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John 1:35-51: Let's be Clear About Who Jesus Is

35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (NRSV)

As much as the prologue summarizes the gospel's presentation of Jesus' identity, this passage may be the clearest presentation of the identity of Jesus in the whole gospel. It begins by continuing where the prior section left off. John identifies Jesus to his disciples, declaring that he is the 'lamb of God.' Jesus is the one through whom God will bring a great deliverance, so go follow him!

Two disciples heard this, so they left. There's an air of excitement in this narrative. The two disciples, like Philip, later on, get up and eagerly follow Jesus, immediately submitting themselves to him. When they come after him Jesus turns and asks, 'what are you looking for?'[1] Another way to put it is, who do you think I will turn out to be? The disciples respond by calling him 'teacher' and a couple of verses later, 'Messiah.' As we will find out, neither of these identifications will prove completely adequate. However, the two disciples do respond correctly. They want to see where Jesus stays. Given the emphasis on remaining in and abiding with Jesus in the gospel as a whole, this response takes on a fuller meaning. It is being with Jesus, not with John, that brings fullness of life and spiritual experience.[2]

In the second scene we meet Nathanael and Philip. Philip presents Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's hopes. Nathanael doubts, but goes to meet Jesus. Jesus reveals his identity by displaying his supernatural knowledge of Nathanael's past, and as von Wahlde points out, in the same vein as what we will see in John 4. Nathanael responds by identifying Jesus as the Messiah. This, to me, is where the text gets a little odd. Why would the demonstration of supernatural knowledge imply that Jesus was the davidic Messiah? Why not just a prophet? A prophetic Messiah does not seem to be in view here since the terms Son of God and King of Israel are used. This incongruity isn't picked up by commentators. I'm not sure why.[3]

In any event, as Moloney and von Wahlde have both clearly shown, this response is inadequate. Jesus identity goes beyond being the davidic Messiah (as the sign itself shows anyways). Jesus is the locus of divine activity and divine revelation. As Lincoln points out, this pericope functions as a call to move beyond prior religious convictions. Jewish categories, while not wrong, are not adequate for fully grasping who Jesus is.


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[1] Keener raises the possibility that this question might be hinting at divine status for Jesus, as seeking and following often had connotations of deity in Early Judaism. It's an extremely difficult matter to adjudicate and it depends largely on the degree to which you believe the gospel to be a unity. If it is the work of a single author, or very thoroughly and consistently edited, then I tilt towards thinking that Keener is on the right path. Similarly if this question was an insertion in a subsequent edition of the gospel. If a multi-author theory of composition is correct and this question comes from the earliest hand then it is less likely to have originally been a question implying Jesus' divinity. However, given the material that was added (according to von Wahlde, for example, verses 50 and 51), the question would have come to take on that additional meaning.

I have spent a lot of time recently in the first two volumes of von Wahlde's new commentary on John. His theory of composition has a lot to be said for it. I still have not made up my mind about whether or not to follow von Wahlde, but his understanding of the text did impact my thinking here. In a future post I will discuss his theory more fully since it impinges directly on my other current area of interest, the development of Christology, particularly the way it emphasizes divinity as something beyond messianic status.

[2] And McHugh may be correct in observing that Jesus is here presented as the source of divine wisdom.

[3] This makes me think that perhaps von Wahlde is incorrect in identifying this portion of the narrative to the first edition of John. If some of the material is original to the first source it has been reworked to set up the final two verses and does not stand alone well.

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