Commentary on John 1:35-51
Sometimes we see a movie that wows us and we rush to tell others about it.
We want them to go see it for themselves so they may share the experience we had. This is what happens in John 1:35-51.
One disciple after another encounters Jesus and has a transformative experience that leads him to tell others, so they too will “come and see” this man from Galilee and be changed by that experience. In John, the way the community of disciples grows is more like the “sleeper hit” whose box office success results from “word of mouth” than from a well-funded advertising blitz.
While standing with two of his own disciples, John the Baptist sees Jesus walk by and signals him out as “the Lamb of God.” Because of John’s testimony in 1:29-34, the reader knows something about what this entails. But John’s disciples, absent the previous day, do not. So they leave John and “follow” Jesus to find out for themselves who Jesus is.
True to the Fourth Gospel’s penchant for using simple language that works on two levels, to “follow” connotes more than a literal walking after Jesus.1 It functions as a technical term for discipleship (8:12; 10:4, 27; 12:26; 13:36; 21:19, 22) and anticipates that their movement of leaving John to “follow” Jesus means they will cease being John’s disciples and become disciples of Jesus (cf. Matthew 4:22; Mark 1:18; Luke 5:11). This “decrease” in the amount of his own followers is a mark of John’s success as witness, not of his failure as preacher (cf. John 3:30).
Jesus asks these two disciples a deceptively simple question: “What are you looking for?” At one level, the question asks why they are walking after him. But fundamentally, this is the existential question asked of any potential disciple: What do you seek when you come to follow Jesus?2
Their response also works on two levels. Ostensibly, they want to know where Jesus is staying because it is getting late in the day and they too need a place to stay. But since the Greek word translated as “stay” is menô, a term that in Johannine vocabulary signifies a permanent remaining or abiding (e.g., 12:46; 14:17; 15:9), their question essentially asks where Jesus does permanently abide, reflecting the innate desire of any disciple is to be in Jesus’ presence always.
The two disciples do not know this yet, but ultimately the place where Jesus resides is with his disciples, as he says in the Farewell Discourse (14:23; 15:4). In the meantime, Jesus invites them to “come and see,” an invitation that at one level means to go and look at where he is staying but at a deeper level is an invitation to approach Jesus with the openness to see him through the eyes of faith.3
Spending time with Jesus transforms them, as seen in the change in titles they use to refer to him. At first they call him “rabbi,” a title of respect to be sure. But when the disciple identified as Andrew speaks of Jesus in verse 41, he refers to him by the more significant title of “Messiah.”
This is one of only two places in the New Testament (the other is in John 4:25) where the Hebrew word is transliterated in the Greek as Messias (hence John includes a note that in Greek the term means Christos, the name and title of Jesus more familiar to John’s early Christian readers). Use of the Hebrew emphasizes that Andrew has come to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations.4
They have to tell others about this. Others must “come and see” what they have seen, so Andrew tells Peter and brings him to Jesus. Just as their experience of Jesus changes the first two disciples from mere followers to devotees, Peter’s experience with Jesus leads to a transformation of his identity, from Simon to Cephas/Peter, a name based on the word for “rock” (kepha in Aramaic; petra in Greek).
John’s version of Peter’s name-change omits any indication that it has to do with Peter being the “rock” of the church, as is the case in Matthew 16:17-18. Moreover, in the Synoptics it is Peter who identifies Jesus as the messiah, marking a crucial turning point in the relationship between Jesus and the disciples (Matthew 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-20).
In John, both Peter’s name-change and the disciples’ identification of Jesus as messiah occur at the beginning of their time with Jesus, and it is not Peter but Andrew who calls Jesus messiah (in fact, Peter has no dialogue in verses 40-42). In light of these differences, John’s conception of discipleship comes across as much less hierarchical.5 There is no one “rock” of the church among its members. Instead, discipleship entails a shared responsibility among the members of the community to bring others to Jesus and speak the truth about him.
The pattern that occurs the next day is similar. Jesus speaks first to the potential disciple, Philip, whose response of accepting Jesus’ invitation to “follow” him entails finding another potential disciple of Jesus, Nathanael.
Nathanael is skeptical, however. The difficulty for Nathanael is less that someone who fulfills the messianic expectations set by the Jewish Scriptures has emerged than it is that this person is the “son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nothing is said in the Scriptures about the messiah’s origins in the humble Galilean village of Nazareth.6
Bethlehem would be a more appropriate place for his origins (Micah 5:2), as the synoptic infancy narratives maintain. The Gospel of John says nothing of Jesus’ ties to Bethlehem because in the theology of the Fourth Gospel, neither Nazareth nor Bethlehem speaks to Jesus’ true origins, which is with God in heaven (1:1, 14).
When they meet, Jesus lauds Nathanael as “truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” because Nathanael had accepted the invitation to “come and see” without letting his own initial prejudice get in the way of seeking Jesus.7 This sets Nathanael apart from other descendants of Jacob — the patriarch also named “Israel” who was famous for his deceitfulness (Genesis 27:35) — who deny the possibility of seeing Jesus as the Messiah because he does not meet their preconceived expectations of who the Messiah is supposed to be.
Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus transforms him from skeptic to believer. While the reader of John’s Gospel knows that Jesus is not really the son of Joseph but the Son of God (1:14, 18, 34), Nathanael’s experience of Jesus’ foreknowledge and piercing ability to know him convinces Nathanael that Jesus is more than the son of a man from Nazareth, as Philip had told him. He has seen Jesus for himself, rather than take Philip’s word for it, and Jesus has wowed him.
By proclaiming Jesus “Son of God” and “King of Israel,” Nathanael confesses that Jesus truly comes from God and is Son of God, not son of Joseph from Nazareth, and that Jesus is the messianic king foretold by the Scriptures of Israel (see Psalm 2:6-7 for one passage that presents God identifying the king of Israel as “my son”).8 He also calls Jesus “rabbi,” encapsulating the experience of the earlier disciples who began with a lesser title for Jesus before coming to view the greater significance of his identity.
Jesus’ response to Nathanael’s confession might read like a rebuke, but it is more like a trailer for more wondrous experiences ahead. Though the disciples have already had transformative experiences of Jesus, Jesus’ glory will not be revealed to them until the wedding at Cana (2:11), and his most impressive feat — his resurrection — is yet to come.9 Jesus’ closing statement in verse 51 is addressed to all disciples, both in the narrative and among John’s readers (the “you” is plural).10 John 1:51 uses the image of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:12) to interpret Jesus as the Son of Man who serves as the link between heaven and earth (see also John 3:13; 6:62).
Jesus’ prediction that his disciples will see God’s angels ascending and descending on him is never literally fulfilled in the narrative of the Gospel.11 To those of us who ask when we will have such an awesome experience of the divine in the world, the logic of 1:35-51 provides a simple answer: “come and see.”
One of the disciples receiving this invitation in verse 39 is never named. He represents us, John’s readers who, like the named disciples in this passage, are invited to see for ourselves how the divine may surprise us, transform us, and upend the prejudices and categories with which we expect to encounter God in the world.
1. On the “two levels” operating in the narration of Jesus’ encounter with these first disciples, see Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (2 vols.; Anchor Bible 29-29A), 1:78-79; R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John (Interpreting Biblical Texts; Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 121-22; Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in vol. 9 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (ed. Leander E. Keck et al.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 530-31.
2. Brown, John, 1:78; O’Day, “John,” 531.
3. Brown, John, 1:79; O’Day, “John,” 531.
4. D. Moody Smith, John (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries; Nashville, Abingdon, 1999), 73.
5. O’Day, “John,” 531.
6. On the problem Jesus’ Galilean origins pose for Nathanael, see Smith, John, 75.
7. Brown, John, 1:86-87; O’Day, “John,” 532.
8. Brown, John, 1:87-88; Smith, John, 76-77.
9. Brown, John, 1:88.
10. Smith, John, 77; O’Day, “John,” 532.
11. Smith, John, 77.
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! ELW 308, UMH 247, NCH 158
How bright appears the morning star H82 496, 497
All who believe and are baptized ELW 442, H82 298
O Morning Star, how fair and bright, Hugo Distler