The prologue prepared us for the coming of the very Son of God himself. We caught a glimpse of him as he approached the Baptist (v. 29), but then, instead of being shown the Son, we heard the Baptist's testimony. Now such preparatory testimony is over, and the time has come for the Son himself to take center stage. Our present passage gives us both a distinctive picture of Jesus and a description of the first disciples' initial experiences of Jesus, providing further reflections on the nature of discipleship. This material is divided in two parts. In the first (vv. 35-42) the disciples take the initiative to follow Jesus, and in the second (vv. 43-51) Jesus takes the initiative. The events conclude with a climactic promise by Jesus (v. 51).
John does not tell us of Jesus' initial call to his disciples (cf. Mt 4:18-20 par. Mk 1:16-20; cf. Lk 5:1-11). There is nothing but a declaration by the Baptist: Look, the Lamb of God! (1:36). There is not even any indication that the Baptist said this for the benefit of the two disciples with him. He could have been talking to himself, even under his breath! The initiative to follow Jesus was solely theirs; they heard and followed (v. 37). Indeed, far from calling them to follow him, Jesus turns around and looks at them after they are already following him (v. 38). He is going on ahead and they must catch up.
His question to them, What do you want? could be spoken in an off-putting tone. It is a question that can reveal their hearts by indicating their attitude toward Jesus and their reason for following him. It also allows them to set the agenda. They could ask him, for instance, why the Baptist called him the Lamb of God. Instead they accept the role of receivers and express a desire to be with Jesus: "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying?" (v. 38). They address him with a term of respect, which indicates they regard him as a teacher, as the disciple John the Evangelist, or perhaps a later disciple in a non-Jewish setting, indicates by providing a translation. The disciples' question, where are you staying? passes the initiative back over to Jesus. His response, Come . . . and see (v. 39), gives no information, such as the address where he is staying. It shifts the initiative back to the disciples again for his answer reveals nothing and promises nothing, except that they will see where he is staying. It gives no information, but it invites relationship. The disciples, in their docility, are acting like true disciples, and Jesus encourages them. They respond and spend the day with him (v. 39).
John puts a great emphasis on Jesus' almost mysterious silence, as becomes evident when we compare his account with the Synoptics. Leading up to the coming of the first disciples in John there is no heavenly voice identifying Jesus (Mt 3:17 par. Lk 3:22), no reference to the temptation of Jesus (Mt 4:1-11 par. Mk 1:12-13 par. Lk 4:1-13), no preaching of the kingdom of God (Mt 4:17 par. Mk 1:14-15), no teaching in synagogues and healing (Lk 4:14-41) and no call for disciples (Mt 4:18-22 par. Mk 1:16-20; cf. Lk 5:1-11). In John, Jesus comes on the scene as one silently walking past (1:29, 36). Instead of a voice from heaven there is only the human voice of John the Baptist applying to Jesus a term that may have been confusing (vv. 29, 36). In the other Gospels Jesus teaches, preaches and calls people to follow him, yet here Jesus has said almost nothing (vv. 38-39). So, compared with the Synoptics' picture, Jesus in John appears as one hidden and aloof. These first disciples, therefore, are characterized by initiative and willingness to examine claims they have heard concerning this silent one. Most importantly, they are not put off by his silence, nor do they seek to break it. Rather they are humbly receptive, seeking only to be where Jesus is staying.
The two disciples, Andrew and the unnamed disciple, stay with Jesus. We are not told how Jesus began teaching such open-hearted people. The implication is that something impressive occurred, for we find Andrew going to his brother Simon Peter and telling him, We have found the Messiah (v. 41). If Peter had been expecting something impressive, he was not disappointed. Jesus immediately claims sovereign authority over him by renaming him (v. 42). Since one's identity is connected with one's name (see comment on 1:12) this means that meeting Jesus was a life-changing event for Peter.
The picture of Jesus that emerges from this opening scene is quite different from the picture we usually have of him. The great activity surrounding Jesus that we usually think of will in fact be described by John. But here at the outset John gives us a glimpse of the enormous depths of silence that lay behind all that Jesus does. Jesus is fully engaged in his historical circumstances, but he is not centered in them nor controlled by them. We hear later that Jesus acts in accordance with God's time and God's will, and the depiction here at the beginning of the story hints at the same. Even his silence speaks powerfully of a life centered in God (cf. Ignatius of Antioch Letter to the Ephesians 15.1-2). Similarly, these disciples, who will shortly be so full of words, opinions and activity, are characterized at the outset by a desire for the presence of Jesus more than for answers to questions. Their immaturity will become evident immediately, but the crucial issue in discipleship is not whether we are mature but whether we desire to come and see and then abide in the divine presence, the only source of eternal life and growth in grace and truth.
The second section (vv. 43-51), which deals with the gathering of the disciples, is important in two ways. First, in Nathanael we have a major example of a model disciple. If we pay careful attention to him, we will gain valuable insights into understanding the reactions to Jesus, both positive and negative, that will follow in the story. Second, the series of titles given to Jesus in this opening chapter culminates with Son of God and King of Israel (v. 49). Jesus concludes by pointing to the deeper significance of these titles in his promise that they will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (v. 51). This Gospel's use of these titles right from the outset is different than the Synoptics', where Peter does not confess Jesus as Messiah until halfway into the story (Mt 16:16 par. Mk 8:29 par. Lk 9:20). It is unlikely that the disciples would have taken long to begin wondering whether Jesus were the Messiah, but John, agreeing with the Synoptics, allows that they had to grow in their understanding of who Jesus really is.
The section begins with the calling of Philip. The main point to notice is precisely that now Jesus does call someone to follow him, unlike the first disciples' having taken initiative themselves. Andrew found Simon (v. 41), and now Jesus finds Philip (v. 43). Philip also goes to find another person to tell about Jesus (v. 45), which suggests that such sharing is a characteristic of the disciples. Many sermons on missions and evangelism have rightly been based on these passages: to find and share the divine presence found in Jesus is to take part in the Son's own mission to the world (see comment on 20:21-23).
Philip tells Nathanael about Jesus. Nathanael is a model disciple because he stands in striking contrast with the picture of the opponents that will emerge. He reacts to Jesus initially in exactly the same way they will later in the story. He says, Nazareth! Can anything good come from there? (v. 46). That is, for Nathanael, Jesus' origin raises doubts whether he could be the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote (v. 45), just as it will later for the Jewish opponents (7:41-42, 52).
The reason Nathanael has trouble with Jesus' coming from Nazareth is probably because the Messiah was not expected to be associated with Nazareth. Nathanael's question is usually understood as a negative one, though some of the church fathers took the tone as positive—that something good could come from Nazareth (Westcott 1908:1:55). It is probably neither entirely negative nor positive but simply a genuine question, expressing his doubts. He has reason to question whether Jesus is the one promised, but he is open to the possibility that Jesus is, as his subsequent action and confession show.
Both Nathanael and Jesus' opponents begin by questioning Jesus' identity on the basis of his origin, but unlike the opponents Nathanael ends by confessing Jesus and being promised greater revelation. The reason for the difference must lie in the fact that Nathanael is a true Israelite, in whom is nothing false (1:47). This designation, true Israelite, marks Nathanael as a genuine member of the people of God, unlike "the Jews," who consider themselves such but are not. Nathanael accepts Jesus despite his skepticism and thereby shows that he is a member of the people of God. In contrast with the opponents—whose rejection is traced to their relationship to the devil, in whom there is no truth (8:44)—Nathanael is described as one in whom there is nothing false (1:47). This does not mean that he has no wrong beliefs, as the word false in the NIV might suggest. Rather, the word dolos suggests a more fundamental internal disposition in which there is no deceit. He is honest and clear-sighted, his eye is single (cf. Lk 11:34 RSV), he has a clear conscience (cf. 2 Tim 1:3). He is the sort who seeks God before all else. No one is without falseness within, but there are those who nevertheless desire truth before anything. Most of us must be pruned for years before we approach such single-hearted desire for God. Mercifully God accepts us before we even begin to desire him, and by his grace he undertakes the purging of all our duplicity and deceitfulness.
So that which distinguishes Nathanael from the opponents is a clear heart in which there is no deceit and a humble docility that is open to God, willing to come and see (1:46). The "seeing" involved here is not just physical sight—the opponents also had that. A favorite term of the Gospel writer's, "seeing" means being insightful, grasping the revelation that is present. Indeed, Jesus' own identity is revealed here by his ability to see. Nathanael accepts that Jesus has seen into his heart (vv. 47-48) and has seen him from afar (v. 48b), and this confirms the accuracy of Philip's claim to have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote (v. 45).
The reference to Moses and the prophets (v. 45) suggests the titles Nathanael uses for Jesus are messianic. One popularly held expectation of the Messiah was that he would be a king in the line of David (for example, 2 Sam 7:12-16; Psalms of Solomon 17:21; cf. Rengstorf 1976:335-37; Michel 1978:648-51). The title Son of God could be understood in this way, as when in the Old Testament the king is called God's son (for example, Ps 2:6-7; cf. Michel 1978:636-37). Thus, in calling Jesus the Son of God and the King of Israel (Jn 1:49) Nathanael is the true Israelite acknowledging his King. This view of Jesus is right, as Jesus acknowledges when he affirms that Nathanael believes (1:50), but it is far short of the deep truth expressed by these titles. Jesus is truly King, but his kingdom is not of this world (Jn 18:36). He is indeed the Son of God, but in a sense far beyond anything expected by Moses and the prophets. Each of Jesus' titles affirmed in this chapter is true, so the disciples have glimpsed something of Jesus' identity. But much purging of error and further illumination will be necessary before they truly grasp what they are saying.
So Nathanael has a correct though limited understanding of who Jesus is, just as we will see that the opponents have a correct though limited view in their acknowledgment that Jesus is a teacher come from God (Jn 3:2). The opponents will continue to question (3:4, 9) whereas Nathanael, instead, wholeheartedly accepts and confesses. Nathanael is promised further enlightenment and is represented as receiving it, for he is one of the disciples who meets Jesus after the resurrection (21:2). We will see the opponents, on the other hand, go from questioning to antagonism to violent hostility.
At the end of this section Jesus—introduced as one who comes on the scene, moving silently past, and then shown as one who has extraordinary knowledge and authority—makes an amazing claim: I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (v. 51). Jesus is speaking to Nathanael (auto, omitted in the NIV), but the verbs he uses are in the plural, so this is intended for the rest of the disciples also. The allusion is clearly to Jacob's vision (Gen 28:12). The picture could be of Jesus as the ladder upon which the angels are moving, but no ladder is mentioned. It is more likely that he is on earth as a new Jacob. Thus the King of Israel, acknowledged by the true Israelite, turns out to be the fulfillment of Israel (Jacob) himself.
Here, as elsewhere in this first chapter, we have a vague reference to that which will become clear in what follows: in this case, the fact that Jesus fulfills and thus replaces the revelation to Israel (cf. 1:17-18). He is in truth greater than Jacob (Jn 4:12), for he is the real Jacob-Israel, the locus and source of the real people of God (cf. Dodd 1953:244-46; Kim 1985:82-86). It also means that "Jesus as Son of Man has become the locus of divine glory, the point of contact between heaven and earth. The disciples are promised figuratively that they will come to see this; and indeed, at Cana they do see his glory" (Brown 1966:91). Jacob's exclamation that "This in none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven" (Gen 28:17) is fulfilled in Jesus, who is himself the temple (Jn 2:19-21) and the gate (Jn 10:7). But there is no literal vision of angels later in the story such as is mentioned in this verse. Rather, this verse is the clue to the significance of everything that follows in the Gospel (Dodd 1953:294). Specifically, the promise here is that they will recognize who Jesus really is and thereby see God, for John uses the term Son of Man to speak of Jesus' deity manifested in humanity (cf. comments on 3:13-14; 5:27). This promise is fulfilled when Thomas sees the crucified one now living and confesses, "My Lord and my God!" (Jn 20:28). "Jesus Christ even in his humanity is united to heaven and enjoys perfect communion with God his Father" (Michaels 1989:43).
Heaven has been opened, but there is no need for us to ascend because the Son of Man has come down to us. The one Isaiah saw (Is 6:1-5; Jn 12:38-41) has come into our midst! Jesus, not heaven, is the focal point of revelation. The desire of the mystics has been fulfilled. Therefore from now on it is those who do not see and yet believe who are blessed (Jn 20:29), for if we are to see God, we must look back to Jesus under the continuing guidance of the Spirit (16:13-15). It is not that heavenly visions are impossible (cf. comment on 1:18) but that an intimacy with God is possible quite apart from such visions (cf. chaps. 13—17).