily associating what one sees visually with any meaning or knowledge in the mind. It describes a physical ‘looking’ or noticing. When someone is said to see in this manner, there is no sense that they are processing what they see, deriving meaning or realising the truth.
As a contrast, John uses blepo extensively in the story about the man blind from birth, whose sight was restored and was subsequently harassed by the Pharisees when they refused to ‘see’ in the horao sense - to look with more than their eyes and grasp the truth of what they observed, as the man born blind did:
”Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out. (John 9: 32-34)
This story points out that the real sin is not a failure to see with one’s own eyes - it’s dismissing the truth of what is right in front of us, as the Pharisees did in casting this man out. In the final scene of this particular story, Jesus finds the man again and names this truth of what the man has experienced as the ‘Son of man’:
Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen (horao) him, and it is he who speaks to you.” (John 9: 35-37)
Seeing the truth of Jesus
So, to paraphrase John 16:16, it appears that Jesus meant to say:
’In a little while you will attribute meaning in observing me no more, and then after a little while you will grasp the truth of me.’
The disciples did not yet understand this statement, and its significance cannot be overlooked when it is repeated three times in the text. It is only through Jesus’ death and resurrection - once the empty tomb was ‘seen’ (as in blepo, theoreo AND horao in John 20: 3-9) - and the disciples were no longer able to attribute meaning through their physical observation (theoreo) of Jesus, that most were able to eventually ‘see’ (horao) what he truly meant whenever Jesus had talked about himself, his relationship with God and his mission in a spiritual sense. Then they were able to horao - to grasp the full spiritual truth - of Jesus whenever they gathered and shared their experiences of his life with an inward perception. And it was this Jesus that appeared to them in the locked room (John 20:20) and again for Thomas’ benefit (20:27) - as indicated by the use of horao - as well as by the sea of Tiberias (John 21).