Commentary on John 1:35-51
In the previous week’s Gospel, we heard the story of how John the Baptist comes to recognise who Jesus is as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). Now John the evangelist goes on to narrate the story of the gathering of Jesus’ first disciples.
John’s story is different from the way Mark speaks about the first disciples in their initial encounter with Jesus. In Mark’s account, Jesus walks along the lakeside in Galilee and calls the first four fishermen: Peter and Andrew, James and John. At once they leave their nets and follow him (Mark 1:16-20).
In John’s Gospel the focus is not on Galilee beside the sea but on Judea where John the Baptist is baptizing. It is more a “gathering” than a calling, with the exception of Philip who is directly called by Jesus in the Synoptic style: “follow me!” (1:43). In most cases, the first disciples come together around the Johannine Jesus by the witness of one person to another, beginning with John the Baptist who bears witness to Jesus. Indeed, it turns out that Jesus’ first two disciples are originally disciples of the Baptist.
Bearing witness occurs three times throughout this story. The Baptist bears witness to the first two disciples: Andrew and the unnamed disciple. Andrew then bears witness to his brother, Peter (1:41-42). And finally Philip bears witness to Nathanael (1:45). We will discover the same theme again in John’s Gospel. The great witness to the Gospel is in fact the beloved disciple in the writing of the Gospel itself (21:24). He may well be that unnamed disciple of our story who is first a disciple of John the Baptist.
Though this is a story about male disciples, in the future women disciples too will witness to Jesus. The Samaritan woman bears witness to her fellow-villagers (4:28-30), thus bringing them to faith (4:39-42). Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the resurrection and proclaims the Easter message to the other disciples (“I have seen the Lord!” 20:18), though she is, by implication, not actually believed.
Bearing witness is part of what it means to be the Church. To witness to Jesus is always with the invitation to “come and see” (1:39, 46), without use of force or threats or manipulation. It is an open and gracious encouragement to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). We might well ask what it means for us to bear witness to Jesus in our community, in both words and deeds.
There is also a profound spirituality and theology that emerge from this narrative. The dialogue between Jesus and the first two disciples needs to be read on two levels: the ordinary, everyday level and the deeper, symbolic or spiritual level. The two follow Jesus in response to the Baptist’s testimony and Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” (1:38). That is a good question indeed: what is it we are looking for in our lives, in our faith? What are our deepest longings?
The two then go with Jesus to his home, where he is “staying.” That word also means “abide” (1:39). It would be heavy-handed to translate it as “abiding” here, but this is the first hint of a theme that will become important through the Gospel: that discipleship is first and foremost about abiding in Jesus, just as he abides with the Father (6:56; 15:1-11). That abiding represents a mutual relationship: we make him our resting place and he comes to abide also with us (14:23).
Note also the theme of revelation, which is connected to the same spirituality. When Jesus sees Peter, he at once recognises him and both names and re-names him: “you are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (1:42). He already knows who Peter is and he knows what Peter is called to be in the new community of his disciples. For all his faults and mistaken turnings, Peter will be a leader in the church, a rock for the faith of others, and through Jesus’ forgiveness will in turn become a martyr, bearing witness to his Lord through his death (21:18-19).
We find a similar pattern with Nathanael. He is something of a character, rather cynical at first and grudging in his response to Philip (1:46) but without hidden malice: what you see is what you get with Nathanael! And his cynicism has some basis: after all, there are no prophecies of the Messiah coming from Galilee, are there? But Jesus sees him and at once knows him, recognising his true character: “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (1:47).
Just as John the Baptist is a Jew whose faith shines forth from within Israel, so Nathanael is a true son of Israel in his goodness. Later John will remind us that “salvation is from the Jews” (4:22). There is no basis for an anti-Jewish or anti-semitic reading of this Gospel!
Jesus, in other words, reveals Nathanael to himself, just as he reveals Peter to himself. Later John will tell us that Jesus “knew what was in everyone” (3:25). This is part of the revelation that he brings in John’s Gospel. The Johannine Jesus reveals us to ourselves, good as well as bad.
Not only that: Jesus also reveals himself to us. There is a series of titles for Jesus all through this narrative: Lamb of God (1:35), Messiah (1:41), the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote (1:45), Son of God, and King of Israel (1:49). As the disciples come to understand themselves in Jesus’ revelation, they also come to understand who he is.
Jesus gives himself the final, climactic title of the whole series: the “Son of Man” on whom angels will ascend and descend (1:51). This is most likely an apocalyptic title that has its origins in Daniel 7:13-14, which predicts the coming of the Son of Man who will be given divine authority and dominion over all things. It is a very high title indeed.
The verse also recalls Jacob’s experience at Bethel (Genesis 28:11-12) where he sees a ladder to heaven with angels going to and fro between earth and heaven. The Johannine Jesus is the ladder to heaven, the bridge between heaven and earth, the one who in his humanity and divinity connects us to God and to our true selves. What a theme for preaching, a reminder of the One who stands at the very heart of our faith, connecting us to God, to one another and to our true selves!
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of all people,
You called many by name, asking them to follow Jesus and obey. Call us by name, and help us to follow and obey. Amen.
O Morning Star, how fair and bright, Hugo Distler