One of the pericope assigned this week is the story of the first disciples in the Gospel of John, the third and fourth days of the first week of Jesus’ mortal ministry, in imitation of the preparation for the giving of the Law in Exodus 19 and Pentecost (1:35-51). Immediately before this section, on days one and two, two important things happen. First, John is accosted by representatives of Jewish leadership who wonder why he is baptizing. After denying that he is any of the traditional Jewish eschatological figures, John indicates that he baptizes in preparation for the coming of someone who is greater than himself – indeed, he baptizes precisely to reveal this particular person (vv. 19-28; 31). This is his fundamental role as a witness to the Light that is coming into the world.
Second, John reports that he did baptize Jesus and that as he did so he saw that the Spirit descended on Jesus and remained. This is important because Jesus will eventually pass the Spirit to his disciples. John further fulfills his obligation as a witness by indicating that he understands that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (v. 29). This is the only time Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God, an odd designation since the sacrifice of lambs was not a sin offering, so perhaps the metaphor is really getting at the idea of reconciliation with God. In any case, the word “sin” is singular, indicating that the world really has only one sin, a failure to believe. One way to understand this is that Jesus takes away that sin by revealing the Father, which in turn discloses the darkness and false sense of life in which the world exists and prepares the way for its redemption.
This Week (1:35-51)
Day Three: 35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 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?”
39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.
40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
Day Four: 43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 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.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
What is wrong with human life? The prologue already indicated that humans were living without the needed light and life. In the passage the reader sees that the characters that will become Jesus’ disciples are seekers. They need someone to point out where to find what they seek – that’s what John does in his pre-destined role as witness. They seem to trust John’s witness enough to leave him to see what Jesus will reveal. If we were working the historical-critical, we might conclude that this passage was the story told by the Johannine community of their own founding.
Who is Jesus that he can bring God’s plans to fruition? This passage contains a whole raft of titles for Jesus. In John, the foundational belief is the Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God (20:31). Both titles appear in this section, as do King of Israel and the prophet “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote” (1:45). The interesting thing is that although Jesus doesn’t reject these titles, he also doesn’t find them wholly adequate, at least as his fledgling disciples intend them. Instead, the title that satisfies him is Son of Man, further described as being the one upon whom angels ascend and descend (v. 51).
The imagery of angels ascending and descending comes from Jacob’s ladder in Gen 28:12. Jesus’ description replaces the ladder with himself, indicating that he is the unique connection between heaven and earth. The title “Son of Man” is not used as a confessional title in any of the Gospels, but in John it particularly differs from its employment in the Synoptics. There, the most basic idea is that Jesus will suffer, die, be vindicated and return in power (Mk 14:61-62). Matthew folds in the imagery of Jesus as the eschatological judge (Matt 25:31-33). In John, however, there are no references to a coming Son of Man. Instead, the Son of Man is:
1) The connection between heaven and earth (1:51)
2) The one who ascended into heaven and descended therefrom (3:13)
3) The one who will be lifted up / exalted (3:14; 8:28; 12:34) (hypsoō has both meanings)
4) The one who executes judgment now (5:27)
5) The one who gives the food that leads to eternal life (6:27, 53)
6) The one whose hour has come for glorification by God (12:23; 13:31)
The Son of Man sayings therefore link the figure of the Jesus who will be crucified with God’s plan for saving the world. Thus, when Jesus asks his disciples who were complaining about implications of his teachings on the bread of life, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (6:61-62), he means that if they do not believe he descended from the Father, they will find it harder to believe that he ascends to the Father in his crucifixion. And it is this point, that Jesus descended from the Father and will ascend again, that is key the obligation to believe Jesus’ revelation of the Father.
What sort of a community is gathered around Jesus? The community that gathers around Jesus appear to have originally been disciples of John, or known to those folks. The larger pattern, of a witness to Jesus followed by his revelation of the Father, is the leitmotif of this community. In contrast to the Synoptics, in which the disciples are imitators of Jesus in preaching, teaching, and healing, these disciples are witnesses in a chain that goes back to John, the pre-eminent witness of Jesus.
What sort of behaviors are expected of this community? They are pre-eminently witnesses of Jesus, but the nature of this witness is neither limited to, nor primarily, verbal. Instead, it is in their care for each other that their witness will be shown to best light (13:35).
What does this community expect in the future? With the introduction of the way that John uses the expression Son of Man, it becomes clearer why the Fourth Gospel is said to have a realized eschatology, that is, an understanding that the benefits of the End Times are available now. The emphasis is on what the Son of Man does now, not what will happen in the future. That is not to say that there is no indication of future events, such as the resurrection, but as we will see the time for responding to the witness of Jesus is now, and the rewards for so doing also begin now.