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John 1:43-51 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 1:35-51. THE FIRST DISCIPLES
Verses 35-42 tell of John the Baptist and two of his disciples. As Jesus walks by John says, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (v. 36). As a result of John’s testimony, two of his disciples decided to follow Jesus. One of these disciples is unnamed, but the other is Andrew.
• We know little about Andrew, except that his crowning achievement as Jesus’ disciple was to bring his brother, Simon Peter, to Jesus (vv. 40-41)—and he will also lead Jesus to the boy with the loaves and fish with which Jesus will feed the multitude (6:8-9). On both occasions, Andrew plays a behind-the-scenes role, but by playing his small role faithfully, he makes a significant contribution to the Christian story.
• When Andrew brings Peter to Jesus, Jesus says, “You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas.” The narrator tells us that Cephas means Peter (v. 42). Cephas is the Aramaic word for rock, and Peter is the Greek word. Aramaic was a language closely related to Hebrew that was widely used during Jesus’ lifetime. Greek had become an international language—understood by educated people throughout the Mediterranean region.
Jesus pays Peter quite a compliment by nicknaming him “Rock.” However, at this stage of his life, Peter is nothing like the rock that he will become after the resurrection.
Verses 43-51 tell of Jesus finding Philip and saying, “Follow me” (v. 43)—and Philip inviting Nathanael to come see Jesus (vv. 45-46).
• Philip will appear several more times in this Gospel (1:43-46; 6:5-7; 12:20–22; 14:8-11). He will reveal himself to be a skeptic when Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd (6:7), but he will later ask, “Lord, show us the Father” (14:8)—a request that will provide Jesus an opportunity for further self-revelation (14:9:21). Philip’s name appears on all four lists of apostles (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13).
• While Nathanael has a significant role as the first to recognize Jesus as the Son of God (1:49), he will appear only once more in this Gospel (21:2). Some scholars, noting that Nathanael is not mentioned in the Synoptics and Bartholomew is not mentioned in the Gospel of John, have speculated that Nathanael and Bartholomew might be the same person operating under two names.
The people whom Jesus calls are ordinary people—but Jesus will use them to change the world. That should hearten us when we assess the strengths and weaknesses of the people in our congregations—and when we assess our own personal strengths and weaknesses. We might be ordinary, but God often chooses ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.
JOHN 1:43-45. WE HAVE FOUND HIM ABOUT WHOM MOSES WROTE
43On the next day, he was determined (Greek: ethelesen—he decided or he wanted) to go out into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael, and said to him, “We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, wrote: Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“On the next day, he was determined (ethelesen—he decided or he wanted) to go out into Galilee” (v. 43a). Ethelesen means “he decided.” Who decided? The NRSV has adopted the most likely interpretation by saying that it was Jesus, but the word “Jesus” does not appear in the original Greek. Some scholars have thought that it might have been Andrew who decided to go to Galilee and who found Philip in verse 43. That seems unlikely, however, given Jesus’ invitation to Philip in verse 43.
“He found Philip” (v. 43b). Jesus finds Philip rather than the other way around. We have no idea why Jesus would want to find Philip, who seems rather ordinary. However, the same could be said for most of the other apostles.
“Follow me” (v. 43c). This is Jesus’ standard invitation to discipleship (Matthew 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 19:21; John 21:19, 22).
“Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter” (v. 44). This seems to contradict Mark 1:29, which says that Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew in Capernaum. However, just as Jesus continues to be known as Jesus of Nazareth (v. 45; 18:5, 7; 19:19) even though he has established his adult home in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13), it seems likely that Andrew and Peter were from Bethsaida originally but later established a home in Capernaum.
Bethsaida sits at the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee near the Decapolis, the region of ten Greek cities east of the Jordan River. This might explain Philip and Andrew’s Greek names. Later, when a group of Greeks want to see Jesus, they will ask Philip and Andrew for an introduction (12:20-22).
“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph'” (v. 45). Just as Andrew witnessed to Peter (vv. 41-42), Philip witnesses to Nathanael (v. 45).
“of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets wrote” (v. 45). The law and the prophets constitute the two most important parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, Philip is telling Nathanael that he has found the one that the scriptures for centuries have been telling them to anticipate. The great day has finally come! The messiah is now in their midst!
Philip identifies Jesus as the “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (v. 45). This is how Jesus is known—Joseph is his legal father. The context, however, makes it clear that Jesus is only nominally the son of Joseph. The greater truth is that he is the Son of God (1:14, 18).
The witness to Jesus that started with John the Baptist thus continues with Andrew and Philip. John’s witness created a ripple that widens with each successive disciple. John’s witness brought two disciples, one of whom was Andrew. Andrew’s witness brings Peter, and Philip’s witness brings Nathanael. The result is not a tidal wave of faith but a series of small ripples that the world will largely ignore. The small ripples, however, are empowered by the Holy Spirit, and over time will sweep across the whole world.
JOHN 1:46. CAN ANYTHING GOOD COME OUT OF NAZARETH?
46Nathanael said to him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth” (v. 46a). We have no reason to believe that Nazareth had a bad reputation. Nathanael’s comment might reflect small-town rivalry. Cana and Nazareth are only a few miles apart, and young men are loath to think well of anyone, especially other young men, from a rival town.
There is irony here. At one level, Jesus is from Nazareth, but more fundamentally, he is from God (1:1-2, 14).
“Come and see” (v. 46b). Philip does not argue with Nathanael, but instead invites him to come and see. We can learn from Philip. “Not very many people have ever been argued into Christianity…. The only way to convince a man of the supremacy of Christ is to confront him with Christ” (Barclay, 76). Philosophical arguments can never have as much effect as our personal witness and our invitation to “Come and see.”
JOHN 1:47-49. RABBI, YOU ARE THE SON OF GOD!
47Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said about him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are King of Israel!”
Unlike some in this Gospel who claim to see but in truth are blind (9:40-41), Nathanael accepts the invitation to see Jesus. Jesus takes the initiative here, seeing Nathanael approaching and saying, “Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom there is no deceit!” (v. 47b). The disciple would ordinarily greet the teacher, but here it is Jesus who greets the disciple.
Jesus alludes to Genesis 27:35, where Isaac told Esau, “Your brother (Jacob, who would later be known as Israel) came with deceit, and has taken away your blessing.” While Jesus’ allusion might seem obscure to us, it would have been obvious to his listeners. Everyone knew about Jacob/Israel who was (at least in his younger days) full of deceit. Jesus is saying that Nathanael is not like Jacob, but is a truth-teller.
“How do you know me?” (v. 48a). We do not know what prompts Jesus’ assessment of Nathanael, but he obviously knows more about Nathanael than he can be expected to know. He is not limited to ordinary human knowledge, but knows things otherwise known only to God (see also 4:18, 29).
Nathanael asks where Jesus got to know him, and Jesus answers, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (v. 48b). This is clearly supernatural knowledge, because Jesus was not present when Philip called Nathanael. There is Old Testament precedent for such supernatural knowledge—i.e., Elisha’s ability to warn the king of Israel regarding secret enemy plans (2 Kings 6:8-12). Jesus, however, goes beyond the prophets of old. He is the Word—the one who most perfectly reveals God and God’s will.
Just as we were surprised by Jesus’ enthusiastic endorsement of Nathanael (v. 47), now we are surprised by Nathanael’s enthusiastic endorsement of Jesus. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are King of Israel!” (v. 49).
Earlier, Andrew identified Jesus as Messiah (v. 41). Now Nathanael identifies Jesus with three additional titles—Rabbi, Son of God, and King of Israel:
• The first of these, Rabbi, is honorable but ordinary—there are many rabbis.
• Nathanael probably intends the second title, Son of God, as a messianic title, and as such it does not necessarily imply divinity. The Jews expected the Messiah to be a man like David, a king and warrior who would save Israel from its enemies rather than a deity who would save the world from its sins. However, the author of this Gospel has made it clear in the Prologue that Jesus is, in fact, God (1:1, 14). If Nathanael does yet not understand this, as seems likely, God nevertheless uses him to proclaim a greater truth than he understands.
• The third of the three titles, King of Israel, is also a messianic title, and like Son of God, conveys a truth beyond Nathanael’s understanding. He almost certainly thinks of Jesus as a king in the mold of King David—a great but very human king.
It is interesting that, both at the beginning and the end of this Gospel, Jesus reveals himself to skeptics who respond with bold statements of faith. Doubting Thomas will respond to Jesus invitation to touch his wounds by saying, “My Lord and my God” (20:28).
JOHN 1:50-51. YOU WILL SEE HEAVEN OPENED
50Jesus answered him, “Because I told you, ‘I saw you underneath the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these!” 51He said to him, “Most certainly,(Greek: amen, amen) I tell you, (Greek: you plural) hereafter you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
“Because I told you, ‘I saw you underneath the fig tree,’ do you believe? You (singular) will see greater things than these” (v. 50). Most scholars believe that the original story ended with verse 50, thus leading naturally into the story of Jesus’ first miracle at Cana (2:1-11). That miracle will be the first of Jesus’ signs—the first of the “greater things” that will reveal Jesus’ glory and help other disciples to believe (2:10). The disciples’ faith will continue to develop as Jesus reveals other signs throughout his ministry, but will be dashed at the cross. The resurrection and ascension will be the greatest of the “greater things” that the disciples will see, and it will be only after seeing their resurrected/ascended Lord that the disciples will fully understand and fully believe.
“Most certainly” (amen, amen) (v. 51a). Jesus’ introductory words, amen, amen, “certainly” or “most certainly” are distinctive to this Gospel—in the Synoptics, Jesus uses only a single amen (Matthew 5:26; 6:2, 5, 16, etc.). These words are intended to emphasize the truthfulness of the words that follow. Jesus can speak truly, because he is the Word of God (1:1-18).
“you (plural) will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (v. 51b). The “you” in verse 50 is singular (spoken to Nathanael), but the “you” in verse 51 is plural, presumably spoken to a larger group of disciples—and possibly intended to include the readers of this Gospel—the church—us. This shift from singular to plural is one of the reasons that scholars believe that verse 51 was added later. A second reason is verse 50 flows more naturally into the Cana story, which follows.
The opened heavens allow God’s revelation (God’s Word—1:1) to spill out upon the earth. While this Gospel does not include a complete story of Jesus’ baptism, John has said, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him” (1:32)—an example of heaven opening.
“the angels of God ascending and descending” (v. 51b). The imagery hearkens back to the story where Jacob “dreamed. Behold, a stairway set upon the earth, and its top reached to heaven. Behold, the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:12). In that story, the not-very-admirable Jacob was fleeing from his brother, Esau, from whom he had stolen the father’s blessing (Genesis 27:35). He stopped at “a certain place” (Genesis 28:11)—a place whose significance was yet unknown—and bedded down for the night.
There Jacob dreamed of the ladder and the angels, and heard the voice of God renew the covenant that God had made earlier to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). God promised to give Jacob the land on which he lay and to bless all the families of the earth “in you and in your seed” (Genesis 28:14). Jacob responded by naming the place Bethel, a Hebrew word meaning “the house of God” (Genesis 28:17). Later, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel—”for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28). Jacob’s dream was a great turning point in his life, because it made clear to him that he embodied the promise that God had made earlier to Abraham.
“ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (v. 51b). Now Jesus says that the angels will no longer ascend and descend on a ladder but will instead ascend and descend upon the Son of Man—the ultimate revelation of God to humankind.
“Son of man” is Jesus’ favorite self-designation—one that he uses to refer to himself more than 80 times—11 in this Gospel. Other titles would lend themselves to misunderstanding or worse. If Jesus were to identify himself as Messiah, Jews would think of a warrior like David. If Jesus were to call himself king, the Romans would arrest him as an insurgent. If he were to call himself Son of God, the Jews would arrest him for blasphemy. Keep in mind that Nathanael has called Jesus Son of God and King of Israel (v. 49), two potentially troublesome titles. Jesus’ title, Son of Man, serves as a corrective.
“Son of man” comes from Daniel 7:13-14, where the Son of Man is given “dominion and glory and a kingdom” and “an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away.” It helps us to see both the humility of the one who would die on a cross—and his heavenly origins (Morris 151-152).
There is a mysterious quality to verse 15. Is Jesus suggesting that Nathanael will see wondrous things and become a special channel of blessing? If that were the case, the New Testament would surely tell us the rest of Nathanael’s story, but it tells us very little about him. Nathanael’s name is mentioned only once more. After the resurrection Jesus will reveal himself to Nathanael and a handful of other disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius (21:2). Perhaps that occasion fulfills Jesus’ promise that Nathanael will see “greater things than these.” He will, indeed, see the risen Christ.
Something else is happening in this verse. As noted above, the “you” to whom Jesus addresses himself in verse 51 is plural, suggesting that Jesus is speaking to a larger group of disciples—perhaps, through this Gospel, to the whole church—the new Israel—the new People of God—the new people of blessing. Just as God opened the heavens to reveal to Jacob a wonderful connection between heaven and earth, now God opens the heavens to reveal the Son of Man, who completes the work of bringing heaven and earth together, to the church. Indeed, the church has seen many great things through the work of Christ—people healed, marriages saved, lives transformed. If we can allow ourselves to appreciate the poetic quality of Jesus words, we have indeed seen “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983)
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Hendriksen, William, New Testament Commentary: John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953)
Keener, Craig S., The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume I (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003)
Klein, Leonard R. in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
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O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Palmer, Earl F., The Book That John Wrote (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1975)
Ridderbos, Herman (translated by John Vriend), The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
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Smith, D. Moody, Jr., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
Wright, Tom (N.T.), John for Everyone: Part 1, Chapters 1-10 (London: SPCK and Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002, 2004)
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Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan