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FREE Scholarly verse by verse commentaries on the Bible.



By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

John the Baptiser’s Testimony to Jesus and the Calling of Disciples (1.19-51).

The portrayal of John the Baptiser by the writer is in interesting contrast to the John the Baptiser portrayed in the other Gospels. But an examination of the text soon brings out that this difference is mainly one of emphasis. It is soon apparent that, unlike the other writers this author is not concerned to describe the ministry of John per se, but rather to place all the emphasis on John as a witness to Jesus. Indeed the passage begins with the phrase, ‘and this is the witness of John’ (1.19). He does not contradict Matthew and Luke, he supplements them. Even the approach of the Jewish leaders questioning him about whom he was claiming to be, and the significance of his baptism, leads up to John’s testimony concerning Jesus.

It should also be noted that this witness of John was very much based on Jewish ideas. He states that he is not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet. He is rather the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, cited in terms of Isaiah 40.3. He is ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’ (just as the Qumran covenanters saw themselves in similar terms). His baptism is a pointer to the fact that the Coming One, Who is to be ‘made manifest to Israel’ (1.31), will pour out the Holy Spirit on (‘drench with the Holy Spirit’) His followers (1.33) in accordance with such Old Testament promises as Isaiah 32.15; 44.1-5. And when John the Baptiser finds terms to use to describe Jesus it is as ‘the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world’ (1.29) and ‘the drencher with Holy Spirit’ (1.33) and ‘the Son of God’ (1.34). Even John’s disciples see Jesus in terms of ‘the Messiah’, ‘the Son of God’, ‘the king of Israel’, the One ‘of Whom the Torah and the Prophets wrote’ (1.41, 45, 49). And Nathaniel is seen to have been meditating on what was very much an Old Testament story. Apart from Son of God there is no trace of the language found in 1.1-18, demonstrating how careful the writer was to actually reproduce what John taught.

What should further be noted is that what we learn of John here is very much, although indirectly, supported by what we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls, including the excitement of the approach of ‘the end times’ (the days of the Messiah(s)), the anticipated coming of ‘the Prophet’, and the application of Isaiah 40.3 to a current situation, in their case to their own situation. They too saw themselves as ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’.

It has often been asked what connection John the Baptiser had with the desert communities like Qumran, and the answer can only be that we do not know. But certainly he must have met with people connected with such communities and have learned something of what they taught, and some have even considered the possibility that he was brought up in one such community. But however that may be John is clearly unique and independent in his thinking. The only community that he calls on men to respond to is the coming of the Kingly Rule of God, and his requirement is that they be baptised once for all as a foretaste of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Thus he is both exclusive and inclusive. But there is no hint that he is forming a new sect.

John the Baptiser’s Testimony to Jesus (John 1.19 - 34).

As a popular and influential preacher it was always a certainty that at some stage John the Baptiser would come under the scrutiny of the Jewish leaders (‘the Jews’, or ‘Judaisers’), for it was a solemn responsibility of the priesthood to test out all who put themselves forward as prophets, and the Rabbis (Scribes) saw it as their own personal responsibility. We should note here that in John’s Gospel the term ‘the Jews’ does not refer to all Jews but usually to the Jewish religious authorities, such as the Sadducees and to the more conservative of the Pharisees, and especially to those who were antagonistic to Jesus. Possibly it is therefore better translated ‘the Judaisers’. For all that we know of John confirms his enlightened Jewishness.

It was these Jewish leaders who sent selected Priests and Levites (temple servants) to interview John. It was the responsibility of the Priests to check out anyone who was making special claims and they wanted to know what claims he was making for himself (v.19). They knew that he was baptising people in the River Jordan and this suggested to them that he was claiming some special authority.

1.19 ‘And this is the witness of John when the Judaisers sent priests and Levites to him from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”

There were many ideas around at this time as to whom God would send to help His people. Some expected the return in bodily form of Elijah the Prophet himself (Malachi 4.5), remembering that he had never died but had been taken up by God alive (2 Kings 1.11), others expected a uniquely great prophet ‘like Moses’ (Deuteronomy 18.15), others expected a Messiah (in Greek ‘Christos’ - ‘anointed one’) - or even more than one Messiah - who would, by God’s power, deliver Israel, a deliverance usually thought of as happening by raising up an army from among the Jews. Thus they wanted to know exactly what John’s claim was.

‘The Judaisers.’ In this case the Pharisees (verse 24). They sent Priests and Levites of their number because these would be seen as having special authority, for the priests were officially guardians and teachers of the truth. The Levites were Temple servants. The Pharisees would have had a special interest in his act of baptising (drenching) in water those who responded to his teaching, for they too practised many kinds of washings. But nothing of an initiatory flavour like John’s (unless we count the bathing required of proselytes. That, however, was self-administered and intended to remove the uncleanness of the Gentile world to which they had belonged).

1.20 ‘And he confessed and denied not, and he confessed, “I am not the Christ (Messiah)”. And they asked him, “What then. Are you Elijah?”, and he says, “I am not”. “Are you the prophet?”, and he answers, “No”.’

John immediately discounted any of these ideas. First he discounted the idea that he was the Messiah (v.20). The ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ means ‘anointed one’. The idea behind the term was mainly of a Davidic king empowered by God who would come and intervene on behalf of God’s people, freeing them from tyranny, especially that of the Romans, usually by force of arms. (Kings of Israel and Judah were ‘anointed’ with oil when they were crowned). Others saw him as coming as a great teacher who would win the hearts of men to follow what they themselves believed in. ‘The prophet’ was in anticipation of a fulfilment of Deuteronomy 18.18. It was a general expectancy of the time, and is one we find very much in evidence at Qumran.

‘And he confessed and denied not’. John the Baptiser was true to his call to witness to Christ. He did not make great claims for himself but was speaking with the thought of pointing away from himself to the ‘coming One’. He did not deny the truth about himself.

Then, when asked if he was Elijah, he emphatically replied ‘No’. This was because he wanted them to know that he was not in fact the original Elijah returned in the flesh. He rated himself in lowly terms. Nevertheless Jesus would point out that while he was not literally Elijah, he was the fulfilment of the one promised by Malachi, one who was like Elijah (Matthew 11.14; 17.12). John also stressed that he was not the great expected prophet (v.21). It is clear from all this that he wanted them to realise that he was ‘nothing special’. Like all great men of God he did not have an exalted opinion of himself.

The threefold question demonstrates the wide range of views. They did not conceive how one person could fulfil all the promises. Note how John’s replies become shorter and shorter. He did not want men to look at him. He was not the Word, it was Jesus Who was the Word.

1.22-23 ‘They therefore said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?”. He said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness - ‘Make the way of the Lord straight’ - as Isaiah the prophet said”.’

On being pressed he connected himself with the words of Isaiah 40.3. He claimed not to be an important personage but only to be a voice, ‘the preparer of the way’, pointing to and making ready for the coming activity of God (v.23). Just as when great kings were making a journey men would go before them to straighten up the roads and make them passable, so John had come to prepare the way for another, by straightening up men’s lives and removing from them all the hindrances that had built up in them. This passage is applied to him in all four Gospels. Thus John is ‘the Voice’, the introducer, Jesus is ‘the Word’ the full revelation of God. (As mentioned above this same passage was cited by the Qumran community about themselves)

1.24 ‘And they had been sent from the Pharisees’.

The Pharisees were probably the most influential religious group in the eyes of the common people. They had originated from the Hasidim, the ‘separated ones’, who during the time of fierce religious persecution of the Jews a century or two earlier had stood firm for the Law (the Torah - ‘instruction’ - which was composed of the books of Moses, the first five books in the Bible), for circumcision and for the Sabbath, all of which had put them under sentences of death.

They were not a large group, possibly numbering around six or seven thousand, but having become convinced that the only hope for the future, and for eternal life, lay in complete fulfilment of the Law of Moses and obedience to the covenant, they had set about that task, and in order to do so hedged the Law around with hundreds of other interpretations of that Law which they sought to fulfil, many of which were not moral but ceremonial. Thus they lay great emphasis on ceremonial washings in various circumstances, at all times of the day, and in avoiding uncleanness, which included avoiding contact with those who did not follow their ceremonial ideas.

As always when men become ‘over-religious’ many of them became hypocritical, observing the outward requirements while failing in what mattered most, compassion and mercy. Many became censorious and ultra-critical, including, as was to be expected, many of their great teachers (later given the technical name of ‘the Rabbis’), although not all must be included within this criticism. It was against these ultra-critical Scribes and Pharisees that Jesus made His attacks, for they were the ones who followed Him around and sought to test Him out.

And it was because of their intense interest in religious matters that they had come to test out John, and as proponents of ceremonial washings they were especially interested in his baptism which they failed to understand.

It was of course right that they should want to ensure that he was a true prophet. That was the responsibility of the Jewish authorities. What was wrong was the attitude in which they did it.

1.25 ‘And they asked him and said to him, “Why then are you baptising if you are not the Christ, or Elijah, or the prophet?”

They were puzzled by his baptism. They recognised that it must have some great religious significance but it was one they did not understand. Nor were they sure where he felt he had obtained the authority to perform such a baptism. If he did not see himself as the expected Messiah, or as Elijah, or as the great Prophet, why was he baptising? They almost certainly saw his baptising as a special aspect of ceremonial washing, although recognising that it was once for all, and wanted to know his credentials for introducing such an idea. To bring about such a new approach he had to be someone of outstanding importance.

1.26-27 ‘John answered them, saying, “I baptise with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, even He who comes after me, the clasp of whose sandal I am unworthy to unloose”.’

His reply was that he was baptising with water in preparation for the coming of Another, someone who was already standing among them, and was yet unknown to them, someone so great that he, John, was not worthy to untie His sandals.

The writer does not bring out the significance of John’s baptism here, for he says little about the teaching of John, (although he does bring out its significance later in, for example, the visit of Nicodemus - chapter 3). He is aware that it is well known from elsewhere, and he leaves that to others and does not consider it necessary. But it is so important for the meaning behind the Gospel that we must consider it briefly.

John proclaimed a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1.4: Luke 3.3), and the connection between repentance from sin and his baptism is made clear by John himself. However, he also goes on to declare that his baptism is a precursor to the age of the Spirit (Mark 1.8; Matthew 3.11; Luke 3.15-16; John 1.30-34), and he specifically parallels his baptism with water with Jesus’ coming ‘baptism (drenching) with the Holy Spirit’. It is this fact which makes clear the significance of John’s baptism.

He constantly used harvest imagery. The Pharisees and Sadducees were like snakes fleeing from the burning cornfields (Matthew 3.7; Luke 3.7) and should rather ‘bear fruit’ (Matthew 3.8). The judgment is like the axe laid to the root of the trees that do not bear fruit (v.10). The One who is coming comes with a winnowing fork in His hands to gather the wheat into the granary and to cast the chaff into the fire (v.12). So all the time John has in mind pictures of fruitfulness and harvest, of the threshing floor and overflowing barns, and of the clearing of chaff and of ‘dead’ trees. This powerfully suggests that when he speaks of his baptism in the light of the coming of the Spirit he has in mind the pictures common in the Old Testament prophets of fruitfulness and blessing caused by the coming of the rains, which are constantly connected with the coming of the Spirit (Isaiah 44.3-6; 32.15-18; Joel 2.28-29 see also Isaiah 55.10-13; 59.19-21).

At that time, says the prophet Isaiah, the Spirit will be ‘poured out from above’, the land will flourish and the desert will become fruitful, and justice and righteousness, peace and confidence will abound (Isaiah 32.15-18). It is clear here that the pouring out of the Spirit includes the thought of the pouring out of rain producing fruitful harvests, although there is no doubting that it also includes a life changing activity in the hearts of men.

This is especially confirmed by Isaiah 44.4-5. “I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground. I will pour My Spirit upon your children, and my blessing upon your offspring”. The people will flourish “like the grass at the coming of the rainy season, like willows planted by flowing rivers”. Once again we have the life-giving rain, but here the pouring out of the Spirit is on the people, who will thus each say ‘I am the Lord’s’ (v.6). Compare Isaiah 35.6-7; 41.17-20; 55.10-13; 59.19-21; Joel 2.23-29; Ezekiel 34.26-27 which all see the future blessing in terms of rain pouring down, floods of water, abundant fruitfulness, and so on.

Most of us vaguely recognise the importance of rain to our lives but it is not seen as hugely important to many of us. However, that is because we do not benefit from it directly and find it uncomfortable to go out in. But to people who lived in a land where their very lives depended on the sequence of the rains it was very different. No rain meant famine and hardship, even starvation and death. Rain was the source of life, the life-giver, the greatest of all boons to man. All their festivals concentrated on the need for rain. So the prophetic words touched a deep chord in all their hearts.

John clearly had these Scriptures in mind when he preached, and it is surely beyond all doubt that this is what his baptism signified, the drenching with life-giving rain that produces fruitfulness and blessing. We can compare how Jesus must also surely have had these Scriptures in mind when He speaks of being ‘born from above’ (John 3.6). Thus John’s baptism is a picture of the coming of the life giving Spirit in terms of rain, and he is seeking to prepare the way for this by bringing the people to repentance from sin and baptising them as a symbol of what God is about to do on those who respond to Him. The idea is not of washing from sin but of the giving of life and the transformation of the heart. That was why he baptised with water. And it pointed ahead to, and prepared the way for, the coming outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Contrary to popular opinion there are no grounds for connecting John’s baptism with cleansing. The Old Testament washings never cleansed. They were only preparatory to cleansing, removing the earthiness prior to waiting before God ‘until the evening’. Furthermore the often cited full scale bath of the Gentile convert to Judaism was carried out by the person himself, not by someone who ministered to him. And it was simply part of the process by which he left the Gentile world behind. He was ridding himself of the stain of all his past offences against Jewish ritual cleanness. It could have no connection with what John was proclaiming. (Nor did the Pharisees see his baptism in that way. Had they thought that he was suggesting that ‘they’ needed to be purified from a past life of ‘uncleanness’ they would have protested vigorously, for they daily ‘cleansed’ themselves by various washings).

But the writer here is more concerned with the fact that John is a witness to Jesus, and his emphasis is more on ‘there stands One among you whom you do not know, even He who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie’. He wants it to be clear that John simply prepares the way for another, for ‘the Word of God’, Who is so far superior to him that he is not even fit to unfasten His sandals.

‘Whom you do not know.’ John could say elsewhere, ‘and I knew Him not’ (verse 31), so that these are not words of blame. But they are a warning to them to keep their eyes open and recognise Him when He comes. Their guilt lay in the fact that when they did see Him they still refused to recognise Him.

‘Even He who comes after me.’ Again John stresses that he is only the pointer of the way, pointing to a Greater yet to come. Yet behind his words lie the thrilling promise that ‘He is coming’.

‘The clasp of whose sandal I am unworthy to unloose.’ When men visited a home someone would unfasten their sandals, a job done by the meanest servants. John is here saying that Jesus will be so superior to him that he is not even worthy to be the meanest of servants to Jesus.

1.28 ‘These things were done in Bethany beyond Jordan where John was baptising’.

We are now told that this took place in ‘Bethany, beyond Jordan’ (v.28). The appellation is to distinguish the village from the better known Bethany, and indeed ‘Bethany beyond Jordan’ was so little known that it was soon changed in manuscripts to the better known Bethabara to indicate where it was. This is one indication of the familiarity of the author with Palestine. These things were rooted in history as the use of an insignificant place name confirms.

1.29 ‘On the morrow he sees Jesus coming to him and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.’

‘The morrow, the next day’. This whole passage links a number of events over a period of days. The writer, who was present and saw what took place, could never forget those never to be forgotten days when he first saw Jesus. And prominent among those memories was the way in which John the Baptiser, when he saw Jesus coming towards him, turned to the people and declared to them, Who Jesus was. ‘See’, he says, ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. Here John is connecting Jesus with the suffering servant and prophet spoken of in Isaiah 53, the lamb (amnos, as here) who was led to the slaughter, who was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities, and who bore our sins and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53.7 with verses 4 & 5 in context). He would suffer for the sins of his people, as He Himself would later confirm (Luke 22.37; Mark 10.45). By this time the Servant was seen by some as a Messianic figure. Thus the Targum of Jonathan speaks of a ‘Servant Messish’.

The writer will also often later centre on the Passover, and although he nowhere in fact mentions the Passover lamb, it is possible he also has the Passover lamb in mind when he refers to the Passover. Indeed it might be argued that it was because he saw Jesus as replacing the Passover lamb that he never mentions it. The Passover Lamb was Himself visiting Jerusalem. Certainly it is difficult to avoid the implication that the One Who died at the Passover was the Passover lamb (made explicit in 1 Corinthians 5.7). And while that lamb was initially not specifically propitiatory, it now had to be offered in the Temple through the priests, and therefore included propitiatory elements.

Nor should we overlook the daily sacrifice, which was propitiatory and was an important part of the Passover. But whatever was most directly in John’s mind it is clear that he was thinking in terms of a sacrificial offering. Thus he saw Jesus as One Who would in some way be a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and this could only link back to Isaiah 53.10, with its emphasis on the guilt offering, while indirectly including the Passover lamb and the daily offering.

It should be noted that in the Septuagint (LXX - an important Greek version of the Old Testament) the Passover lamb is not ‘amnos’ but ‘probaton’, however, LXX does see it as taken from among the ‘amnoi’ (e.g. Exodus 12.5), and the words are paralleled in Isaiah 53.7. (And John the Baptiser is thinking in Hebrew and Aramaic not Greek).

1.30 ‘This is He of whom I said, after me comes a man who is become before me, for He was before me.’

John the Baptiser now expands on what he has said. Here was the One for whom he was preparing the way, the One who ranked before him because of His inherent superiority and who by right of that superiority would take over.

‘Who is become before me’. Jesus has not yet emerged into the limelight, but John already recognises that The One Who is to come is classed as his superior and is placed ‘before him’ by inherent right. And this right lies in His total genuine superiority, and in His pre-existence - ‘for He was before me’.

1.31 ‘And I did not know Him, but that he would be revealed to Israel. This was why I came baptising with water.’

‘But that He would be revealed to Israel’. John had begun to preach knowing that ‘the coming One’ was to follow him, and would be made known to Israel, and that he himself was preparing the way. What he had not known was who He was nor how He would be revealed.

He admits that he had not realised at first who Jesus was, even though Jesus was his cousin, but he had come to recognises Jesus’ superiority to himself (Matthew 3.14), and he now stresses that he had come to realise at Jesus’ baptism that He was the One for Whom he was preparing, for he had seen the Holy Spirit descending and remaining on Him, and had realised from this that He was the One Who would drench (baptizo = drench, inundate) in the Holy Spirit as promised by the prophets.

This stresses the significance of John’s baptism. It was a message in picture form illustrating the future work of Jesus. In the Old Testament the coming of the Spirit in the new age is regularly depicted in terms of rain pouring from the heavens, of floods of water, and of new fruitfulness (e.g. Isaiah 32.15-18; 44.4-5). Thus John’s baptism declares the near approach of this coming age of the Spirit, which could be seen as present in the coming of Jesus. It is an acted out parable in line with those of previous prophets.

1.32-33 ‘And John bore witness saying, “I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of Heaven, and it abode on Him. And I did not know Him. But He Who sent me to baptise with water, He said to me, on whoever you shall see the Spirit descending and abiding on Him, the same is He who baptises with the Holy Spirit”.’

In accordance with the writer’s principle to emphasise spiritual meaning rather than physical events he does not describe the baptism of Jesus. He rather depicts it through the mouth of John. ‘John bore witness’. This is the writer’s constant emphasis. John is a witness and not the Person Himself. But as such his credentials are from God. He is a reliable witness sent by God.

‘He Who sent me to baptise (drench) with water.’ We note here that John was actually commissioned to carry out the acted parable of drenching people as a symbol of drenching in the Holy Spirit, just as God had of old sent His prophets to act out symbols before the people.

‘The Spirit descending as a dove from Heaven.’ This confirms the accounts in the other Gospels where the descent is ‘like a dove’. Some visible manifestation was observed when the Spirit came on Jesus which reminded people of a dove. The dove was a symbol of purity and gentleness. It was also a sign that the time of judgment had come to an end (Genesis 8.10-11).

‘It abode on Him’. This was no temporary blessing, it ‘remained’ on Him. In contrast with those who were at times ‘filled (pimplemi) with the Holy Spirit’ for specific but temporary purposes, He was ‘full (pleres) of the Holy Spirit’ continually (Luke 4.1). The word ‘abide’ is found constantly throughout the Gospel to indicate the relationship between Jesus and the Father, and the relationship His people can have with Him. It is a word expressing close relationship.

‘He Who drenches (baptises) with the Holy Spirit’. The coming of the Spirit promised in the prophets would take place through the authority and power of Jesus, through Whom all the promises would be fulfilled. He had the Holy Spirit within His gift (15.26; 16.7), and through Him the Holy Spirit would drench (baptizo) His people. John’s baptism was picturing this coming event and marking out those who were preparing themselves by repentance to receive it. They were being prepared for the coming of Jesus (see Luke 1.15-17).

1.34 “And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

What he has seen now enables him to bear witness that ‘this is the Son of God’. It is possible that the Baptiser did not realise the full significance of his own words. It may be that he was thinking more of Jesus as the coming Messiah, the great future king (as would Nathaniel later in the chapter), for the kings of Israel were looked on as ‘sons of God’ by adoption (Psalm 2.7; 2 Samuel 7.14). But that his thoughts went deeper than that is suggested by his earlier statement ‘Who was before me’. (It was not a recognised Messianic title). He may thus rather have had in mind Isaiah 9.6 where the Messiah is seen to be ‘the Mighty God’. There is no doubt, however, that the writer intends the term to be taken in its full significance by his readers and hearers.

So John the Baptiser sees Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 (the Lamb of God) and the coming Spirit filled king of Isaiah 11.1-3. This ties in with the voice at Jesus’ baptism, ‘this is my son (Psalm 2.7), the beloved in whom I am well pleased (Isaiah 42.1)’ It may well have been there that John the Baptiser realised the full significance of Jesus.

In Matthew’s Gospel we learn that John had not wanted to baptise Jesus because he felt he (John) was unworthy (Matthew 3.14). He felt rather that it was Jesus Who should baptise him. But Jesus there replied that it was becoming for Him to ‘fulfil all righteousness’, that is, ‘do all that is fully right’. He wished to identify Himself with the people of God and do all that was right for them, even though He had no need to repent. This further stresses that that baptism was not one of ‘cleansing’ but rather indicating response to the times of the Holy Spirit.

Disciples Begin to Gather to Jesus (John 1.35-51).

The great teachers of Israel would often have bands of ‘disciples’ who gathered round them to learn from them, and then to pass on their teaching. Here we learn that Jesus also began to attract disciples. This passage is a deliberate way of stressing that here is a greater than John, for some of John’s disciples leave him in order to follow Jesus, (and that is how John wanted it). It is interesting in that the passage indicates almost casually the time when certain events took place (v.39, 43) suggesting that they sprang readily to the writer’s mind because he had been present, and thus shows that its source was close to the events when they occurred. Time references like this keep occurring in these passages, even when they have no obvious significance other than to give a time note.

1.35-37 ‘Again on the next day John was standing, and two of his disciples, and he looked on Jesus as he walked and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God”. And the two disciples heard him speak and they followed Jesus.’

The section begins with John reiterating to two of his disciples that Jesus is ‘the Lamb of God’. The repetition emphasises the importance of the idea to the writer. It indicates that the idea of Jesus’ atonement was seen by him as crucial. When two of the disciples of John the Baptist heard this they immediately left John to follow Jesus in order to find out more about Him. One of these was Andrew (verse 40) and the other is unnamed. It is extremely likely that the other was the writer, for he never refers to himself by name, and it explains why he knew the time when it occurred. So it is John the Baptiser who unconsciously has established the nucleus for the twelve Apostles, and he gladly sends them to Jesus. They had been his disciples. Soon they would follow Jesus.

The interchange which now takes place between Jesus and the two is full of subtlety and meaning. At the time it was commonplace, but now the writer sees a deeper significance in the questions and answers.

1.38a ‘And Jesus turned and saw them following, and says to them, “What are you looking for?” ’

The question, apparently casual, goes in fact to the very depths. What do they really want? Do they know what they are committing themselves to?

1.38b ‘And they said to him, “Rabbi, (which means, being interpreted, ‘Master’), where do you abide?”

It is probable that the writer, who has thought about it for many years, intends this too to have a deeper meaning. ‘Where are you staying’, yes, but also ‘where do you continually dwell?’ The answer to the latter is, of course, ‘with the Father, in His love (15.10) and in His presence’.

At this time the address ‘Rabbi’ could be given to any respected teacher. Later it would become a technical term for official Jewish teachers. But it is very much a Jewish form of address.

1.39a ‘He says to them, “Come, and you will see.”

The subtle interchange continues, but while at the time its meaning was casual it is now more subtle. They should go with Him and see. But later they will follow Him all the way and will see clearly where He abides and will go with Him and to Him.

1.39b ‘They came therefore and saw where he dwelt, and they remained with him that day. It was about the tenth hour.’

So in response to Jesus’ invitation they go to where He is staying and spend the day with Him, presumably being taught by Him. But behind it may well lie the implication that they also became enlightened by Him as to His eternal dwelling place (‘they saw where He dwelt’). They became aware that He was truly from God. The reference to the tenth hour suggests someone who was there. He remembers the time of day because he was involved.

1.40 ‘One of the two who heard John speak and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.’

In a passage where names are continually given the total silence as to the name of Andrew’s companion is profoundly significant. It cannot have been forgotten. Too many remembered that day, and after all they were the first disciples of Jesus. We must therefore see the silence as deliberate, and in the face of the fact that the name of the Apostle John is never mentioned in the Gospel the inevitable conclusion is that it was the writer himself, and that the writer was the Apostle John.

1.41 ‘He first finds his own brother Simon and says to him, “We have found the Messiah (which is being interpreted ‘the Christ’)”.

Andrew then seeks out his brother Simon (Peter) and declares that they have found ‘the Messiah’. Once someone has truly found Christ they cannot help but seek to tell others. That is a proof of their genuineness.

At this stage, in their first enthusiasm, it is clear that they consider Jesus to be the expected Messiah. That was what John was pointing to. Such was the expectancy of God’s coming deliverance in those days that it was almost inevitable. But as time goes by that belief will fade, for as they go about with Him they will find that He does not behave as they expect the Messiah to behave. He does not even claim to be the Messiah when speaking to Jews, or in public. Indeed everyone will be puzzled. Even John the Baptiser will begin to have his doubts (Matthew 11.2-6; Luke 7.19-20). It is thus not surprising that less enlightened men (at the time) will feel the same.

But Jesus is aware that He has to re-educate them. He has not come with force of arms but with force of words. He has not come to achieve earthly success but to gain a heavenly victory (something brought out in the other Gospels by His Temptation). Thus He will continue on His way and let them watch Him and gradually come to an understanding of Who and What He is. The Messianic claim in the way that they understood it would not only have been dangerous, it would have been wrong. He was not an enemy of Rome. In His purposes Rome was an irrelevance, and He would not die for a cause He was not interested in. He had come to seek and to save the lost and to establish a heavenly kingdom, a kingdom ‘not of this world’ (18.36). But this as yet was something that they could not understand.

The final certainty that Jesus is the Messiah will in fact come later, when Jesus will redefine the term in terms of the suffering Son of Man (Matthew 16 .16 and parallels and John 6.69). So here His response will be to speak of Himself as ‘the Son of Man’, stressing His oneness with humanity (v.51), but with the later intention of revealing a deeper meaning for that title too as the One Who comes out of suffering to receive the throne of God and enter into glory (Daniel 7.13-14). The writer, however, brings in Andrew’s use of the term Messiah because he wants his readers to know that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. (In fact even after Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah his disciples are having difficulty with the subject (Mark 10.35). They still have the wrong idea).

‘First finds’. Does this mean ‘first’ before doing anything else? Or first before finding others? It is probably the former. (There are variant readings, but the differences are not really important).

1.42 ‘He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked on him and said, “You are Simon, the son of John, you will be called Cephas (which is by interpretation, Peter)”.’

‘He brought him to Jesus.’ What a multitude of meaning lies in those words. Humanly speaking the great Peter owed his conversion to Andrew. And it is a reminder that that is what we are to seek to do. To bring men to Jesus.

So Simon comes to see for himself, and on seeing Simon, Jesus declares that one day he will be renamed Peter (petros in Greek, cephas in Aramaic - meaning a stone). Already He sees in Simon the raw material of an effective, spiritual leader. This renaming is mentioned again in Matthew 16.18, but in both cases the change has the future in mind. Jesus never actually addresses Peter as such by this name until Peter’s acts of betrayal, when He wishes both to warn him and to encourage him (Luke 22.34; Mark 16.7). His becoming ‘the rock-like one’ is yet a long way off.

When we remember how Peter so often got things wrong, and how he failed Jesus at the last, it is an encouragement to us all to know that God knew what he would become in the end. In the same way God knows too what we will become. Once we are in Christ He does not judge us as we are, but as what He knows we will become.

1.43-44 ‘On the next day he determined to go forth into Galilee, and he finds Philip, and Jesus says to him, “Follow me”. Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter.’

‘The next day’ they go to Galilee and there Jesus calls Philip to follow Him. This seems the most likely meaning. Having determined to go, He goes, and then He finds Philip. It may, however, be that Philip was also in Judea at the time. The very presence of Andrew and the others suggests that they were all there at one of the great feasts.

Here Jesus is now clearly claiming the authority to ‘call’ disciples, for Philip is the first one that Jesus positively calls in this way. This calling of disciples is in contrast to the Rabbis whose disciples simply chose to follow them. Those called by Jesus probably saw themselves as the initial recruits in His army. They would not, however, have been surprised that he shared in the ministry of John. They would have seen the forming of a loose ‘covenant community’, dedicated to God, as an initial stage in the establishing of that army. We can compare how the Qumran covenanters saw themselves as a religious community who, at the right time, would compose the army of the Lord. Is it significant that He does not make this open statement of His intentions until He goes to Galilee? While Jesus is always forthright when it is necessary He does not openly court trouble. Or was it because He did not want to upstage John the Baptist? Andrew, Peter and John have only expressed interest. They will receive their defining call later (Luke 5.1-11). Again the writer shows his familiarity with the personal details of other disciples. Philip is from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. He knew it well. Familiarity explains why he mentions it at all.

‘He determined’. He had a specific plan in mind. Now He must commence His ministry and He chooses to do it in Galilee.

It is significant that He does not ‘call’ any of those who were disciples of John at this stage. What exquisite tenderness He showed. Andrew, Peter and John will be called later, but only when they have openly ceased to be recognised as ‘John’s disciples’. John must be allowed his day, and although he would have been quite willing for Jesus to do so, Jesus will not trespass on his ministry. This indeed explains why their call was delayed.

1.45 ‘Philip finds Nathaniel and say to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses, in the Law, and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”.’

Philip then seeks out Nathaniel (probably the same as Bar-tholomew, who is elsewhere linked with Philip (Matthew 10.3)) and tells him that they have found the One of Whom Moses and the prophets spoke, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph’. It was quite common in those days for people to have two or three names, Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic.

‘Moses --- and the prophets.’ The prophets are linked with Moses not with the Law. Philip says that both Moses and the prophets wrote of Jesus, Moses doing so in the Law (the Torah). Thus he is claiming that Jesus is One Whom God has constantly prophesied will come, even in the Torah. He would have in mind such verses as Genesis 49.10 ff.; Numbers 24.17. It is clear that Nathaniel assumes that he means the Messiah (see verse 49). The full title of Jesus is given to stress his royal descent through Joseph to help to substantiate the claim. All would know of Joseph, for in Jewish eyes he was heir to the throne of David.

1.46. ‘And Nathaniel said to him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”. Philip says to him, “Come and see”.’

Nathaniel replies with what was possibly a well known joke in Bethsaida, ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’. It may, however, have been a popular proverb. Alternately it may be that Nathaniel is thinking of the fact that no prophecy known to him has forecast a ‘coming one’ from Nazareth. Nazareth was a very small, out of the way, town in the hills, even though from its height it overlooked a main highway.. The phrase emphasises that Jesus has come in lowliness and humility. Philip’s reply is simple. ‘Come and see’. He is confident that Nathaniel will be impressed.

It is a reminder to us that if we are seeking to win men to Christ we can do nothing better than to take them to Jesus. It is in portraying Christ truly that we will make Him attractive, and there is no better way of doing this than to persuade them to read the Gospel of John.

1.47 ‘Jesus saw Nathaniel coming to him and says to him, “Look, an Israelite indeed in whom is no guile”.’

When Jesus sees Nathaniel He declares, ‘See, a true Israelite who is without guile’. The idea is taken from Psalm 32.2 - ‘blessed is the man --- in whose spirit there is no guile’ - the epitome of the true Israelite. This impresses Nathaniel, who was clearly a very pious man, and he is curious to know how Jesus knows this about him.

1.48 ‘Nathaniel says to him, “From where do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree I saw you”.

Nathaniel is puzzled by Jesus’ first statement and so he asks, ‘From where (or how) do you know me?’ Jesus is claiming knowledge about him. He wonders what the source is.

Jesus replies, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you’. It is clear from Nathaniel’s reply that this must have had some significance for Nathaniel for he is even more impressed. Perhaps he had just been meditating on Psalm 32 himself, or thinking of Jacob and Esau (see Genesis 27.35 and note verse 50 below), or perhaps what he had been thinking to himself while under the fig tree was of great religious importance and related to thoughts about the coming king and the days of deliverance (compare Simeon in Luke 2.25). Whatever it was, he wonders how Jesus could have known it. Indeed he considers that there can be only one explanation, this man has extraordinary powers.

1.49 ‘Nathaniel answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are King of Israel”.’

This awareness of Jesus convinces Nathaniel that his friend Philip is right. ‘Rabbi,’ he says in awe, ‘you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel’ (v.49). Notice the juxtaposition of the two phrases. It would appear that to him the one equates with the other, although ‘Son of God’ was not as far as we know a recognised designation for the Messiah. He had recognised that the promised king has come. It may, however, be that his thought went further than that and that what Jesus had said had so impressed him that he considered Him unique in His relationship to God without defining it too specifically.

However, even if at this point in time in the Gospel reference to ‘the Son of God’ has in mind the ‘coming king’ as God’s adopted son, the Messiah, its deeper significance, which will dawn on them later, is what the writer wishes to bring out. (It should be noted that ‘Son of God’ was not, as far as we know, a recognised Messianic designation. But that a coming king could be recognised as the son of God is implicit in Psalm 2.7; compare 2 Samuel 7).

1.50 ‘Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” And he says to him, “In very truth I say to you, you will see the Heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man”.’

Jesus reply is, ‘Does your faith rest on the fact that I saw you under the fig tree?’ (‘and knew what you were thinking’ is implied). Then he tells him that more wonderful things are yet in store for him, beyond what he could even have conceived. ‘You will see Heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man’.

Jesus probably did not mean this to be taken literally. It is rather a reference back to Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Genesis 28.12) which had indicted that he was the chosen of God and under God’s protection. Perhaps this had been included in Nathaniel’s earlier thoughts under the fig tree, as he pondered Jacob’s experience and connected it with his guile (Genesis 27.35), and as therefore in contrast with the man without guile pictured in Psalm 32.2. Now he is learning that a greater than Jacob is here Who can read all his thoughts.

Jacob had received his vision when he had left home and was about to enter a strange and foreign land. It had been a confirmation that God was with him and was watching over him wherever he went, and that world events were under heavenly control. The message Jesus is conveying is that He too is leaving home, aware of the period of hardship that lies ahead, and that He too will know the presence of His Father watching over Him, and will have special heavenly connections. It will be a period that will stress the closeness of His relationship with the Father, and will result in a new period of fulfilment of the promises of God, and He is indicating that Nathaniel will have a part in that future, and will come to recognise Jesus’ unique relationship with the Father, and share in its blessing.

Notice again Jesus’ reference to Himself as the Son of Man. This is the title under which he constantly reveals Himself. Others have declared Him ‘the Lamb of God’, ‘the Son of God’, the King of Israel’, ‘the Messiah’, the ‘Drencher with the Holy Spirit’, but He wishes to link Himself closely with mankind as the Son of Man. However, what Jesus says here suggests that He already thought in terms of the ‘son of man’ in Daniel 7.13-14 who approaches the throne of God in order to receive kingship and glory. It was a suitable term by which to indicate His Messiahship, whilst at the same time avoiding the suggestion that He had in mind an earthly conflict.

This depiction of Jesus as using the term ‘son of man’ rather than any other is in line with the other Gospels, and a further confirmation that the writer does not seek to alter the tradition. He does, however, certainly select those sayings which reflect the Son of Man’s heavenly glory. He wants it to convey the idea both of genuine Messiahship and of heavenly connections and authority. In order to see this we will look at the passages where the Son of Man is mentioned:

  • 3.13 ‘And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended out of heaven, even the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, so that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.’ Here Jesus sees the Son of Man in terms of a figure who ascends to Heaven, as the Son of Man did in Daniel 7.13-14. But Jesus adds here the thought that this indicated that he had first descended from Heaven. The thought may be His own, or it may be that He saw the descent of the Son of Man from Heaven as is in accordance with Jewish tradition (the idea of a glorious son of man appears in Jewish apocalyptic literature). Thus His connection with Heaven is being made clear. Yet He is also as the Son of Man to be lifted up (on the cross) in order that those who believe in Him may have eternal life. We see here both His humiliation and His glory, and His mission to give eternal life to those who believe in Him.
  • 5.26 ‘For as the Father has life in Himself, even so gave He to the Son also to have life in Himself, and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is a son of man.’ Note here the equating of ‘the Son’ with the Son of Man. Here it is as the Son of Man that He is given authority to exercise judgment, a clear indication that He will have taken His position on His heavenly throne (Daniel 7.14).
  • 6.27 ‘Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which abides to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you, for Him the Father, even God, has sealed.’ Here the Son of Man is seen as a figure sealed by God for the purpose of giving eternal life to those who work the works of God, which includes believing in Him Whom He has sent (6.29). He is God’s chosen One, and once again He is connected with the giving of eternal life.
  • 6.53 ‘Jesus therefore said to them, Truly, truly, I say to you, Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have not life in yourselves.’ Here life is to be found by, having crucified Him (eaten His flesh and drunk His blood in accordance with Jewish idiom), coming to and believing (see 6.35) in the Son of Man as the One Who has died for them (see on chapter 6). Thereby they will ‘have life in themselves’. Here the Son of Man is clearly a substantial figure, for it is by partaking of Him that people will find life.
  • 6.62 ‘What then if you should behold the Son of man ascending where he was before?’ This ties in with 3.13-14 and confirms both His pre-existence in Heaven and the certainty of His return there.
  • 8.28 ‘Jesus therefore said, When you have lifted up the Son of man, then will you know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself, but as the Father taught me, I speak these things.’ Here the Son of Man must be ‘lifted up’ as in 3.14. The reference is clearly to the cross where the people of the world will kill Him as in 6.53. It may also include the thought of His resurrection.
  • 9.35 ‘Jesus heard that they had cast him (the blind man who had been healed) out, and finding him, he said, Do you believe on the Son of God (or ‘the Son of Man’)?’ The text here is not certain so we have included it as a reference to the Son of Man. The point here is that the Son of Man is important enough to be ‘believed in’, and Jesus then immediately indicates that He is the Son of Man.
  • 12.23-24 ‘And Jesus answers them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abides by itself alone, but if it die, it bears much fruit.’ Here the glorification of the Son of Man is connected with falling into the ground and dying. In Daniel 7 the son of man also comes out of suffering in order to be glorified.
  • 12.34 ‘The crowd therefore answered him, We have heard out of the Law that the Christ abides for ever: and how do you say, The Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man?’ Here the crowds have picked up on the fact that the Son of Man must be lifted up, and it makes them want to know Who Jesus is talking about.
  • 13.31 ‘When therefore he (Judas) was gone out, Jesus says, Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him, and God will glorify him in himself, and immediately will he glorify him.’ As with the ‘lifting up’ so the glorification of the Son of Man includes both His being glorified on the cross and His being glorified at His ascension, the latter in line with Daniel 7.14.

It is clear from these verses that Jesus depicts the Son of Man as a heavenly figure who descends from Heaven to earth, is lifted up on the cross so as to become a giver of eternal life to those who believe in Him, and is raised again and ascends into Heaven from where He will judge the world, having received the glory due to Him. These ideas are built on, but go far beyond, the picture drawn in Daniel 7.13-14. In this designation Jesus is seen as both Messiah and Son of God.

Someone may still ask, how does what is spoken of in 1.19 onwards fit in with the later calling of the disciples as described in the other Gospels? The answer is that this was an initial connection made with these disciples who were, however, in the main still disciples of John. As we have seen it is only to Philip, who had not been following John, that He says ‘follow me’ at this point. Others who are disciples of John will be called to follow later, but Jesus ever has in mind a desire not to push John to one side (see John 4.1-3). Once they have left John and returned home to their businesses, and John is in prison, it will be a different matter. Once more we are impressed with the accuracy of John’s writing.

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