International Catholic University


The Gospel of John

James C. Turro


Lecture 3: St. John 1:29-50

We have been occupied trying to tease out the meaning of this expression that is very familiar to us but when examined and looked at up close we wonder at the depth of its meaning. I'm specifically thinking of John's identification of Jesus as God's Lamb. We considered some of the proposals, suggestions that have been made for construing the impact and the meaning of this expression. First, something very similar to this is said of the suffering servant in Isaiah. Secondly, the Lamb of God does powerfully call to mind the Paschal Lamb, so perhaps that's the way we should interpret the expression. Then we go on to see that Jeremiah at one point speaks of himself as a lamb, as a sheep undergoing serious threat, about to be slaughtered, but innocently. And of course that could connect very easily with Christ, total innocence put to death not for any crime, but for completely trumped up charges. So that would be a possibility construing Jesus as a lamb in that sense. Then we went on to see that in Exodus the law is laid down that each day at the temple two lambs are to be sacrificed, one at daybreak and one later on in the day in behalf of the people, for the welfare of God's people. Of course immediately you are prone to think of how that links up with Christ because his death was full of humanity. In the interest of the human race he was sacrificed. So that remains a distinct possibility.

We want to look at still another reference to lambs that we find in the old Testament. Here once again in Leviticus (4:32-34), the reference is to the sin offering.

If it is a lamb that he would bring as his offering for sin, he must bring a perfect female. He must lay his hand on the head of the sin-offering victim, and slaughter it as a sin-offering at the place where the burnt offering victims are slaughtered, whereupon the priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger, and put it on the horns of the altar for burnt offerings, while all the rest of the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar. (Goodspeed Bible)
Here what strikes up as a bridge between this and Christ is the fact that Jesus' sacrifice could very well be defined, and in fact is so spoken of, in Ruth particularly, as achieving the forgiveness of sins. We think of this sacrifice of this lamb that worked in that direction to remit a person's sin.

Another possibility, found in Genesis 22:8, is the familiar account of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham. There we find something that really suggests what we haven't had here, the Lamb of God. I'm going to read this passage. Unfortunately when people encounter an these words a problem confronts them. Would God ever be so brutal as to ask this kind of a sacrifice of a human being, of a father, that he slaughter his only son? The answer to that is very easily and quickly given. No. And this is not that at all. This is a question of a test of Abraham's faith. Throughout Genesis Abraham is presented as a profoundly faithful man. It carries over into our liturgy where to this day we speak of Abraham as our father in faith. That's what is at issue here. The point that we ought to take from this account is simply this, that there is nothing, but nothing, that God could ever ask Abraham that he would not deliver, that he would not accede to. So with that background we look at what is really a very delightful account here, especially in its details.

Read Genesis 22:1-5.

Notice the irony in what is here said. Abraham does not want to terrify his attendants by saying "I'm just going up there to kill my son". And so he lies -- he thinks he's lying, but in fact this is exactly the way the scenario will play out. Eventually, after having worshiped God, Abraham and his son will return to these people. When Abraham says this he doesn't think that's going to happen, but in fact it does.

Read Genesis 22:6-8.

In fact, he did not think that would happen. But he can't say to his son, "I'm going to kill you: you are the sacrifice." But indeed this is just the way it works out -- that God provides a substitute for his son Isaac.

Read Genesis 22:9.

This is the critical moment.

Read Genesis 22:10-11.

At that critical moment, not five minutes before, not while he was tying the boy up, but right as he takes up the dagger to plunge it into the child.

Read Genesis 22:12-14.

The possibilities of linking this up with our concerns in John's Gospel are clear. The analogy is very strong. First of all, we could think of Jesus as that ram, but this ram caught in the brushwood substitutes for Isaac just as Christ in his death on the cross substitutes for us, for the human race, which because of its sinning deserves that kind of penalty. But in its place there is Jesus, the Lamb of God. So that's also a possible understanding of Lamb of God as John employs the term.

Before letting go, let me point out to you, harking back very briefly to that incident we just looked at in the story of Abraham, there is a twofold application there that the Christians early on recognized. Not only the parallel of the ram being the stand-in for Isaac as Jesus is the stand-in for us. But also a parallel between God and Abraham. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son; God was willing to sacrifice his son (the difference being that Abraham does not end up having to sacrifice his son but God does). From the earliest period onward Christians were aware of this sort of satisfaction in pondering this. So there we have laid out before us all possibilities. We're plumbing the depths of meaning in that expression used by John the Baptist of Christ, Lamb of God. Could be the Lamb spoken of in Isaiah. Could possibly be the Paschal Lamb. Could be the Lamb of Jeremiah, innocent going to its slaughter. The Lamb of Exodus sacrificed for the welfare of the people at large as is the case with the sacrifice on the cross. The Lamb of Leviticus dies for the remission of the offerer's sins just as Christ dies for our sins. And lastly, the ram caught in the brushwood as suggesting Christ substituting for us. He undergoes the penalty that we deserve for our sinning. Which of these are we to choose as being the key to unlock the meaning of Lamb of God? I'm going to suggest that every single one of these helps for us to cast the richness of meaning in that expression on John's lips, There is God's Lamb. There are suggestions of every one of these Old Testament references that we've looked at.

John says right after that, He existed before me, about Jesus. Here John is implying something we all subscribe to, that priority implies superiority. The first ones on the scene are those who have the advantage of everyone else, just as the Mayflower settlers have it in prestige over everyone else. These people were experiencing John the Baptist first, but he has to say to them, though I am first in your experience now, Jesus preexists me. And so that principle remains in place: priority implies superiority, and Jesus is prior.

Now we come to something that people stumble over and wonder at. But there's really no need for that. John the Baptist says of Jesus, I did not know him. Well elsewhere in Luke's Gospel we are made to understand, at least by implication, that John the Baptist is the cousin of Jesus, because Mary and Elizabeth, John the Baptist's mother, are related in that way, and here John is saying I did not know him. There are various ways of explaining that. John the Baptist very early on left the family to go off and lead his hermetical life in the desert, preaching to all that were serious about religion and baptizing them in his fashion, so that he grew up apart from the family, not involved in family gatherings. And the families did live quite a distance, one from the other. John the Baptist was, we believe, raised in a small town Southwest of Jerusalem. Jesus lived up in Nazareth a good distance away, up in Galilee. So it isn't a question of living next door to one another, so that John the Baptist would have recognized Jesus immediately, having grown up with him all along.

The third consideration, I think, is the one that is operative here, that explains why John might say this. In saying, I did not know him, he would mean, I did not know him in that capacity as Messiah. I would have known him well enough as a cousin, but I didn't know this about him. In much the same way we could be surprised in life. Some person whom we've met as a registrar or a principal of a school and that's been our only relationship with this person but we find out down the line that in fact this person is a very accomplished concert pianist. And we could say, I never knew that, I felt I knew this person perfectly well, very well, but I never knew this about him.

I think that does justice to the piece we just examined and it's time now to push onward to see what follows in the text.

Read John 1:35-39.

What strikes us here is that this is the beginning of discipleship. Discipleship of people, of men, to Jesus. There is the first instance reported, in this Gospel account in any case, of anybody coming to learn from Jesus as Master. Notice the logical progression in the way this is being reported. On the first day you will recall John the Baptist is canceling himself out, taking himself out of consideration as being Messiah. He is not the Messiah, so he has cleared the decks for action. So we know who the Messiah is not. Second day we find out who he is. Look, there is God's Lamb. It is in fact Jesus of Nazareth.

Now the third day, very logically, people act on that. Certain things that come to our attention demand action. If someone should come into a room that you sit in and say the building is on fire, you can't dawdle over that, you are compelled to do something about that. It's that kind of a situation that forces you to take action. You have something like that here. If indeed this is the Messiah, as John is identifying Jesus, then these men should indeed break off from John the Baptist and go to be with Jesus, and they do just that.

We're going to see from this point onward these disciples begin to form up around Jesus. We're going to see a regular progression beyond this point. But here is the start of it, at least according to this Gospel. Jesus' question to them is important, what do you want? An understandable question in those circumstances, but perhaps we ought to see more in it than that. The community from which this Gospel was created and for which it was created, for them the question is understood in this way. What are you looking for? How do you explain the restlessness in your life? What are you after? In other words, deeper than would appear from the text. The reply of the two disciples ought to be construed at the same depth as well. It's not really to say, what is your address, what street do you live on, but it really is an expression of a desire to be with God and to enjoy the strength and the comfort and security that God represents. There are intimations of that at deeper levels in this questioning and these answers that are given here. So they went and saw where he was staying.

Now it is very important for us to fix on that word Rabbi. Rabbi is the word for teacher. It is from the Hebrew word for great, and it means the great one. But it was used only of a teacher and only the teacher of the Scriptures. So basically and technically that is what Rabbi means, teacher, i.e. teacher of Scripture. What interests us is that this is the word that is used to address Jesus by these two incipient disciples of his. But it lets us in on their thinking. This is the way they estimate Jesus at this point. This is the way they identify in their minds, that's who Jesus is, a Rabbi, a student and a teacher of the Scriptures. It's important to keep that in the background of our thinking here, because subsequently they're going to revise their understanding of Jesus, as you will see, toward understanding Jesus as being infinitely more than a Rabbi. But at this stage this is what they think of him, he is a Rabbi. We'll keep that in reserve.

Read John 1:40-42.

Here we see Andrew taking action on this. He comes to this insight into Jesus and his first thought is my brother, he should know about this. This is like the discovery of a treasure and you want to share it with those who are near and dear to you. He should tell Peter about this, their discovery of Jesus. Andrew immediately sought out his own brother, Simon, and said to him, we have found the Messiah, that is to say the Christ. At that point I would like you to take up what we had to say about Jesus as a Rabbi. You see initially Andrew understood Jesus to be that, a Rabbi and nothing more, a great Rabbi perhaps but nothing more than that. But now his understanding of Jesus had taken a quantum leap. Now he understands Jesus to be not just merely a Rabbi but indeed the Messiah.

We've got to notice, in this particular part of the Gospel, this as a regular occurrence, namely that a person would come to be with Jesus, start up as a disciple of His, be with him for a time. And in that time his understanding of Jesus will take on great depth and substance. In the fourth chapter, where we read about Jesus' dialogue with the Samaritan woman, this interior process is right there on the page for us to trace. We see this woman in the course of her discourse with Jesus constantly revise upward her understanding of Jesus. At first she thinks of him as just another Jewish man, then she seems to understand that here is a Jewish man of some depth, of some attainment, because she now addresses him very respectfully as sir. Then at a certain point in their conversation she says, I see that you are a prophet. So that ups her level of understanding considerably. Finally she leaves her jug there by the well to run back to the village to say to her townsfolk, I have found a man who told me everything I have ever done. Do you suppose that he is the Messiah?

That is some distance to travel in estimating the identity of Jesus. But it's part of the pattern that we're seeing in this part of the Gospel. Perhaps the author of the Gospel is suggesting the story of every Christian's constant growth in knowledge, in depth of knowledge, in depth of understanding of Jesus. But here we have an absolutely glowing instance of that. Andrew going from his assessment of Jesus as Rabbi to his understanding of Jesus as Messiah.

He took him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon, son of John. You shall be called Cephas" -- that is, Peter, which means rock. (Goodspeed Bible)
Now, you'll recall that in Matthew's Gospel Jesus goes on to say, and upon this rock I will build my Church. Matthew is very Church minded and would not want to leave anything like that out because it speaks volumes about the character of the Church founded by Jesus on Peter. John is more concerned here to imply Jesus' x-ray vision. John likes to project Jesus exactly in that way, as looking at someone and seeing right into him, into the meaning that that person has. That's what happens here: Jesus sees that Simon is rock. When we check in Matthew we find rock in the sense of being the foundation of the Church. There is, in the original, a play on words that does not come out in English. Jesus says you are Rock and on this rock I will build my Church, but due to the character of language it doesn't work out in English. It comes pretty close in French. There the play on words is quite obvious.

Read John 1:43-51.

I would offer a comment on Philip's name: it's Greek, and yet he counts as one of the disciples. Sometimes we have a stronger and unwarranted sense of the separation of Israel from the rest of the world, and even from its neighboring countries. There was a very strong Greek influence, especially in the North of the country, in Galilee. That, in fact, explains the name Galilee, the Hebrew meaning the ring of the Gentiles, so named because mixed in with the Jewish population in the North was a considerable non-Jewish Greek-speaking population. That would account for the reason why Galileans were made sport of and were not well thought of, because they were thought to be contaminated Jews, contaminated by Gentile usages and customs.

You could see that the Greek influence in the North had some impact on the population because Philip was a Jew, from a Jewish family, but bearing a Greek name. Jesus says come with me. Now Philip came from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter. Philip sought out Nathaniel and said to him, we have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, about whom the prophets wrote. Now here's the thing we have to note here: this is a recurrence of the situation that I spoke of a moment ago. Here Philip, having been with Jesus a short while, is able to identify him as the one spoken of in the law and the prophets. That's a big jump. What is the significance of that description of Jesus, the one spoken of in the law and the prophets? It is a way of saying one spoken of in the Scriptures, as we would say the one spoken of in the Old Testament. The Jews back then and right up to the present think of the Old Testament as tripartite: the law, the prophets, and the writings. So that what Philip is doing here possibly is using a shorthand speaking of the two big segments of Scripture, the Law and the Prophets, to characterize the whole thing. You know that figure that looms large in the Scriptures. In the law and the writings and the prophets, the Messiah, this is the one I want to tell you about.

Bear in mind that Philip has been with Jesus a short time and he has achieved this insight into him. In other words, people upon meeting Jesus do not keep static their understanding of him, their appreciation of him, but it grows, and it surely has in Philip. He was just summoned from the roadside and he has been with Jesus a little while and is now able to identify him in this very profound way. Note his instinct in coming upon this incredible find, Jesus the Messiah. His thought is to go to Nathaniel his friend and share the good news with him.

Nathaniel is not credulous at all. You can't put anything over on him. So he is very dubious, especially when Philip identifies Jesus as coming from Nazareth. Nathaniel is prompted to say can anything good come from Nazareth? This takes up something that I mentioned a moment ago. Galilee was not well thought of, and Nazareth was one of the principal towns in Galilee, almost the summation of all that Galilee stood for in the way of a subject of foreign influence, not all that close to what went on in the seat of action in Jerusalem. Nazareth was so far removed from Jerusalem that since the people there would get down to the temple infrequently. They wouldn't be well versed in the liturgy of the temple. This served to make them scapegoats and to be criticized. All that is contained in the scornful dismissal that Nathaniel makes in these words, can anything come from Nazareth?

It's interesting elsewhere, throughout this Gospel even, Jesus meets with doubt and rejection, and there the judgment is much stronger. Not here but eventually Nathaniel saves himself by coming around to a better state of mind. At least he is open to being convinced. But elsewhere it's the hardened doubt and dismissal of Jesus that you find later on in the gospel.

Here Nathaniel just talks from the top of his head, dubious about anything originating in Galilee, most especially in Nazareth. But after all he is willing enough to make the effort. When he is told to come and see, an invitation to faith, he does just that. In this gospel the expression come to Jesus is equivalent to saying believe in Jesus. Seeing Jesus has the same import. So they are virtually synonyms for belief, and in saying come and see, Philip is really saying to Nathaniel believe me, believe this is the case.

Jesus encountering Nathaniel is prompted to say here is an Israelite without guile. There is much in that remark. The first Israelite was the man whose name was changed to Israel, Jacob. All his descendants then are called Israelites. And now Nathaniel is referred to as an Israelite. That by the way, also bears out what I said earlier, that the word Jew did not function in this Gospel to characterize someone who normally we would speak of as a Jew, a member of the Jewish race. This Gospel would refer to such a person as an Israelite.

But let's go back to look at the origins or background of this remark in Genesis 32:28.

Read Genesis 32:22-24.

Jacob is completely free of all distraction even in very legitimate concerns that he would have had in any day, the welfare of his family and of his possessions. All that is put aside to give him the opportunity to focus sharply on what was to befall him. Jacob himself was left behind all alone.

Read Genesis 32:25-26

Now there's an indication that Jacob has not just been wrestling with another man, but there's something much more significant at issue here.

Read Genesis 32:27-30.

So here's the point, Jacob was granted this experience as a direct encounter with God. And you see his name gets changed to Israel, one who sees God, one who has seen God.

Now we see what we are so prompted to think of here in this case of Nathaniel being called an Israelite. Whom is he looking at at the moment? He is looking at Jesus, you see, and is called Israel. An Israelite just as Jacob was called an Israelite because he had looked on God. Here is Nathaniel looking on Jesus so I think very legitimately we may think of this as a new angle that is strongly suggesting the Divinity of Jesus. But Jesus also says of Nathaniel an Israelite in whom there is no guile. The reference there is to Jacob's deceit. Jacob was not the most virtuous of persons. You remember he managed to steal the birthright from his brother Esau. He did that by guile and Jesus says of Nathaniel, there is no guile in him, as indeed there was in Jacob who did his brother Esau in. I would like to go back just momentarily to that little text from Genesis where there is an account of Jacob's meeting with God. At the end Jacob says, I have seen God face to face and yet my life has been spared. What a strange thing to say, as if there were something deadly about God! The awe of the Hebrews, their awe of God was such that they seemed to fear that the very greatness, the bigness, the power of God would overwhelm them. That was a worry: don't get too close to God; it could be dangerous. But I like to think of it as kind of an analogy in the sun. There is nothing more blessed in our lives and more necessary than the sun, but if you look directly into the sun you will go blind. Its very brilliance is blinding, and yet we need it to see. Also if you get too close to the sun you are consumed by it. So something that is quite essentially good for us but its very greatness could be devastating. That seems to be the fear that the Hebrews had.

To come back to Nathaniel: Nathaniel said to him after this exchange,

"How do you know me?"
Jesus answered,
"Before Philip called you, while you were still under that fig tree, I saw you."
Nathaniel answered,
"Master you are the Son of God! You are King of Israel!"
(John 1:48-49, Goodspeed Bible)
That's quite a turnabout. Nathaniel, who starts out by wondering can anything good come out of Nazareth, is now acknowledging Jesus, hailing Him in these words, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel. It is another one of those instances that I brought to your attention earlier. You are with Jesus for a while and your understanding of Him is increasing in depth and richness, and no clearer instance of that than here in the case of Nathaniel. He certainly has grown in his understanding of Jesus in this short while.
Jesus answered,
"Do you believe in me because I told you that I had seen you under that fig tree? You will see greater things than that! . . . I tell you all, you will see heaven opened and God's angels going up and coming down upon the Son of Man."
(John 1:50-51, Goodspeed Bible.)
All along dialogue has been between Nathaniel and Jesus, and the word you is singular. You Nathaniel, you Jesus, and you Master and so on. But here when Jesus says I tell you all, you will see greater things than that he is using the plural. In the original Greek you singular has a different form from you plural, and here it's you plural. The only way we can express that is by that strange expression that they have in the South, I tell you all. I tell all of you. In other words, whereas up until now the dialog has been between Jesus and Nathaniel, now the dialog is between Jesus and several other people, Nathaniel included.

Jesus is pointing us forward to what will evolve in the story. Up until now it's been the words that Jesus spoke that have caught the interest and won the belief of his Disciples. But now there are going to be things that can be observed, signs as this gospel calls them, that will convince people, or make them understand the true and rich identity of Jesus. It cannot be just a matter of words now; it's going to be deeds as well.

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