Commentary on John 1:43-51
In Lectionary Year B many of the texts are from the Gospel of Mark. However, on this Second Sunday after Epiphany, we are suddenly blind-sided with a text from the Gospel of John.
This will happen frequently during this year so we need to spend a few moments to reflect on the surrounding context where this text appears in the Gospel of John. This is a marvelous text to proclaim in this season of Epiphany.
The Gospel of John opens with the familiar Prologue (1:1-18), which is followed in chapter one with four texts: (1) John’s witness to the Christ (1:19-28); (2) the first “next day” text identifying titles of Jesus by John (1:29-34); (3) the second “next day” text with the invitation and promise of Jesus (1:35-42); (4) the third “next day” text with the invitations of Jesus to Philip and Nathanael and the promise of the Son of Man (1:43-51).
Our text for the Second Sunday after Epiphany is the third “next day” text 1:43-51. This sequence of texts is significant for, following the Prologue, we continue to note identities of who Jesus is as the one who will be revealed throughout the Gospel of John. Prior to our text, Jesus is confessed as “The Lamb of God” (1:29, 36); “This is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (1:33); “This is the Son of God” (1:34); and, “Rabbi” (1:38).
Following John’s confession of Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God” (1:36), the first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John are a question not only to the first followers but to every reader or hearer of the Gospel of John: “What are you looking for?” (1:38). This question will be responded to throughout the Gospel as Jesus is revealed to us as the one we are looking for. Jesus’ invitation and promise follows: “Come and you will see!” (1:39). In John’s Gospel these words of invitation (“come“) and promise (“you will see“) are spoken not only to the first followers but to everyone who hears these words. With this background in mind, we approach our text which continues the revelation of Jesus’ identity.
Our text begins in Galilee with Jesus inviting Philip with the familiar discipleship invitation: “Follow me” (1:43). A connecting link to other disciples is the note about Philip who is from the city of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter (1:44). Philip in turn finds Nathanael, who confesses to him who Jesus is, and links Jesus to representatives of the law and the prophets: “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45).
The identity of Jesus not only fulfills the expectation of the Hebrew scriptures, but he is also the son of his earthly father, Joseph, from the city of Nazareth in Galilee. The reference to Nazareth in the hill country brings forth Nathanael’s questioning response: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip seemingly dismisses Nathanael’s assessment of Nazareth’s lack of importance with the invitation, “Come and see” (1:46).
The story line continues with Jesus identifying Nathanael: “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (1:47). Nathanael is a person without guile; his words speak the truth. The exchange between the two now takes place with Nathanael perplexed about Jesus’ knowledge of him: “Where did you get to know me?” To which Jesus responds, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (1:48). An interesting note about the fig tree reference is that it traditionally denotes a place associated where Rabbis study the Torah. As a rabbinical teacher himself, did Jesus intend his response to reflect this?
However we try to puzzle on this, as does Nathanael, it really doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the confession of Nathanael that follows: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (1:49). As noted in the previous verse, Jesus is not only addressed as a rabbi by Nathanael but is a rabbinic scholar of the Torah. To his identity as a rabbinic teacher, Nathanael confesses Jesus to be the Son of God, the same confession of John: “I myself have seen and have testified, ‘This is the Son of God'” (1:34). Nathanael’s confession continues as he identifies Jesus as the King of Israel. Jesus will be identified in the passion narrative as the King of the Jews by Pilate and the title he places on the cross.
Jesus returns to the fig tree identity and disarms any thought about his recognition of Nathanael under the fig tree with the promise that even greater things will be revealed: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these” (1:50). These words of promise are only spoken to Nathanael as denoted by the singular “you.” I mention this because the English translation of the Greek pronoun does not distinguish between the singular and the plural “you.”
The final verse brings to completion the invitation and promise of the first words of Jesus in the Gospel of John as we noted in the beginning of this study. Now the words of this verse are spoken to include you and all readers of this Gospel: “Very truly, I tell you (plural), you (plural) will see the heavens open, and the messengers of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (1:51). This is the promise of the Gospel of John for all! The ascending and descending ladder recalls Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:10-17, and the naming of the place, “Bethel,” the house of God.
Jesus is the place where God dwells. Jesus is the Son of Man who will be lifted up (3:14; 8:23; 12:32-34) on the cross. The cross is the new “Bethel” (Gen. 28:12, 17, 19) where Christ completes the work of the Father: “It is accomplished/completed/finished” (19:30).
These opening verses of the Gospel of John lead us into the fulfilling promise of “Come and you will see” (1:39) throughout the Gospel of John and to Jesus’ death and resurrection.