Commentary on John 1:29-42
The bridge from the prologue to the action of John’s Gospel is manifested in the human witness sent from God named John.
John the Baptist, introduced so strongly as the human witness sent from God (1:6-9, 15), opens the narrative as the first character in the story with dialogical force; that is, he is the first human character to speak, and in his initial dialogue he takes control and begins to teach the how of the good news.
Since the narrator has placed the audience’s trust in John, this character, upon launching the story, becomes the one character who witnesses accurately to the Word made flesh, just as he was sent to do. He may not know everything about Jesus’ mission, but to what he does testify is true, thereby providing audiences the grounds to form decisions about the characters in the narrative, and about their own believing in the Word. Ultimately, John points two disciples to “the Lamb of God,” and the spotlight of the narrative follows his verbal index finger to land upon Jesus, where it will shine from then on. For his part, Jesus takes the (likewise verbal) baton of control of the dialogical testimony and (to push a metaphor to its limit) runs with it!
John 1:19-51 occurs over four consecutive days. During the first two days and the beginning of the third day, John gives his testimony; the detail of which parallels the pattern set forth in verses 6-8. On day one John declares he is not the light (verses 19-28), on day two he witnesses positively to the light (verses 29-34), and on day three people begin to believe through him (verses 35-36). As the day progresses, the two disciples John points on are welcomed by Jesus and bring Simon Peter in (verses 35-42). In their excitement, they all address Jesus with a variety of titles. As day four commences, Philip and Nathanael join the group (verses 43-51). They continue to heap praise upon Jesus by using titles of honor, and yet they remain within well-known categories of authority. These opening days culminate as Jesus responds to Nathanael with his first major teaching through which he cautions against a cheap faith based in being “wowed” (verse 50), then identifies the title which designates his ministry: the Son of Man (verse 51).
The beginning of the body of John’s Gospel is thus delineated by temporal markers that push the story forward through a flurry of activity (verses 29, 35, 43; then John 2:1: “on the third day”). This structuring is often interpreted as the week of a new creation, which could very well be part of the evangelist’s plan, especially with the imagery from Genesis apparent across both the prologue and these first days (John 1:1-5). A primary motif of these early verses that plays throughout this gospel, however, is also revelation. Jesus, the incarnate Word, Christ, and Son of God makes God known (literally “exegetes” God; 1:18). He then gradually begins to reveal himself across these early days, culminating in the initial revelation of his glory at Cana that sparks believing for his disciples (2:1-12, esp. verse 11). Covenantal imagery is also introduced in the prologue and manifests across these early days (see esp. 1:12-18) that seems to coalesce with revelation. So, what is going on here?
If a cue is taken from Exodus 19:15-16, then the first four days plus the three-day narrative gap does not only point to creation but also directly references the revelation of God on Mt. Sinai that climaxes in God’s covenant with Israel. The Mekilta on Exodus is a work from later Jewish Rabbis that presents explicit instructions on how the people are to spend four days preparing prior to the three days of preparation for the ancient celebration of the festival of Pentecost, the commemoration of the gift of the Torah and the covenant-making event at Sinai. The first three days show John the Baptist living out everything claimed about him in the prologue; he thus accurately portrays his own role and points to Jesus as the Lamb of God. The gathering disciples then begin to heap titles onto Jesus, but none go far enough—they all remain in the religious and political categories within which the disciples are comfortable. Jesus constantly shatters comfortable categories and the titles that go with them. Thus, at the end of day four, Jesus rebuffs Nathanael and prepares them all for the revelatory process to come in terms of his own role as the Son of Man (verse 51) who reveals God’s glory in himself (John 2:1-12) in the same way that God revealed his glory through the Torah (the word of God) in the Sinai covenant (Exodus 19-20).
The tension sparked by the word of Jesus creates dramatic interactions through dialogue that actively moves his story forward toward its fulfillment on the cross that glorifies both God and the Son and produces a new community of God’s children who have received the Word. Just as the festival of Pentecost celebrates the revelation of God in the Sinai covenant, now Jesus, Christ and Son of God as the Son of Man, reveals God to all he encounters. He shares in the divinity of God, yet he has taken on the human condition completely: Jesus is the uniquely begotten Son of God who fulfills God’s earlier gift of the Law to Moses through the new gift of himself in truth. He is the Lamb of God who heals the broken, sinful relationship between God and humankind (thereby completing the role of the Torah), and the Son of Man who reveals God in the human story by challenging disciples and audiences of all time to “come and see” (John 1:39).
- That said, John is not referred to as “the Baptist” in this Gospel, as his role is to be “the witness” who testifies to God’s action in and through Jesus (1:6-9, 15).