In John 1:35–51 we move from John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus to Jesus’s own testimony. Here are ten things we find about Jesus in those verses.
1. John’s introduction (1:19–51) culminates in Christ’s testimony about himself.
Last week we observed that John 1:19–51 is organized around four days. Each of these days serves as a “window pane” to see Christ.
With John 2:1 speaking of the “third day,” we see how John introduces Jesus in his first week. These six or seven days (depending on how you count John 2:1), add to the creation theme of John 1 (see vv. 1–3, 32). And in chapter 1 they organize John’s introduction to the Word of God made flesh around the testimonies of John, John’s disciples, other disciples, and finally Jesus.
More specifically, John 1:35–51 brings the testimony of John and his disciples to Jesus himself. Whereas John’s testimony (v. 19) is the focus of the first two “window panes” (vv. 19–28, 29-34), now attention shifts away from John. First, John points his disciples to Jesus (vv. 35–37), so that some leave him. These disciples who follow Jesus then begin to invite others to follow Jesus (vv. 41–42, 46). Finally, Jesus himself bears testimony to himself (vv. 50–51). This is the climax of John’s four days and prepares us for all that follows.
2. John uses chiastic structures to highlight key points.
The third and fourth window panes continue to employ a literary structure to emphasize key points about Jesus. Previously, I argued that days one and two are structured chiastically (A-B-A). I believe the same is true in days three and four. In fact, if all four window panes do not employ chiastic structuring, then I would conclude none of them do. Why? Because chiasms run together.
However, after seeing a clear chiastic structure in John 1:1–18, there seems to be good evidence for discovering some measure of structure in these four days. Days 1 and 2 each stand with a basic chiasm. Days 3 and 4, which increase the number of speakers in the dialogue, possess a double chiasm. Here’s my outline.
A Behold the Lamb of God (vv. 35–36)
A 2 Disciples . . . heard and followed Jesus (v. 37)
B Jesus saw the 2 disciples following (v. 38a)
C Jesus: What are you seeking? (v. 38b)
D Jesus is the Greater Teacher (Rabbi) (v. 38c)
C’ Jesus: Come and See. (v. 39a)
B’ The disciples saw where Jesus was staying and stayed with him (v. 39b)
A’ 1 Disciple . . . heard and followed Jesus (v. 40)
B’ Andrew found Peter (v. 41a)
C’ Andrew: Jesus is the Messiah (Christ) (v. 41b)
B Andrew brought Peter to Jesus (v. 42a)
A 1 Disciple . . . Jesus names Peter (v. 42b)
A Jesus >> Philip (v. 43) — “Follow me!”
(Philip was from Bethsaida) (v. 44)
B Philip >> Nathanael (v. 45) — “We have found him . . .”
C Nathanael >>Philip (v. 46a) — “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
B Philip >> Nathanael (v. 46b) — “Come and see!”
A Jesus >> Nathanael (v. 47) — “A True Israelite”
B Nathanael >>Jesus (v. 48a) — “How do you know me?”
C Jesus >> Nathanael (v. 48b) — “. . . I saw you”
B Nathanael >> Jesus (v. 49) — “. . . Son of God, King of Israel”
A Jesus >> Nathanael / All People (vv. 50–51) — “You will see greater things”
If these structures are close to John’s intention—and from lexical, thematic, and personal parallels, I believe they are—then we begin to see what John is emphasizing.
- He is focusing on how Jesus is a greater teacher than John the Baptist, which explains and is explained by the departure of two disciples from John to Jesus (v. 38).
- He is focusing on the point that Jesus is the Messiah and is being recognized by John’s disciples as such (v. 41)
- He is focusing on the way Jesus is overcoming doubt (v. 46a) — a key point for the Jewish audience to whom John is writing.
- He is focusing on the way that Jesus knows those whom he is calling (v. 48).
Of course there are other themes, especially those related to the various titles assigned to Jesus, but this literary structure does assist us in seeing how we are to interpret this section. We are to see that Jesus is the Christ and we are to believe on him and turn away from our doubts. These points come across without appeal to the literary structure, but seeing the structure makes the points sharper.
3. Common words take on greater theological significance as we read John’s Gospel.
John’s use of language also takes on greater significance as we read his Gospel. For instance, there are some words (e.g., follow, remain) that grow in weight as the Gospel proceeds. They begin with literal references (e.g., Andrew literally follows Jesus, and he seeks where Jesus literally says), but quickly the words take on a figurative meaning with deep theological implications. Here is how Andreas Köstenberger describes these two words,
The term akoloutheō (follow), which occurs here for the first time in John, is used in all four Gospels (though not the rest of the NT) with reference to Jesus’ disciples. Disciples in that day literally “followed” or walked behind the one they had chosen as their teacher (e.g., y. Hag. 2.1). In John’s Gospel, however, the term gradually moves from this literal to a more figurative sense to denote a “following” of Jesus teaching (8:12; 10:4—-5, 27; 12:26: 21:19, 20, 22). (Köstenberger, John, 73)
[John] 1:38–39 presents the first instances of the word menō (stay) in John’s Gospel. Though here merely referring to Jesus’ lodgings (cf. 2:12; 4:40; 10:40; 11:6, 54), the term gradually assumes a significance metaphorical dimension in John (8:31: ‘abide in my teaching’), especially in the farewell discourse (14:10, 17; 15:4–10: ‘remain in me/my love’). (Kostenberger, John, 74–75)
These two words exemplify a pattern in John’s Gospel, where his language leads us to look more carefully at the words he uses. In these two words, we see how literal meaning becomes to elide with figurative. And this, I believe, helps us to understand how to read the many titles of Jesus in John 1.
Commentators are at pains to discover what John means by “Lamb of God” in John 1. Does the Baptist know Jesus to be the sin-bearing sacrifice, or is he referring to a warring lamb? Likewise, is the reference to Jesus as Son of God a reference to Jesus’s divine nature or a messianic reference to Jesus, as David’s royal son (see 2 Sam. 7:14; Ps 2:7). Many have said that John and Nathanael speak better than they knew, and this may be the case. It may also be the case that John is employing these terms early in his Gospel and repeating them to define these terms himself as the Gospel goes forward.
As we will see, Jesus as the lamb of God and the Son of God will be defined by the whole book. And thus, in a second reading, John’s own understanding of Jesus’s sacrifice and eternal oneness with the Father are appropriately assigned to these terms, even if they go beyond the original understanding of those who spoke them.
4. The titles of Jesus are many.
Speaking of titles, John assigns a variety of messianic titles to Jesus. In John 1:35–51 we can list at least eight. These include
- Jesus, the Lamb of God (v. 36)
- Jesus, the True Teacher (v. 38, 49)
- Jesus, the Messiah (v. 41)
- Jesus, the Fulfillment of the Old Testament (v. 45)
- Jesus, the Son of God (v. 49)
- Jesus, the King of Israel (v. 49)
- Jesus, the House of the Lord (v. 51)
- Jesus, the Son of Man (v. 51)
From these titles, we can build a very clear Christology, one that will continue to emerge over the course of John’s Gospel. But clearly, he is writing his Gospel to show how Jesus fulfills all that the Law and the Prophets have said about the messiah, the Son of God (v. 45). The more we pay attention to these titles and the way John connects Old Testament promise to their fulfillment, the more we will see what John is saying about Jesus.
5. In these verses, seeing is believing.
Throughout John 1, we see how John leads his readers to look at Jesus. This is achieved by an overwhelming attention to words that focus on seeing and actions that facilitate sight. Consider a few ways this happens.
First, you have fourteen places where sight is mentioned explicitly.
- John saw Jesus coming toward him (v. 29)
- John cries out, “Behold, the lamb of God” (v. 29)
- John says, “I have seen and borne witness . . . (v. 34)
- John looked (emblepō = looked intently) at Jesus . . . (v. 35)
- John says to his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (v. 36)
- Jesus turned and saw Andrew and another disciple following him (v. 38)
- Jesus replied, “Come and you will see” (v. 39)
- So Andrew and the other disciple came and saw (v. 39)
- Jesus looked (emblepō = looked intently) at Peter (v. 42)
- Philip to Nathanael, said, “Come and see” (v. 46)
- Jesus saw Nathanael (v. 47)
- Jesus said, “. . . I saw you” (v. 48)
- Jesus: “Because I said, I saw you . . .” (v. 50)
- Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened . . .” (v. 51)
Second, you have disciples “finding” the messiah (v. 41) and finding others (Andrew finding his brother Peter and Philip finding Nathanael) and bringing them to Jesus (vv. 41–42). Then, in the presence of Jesus, we see how Nathanael’s blindness (?) is removed, as Jesus introduces himself to “the true Israelite.” All in all, these three window panes (Days 2–4) are filled with light.
By contrast, Day 1 is dark. As the Pharisees, priests, and Levites come to Jesus there is no understanding. John even says, “among you stands one you do not know” (v. 26), one who is greater than John (v. 27). Whether this is on purpose or not, the effect of no sight words in Day 1 and copious number of sight words in Days 2–4 indicates light has come into the world, but not everyone benefits from the light.
As we will continue to see, John makes grand use of light and darkness in his Gospel. And here, John shows how light is being seen and shared with those who are following Jesus. As John 7:17–18 will say later, ”
If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.
This sort of sifting is already happening in John 1 and it calls us, the reader, to pay attention to what John wants us to see.
6. Sight comes from meeting Jesus, not making arguments.
What does John want us to see? In Days 3 and 4, there is a peculiar pattern of people being brought to Jesus and Jesus seeking people—if Jesus, not Andrew, is the subject in v. 43. If Andrew is the subject, as some believe, then everyone comes to Jesus at the request of someone else. Either way, sight is brought to people; it does occur by itself.
Consider how this looks.
- John tells his 2 disciples, Jesus is the Lamb of God and they follow him. (vv. 35–37)
- Andrew finds his brother Peter and brings him to Jesus. (vv. 41–42)
- Andrew / Jesus calls Philip to follow Christ. (v. 43)
- Philip proceeds to find Nathanael and bring him to Jesus. (vv. 45–46)
Interestingly, no one is persuaded by argumentation. When Nathanael questions whether something good can originate from Nazareth, Philip doesn’t philosophize, he simply invites the skeptic to come and see. And being seen by Jesus, while under the fig tree, his opinion changes.
In these episodes, faith is granted through a personal encounter with Christ. This is true with Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael. None are won over by argumentation, all are brought to following Jesus by introducing others to Jesus. Such an observation explains why John will go on in his Gospel to recount multiple testimonies of people encountering the Son.
At the same time, there is a practical lesson here. The greatest argument for Jesus is Jesus himself. While moral arguments for the origin of goodness have their place; they are impotent to save. Only when people are led to Jesus; only when Jesus seeks his people and shows himself to them through the testimony of his followers is faith given. Thus, in these chapters we see how God makes disciples and grows his church.
In this way, faith is is product of being seen by Jesus. It is striking that when Jesus sets his eyes on Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael, these men are brought to faith. It’s not too much to say that their sight of him is a response to his sight of them. And John is recording all of these “sights” so that his readers would see Jesus too. So let’s see what John shows us.
7. Jesus fulfills all that the Law and the Prophets foretold.
In summary, John 1:45 tells us that Jesus fulfilled all that Moses in the Law and the Prophets proclaimed. In other words, Jesus is not just the fulfillment of one messianic office; he fulfills them all. Hence, the need for John to introduce Jesus through myriad of titles (see # 4 above). As D. A. Carson observes,
That is the stance of this entire Gospel: Jesus fulfils the Old Testament Scriptures (cf. 5:39). The earliest disciples could not have identified Jesus as the promised Coming One, the Messiah, without believing that the Scriptures pointed to him, for that was part of the common stock of Jewish messianic hope. In this stream of thought, not only the prophets but even ‘the Law’ — i.e. the Pentateuch — anticipated the coming of the Messiah. . . . Philip refers to no specific passage, but in this chapter Deuteronomy 18:15-19 and Genesis 28 are alluded to (in v. 21 and v. 51 respectively). To this must be added the large stock of material from the rest of the Old Testament, here lumped together as what ‘the prophets’ wrote.’ (John, 159)
John’s Gospel will continually appeal to the Law and the Prophets to show who Jesus is. And these words of Philip, therefore, are not only spoken to Nathanael but all who read John’s Gospel. And accordingly, we will continue to see how Jesus is the substance to which all the Old Testament shadows point.
8. John is the Lamb of God to which all the lambs of God coalesce.
If it is true that Jesus is the substance of all the shadows, then it should not surprise us to see how the light of Jesus produces multiple shadows in the Old Testament. To put it different, typology between the Old Testament and the New is never about a one-to-one correspond. Because Jesus is infinitely greater than all who have gone before him, it takes all of the shadows to begin approximate the glory of Christ. And then still, the sum is greater than the total of its parts.
This is especially true with the statement by John: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29, 36). Last week, we considered the many different ‘lambs’ who show up in the Old Testament. Scholars have attempted to discern which lamb is John the Baptist thinking—is it the lamb provided to Abraham (Genesis 22), the passover lamb (Exodus 12), or one of the animals offered in Leviticus? This is a valid question, but it puts it the wrong way around.
Jesus is not the lamb like those lambs; those lambs are like him. He is the true lamb of God, the one who will be sacrificed for the sins of the world. Again, the definition of John’s lamb requires a full reading of the Gospel and then a re-reading of the same. Jesus defines what the lamb is and accordingly, he is summation of and the final substitution for all the sacrifices in the Old Testament. In other words, prophetically all the lambs provided by God in the Old Testament were given to tell us something about this true and final lamb.
Expressing this point well, George Smeaton once stated,
The question is raised, What particular lamb had the Baptist in his eye? Some hold that the allusion is to the paschal lamb, while others have referred it to the daily sacrifice. The words themselves do not decide the question; and the difficulty encountered in this and in all similar allusions to the lamb is due to the theories of commentators, and may be said to arrive in large measure, if not wholly, from the too artificial distribution of the sacrifices to which many expositors have precipitately committed themselves.
Thus, under the spell of too much system, one earnest advocate of the atonement answers the question what particular lamb is referred to, in this strange way —“Not the paschal lamb,” says he, “for that had no relation to the bearing of sin ; not the morning and evening sacrifice, as that was a burnt-offering ; nor could he have thought of a sin-offering generally, as a lamb was but seldom used for that.” This embarrassment, denying precisely what should be affirmed, grows out of the complicated sacrificial system which has been in vogue for a number of years past. On the contrary, the allusion is to all those sacrifices where a lamb was slain. The most natural explanation is, that John alludes not to any one particular offering, but, in a comprehensive way, to all those propitiatory sacrifices where a lamb was used to bear or to take away the penalty of sin. (The Doctrine of the Atonement as Taught by Christ Himself, 96-97)
Smeaton goes on to explain how Christ fulfills the “paschal lamb” (i.e., the passover lamb), the lamb of the burnt-offering, and the lamb of the sin-offering (97–98). Indeed, as John 1:45 indicates, Jesus fulfills all that the Law and the Prophets foretold, and he does so because before the foundation of the world, he is the Lamb ordained by God to take away the sins of his people (see 1 Pet. 1:20).
In this way, we see the difference between the Old Testament and the New. Jesus does not just fit into the system of the Old Testament. The entire sacrificial system and everything else in the Law and the Prophets was given to prepare the way for him. Such is the Christ-centeredness of John’s Gospel, the Old Testament, and the world. And the more we see how Christ is the center of God’s purposes in creation and revelation, the more clearly we will perceive how to follow him.
9. Jesus is the place where you can see into heaven.
If Jesus fulfills all that the Law and the Prophets say about sacrifices, he also fulfills everything the Law and the Prophets say about God’s dwelling place. Already in John 1, verse 14 identifies Jesus with the tabernacle: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
As we noticed a few weeks ago, this verse is the first of many that highlight the temple theme in John’s Gospel. Now again in John 1:51, we see a double allusion to Genesis 28, where Jacob saw the heavenly temple, and Daniel 7:13–14, where the Son of Man was seen in the throne room of God. In short, we have in John 1:50–51, a vision of heaven pronounced by Jesus himself. And there are a couple things to see.
First, Jesus’s words have all the trademarks of an apocalyptic vision. As Andreas Köstenberger notes, “To see ‘heaven open’ is to receive a vision of otherworldly realities (Acts 10:11; Rev. 4:1; 19:11)” (85). In other words, when Jesus’s finally speaks about himself, the event is a mini-apocalypse. Written by the writer of Revelation, this is significant and worth our consideration: Jesus has not only brought heaven to earth, he is bringing earth—namely, his disciples—to heaven. Consider Köstenberger’s lengthy meditation on this very point.
An “open heaven” was every Jewish apocalyptic’s dream. This spawned an entire genre of literature in the Second Temple period in which enigmatic figures such as Enoch (who, according to Gen. 5:24, was translated to heaven without dying) are depicted as traversing heaven and reporting what they see (1 Enoch is quoted in Jude 14-15). But, as Jesus maintains in John 3:13, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” This Son of Man, in turn, is none other than the mysterious figure of Dan. 7:13, “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.” What Jesus claims is that he is that Son of Man prophesied in Daniel, the one who has seen God and given a full account of him (cf. John 1:18), the one who was “lifted up” at the cross (3:14; cf. 8:28; 12:32), and the one who will return in all his glory (Matt. 26:64).
The picture of “heaven open and Gods angels ascending and descending” in the present context is drawn from Jacobs vision of the ladder “resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it [or ‘him, i.e., Jacob]” (Gen. 28:12).” As the angels ascended and descended on Jacob (who later was renamed “Israel’”)—a sign of Gods revelation and reaffirmation of faithfulness to his promises made to Abraham (Ridderbos 1997: 93)—so the disciples are promised further divine confirmation of Jesus’ messianic identity.”* When Jacob awoke from his dream, he exclaimed, “How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:17); and he called that place “Bethel,” which means “house of God.”
What Jesus tells Nathanael, then, is that he himself will be the place of much greater divine revelation than that given at previous occasions. He will mediate greater revelation than Abraham (8:58), Jacob (4:12-14), Moses (1:17—18; 5:45-47; 9:28-33), and Isaiah (12:37-41). Jesus is the “new Bethel,’ the place where God is revealed, where heaven and earth, God and humankind, meet. . . . Importantly, though, Jesus is the very culmination of all of God’s revelatory expressions (cf. 1:14–18), providing a fullness of divine self-disclosure about which even Jacob (Israel) could only dream; and these disciples, who as of yet know little of what awaits them, will soon be witnesses of revelation far exceeding that received by any Israelite in previous history. (John, 85–86)
Returning to the point that John is writing his Gospel to show how Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets, it’s worthwhile to see how Jesus’s word harmonize the words of Moses (Genesis 28) and Daniel (7:13–14). As Edward Klink states, “The two visions echoed here from Genesis 28 and Daniel 7 fit uniquely together, with aspects taken from each.”
The reference to heaven opening is reminiscent of the visions themselves and symbolizes the power and love of God being revealed in Jesus. The ascending and descending angels over Jesus represent the “glory” to be displayed in Jesus’s ministry (cf. 1:14). It reflects that God is with Jesus from beginning of his ministry to the end. Finally, the Son of Man brings power, glory, and the kingdom together in the person of Jesus. The explication of the title Son of Man is not completed, however, for the person of Jesus is intimately connected to this world-they work done in obedience and unto death. This is the grand irony, clearly misunderstood by the disciples even at the end of Jesus‘s ministry at Central to the Gospel account. (Edward J. Klink, John, 154–55)
As we have noted many times, what John introduces in chapter 1 requires the rest of his Gospel to see and believe. And that is what verse 51 invites us to do.
10. Those who read John’s Gospel will see greater things.
Importantly, verse 51 shifts the singular “you” in verse 50 to the plural “you” (y’all). This shift turns the attention of John from Jesus speaking to Nathanael, to Jesus speaking to everyone else. Rhetorically, this expansion invites the reader to consider what they will see and what Jesus will show.
Already in John 1, we see what happens when Jesus reveals himself to his followers. He arrests Nathanael’s “unbelief” by announcing that he saw him, a true Israelite, under the fig tree. This image is also thick with Old Testament background (see 1 Kings 4:25; Zech 3:10), but the more shocking point is not what Jesus is referring to—we may not be able to fully know—but that Jesus was able to make this skeptic believe.
Such is the point of John’s whole gospel, and here in verse 51, we are told that we will see greater things: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” This verse invites us to see who the Son of Man is and what it means that heaven is opened. Truly, this final verse in John’s introduction prepares the way for all the signs Jesus will do and all that John will say as he bears testimony to Christ.
Are you ready to see Christ? He’s looking for you. As John 1 tells us, he has eyes to see all those whom the Father has given him to seek and to save. And all who have eyes to see Jesus will find him, because Jesus is sending his Spirit and his Bride into the world to find all his sheep. What a glorious truth! May it lead us to know him more and make him known.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds