Commentary on John 1:43-51
The gospel reading for the second Sunday after the Epiphany is always taken from John: 1:29-42 (Year A); 1:43-51 (Year B); 2:1-11 (Year C).
In each year the Johannine text is a brief “interruption” in the series of Epiphany gospel lessons that are otherwise taken from Matthew, Mark, or Luke.
To their credit, these texts from John match up nicely with the theme of Epiphany. All three have something to do with the revelation of Jesus to Israel and the world. In year A, John the Baptist came in order that Jesus “might be revealed to Israel” (1:31). In year C, Jesus’ miracle at Cana “revealed his glory” and consequently, “his disciples believed in him” (2:11). As for our present text, in year B, we get a hint of the glory of Jesus, later to be revealed in the resurrection, when Nathanael is told he will “see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (1:51).
Reading the Text
Today’s text is not an easy one. There are many puzzling things about it. After reading it through, even many times, one might well wonder: What is the point? It raises many questions. Why does John say that Jesus “found” Philip? Did Jesus already know him? (Some scholars have proposed that Philip is the second, unnamed disciple in 1:35-40, but that is by no means certain.) Who is this Nathanael, who does not appear in any of the other gospels? Why his put-down of Nazareth? What is the meaning of the fig tree, if any? What is the significance of Nathanael being “truly an Israelite?” What exactly is the meaning of 1:51?
When one tries to understand a section of John’s gospel, it is often helpful to look first for connections to other parts of the gospel. We begin with the enigmatic 1:51. Scholars have argued that this verse contains an originally independent saying. The evidence is that, where Jesus supposedly addresses Nathanael (“he said to him“), his actual saying is addressed to a group: “You [plural] will see….” Furthermore, we find a similar saying in Jesus’ declaration at his trial, “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven'” (Mark 14:62). The original setting for this independent saying in John 1:51, then, was in reference to Jesus’ resurrection and parousia.
Examining the saying further, the image of angels ascending and descending draws on Genesis 28:12, where Jacob dreams of angels ascending and descending on a ladder. Scholars have pointed to various rabbinic traditions about Jacob’s dream to help interpret this imagery. On the basis of those traditions, Raymond E. Brown has argued the main point is that Jesus, as the Son of Man, is the locus of divine glory. He is the one who connects heaven and earth.1 The Son of Man functions in this capacity throughout the gospel. Jesus acts on earth as the (already) glorified Son of Man (cf. 3:13; 5:21, 26-27).2
This saying, then, functions as a climax.. If it was originally an independent tradition, John’s placing it here yields insight into the point of the pericope as a whole. The ultimate outcome of the calling of the various disciples is that they will see Jesus’ glory, above all the glory of his resurrection. In the immediately preceding verse (1:50), Jesus tells Nathanael he “will see greater things than these,” a reference not only to Jesus’ miracles (5:20) but also to the resurrection and its consequences (cf. 14:12). Nathanael, in the only other mention of him in the gospel, will indeed see Jesus resurrected (21:2).
Jesus’ words invite Nathanael to a deeper faith. Note that Nathanael begins with skepticism: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (1:46). At first, Nathanael is like the skeptics who do not believe Jesus can be the Messiah because he comes from Galilee (cf. 7:40-41). Nazareth was a little known Galilean village, and Nathanael, from a different Galilean village (Cana), despises Nazareth. For Nathanael, to suggest that the Messiah comes from this small town is ridiculous. But Nathanael has fallen prey to the offense of the incarnation: God chooses to come to us through the lowly and the despised. Philip then invites Nathanael to “come and see.” As one commentator has put it, “the answer to the offense of the incarnation is Jesus himself.”3
Nathanael accepts the invitation, and after witnessing Jesus’ powers of perception, he believes Jesus is the “Son of God and the King of Israel.” Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see greater things than these (his powers of perception). This exchange points to the ambiguous relationship between faith and sight in John’s gospel. On the one hand, John recognizes the usefulness of signs for faith (e.g., 2:11; 20:31). Nathanael is promised greater signs, which will lead to deeper faith, certainly a desirable outcome. Yet on the other hand, John seems to regard faith without signs as superior to faith with signs (4:48; 20:29). This paradox is not so much contradiction as it is profound theological insight: the revelation of Jesus’ glory within history (in his signs and wonders) points beyond itself to Jesus’ glory that transcends history, in the resurrection. Belief in the resurrection is the ultimate form of faith. Although signs and historical witnesses can assist belief in the resurrection, such belief ultimately must stand on its own, rooted in the conviction that “the Father raises the dead and gives them life” (5:21).
A sermon on this pericope might reflect upon on faith, skepticism, and how people today might be brought to faith. Philip invites Nathanael to “come and see.” Nathanael is skeptical at the start. His initial attitude towards Jesus is based on his preconceptions and his contempt for Nazareth, from which he thinks nothing good can come. However, his actual experience of Jesus changes his mind.
Needless to say, there are many skeptics today. There are also people who find Jesus an interesting person and may even privately admire him, but who reject Christian faith in its entirety. How can the church convince today’s skeptics?
In some cases, people have been blinded by their preconceptions about the church, just as Nathanael was blinded by his preconceptions about Nazareth. What they have heard or seen about the church−from a distance−convinces them that the church is a bad thing. Sometimes these preconceptions are unfair. People prejudge the church without actually getting to know it. But the church must also ask itself whether it has failed to offer people reasons why they should “come and see.” Does the church thoughtfully offer people a coherent vision for life? Or does it offer a mixture of entertainment, pop psychology, and superficial spirituality that satisfies in the short term but leaves people empty, when the difficult questions and problems of life arise? If we are convinced that Christian faith holds the truth about human life, then we must, in all earnestness, show people how that truth makes sense and is embodied in our own lives, both as individuals and as communities.
For many of us, it is the example of our parents, other family members or friends, who in their own lives, presented a coherent witness to the faith that convinced us of the truth of Christian faith. John reminds us that it is not only marvelous signs that lead to faith. Jesus prayed that his disciples might be one, so that the world might believe (17:21). Thus faith also comes about when people see communities−families, churches, and even larger communities−living out, in unity, the truth of the gospel and offering people a coherent vision for life.
1Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (2 volumes; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966-70) 1.90-91.
2For an excellent discussion of this motif see J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (3rd ed.; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003) 124-43.
3George R. Beasley-Murray, John (WBC 36; Waco: Word Books, 1987) 27. For this passage as expressing the offense of the incarnation, see also Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (tr. G. R. Beasley-Murray; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971) 104.