Commentary on John 1:29-42
As we journey through ordinary time, our lectionary turns to passages that reveal who Jesus is and lead us into deeper discipleship. The text chosen for this week, John 1:29-42, makes some striking claims about who Jesus is and how his disciples, then and now, can relate to him.
The Gospel has already made clear that Jesus is pre-existent and one with God, in the prologue. But, it becomes clear, there is more to Jesus’ identity. In thirteen short verses we are told that the Spirit of God descended and remained upon Jesus and we are provided four titles for understanding Jesus’ identity: Lamb of God, Son of God, Rabbi, and Messiah.
John the Baptist makes the first two declarations of Jesus’ identity. The Gospel tells us that John the Baptist was questioned by the priests and Levites from Jerusalem regarding his identity: Is he the Messiah or Elijah or “the prophet”? John tells them he is not, but instead that he is the one preparing the way for “one who is coming after me” (1:26). When John sees Jesus the next day, he proclaims that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29) and the Son of God (1:34).
Lamb of God
“Lamb of God” evokes the Passover lamb from Exodus 12:1-13. There the Hebrew people living in Egypt are instructed to slaughter a lamb, put some of its blood on their doorposts, and eat the lamb. Those who do this will be spared the final plague of the death of the first born that God brings down on the Egyptian people. To be clear, this is not a sacrificial lamb, at least not in the same way that lambs sacrificed as sin offerings were.
Another reference point is Isaiah 53:1-12 in its description of the Suffering Servant who was “like a lamb that is led to slaughter” (53:7) and whose life was made “an offering for sin” (53:10). The gospel seems to be evoking both Exodus and Isaiah in its depiction of Jesus. Thus, Jesus is understood to protect God’s people, mark one as chosen by God, provide sustenance, and provide some sort of atonement for sin. Jesus, then, is an avenue for God’s intervention in the world on behalf of God’s people.
Son of God
John the Baptist witnesses that Jesus is the Son of God because he “saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on [Jesus]” (1:32). For the evangelist, this is incarnational language. It recalls the closing line of the prologue, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18b). To describe Jesus as the Son of God is to highlight his special relationship with God.
While others have also been said to have been sons of God (for example, Israel in Exodus 4:22-23 and Deuteronomy 14:1, among other texts), the prologue adds nuance: The Son of God is God. The evangelist further implies this equality with God at 5:19, 10:30, and 14:7 as well as through Jesus’ various uses of the formulaic statement of divine revelation “I am.” The Gospel seems to be saying, then, that Jesus is not only an agent through whom God is acting in the world, but is literally God acting in the world.
That these confessions come from John the Baptist is important as the first two followers of Jesus (1:35-37) are initially disciples of John. When John, again, refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God (1:36), the two disciples, one of whom is Andrew the brother of Peter, both begin following Jesus. These disciples call Jesus Rabbi and the Messiah.
Jesus’ first words in the Gospel are a question asked of John’s disciples: “What do you want?” The two disciples (unnamed at this point) reply with a question of their own, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” On the surface this might appear to be a disjointed conversation. Jesus asks a question that could be taken a myriad of ways and the disciples’ response is a question that is, on the surface, not in any way related to Jesus’ question. However, when one understands that Rabbi means teacher (which the evangelist kindly spells out), then it becomes a bit more obvious what the disciples mean; they want to learn from Jesus.
Jesus invites them to “come and see,” an invitation that Jesus will make in various ways to many people throughout the Gospel. As a rabbi, a teacher, Jesus does not just speak (although he certainly does plenty of that in John), he invites disciples into participation.
The fourth title for Jesus in this passage is Messiah. This revelation by a disciple occurs early in John (compare to Peter in Matthew 16:16, Mark 8:29, and Luke 9:20). Further, it is not Peter who makes the confession, but Andrew, his brother. Andrew tells Peter, “We have found the Messiah” (1:41) which seems to be enough for Peter to come to Jesus.
As the evangelist helpfully reminds us, “messiah” is a Hebrew word meaning anointed (by God). In the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, kings, high priests, and (possibly) some prophets were anointed. Over time, especially during and after the Babylonian captivity, some Jewish folk began anticipating a future messiah that would be an heir to King David and fulfill God’s promises to Israel. The evangelist picks up on these hopes in their depiction of Jesus.
An invitation into participation
What is particularly poignant to me about this passage is that these markers of Jesus’ identity are not used to elevate him above everyone else, making him unapproachable. Instead, Jesus invites his new disciples into participation with him. He invites them to follow him further to discover what they seek to know. The rest of the gospel provides us with deeper insights into Jesus’ identity if only we will “come and see.”