The Prologue to the Gospel

There are many parallels between the Prologue and the rest of the Gospel, and many themes that are first introduced here.  Moreover, the Prologue summarises ‘how the “Word” which was with God in the very beginning came into the sphere of time, history, tangibility – in other words, how the Son of God was sent into the world to become the Jesus of history, so that the glory and grace of God might be uniquely and perfectly disclosed.  The rest of the book is nothing other than an expansion of this theme’ (Carson).  Accordingly, we have little reason to doubt that both the Prologue and the rest of the Gospel came from the same hand.

John’s Prologue contains a number of ideas that are found in the midrashim and targumim, including the pre-existence of the Messiah, the Word as Creator, and the Word as Light.

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God.

In the beginning – It is instructive to compare the starting-points of the four Gospels:-

Mark introduces the story of Jesus by taking us back to John the Baptist;
Matthew (in his genealogy) back to Abraham;
Luke further back still, to Adam.
John, in place of the genealogies and nativity accounts of the Synoptists, makes the coming of Jesus the historical manifestation of the eternal Word of God. Accordingly, John pushes us back as far as we can go, to ‘the beginning’. In doing so, he seems consciously to be recalling the opening words of the Bible, Gen 1:1. But whereas Genesis starts at ‘the beginning’ and immediately moves forward into God’s creative acts, John pauses at ‘the beginning’ to assert that before anything else existed, the Word already ‘was’. The Word, then, is characterised as eternal and uncreated. In this way, he is set apart in the most radical way from even the highest and best of created beings. Moreover, John seems to be implying that, since ‘the Word’ has existed from all eternity, so he has been active and involved in all that God was saying and doing in earlier dispensations.

Before long, John will identify ‘the Word’ as none other than Christ. But beginning in this way, he places the work of the Saviour in a cosmic setting to remind us of the magnitude of his grace and condescension in his incarnation and atoning death.

The Word was a term familiar to both Greeks and Jews among John’s readers. For the Stoics, logos was the rational principle by which everything exists, and there is no other god than logos.  In Philo’s dualistic thought, the logos is the ideal man, the origin of real men.  (But Philo’s logos did not have personality, and did not become incarnate).  More generally in the ancient world, logos could mean ‘thought’ or ‘reason’ and also the expression of that thought or reason (hence, ‘speech’; ‘message’).

But of particular importance is the OT background. We think, for example, of the oft-repeated phrase “and God said…,” Gen 1; cf. Ps 33:6; Pr 8:22 ff. We think, too, of those OT passages in which “the word of the Lord” came to various prophets, Jer 1:4; Eze 1:3; Am 3:1, etc. It is notable too that in some of the later Jewish translations of the OT, the desire to avoid direct reference to God led to his frequently being referred to as ‘the word of God’. Many find additional connections with the OT themes of Wisdom (esp Prov 8:22ff) and Torah.  The significance of John’s use of this term may therefore be summarised as follows: it is the very nature of God to express himself in creation, salvation and revelation; he has expressed himself in times past; now that same revelation has been manifested in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Jn 1:18; Col 1:15.  The Logos is God’s ultimate self-disclosure.

John is, therefore, picking up a wide-ranging and deeply significant term, and he will now go on to fill it with yet more meaningful content.

Seven things about the divine Word

John tells us seven things about the divine Word:-

(1) “In the beginning was the Word” (Jn 1:1). Here is the Word’s eternity. He had no beginning of his own; when other things began, he-was.

(2) “And the Word was with God” (Jn 1:1). Here is the Word’s personality. The power that fulfills God’s purposes is the power of a distinct personal being, one who stands in an eternal relation to God of active fellowship (this is what the phrase means).

(3) “And the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). Here is the Word’s deity. Though personally distinct from the Father, he is not a creature; he is divine in himself, as the Father is. The mystery with which this verse confronts us is thus the mystery of personal distinctions within the unity of the Godhead.

(4) “Through him all things were made” (Jn 1:3). Here is the Word creating. He was the Father’s agent in every act of making that the Father has ever performed. All that was made was made through him. (Here, incidentally, is further proof that he, the Maker, does not belong to the class of things made, any more than the Father does.)

(5) “In him was life” (Jn 1:4). Here is the Word animating. There is no physical life in the realm of created things except in and through him. Here is the Bible answer to the problem of the origin and continuance of life, in all its forms: life is given and maintained by the Word. Created things do not have life in themselves, but life in the Word, the second person of the Godhead.

(6) “And that life was the light of men” (Jn 1:4). Here is the Word revealing. In giving life, he gives light too; that is to say, all people receive intimations of God from the very fact of being alive in God’s world, and this, no less than the fact that they are alive, is due to the work of the Word.

(7) “The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14). Here is the Word incarnate. The baby in the manger at Bethlehem was none other than the eternal Word of God.’

(Packer, Knowing God)

And the Word was with God – It is clear that ‘the Word’ is not simply another name for God: he had a conscious personal existence apart from God. And yet the relationship between the Word and God was one of the closest and most intimate fellowship. This is implicit in the present phrase, which might even be translated, ‘the Word was face to face with God’ (Hendriksen), or, ‘the Word was towards God’ (Morris). Cf. Jn 1:18; 17:5.

‘They lived towards each other. They were for each other. They reached out to each other, living, face to face, an existence of total love and total sharing.’ (D. Macleod, Shared Life, 19).

‘The image implied in the preposition is the face-to-face position of equals.’ (HSB)

The relationship between the Word and God was, moreover, one of complete unity of mind and purpose. Though the personalities of the two are separate, they are not isolated, Jn 10:30. This unity gives great poignancy and meaning to the dereliction of Christ on the the cross, Mt 27:46.

And the Word was God – It is clearly inadequate to say, as some do, that there was ‘something divine’ about Jesus. The Gk has ‘theos’, God, not ‘theios’, divine. Nothing less than the assertion that he is God will do justice to John’s teaching here. He possess all the attributes of deity: he is eternal, omniscient, unchanging, omnipresent and so on. He performs all the functions of deity: creation, preservation, government and final judgement. He enjoys every divine prerogative, and is worthy of all honour and praise.

When we think of the fierce tenacity with which the Jews upheld their doctrine of monotheism, we realise that is was no light matter for John to assert here a second personality within the Godhead. Not that he is giving up his monotheistic belief: but he cannot withhold from the Word the designation ‘God’. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, of course, propose the translation ‘and the Word was a god.’ But this is both bad grammar and bad theology. ‘Is it conceivable that John, schooled in the Jewish belief that there is one God, should suddenly spring on us the idea that in fact a whole collection of deities?’ (Donald Macleod, Shared Life, 19)

OT authority for ascribing deity to the Messiah has been detected in Psalm 45 and Isa 9:7.  Certainly, the early Christians were not slow in confessing Jesus as God, Rom 9:5; Phil 2:5-11; Col 1:15-20.  But John is the most unambiguous of all.

This verse hints at mysteries which our intellects are quite unable to penetrate. Human reason is sure to stumble, and deny one or other aspect of the doctrine of Christ. But faith knows when to lay reason aside, and to stand in awe, lost in wonder, love, and praise.

‘John intends that the whole of his gospel shall be read in the light of this verse. The deeds and words of Jesus are the deeds and words of God; if this be not true the book is blasphemous.’ (C.K. Barrett)

‘A careful reading of Jn 1:1 yields a wealth of information about the Logos. The verse is divided into three simple clauses, each of which contains the imperfect of the verb (“to be”). In each of the clauses the verb has a different meaning. In the first clause it means “to exist.” The existed in the beginning. The phrase “in the beginning” is an obvious allusion to Gen 1:1 (LXX; MT). So John is saying that at the very beginning of creation the already existed. In the second clause the verb “to be” describes a relationship-the was with God in the sense of being in his presence. Therefore, the was distinct from God and at the same time in fellowship with God. In the third clause the verb “to be” is used in a predication in which the character or essence of the is defined-“The word was God.”‘ (DJG)

‘The choice of words and their order is very significant in this third clause. If John had wanted to say that the word and God are the same being he could have written. Or if he had wanted to say that the word was a god he could have written. Or if he had wanted to say the word was divine he could have written. As it stands, could mean any of these three statements. But it could also mean the word was God in the sense that the church has explained the nature of Christ since Chalcedon. He is a part of the unity of the triune Godhead. E. C. Colwell has shown that definite predicate nouns preceding the verb do not need the article to show that they are definite. So a reference to the one God of the Bible is entirely possible in this third clause. The church has understood that Christ is deity based on this verse along with others. (cf. Php 2:6; Col 1:19; 2:9; Heb 1:3,9) But to say that Christ is the only person in the Godhead is to neglect the second clause of the same verse. In later debates the church has interpreted the NT to say that the, with the Father and the Spirit, is one of the three eternal and co-equal persons of the Godhead.

Jn 1:3-4 describes the activity of the. He is the agent of creation (“all things came into being through him”), and he is the source of true life which is the light of all people. Later in the Gospel John expands on this latter activity of the word which gives life Jn 6:35,48,51,58; 11:25 and light.’ Jn 8:12; 9:1-12 (DJG)

'The Word was God'?
The New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses translates this verse idiosyncratically: “In the beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.”  ‘Their explanation for this is that in the Greek there is no definite article before ‘God’, whereas if God (theos) were meant in the full and absolute sense it should be ho theos: ‘God’ with the definite article. But the grammatical rule is quite simply this: if the noun comes after the verb and functions as a predicate, it lacks the definite article. If John wanted to say that the Word was God, making the word ‘God’ a predicate of Jesus, then he did so in the best way open to him, by omitting the article.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)

Keener comments on two aspects of the JW misinterpretation: ‘First, “God” does not always have a definite article in John’s Gospel; the God who sent John the Baptist does not have a definite article (Jn 1:6), but Jehovah’s Witnesses never say he was simply “a god.”  Second, grammatically “God” is a predicate nominative in “the Word was God,” and predicate nominatives usually omit definite articles.’

Modern versions of the Bible, based as they are on an eclectic text, ascribe the title ‘God’ to Jesus Christ at least as frequently as the AV Of eight texts which, prima facie, do this (Jn 1:1; 1:18; Acts 20:28; Rom 9:5; 2 Thess 1:12; Tit 2:13; Heb 1:8; 2 Pet 1:1) the AV, RSV and NEB accept 4 as referring to Jesus’ deity, the RV accept 6, and the NIV accepts 7, plus one in the margin.

It is instructive to reflect on the ways in which John’s Gospel represents Christ as being:-

  • in the beginning, (Jn 8:58) “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
  • with God; (Jn 10:30) “I and the Father are one.” (Jn 17:11) “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name-the name you gave me-so that they may be one as we are one.” (Jn 17:22) “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one”
  • very God, (Jn 20:28) Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

‘The baby born at Bethlehem was God. More precisely, putting it in Bible language, he was the Son of God, or, as Christian theology regularly expresses it, God the Son. The Son, note, not a Son: as John says four times in the first three chapters of his Gospel, in order to make quite sure that his readers understand the uniqueness of Jesus, he was the only begotten or one and only Son of God. (see Jn 1:14,18 3:16,18) Accordingly, the Christian church confesses: “I believe in God the Father…and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.”‘ (Packer, Knowing God)

1:2 The Word was with God in the beginning. 1:3 All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created.

‘Repetitions have diverse uses in Scripture. In prayer they argue affection. In prophecy they note celerity and certainty. In threatenings they note unavoidableness and suddenness. In precepts they note a necessity of performing them. In truths, like that before us, they serve to show the necessity of believing and knowing them.’ (Arrowsmith, Q by Ryle)  

Through him all things were made – The agency of the Word in creation is central and all-embracing. It does not say here, however, that all things were made by him – that might tend to exclude the agency of the Father. Cf. 1 Cor 8:6. By teaching the activity of the Word in creation, this verse signifies that creation is (among other things) a revelation-act: the created universe reveals something about its Maker.

The universe is created, and not eternal. There was a time when God called it into being, through the agency of the Word.

The universe is inherently good, not evil as the Gnostics taught. It is good, for it reflects the character of the Creator. This world is God’s world, and is consequently not to be despised, but cherished.

The universe has meaning and purpose. It is not the result of blind, impersonal, capricious or malevolent forces, but has been made through the Word of God. Everything that has been made has his finger-prints, and expresses his mind. We harness the resources of creation in the knowledge that they are all beneficent in the last analysis, and extend the horizons of our knowledge with the assurance that we shall find meaningfulness and not absurdity.

The NT frequently speaks of the pre-existent Christ as the creator of all things – Col 1:16f; Heb 1:2; Rev 3:14.

The sovereignty of Christ’s power in creation is a powerful argument in favour of the sovereignty of his grace in redemption.

1:4 In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. 1:5 And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it.

In him was life – Cf. Jn 5:26.  We move here from creation in general to the creation of life itself. It is only because of the uncreated life of the Word that there is created life at all. All life derives from and is dependent upon the Word.

What kind of life is in view here? Is it natural life, or spiritual life? It may well be that both are in mind, since this passage as a whole deals both with creation (leading to natural life) and salvation (leading to spiritual life): cp v3 w v12f. In any case, spiritual life is a leading theme of this Gospel, Jn 3:16; 5:40; 10:10; 20:31.

The same may be said of ‘light’. John has just referred to creation, and, of course, light was the product of the first day of creation. But John is no doubt interested particularly in spiritual light, for light often appears elsewhere in Scripture as a symbol of the spiritual life, cf. Ps 36:9; Jn 8:12.

The connection between life and light is not difficult: ‘When life is manifested, it is called light, for it is characteristic of light to shine forth.’ (Hendriksen)

Since life flows from the Word, it follows that all life is a precious and a good thing, and is to nurtured and protected as such.

Since life has not only to be begun, but also sustained, it follows that the Word has never ceased to exert his life-giving power.

God is not to be thought of as remote, distant, unknowable. By his Word he has enlightened mankind, so that all should have the opportunity to believe, and none have excuse for not believing.

‘The relationship between God and the Word in the Prologue is identical with the relationship between the Father and the Son in the rest of the Gospel.  Both Jn 1:4 and Jn 5:26 insist that Word/Son shares in the self-existing life of God.  Later on Jesus claims that he is both the light of the world (Jn 8:12; 9:5) and the life (Jn 11:25; 14:6).’ (Carson)

Carson calls this verse ‘a masterpiece of planned ambiguity’: for it takes the reader from the shining of light into darkness that took place at the creation to the shining of that self-same divine Word into the darkness of the present world.  Note the transition to the present tense: the light continues to shine. Here in this verse we are introduced to a major theme in this Gospel: the continuing conflict between light and darkness. See Jn 3:19 8:12 12:35.

The word ‘darkness’ sums up the whole moral condition of the present world. All the forces of sin and evil are gathered together under this heading. To be in darkness means to be without knowledge, without hope, without joy, without direction, without the light, which is the Word, who is Christ.  See Jn 3:19; 8:12; 12:35,46; 1 Jn 1:5f; 2:8-11.  Accordingly the light is bound up now not only with creation, but with salvation.

The darkness has not understood it – This introduced the rejection theme which is developed in v10f.

The darkness has not overcome it (RSV).  Morris points out that the verb here is in the aorist tense: ‘and the darkness did not overcome it.’ This most naturally refers to a single occasion, and that occasion would then be Calvary. There, says the same writer, ‘the light and the darkness came into bitter and decisive conflict and the darkness could not prevail.’ See Rev 5:5-6.

Darkness and the light are complete opposites; they are mutually exclusive; they are at war with each other. We ourselves are pitched into this battle. No rest for the righteous!

‘In the first and second verses of this chapter, mention is made of a state before the creation of the world; in the third verse, the word’s creation; in the fourth, the time of man’s uprightness; in the fifth, the time of man’s decline and fall.’ (Bengel)

1:6 A man came, sent from God, whose name was John. 1:7 He came as a witness to testify about the light, so that everyone might believe through him. 1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify about the light.

Having spoken of the ultimate origins of Christ, John now speaks of his entry onto the public arena.

The manner in which John (the Baptist) is introduced may indicate that he was already well known to this Gospel’s first readers. The Fourth Gospel does not mentioned his ethical teaching, nor even the fact that he baptised Jesus. He is here only placed in the role of a ‘witness’. It may well be that these other facts were already well known, and that the Fourth Evangelist wished to show in particular how John as ‘not the light’ but merely ‘a witness to the light’.

Given that the writer of this Gospel habitually distinguishes between people with the same name (Jn 13:26; 14:22), it is interesting that he does not identify this John as ‘the Baptist’.  He does not need to, because he never mentions by name the other John – the son of Zebedee – and the explanation that this latter John was responsible for this Gospel is still the best one.

John was sent from God, just as Moses (Ex 3:10-15) and the prophets (Isa 6:8; Jer 1:4ff) had been.

Christ and John compared

Christ John
a. was (ἦν) from all eternity;
b. is the Word (ὁ λόγος);
c. is himself God;
d. is the real light;
e. is the object of trust.ἦν) from all eternity;
a. came (ἐγένετο);
b. is a mere man (ἄνθρωπος);
c. is commissioned by God;
d. came to testify concerning the real light;
e. is the agent through whose testimony men come to trust in the real light, even Christ.

(Hendriksen)

John’s ministry is further described in Jn 1:19-34; 3:27-30, 5:35, and summarised in 10:40-42.

So that through him all men might believe – This was the aim, but not always the result.

He himself was not the light – This denial suggests that there were those who did think that John the Baptist was God’s final revelation to mankind.  See Acts 19:1-7.

Witness – ‘John uses the noun marturia fourteen times (not in Matthew, three times in Mark and once in Luke), and the verb marturei~n thirty-three times (once each in Matthew and Luke and not in Mark). Obviously this is another of his characteristic concepts. He sees witness as borne by deity, the Father, (Jn 5:31f) the Son, (Jn 8:14,18) and the Spirit. (Jn 15:26) Jesus works bore witness, (Jn 5:36) as did the inspired Scripture. (Jn 5:39) There was witness also from a variety of human witnesses, and in this case the witness could of course be verified and interrogated by normal human processes. Among such witnesses are the Samaritan woman, (Jn 4:39) the disciples, (Jn 15:27) John the Baptist, (Jn 1:7) and even the multitude. (Jn 12:17) Witness is a legal term. It signifies the kind of evidence that is allowed in a law court. It would, of course, be idle to pretend that the term was confined to this sort of witness, or that the rules of evidence in first-century Palestine would in all cases commend themselves to us. Nevertheless the term is not without significance, and its constant use in this Gospel shows that the author is confident of his facts. He is telling us that what he writes is well attested. This is incompatible with a romantic theological elaboration of the barest minimum of fact. At the very least Johns habitual use of the category of witness shows that he was quite confident that his facts could not be controverted.’ (Morris, in Jesus of Nazareth, Saviour and Lord)

1:9 The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 1:10 He was in the world, and the world was created by him, but the world did not recognize him.

A possible translation is: ‘This was the true light that gives light to every man who comes into the world.’  The verse would then be speaking of general revelation, of the illumination that all receive.  But it is probably best to follow the NIV reading, since it it is the consistent teaching of this Gospel that it is Christ who ‘came into the world’.

‘True light’ is ‘real’, ‘genuine’, as in Jn 4:23; 6:32; 7:28; 15:1; 17:3.  The contrast is with the false, spurious, counterfeit.  The Word is the genuine and the ultimate self-disclosure of God.

The true light…was coming into the world – By ‘world’ John does not merely mean the created order.  The following verse will make it very clear that the term has a negative connotation.  It is the world in rebellion against its Creator, Jn 1:10; 7:7; 14:1722,27,30; 15:18f; 16:8,20,33; 17:6,9,14.  It is this world that God so loved that he gave his only Son, 3:16.  It is from this world that believers have been chosen, 15:19.

It would be totally against the grain of the teaching of this Gospel to read this verse as suggesting that ‘every man’ is savingly enlightened. The following verse state that many neither recognised nor received him. The present verse teaches, then, that Christ by his incarnation enlightens every man without distinction (but not without exception). It is those who follow Christ who are in the light, whereas the world at large is in darkness, Jn 8:12; 12:46; 1 Jn 2:8; 5:19. See the discussion in Carson, The Gagging of God, 303.

He was in the world – ‘John tells us that the Word dwelt among us. He not only took our nature. He came into our environment. It is possible in the abstract that Christ could have taken our nature and kept that nature in a protected, sanitised environment: kept it in Heaven, or made for it some other Eden. But in our flesh he came into our world of sin. He came into solidarity with us. Of course, that is particularised. He came into first century Nazareth. He came into Jewishness. But the important point is that he did not, as incarnate, live a life of detachment. He lived a life of involvement. He lived where he could see human sin, hear human swearing and blasphemy, see human diseases and observe human mortality, poverty and squalor. His mission was fully incarnational because he taught men by coming alongside them, becoming one of them and sharing their environment and their problems. For us, as individuals and churches in an affluent society, this is a great embarrassment. How can we effectively minister to a lost world if we are not in it? How can we reach the ignorant and the poor if we are not with them? How can our churches understand deprived areas if the church is not incarnate in the deprived areas? How can we be salt and light in the darkened ghettos of our cities if we ourselves don’t have any effective contacts and relationships with the Nazareths of the twentieth century? We are profoundly unfaithful to this great principle of incarnational mission. This great Prophet came right alongside the people and shared their existence at every level. He became flesh and dwelt among us.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)

The world did not recognize him – did not recognize his Messiahship, his saviourhood, his divinity.

1:11 He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him.

He came to what was his own

This could mean:-

(a) ‘He came to his own property or possession’.  So JFB – ‘It means his own land, city, temple, Messianic rights and possessions. and his own-“His own (people);” for now the word is masculine. It means the Jews, as the “peculiar people.” Both they and their land, with all that this included, were “HIS OWN,” not so much as part of “the world which was made by him,” but as “THE HEIR” of the inheritance (Lk 20:14; see also on Mt 22:1). received him not-nationally, as God’s chosen witnesses.’

(b) ‘He came to his own home’ – Carson inclines to this interpretation, noting that this is also the sense in Jn 16:32; 19:27.

The stubborn unbelief of God’s people is a common theme in the OT prophets, Isa 65:2f; Jer 7:25f.  That theme is picked up by John here, and reaches its climax in Jn 12:37-41.

Thinking of Rom 9-11, Wright (Paul and the Faithfulness of God) notes that ‘had Paul read John’s prologue he would have nodded at [this] point, and muttered “I wrote three whole chapters about that.”‘

1:12 But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children 1:13—children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God.

As in the OT, there is a believing remnant.

It has been remarked that the thought ‘his own did not receive him’ dominates chapters 1-12, and ‘yet all who received him’ is the leading theme of chapters 13-21.

To all who received him, to those who believed in his name – The second phrase explains the first. This is how we qualify for adoption, by receiving him; by believing in his name.

‘A medicine, though it be ever so sovereign, if not applied, will do no good; though the plaster be made of Christ’s own blood, it will not heal, unless applied by faith; the blood of God, without faith in God, will not save. This applying of Christ is called receiving him. Jn 1:12. The hand receiving gold, enriches; so the hand of faith, receiving Christ’s golden merits with salvation, enriches us.’ (Watson)

Children of God – This introduces us to the ‘new birth’ theme of chapter 3.

‘Adoption is implicit as a relationship of grace in John’s teaching about ‘becoming a son’, (Jn 1:12; 1 Jn 3:1-2) in the prodigal’s acceptance into full family rights (Lk 15:19ff) and in Jesus’ oft-repeated title of God as Father.’ (Mt 5:16 6:9; Lk 12:32) (NBD)

‘In John’s Gospel the first evangelical blessing to be named is adoption, and the climax of the first resurrection appearance is Jesus’ statement that he was ascending to “my Father and your Father, my God and your God” (Jn 20:17, NEB).’ (Packer, Knowing God, 228)

‘Our sonship differs from Christ’s. He was the Son of God by eternal generation, a son before time; but our sonship is, (1.) By creation. “We are his offspring.” Acts 17:28. This is no privilege; for men may have God for their Father by creation, and yet have the devil for their father. (2.) Our sonship is by adoption. “He gave them power to become the sons of God.”‘ (Watson)

Notice in this verse three things about salvation: (a) who may be saved – “Whether bond or free, whether Greeks or barbarians or Scythians, unlearned or learned, female or male, children or old men, in honor or dishonor, rich or poor, rulers or private persons, all, he saith, are deemed worthy the same privilege.” (Chrysostom); (b) how we may be saved – by ‘receiving’ him, by ‘believing in his name’: ‘to believe in Christ as he is revealed in the Bible: as the Messiah, as the Son of God, as your Savior, as the Exalted one, the Name above every Name, the King of kings and Lord of lords. To believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is to believe in him as the Lord (your Master), Jesus (your Savior), Christ (the one sent from God).’ (Scripture Studies); (c) the great privilege of those who are saved ‘he gave them the right to become children of God’: to the adopted child of the Lord of the universe – what you be a greater privilege? Who in their right mind would choose to remain a spiritual orphan when they could become children of God?

‘See the sad condition of such as live and die in unbelief. They are not the sons of God. ‘To as many as received him, he gave power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.’ No faith, no sonship. Unbelievers have no sign of sonship, they know not God. All God’s children know their Father, but the wicked do not know him. ‘They proceed from evil to evil, and know not me, saith the Lord.’ Jer 9:3. Unbelievers are ‘dead in trespasses.’ Eph 2:1. God has no dead children; and not being children, they have no right to inherit.’ (Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity)

Compare this series of negations with Jn 3:6.

…who were born… – Some Latin manuscripts have this this verse in the singular, rather than the plural (‘…who was born…’). This is supported by some patristic writers, such as Tertullian and Ireneaus. Augustine, in his Confessions, also quotes this verse in the singular. If this is the correct reading, we would seem to have another clear reference to the Virgin Birth of Christ. However, this rendering would seem equally to exclude the idea of a human mother as well as a human father. Moreover, John elsewhere frequently refers to the new birth, but not to the Virgin Birth.

Natural descent – lit. ‘bloods’ (haima).  The idea is of the mixing of bloods in procreation.  This ‘means that heritage and race, even the Jewish race, are irrelevant to spiritual birth.’ (Carson)

Human decision – lit. ‘will of the flesh’ (sarx). The new birth does not come by human decision or achievement.

1:14a Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us.

‘The Word’ reappears for the first time since v1.

We have, in this verse, the incarnation of the Word of God; his dwelling in our nature on earth for a season; the shining forth of his divine glory even during the days of his humility; and the riches of grace and truth that he brought with him.

1. The name by which he is calledThe Word.

The one who ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ is the one who was ‘with God’ and who ‘was God’, v1. He is the one through whom God speaks in creation, instruction, redemption, and judgement, v18. Hence, the incredible wonder and absolute uniqueness of the incarnation. In this name we also recognise that the incarnation is the ultimate and greatest self-revelation of God, Heb 1:2.

‘Neither Greek philosophers nor Jewish teachers could conceive of the Word becoming flesh. Since the time of Plato, Greek philosophers had emphasized that the ideal was what was invisible and eternal; most Jews so heavily emphasized that a human being could not become a god that they never considered that God might become human.’ (NT Backgroun Cmt’y)

Today’s Christological debates necessitate a re-emphasis on the fact that it was the divine Word who became flesh. Many are the attempts to strip Christ of his fully divine nature, and to turn the incarnation into a myth. To adapt an expression of P.T. Forsyth, in Christ we have not just the best that man can do for God, but the best that God can do for man.

2. The condition which he assumedbecame flesh.

The Word had visited the world long before Christmas Day. He had made it. He had been upholding it with the word of his power. But a visitation now became an incarnation.

Just as ‘world’ implies the created order in all its fallenness, so ‘flesh’ denotes humanity in all its frailty. He came to the world, and he became flesh.

The Word has already been presented as one with the Father in divinity; now he is set forth as one with us in humanity. This is an emphatic, almost crude way of saying that the Word became a real human being. Eastern philosophies in particular seek to escape from the ‘flesh’ and find freedom in the ‘spirit’, God who is Spirit becomes flesh. Jesus came as a man not in appearance (Docetism), but in reality. Whereas liberals today will undermine Christ’s full divinity, evangelicals are apt to minimise his true humanity. John has made crystal clear the deity of the Word; now he makes just as clear his humanity.

‘Here are two mysteries for the price of one—the plurality of persons within the unity of God, and the union of Godhead and manhood in the person of Jesus. It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. “The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14); God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. And there was no illusion or deception in this: the babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation.’ (J.I. Packer, Knowing God)

‘The most significant thing about this statement is the emphasis on the word flesh, which is used as a symbol of humanity. The statement, however, is more striking than if John had written ‘the Word took on the form of humanity’. Flesh draws attention to the entry of the Word into the full flow of human affairs. The divine Word had become the human Jesus.’ (NBC) ‘The Word became flesh’ perfectly enshrines the divine and human elements of the person of Christ. ‘The mystery of the incarnation lies precisely here in the simultaneous fullness of our Lord’s divinity and the completeness of his humanity.’ (Lewis, The Glory of Christ, 122-136)) The deity of Christ (‘the Word was God’) creates a strong presumption in our minds in favour of a miraculous entry into the world. The humanity of Christ (‘the Word became flesh’) leads us to marvel at God’s love and care for a godless and rebellious humanity. This humanity Christ has retained in his exalted state, Heb 4:15.

‘The eternal Logos assumed a full human psychology no less than a human physiology. He was – and is – not merely God in the form of man, but God in the nature of man; not God in disguise, but God in the flesh. He did not only come among us; he became one of us, possessing, as his very own, a true and full human nature from its conception. In that nature he as the second person of the Trinity resided, and to him that nature properly belonged, so that God the Son consciously and experimentally lived his life through that humanity. In that humanity he felt pleasure and pain, as we feel pleasure and pain. In that human nature he laughed and cried, hoped and feared, knew delight and disappointment. In that human nature he received and gave, blessed and suffered, was tempted as man and perfected as Mediator. The mystery and message of the incarnation is that in Jesus God acquired manhood and the deity became a member of the human race.’ (Lewis)

Christ took a true human body, the same in all essential respects as our own. It grew from embryo to infant to child to man. It had the same chemistry, the same anatomy and the same physiology. Christ’s body was not an illusion, but real and tangible. The incarnation was a genuine sharing of our human condition, with all the possibilities of hunger and thirst, weariness and pain, seeing and hearing, torture, death and burial.

‘We, as Christians, adore our Lord’s divinity, but let us never neglect or relativise his humanity, for it is his great acquisition and accomplishment: with it he came alongside us as our helper, in it he embraced us as our brother, by it he died for us as our redeemer. It is now in both natures that he mediates the grace of God to us and fulfils for us the rule of God. Let us then cherish this truth, for it is in the humanity of Jesus that we encounter the nearness of God. Thus we bless him as “Emmanuel” – God with us.’ (Lewis)

‘The best way to reconcile two disagreeing families is to make some marriage between them: even so, the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us in the world that he might hereby make our peace, reconciling God to man and man to God. By this happy match the Son of God is become the Son of Man, even flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bones; and the sons of men are made the sons of God.’ (John Boys)

The doctrine of the incarnation has been assailed at many times and in many ways. Groups such as the Gnostics in the 2nd century and the Manicheans of the 4th both asserted the inherent evil of all matter, and so therefore regarded the-Word-become-flesh as a crude and unworthy idea. From such denials the heresy of Docetism developed, with its notion that Christ only ‘seemed’ to have a physical body. John himself seems to show awareness of early versions of such ideas in 2 Jn 7; cf. 1 Jn 1:1; 4:2-3.

This was achieved, ‘not by changing what he was, but by assuming what he was not’ (Augustine).

‘Flesh’ implies ‘clothed with infirmities’.  It has been debated ‘whether Christ assumed a human nature in its perfection, as before the fall, or whether He assumed a human nature clothed with infirmities, as after the fall. Arrowsmith concludes that Christ took a human nature “clothed with infirmities, as after the fall; which is implied in the word Flesh.” Aware of the potential danger of affirming that Christ assumed “weakened flesh,” Arrowsmith qualifies his position by noting that Christ did not take all of the infirmities of man, distinguishing between “painful infirmities” and “sinful and culpable infirmities,” the latter of which Christ did not take and the former of which He took only a part.’ (A Puritan theology: doctrine for life)

Flavel: ‘The word Flesh is rather used here, than Man, on purpose to enhance the admirable condescension and abasement of Christ; there being more of vileness, weakness, and opposition to spirit.’ (The fountain of life)

Peter Lewis remarks that we should not leave the incarnation behind as a past event. ‘Having become man, God the Son will never cease to be man. Even in heaven and through all eternity he will be God-in-the-flesh, albeit glorified flesh. That humanity which he assumed on earth he has taken to heaven. There, it is no longer a penalised, suffering humanity, but a human body irradiated with the glory of God and a human mind filled with the joy of God. The eternal Logos will for ever know in himself the joy of the redeemed as well as the triumph of the redeemer. He will for ever live in and through his two natures.

The implications of this for our planet and its people are enormous. It means that there is a human being on the throne of the universe! In the place of supreme and central significance for all creation there is a man, a member of and the head of the human race.

Science has taught us something of the vastness of the created universe. But because of its alienation from God and its consequent deficient understanding of humankind as it should be, our society has felt shrunken and lost and insignificant in a vast cosmos. But it is in the teaching and life and redeeming work of Jesus Christ that we discover reconciled man’s true significance and real destiny. It was not into an angelic race that God was born, but into the people of this “inconspicuous” planet. It is not an angelic nature that he now inhabits and lives through at the Father’s right hand, but a human one.

Go to the spiritual heart of this created universe, and you will find a man! Go to the place where angels bow who never fell, and you will find a man! Go to the very centre of the manifested glory of the invisible God, and you will find a man: true human nature, one of our own race, mediating the glory of God!’ (Lewis)

Jesus is the greatest of prophets and teachers: he not only speaks the words of God, he is the Word made flesh. ‘Modern theology is often anxious to encourage a ‘Christology from below’, but the New Testament presentation of the incarnation always starts from above, with the preexistence and deity of Christ. Only then does it go on to tell us that this specific Person, God the Word, became flesh.’ (McLeod, A Faith To Live By)

This phrase implies that, (a) God affirms the value and dignity of human nature. ‘Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb’; (b) Christ has completely identified with our human condition. He has been made in every way like we are, and although he himself was spotless, identified even with our sin; (c) God has acted decisively for our salvation. Christ was born to die. God cannot die: only if became man could he do so, cf. Heb 2:9; (d) our proper response is one of adoring faith.

‘Does God go down so low as to become a real human being? God is too great to do this, says Islam in reverence (“Allah akbar”). God is so great that he was willing to do this, says the Christian faith respectfully.’ (Bruner)

If we ask, “When did the Word become flesh?” the answer must be at Jesus’ conception. This provides a strong theological comment on the dignity of the unborn child and on the horror of abortion.

Having taken upon himself human nature at his incarnation, Christ has never relinquished it. In his body he was crucified, buried, resurrected, and ascended. He continues to be united in his two natures. This assures us of his continuing sympathy with our human plight, and promises that we too shall rise at the last day with real, though transformed, bodies.

‘I do not think of Christ as God alone, or man alone, but both together. For I know that he was hungry, and I know that with five loaves he fed five thousand. I know that he was thirsty, and I know that he turned water into wine. I know that he was carried in a ship, and I know he walked upon the sea. I know that he died, and I know that he raised the dead. I know he was set before Pilate, and I know that he sits with the Father in his throne. I know that he was worshipped by the angels, and I know that he was stoned by the Jews’ (Chrysostom).

‘The best way to reconcile two disagreeing families is to make some marriage between them: even so, the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us in the world that he might hereby make our peace, reconciling God to man and man to God. By this happy match the Son of God is become the Son of Man, even flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bones; and the sons of men are made the sons of God.’ (John Boys)

3. The company that he keptmade his dwelling among us.

Literally, ‘he pitched his tent’. This could be rendered, ‘he lived for a while among us.’ But it also recalls the presence of God in the tabernacle in the wilderness, as the immediate reference to ‘his glory’ suggests. It was here that ‘the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend’, Ex 33:11.  There is a glory which results from the immediate presence of the Lord; this is the ‘shekinah‘, which means ‘dwelling’. See Ex 40:34; 2 Chron 6:18; 2 Cor 4:6; Rev 21:3. What an world of longing is summed up in this expression!  And what fulfilment, now that God’s Word has become flesh!

‘John is saying that in Jesus the new tabernacle, the new Temple, has been built, and the divine Glory has returned at last.’ (Wright, The Day the Revolution Began)

‘Of the Son’s “identification” with the world into which he was sent there can be no shadow of doubt.  He did not remain in heaven; he came into the world.  The word was not spoken from the sky; “the Word was made flesh”.  And then he “dwelt among us”.  He did not come on a fleeting visit and hurry back home again.  He stayed in the world into which he came.  He gave men a chance to behold his glory.  Nor did he only let them gaze from a distance.  He scandalised the church leaders of his day by mixing with the riff-raff they avoided.  “Friend of publicans and sinners”, they dubbed him.  To them it was a term of opprobrium; to us it is a title of honour.  He touched untouchable lepers.  He did not recoil from the caresses of a prostitute.  And then he, who at his birth had been “made flesh”, was in his death “made sin” and “made a curse”.  He had assumed out nature; he now assumed our transgressions, our doom, our death.  His self-identification with man was utter and complete.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, p38)

1:14b We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father.

4. The evidence that he providedwe have seen his glory.

It is sometimes claimed that John was interested in theology, but not history. But this is a false dichotomy, for he is at pains to show that faith in Christ is inseparable from the true story of Jesus of Nazareth. He himself was an eye-witness, one of those who had ‘seen his glory’. Perhaps John was thinking especially of the transfiguration – when he and Peter and James were witnesses of Jesus’ supernatural splendour, Mt 17:1-8. See also 2 Pet 1:16.

5. The radiance that he emittedthe glory of the one and Only.

This is reminiscent of the Shekinah glory which describes the presence of the Lord in the OT, Ex 40:34 Isa 6:3. During his earthly life, Christ’s glory was veiled to a large extent. But at times it shone forth with unmistakable brilliance, Jn 2:11; Lk 9:32.

‘We should not read too much into “only begotten.” To English ears this sounds like a metaphysical relationship, but the Greek term means no more than “only,” “unique.” It is used, for example, of the widow of Nain’s “only” son, Lk 7:12; cf Lk 9:38. It is used also of Jairus’ “only” daughter, Lk 8:42. Perhaps even more instructive is the use of the term with reference to Isaac, Heb 11:17, for Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. But he was “unique.” He was the only son given to Abraham by God’s promise. Used here, though the word does not necessarily indicate a metaphysical relationship, it does at the least show that Jesus is God’s Son in a unique way. No other is or can be the Son of God as he is.’

6. The relationship that he sustainedfrom the Father.

His sonship is absolutely unique. He left his Father’s side with a mission, Jn 7:29.

7. The character that he demonstratedfull of grace and truth.

This reminds us of two ideas which are often linked in the OT ‘mercy and truth’. ‘When God revealed his glory to Moses in Exodus 33-34, his glory was “abounding in covenant love and covenant faithfulness,” (Ex 34:6) which could also be translated “full of grace and truth.” Like Moses of old, (see 2 Cor 3:6-18) the disciples saw God’s glory, now revealed in Jesus. As the Gospel unfolds, Jesus’ glory is revealed in his signs (e.g., Jn 2:11) but especially in the cross, his ultimate act of love (Jn 12:23-33). The Jewish people were expecting God to reveal his glory in something like a cosmic spectacle of fireworks; but for the first coming, Jesus reveals the same side of God’s character that was emphasized to Moses: his covenant love.’ (NT Background Commentary) See also Psa 89, with its recurring themes of ‘thy steadfast love’ and ‘thy faithfulness’. On grace, see Jn 3:16; on truth, see Jn 14:6.

The Son of God lost nothing of his divine attributes when he became a human being: he was, and remains, ‘a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth’ (Shorter Catechism). ‘Though he became what he was not, he did not cease to be what he was. He who continued to fill all things and to sustain all things, also became contained in a virgin’s womb, and was sustained by a human mother, living simultaneously the massive life of Godhead and the ‘ (Lewis).

“The Word did not become a philosophy, a theory, or a concept to be discussed, debated, or pondered. But, the Word became a Person to be followed, enjoyed, and loved!”

The incarnation, although an entirely voluntary act of God, was absolutely necessary as far as our redemption was concerned. ‘Our redemption, even by God, was impossible apart from the incarnation of God. How could God, who is Spirit, suffer for the sins of man, who is flesh? How could God take upon himself all human suffering and the penalty for sin in human experience without entering human physiology and human psychology and human spirituality? It was a human penalty he had to bear, therefore it was a human nature he had to acquire. The sin-bearer must be a true member of the race that fell.’ (Lewis)

Light looked down and beheld Darkness.
“Thither will I go,” said Light.
Peace looked down and beheld War.
“Thither will I go,” said Peace.
Love looked down and beheld Hatred.
“Thither will I go,” said Love.
So came Light and shone.
So came Peace and gave rest.
So came Love and brought life.
And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
(A.E. Houseman)
1:15 John testified about him and shouted out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ ”

“He was before me” – John was actually born six months before Jesus was; this statement asserts Christ’s preexistence, cf. Mic 5:2. John means, ‘”my Successor is my Superior, for he was my Predecessor.” This enigmatic play upon the different senses of the words “before” and “after” was doubtless employed by the Baptist to arrest attention, and rivet the thought; and the Evangelist introduces it just to clinch his own statements.’ (JFB)

1:16 For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another.

From the fullness of his grace… – Lit., ‘Of his fulness we all received, and grace for or upon grace.’ His fulness is of grace and truth (v14).

Fullness – ‘”The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.” (Ps 24:1) Scripture sees that nothing is really complete until it serves the purpose for which God has created it. Thus Eph 1:23 (NRSV) speaks of God as “him who fills all in all.” He is the one who gives everything its ultimate significance and richness. This fullness is most clearly expressed in Jesus Christ (Col 1:19 2:9) from whom all true believers receive the divine life of fullness. (Jn 1:16 10:10) It is a life full of joy (Jn 15:11) and peace despite the fact of tribulations in this world.’ (Jn 16:33) (Holman)

The fullness of his grace

‘God’s grace is sufficient for every demand of life. We are saved by grace, (Eph 2:8-10) and we serve by grace. (1 Cor 15:9-10) Grace enables us to endure suffering. (2 Cor 12:9) It is grace that strengthens us, (2 Tim 2:1) so that we can be victorious soldiers. Our God is the God of all grace. (1 Pet 5:10) we can come to the throne of grace and find grace to help in every need. (Heb 4:16) As we read the Bible, which is “the Word of his grace,” (Ac 20:32) the Spirit of grace (Heb 10:29) reveals to us how rich we are in Christ. “And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace.” (Jn 1:16) How rich we are!’ (Wiersbe, on Gal 5:7-11)

One blessing after another – lit. ‘grace instead of grace’; or, ‘grace in addition to grace.’  This would then help to clarify the meaning of v17, which is not to oppose law and grace, but to contrast the ‘lesser grace’ of the law of Moses with the ‘greater grace’ of Jesus Christ.

1:17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ – In this Gospel, ‘the compound form Jesus Christ is used only a couple of times when the total significance of Jesus is viewed from a post-resurrection standpoint.’ Jn 1:17; 17:3; the latter passage being uttered from the perspective of one who has ‘accomplished the work’ which the Father gave him to do (NBD)

‘Jn. 1:17 puts the law into sharp antithesis with grace. See Tit 2:11, which also states that grace came into the world with Christ. That does not mean that grace was non-existent in the OT, but merely that it is not in the foreground, and that it is concerned chiefly with Israel. The Bible often uses antithesis where we would use comparison.’ (NBD)

Indeed, we should be careful not to press the implied antithesis too far.  (There is no ‘but’ in the middle of this verse).  ‘The Old Testament administered the grace of Jesus in a way that suited the times and the people then – through prophecies, pictures, and symbols.  It was glorious – for its time.  But now, the same grace is to be administered directly and only through Jesus.  Grace Administration is “Under New Management”.’ (David Murray, Jesus on Every Page, p37).  The contrast, then, is not between no grace and grace, but between ‘lesser grace’ and ‘greater grace.’  This (says Murray) is consistent with the context, in which several times in the first 18 verse the contrast is not between opposites, but between the lesser and the greater (notably John the Baptist, who was a ‘light’, but not the ‘true light’)

‘The Old Testament had grace in type, the New Testament has grace in truth. There was a grace under the Old Testament, the gospel was preached then (Gal 3:8); but that grace is superseded, and we have gospel grace instead of it, a glory which excelleth, 2 Cor 3:10. Discoveries of grace are now more clear, distributions of grace far more plentiful; this is grace instead of grace.’ (MHC)

‘Christ fulfilled the moral law by obeying it and showing its intense spirituality, thus establishing it on a surer basis than ever as the eternal law of righteousness. He fulfilled the ceremonial and typical law not only by conforming to its requirements but by realizing its spiritual significance. He filled up the shadowy outlines of the types so that they could pass away; believers no longer must observe the Passover or slay the daily lamb, for they have the substance in Christ. He also cleared the law from the traditional excrescences that had gathered around it under the hands of the rabbis (Mt. 5:11; Mk. 7:18–23). He taught His disciples those great principles when, after His resurrection, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27) and declared, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (v 44). John sums this up in the pregnant phrase, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). Grace was in contrast to the condemnation of the moral law, and truth was the antithesis of the shadowy outlines of the types and ceremonies.’ (Gerstner, ISBE, art. ‘Law in the NT’)

Jesus makes God known to us

‘If you find it hard to believe in God, I strongly advise you to begin your search not with philosophical questions about the existence and being of God, but with Jesus of Nazareth.  Most people, like myself, feel on more solid ground when we are thinking and talking about Jesus Christ.  The concept of God as he is in himself is beyond us.  But with Jesus of Nazareth we are dealing with a historical person.  Besides, we believe that this was God’s purpose.  God himself is infinite in his being and altogether beyond our reach and comprehension.  That is why he has taken the initiative to reveal him – for we could never come to know him otherwise.  And the climax of his self-revelation was the coming of his Son in human flesh.  God means us to approach him through Jesus Christ, not the other way round.  So if you can’t believe in God, let me urge you to read the four gospels which tell the story of Jesus.  I’m astonished how many intelligent people haven’t read the gospels since they were kids at school.  But if you read again the story of Jesus, and read it as an honest and humble seeker, Jesus Christ is able to reveal himself to you, and thus make God the Father read to you.’  (Stott, Authentic Christianity, p33)

1:18 No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known.

This verse forms the climax of the whole prologue. It stresses that Christ is in the closest possible relationship with the Father. As such Christ was uniquely able to reveal the Father to us, in a way that the Moses and the law was not able.

No-one has ever seen God – lit. ‘ever yet’; cf. Ex 33:20; 1 Jn 4:12. God is distant, unknowable, and unapproachable: with this the ancients all agreed. ‘Guesswork is over all’ (Xenophanes). ‘Never man and God can meet’ (Plato). God is away beyond everything’ (Celsus). No-one could bear the sight. Yet other passages teach that some people have indeed seen God, Ex 24:9-11; Isa 6:5. Indeed, had not Moses himself spoken with God ‘face to face’? The explanation is that no-one has ever seen God in his essential being. Moses saw God in a diminished sense: ‘he saw the afterglow of god’s glory’ (Peter Lewis), Ex 33:20-23. All revelations of God have been partial, in the form of visions and theophanies, cf. Deut 4:12; Job 11:7; Jn 5:37; 6:46; 1 Tim 1:17. Indeed, these theophanies are best thought of as revelations of the Second, rather than of the First, Person of the Trinity. In any case, it is not physical sight which is in mind here, because God is spirit and therefore invisible. It is a comprehension of God, apprehension of his essential being which is under consideration, and it it this that has now been revealed in Christ. Note here the superiority of the revelation of God in Christ to all visions: and yet how many today are prepared to value the latter above the former.

God the one and Only – so read many good manuscripts. But since Christ is elsewhere identified as both ‘Son’ and ‘God’ there is no point of doctrine at issue here. The relationship between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity is a deep mystery indeed. Certainly, the notion of absolute uniqueness and unity of essence is taught here. When our Lord spoke to the Jews of ‘his Father’, they knew that such a relationship was being spoken of, and he did not deny it. When Paul teaches that God ‘did not spare his own Son’, the whole force rests on Christ being God’s Son in essence. The Son is distinct in Person (for the Word was with God), yet neither subsequent to him in time (for ‘in the beginning was the Word’), nor inferior to him in nature (for ‘the Word was God’), nor separate from him in being (for ‘he was in the beginning with God’), and he shares one Godhead with the Father. Beyond this our finite minds may not pry, lest we darken counsel by words without knowledge. But the Evangelist affirms of Christ not only what he has just denied of all creatures, namely, that he has seen God (cf Jn 6:46), but that he has eternal, personal, and absolute knowledge of the Father. ‘One and Only’ – Gk ‘monogenes‘, but this had long since lost its purely physical sense: it had come to mean ‘unique’ and ‘specially beloved’.

When the Bible refers to Jesus Christ as God’s ‘only-begotten Son’ John 1:18; cf. Jn 3:16, Muslim scholars tend to take this as meaning a literal, physical act of begetting.  This would imply an absurdity, since God is a non-physical Spirit.  Muslim apologist Deedat therefore says: God “does not beget because begetting is an animal act. It belongs to the lower animal act of sex. We do not attribute such an act to God.”  Moreover, for Muslims begetting implies creating, and “God cannot create another God.… He cannot create another uncreated.”  It is not surprising, then, that to the Muslim, the Christian belief regarding the incarnation is blasphemy.  However, the phrase ‘only-begotten’ (like the term ‘first-born’ in Colossians 1:15) does not refer to physical generation by to a unique relationship with the Father.  Christian theologians refer to an eternal procession from the Father.  (See Geisler and Saleeb, Answering Islam)

At the Father’s side – or, ‘in the bosom of the Father’ (AV); ‘who lies upon the Father’s breast’ (Hendriksen). Used of the closest and tenderest of human relationships, as mother and child, Nu 11:12; of husband and wife, Deut 13:6; and of friends reclining at a meal, Jn 13:23. Obviously a figurative expression, (‘a state and not a place’, Westcott), suggesting closeness, intimacy, and affection of relationship: ‘the ultimate fellowship of love’ (Westcott). ‘In the bosom of his special love…in the bosom of his secret counsels’ (Henry). The union of Father and Son is closer than we can conceive. Note the present tense: it suggests the present, exalted relationship between the Father and the ascended Son; but even more the timelessness of the relationship, cf Jn 17:5. Indeed, the whole meaning of the incarnation is that he gained manhood, but did not lose godhood.

Made him known – The Gk verb exegoumai means to ‘expound’ or ‘intepret’. As the Word of God, Jesus has given a full account of the Father. Not, of course, that there is no more to be learned about him. The Godhead continues to contain unfathomable mysteries. But the revelation of God in Christ is fully accurate, adequate and authoritative. In particular, it fully supplies what is necessary for us to ‘glorify God and enjoy him for ever’. In his life, work, and teaching, Jesus alone has ‘interpreted’ or ‘expounded’ God. God’s perfect wisdom, his almighty power, his unspeakable love, his incomparable holiness, his hatred of sin, are no-where seen more clearly than in the person and work of Jesus Christ. See 1 Tim 3:16; Heb 1:3; Jn 10:30; 12:45; 14:9; Col 2:9. He has shown how God can be both just, and the justifier of the ungodly. ‘The invisible God has now in Christ been manifested in his glory, grace, and truth’ (Barrett). ‘Jesus is not simply a word about God, nor even a word from God; he himself is the Word of God, and he himself is God the Word…As the creating Word, the Son has revealed much of God’s eternal power and deity in creation; as the inspiring and prophetic Word, he has revealed more of God’s love and saving purposes in the Old Testament revelation; but, as Jesus, the incarnate Word, God with us, (Heb 1:1-3) he has revealed most of God in his saving work. He who has seen Jesus has seen the Father in the glory of his love and grace’ (Jn 14:9-11) (Peter Lewis, The Glory of Christ, 111f). ‘Jesus is God spelling himself out in a language that man can understand.’ (S.D. Gordon) Jesus Christ is himself the most important witness to the existence of God. God has revealed himself in his Son, 2 Cor 4:6; Christ has made known the Father, Col 1:15-17; the visible glory of Christ on earth was such as belongs to God alone, Jn 1:14; through him we may know the Father, 1 Jn 1:1-3; Jn 14:7; his miracles testify to his own divinity, Jn 20:30-31; to have seen him was to have seen the Father, Jn 14:9.

Note the inherent limitations of human knowledge. We can discover many things. Man’s religious quest is a dead-end; we cannot discover the ways of God without a divine revelation. It is impossible for us to have a direct knowledge of God. We can only come to know him through the one who shares the divine and human nature, and who is in vital fellowship with God and man.

God is still the same: he is so glorious, and we so weak and sinful, that he is still utterly unknowable and unapproachable except through the means that he himself has appointed and provided.

This verse teaches the superiority of Christ over Moses in particular, and over all other men – however holy or wise – in general.

We can never give too much honour to Christ. We can never think too highly of him. Let us banish unworthy thoughts of him. Let us seek to know him more deeply, and to trust him more confidently.

The final blessedness of the redeemed consists in seeing God ‘as he is’, Mt 5:8; 1 Jn 3:2.

Let us follow holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord, Heb 12:14.

The Testimony of John the Baptist

1:19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 1:20 He confessed—he did not deny but confessed—“I am not the Christ!” 1:21 So they asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not!” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No!” 1:22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Tell us so that we can give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John the Baptist has already been mentioned in the Prologue; these prepare us for this account of John’s witness to Jesus.

This was John’s testimony – Whereas the Synoptics give some detail concerning John’s call to repentance, and his baptizing ministry, the Fourth Gospel emphasises John’s witness to Christ, contrasting Christ’s greatness with his own (relative) unimportance.

The Jews of Jerusalem – The term ‘Jews’ is not usually used in this Gospel of all Jewish people indiscriminately.  As v24 indicates, it refers, rather, to the Jewish leaders who were opposed to Jesus.

“I am not the Christ” – A variety of Messianic hopes were widespread at the time.  For many Jews, there was an expectation that the OT prediction of a great descendent of David was soon to be fulfilled.  See 2 Sam. 7:11b–16; Hos. 3:5; cf. Matt. 1:1, 6, 17; Luke 3:31; Rom. 1:3.

For a similar conjunction of titles, see Mk 8:28.

“Are you Elijah?” – An allusion to Mic 4:5.  John’s appearance and lifestyle gave superficial credence to this identification; see 2 Sam 7:11b–16; Hos 3:5; cf. Mt 1:1, 6, 17; Lk 3:31; Rom 1:3.  Moreover, both were prophets of judgment, Mt 3:7–12; Lk 3:7–17.  Elijah had been taken up to heaven alive, and people expected his return (Mt 16:14; Mk 6:15; 8:28; Lk 9:8, 19).

John and Elijah
There is a seeming contradiction here between John’s denial, and Jesus’s affirmation, that the Baptist was Elijah.  Blomberg (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels) says that some Jews expected a literal return of a reincarnated Elijah to earth, and that John is therefore denying being this literal Elijah.  When Jesus identified John with Elijah, it was in a metaphorical sense, Mt 11:14; 17:12; Mk 9:13.  Cf. Lk 1:17 – John came ‘in the spirit and power’ of Elijah’.  Matthew Henry puts it succinctly: ‘He was the Elias that God had promised, not the Elias that they foolishly dreamed of.’

In The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, Blomberg explains further: ‘It is…probable that the Fourth Evangelist’s community had encountered sectarians who worshipped the Baptist, so that part of John’s purpose in depicting the Baptist is to play down his role vis-à-vis Jesus. Such a group existed in Ephesus both in the 50s (according to Acts 19:1-7) and in the mid-second century, so it is plausible to posit that Christians at the end of the first century may have encountered such people there as well.’ (Citations omitted)

Another reason for the difference between Jesus’ assessment of John and John’s self assessment would be that Jesus ‘apparently had a greater view of John’s importance than he did’ (Kruse).

Ryle, acknowledging that there is a ‘grave difficulty’ here, thinks that there must be two comings of Elijah, one metaphorical (John the Baptist) and the other literal (at the end of the age).  Ryle cites Mt 17:11 in support of his view.

“Are you the Prophet?” – Deut 18:15-18 was held to refer to a prophet like Moses who would appear in the last days.

John’s threefold positive denial mirrors Peter’s threefold negative denial, Jn18:15–18, 25–27.

1:23 John said, “I am the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”

“Make straight the way for the Lord” – John sees himself as a road-builder; one who make a smooth highway through rough territory in preparation for the king’s arrival.

Isa 45:5 goes on to speak of the revelation of ‘the glory of the Lord’, which according to Jn 1:14 has been manifest in Jesus.

1:24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.)

The (NET©) Bible regards this as a parenthetical note on the part of the biblical writer.  The NIV treats it as a preface to the following verse.

1:25 So they asked John, “Why then are you baptizing if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
1:26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not recognize, 1:27 who is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal!” 1:28 These things happened in Bethany across the Jordan River where John was baptizing.

“Why do you baptize?” – Baptism of Gentile proselytes was common.  But to baptize Jews was to treat them as pagans, and was unheard-of.

“The thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” – The lowest slave in the household had the task of removing the sandals of guests.  John places himself in an even lower position in relation to Christ.

This all happened at Bethany – The identification of this Bethany is unknown (there was another Bethany which was situation 3 km from Jerusalem and which was the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Jn 12:1).

The other side of the Jordan – ‘“Beyond the Jordan” means Perea, one of the territories controlled by Herod Antipas. Because Josephus tells us that John was later imprisoned in the fortress Machaerus in the same region, it makes sense that this is where he ministers and is later arrested.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)

Let us study humility.  ‘If we profess to have any real Christianity, let us strive to be of John the Baptist’s spirit.  Let us study humility.  This is the grace with which all must begin who would be saved.  We have no true religion about us until we cast away our high thoughts and feel ourselves sinners.  This is the grace which all saints may follow after and which none have any excuse for neglecting.  All God’s children have not gifts or money or time to work or a wide sphere of usefulness, but all may be humble.  This is the grace, above all, which will appear most beautiful in our latter end.  Never shall we feel the need of humility so deeply as when we lie on our deathbeds and stand before the judgment-seat of Christ.  Our whole lives will then appear a long catalog of imperfections, ourselves nothing and Christ all.’ (Ryle)

1:29 On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 1:30 This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ 1:31 I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.”

We now move from John the Baptist’s identity to the content of his message.

The next day – That is, the day after John the Baptist’s meeting with the priests and Levites from Jerusalem, 19-38.  These incidents took place a little while after Jesus’ baptism and temptation.

“The Lamb of God”

The identification of the ‘Lamb of God’

This expression only occurs here and in v36, although the word amnos is also found in Acts 8:32 and 1 Pet 1:19, arnos in Lk 10:3, and arnion in Jn 21:15 and twenty-eight times in Revelation.

  1. The Passover lamb.  The Jewish festivals feature prominently in John’s gospel, and Jn 19:6 may contain a further reference to the Passover lamb.  The paschal lamb, however, did not take away sins.
  2. The ‘lamb that is led to the slaughter’, Isa 53:7.  The word ‘amnos’ occurs in the LXX version of that verse.  Isa 53 clearly refers to sin-bearing.  The verse is also alluded to in Acts 8:32 and 1 Pet 1:19.
  3. The lamb of the daily sacrifices.  The phrase ‘who takes away the sin of the world’ lends support to this.
  4. The ‘gentle lamb’ of Jer 11:19.
  5. The scapegoat.
  6. The God-provided lamb of Gen 22:8.  the Commentary on the NT use of the OT notes that the link with Gen 22:8 is especially suggestive, ‘because John 3:16 probably alludes to this scene, highlighting one important difference: what Abraham was spared from doing at the last minute, God actually did—he gave his one and only Son (cf. Rom. 8:32).’
  7. The horned ram who led the flock (cf. also triumphant lamb of the apocalypses).  ‘The lamb of God’ would then be virtually a kingly title.
  8. A guilt-offering.

Although it is not plausible to argue that the expression contains deliberate resonances of all of these, it is certainly possible that several were intended: especially the lamb of the daily sacrifices, the Passover lamb, and the lamb of Isa 53.

At any rate, it is clear that Jesus is likened to a lamb not only because of his gentleness and innocence, but also in anticipation of his sacrificial death, towards which these OT examples all pointed.

Ryle: ‘There can be no reasonable doubt that John gave this name to our Lord because He was the true sacrifice for sin, the true antitype of the passover lamb, and the lamb prophesied of by Isaiah. (Is. 53:7.) The idea that he only refers to the quietness and meekness of our Lord’s personal character is utterly unsatisfactory. He is describing our Lord’s official character as the great propitiation for sin.’

‘In 1857, a day or two before preaching at the Crystal Palace, I went to decide where the platform should be fixed; and, in order to test the acoustic properties of the building, cried in a loud voice, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” In one of the galleries, a workman, who knew nothing of what was being done, heard the words, and they came like a message from heaven to his soul. He was smitten with conviction on account of sin, put down his tools, went home, and there, after a season of spiritual struggling, found peace and life by beholding the Lamb of God. Years after, he told this story to one who visited him on his death-bed.’ (Spurgeon, My Sermon Notes, II, 122.)

Sceptics have doubted that this statement, placed as it is well before the appearance and passion of our Lord, could have come from the lips of John the Baptist.  The doubt is increased by the fact that according to Matthew 11:2-19 John did not have any expectation of a suffering Messiah.  Carson thinks that the Baptist probably had in mind the apocalyptic lamb, spoken of in the intertestamental literature and picked up again in the Apocalypse (Rev. 5:6, 12; 7:17; 13:8; 17:14; 19:7, 9; 21:22–23; 22:1–3).  This lamb would come in judgment and cleanse Israel of her sin, although the notion of atoning sacrifice would not have been prominent.  The Evangelist, however, may have understood the Baptist to have spoken better than he knew (like Caiaphas, Jn 11:49-52), and, writing from a post-crucifixion perspective, wishes us to see sacrificial connotations in the expression.

“…who takes away the sin of the world!” – The prime purpose of Jesus’ coming is defined here right at the outset of his ministry: he came not just to be a teacher, or an example, but to be a Saviour, Mt 1:21. He ‘takes away’ the sin of the world: see Isa 53:6; 1 Pet 2:24.

‘The use of the present tense, “taketh away,” is remarked by all the best commentators, ancient and modern. It is intended to show the completeness of Christ’s satisfaction for sin, and the continual application of His once-made sacrifice. He is always taking sin away. Rollock observes, “The influence of Christ’s sacrifice is perpetual, and His blood never dries up.”’ (Ryle)

Ryle notes that the singular (‘sin’, not ‘sins’) is used here.  He infers that ‘The expression seems…purposely intended to show that what Christ took away, and bore on the cross, was not the sin of certain people only, but the whole accumulated mass of all the sins of all the children of Adam. He bore the weight of all, and made an atonement sufficient to make satisfaction for all.’

'The world' - every person, or every sort of person?
(a) Some think that the meaning is that Jesus took away the sin of ‘everyone without distinction’

Carson: ‘The world’ stands here for ‘everyone without distinction’, not, as Jn 1:11f makes clear, ‘everyone without exception’.

(b) Others, however, think that it means ‘everyone without exception’.

Luther: ‘You may say: “Who knows whether Christ also bore my sin? I have no doubt that He bore the sin of St. Peter, St. Paul, and other saints; these were pious people.”  … Don’t you hear what St. John says in our text: “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”? And you cannot deny that you are also a part of this world, for you were born of man and woman. You are not a cow or a pig. It follows that your sins must be included, as well as the sins of St. Peter or St. Paul.… Don’t you hear? There is nothing missing from the Lamb. He bears all the sins of the world from its inception; this implies that He also bears yours, and offers you grace.’  (Quoted by Allen, David L.. The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review (Kindle Locations 1571-1576). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Calvin: ‘When [John] says ‘The sin of the world,’ he extends this favour indiscriminately to the whole human race, that the Jews might not think that He had been sent to them alone…Now our duty is to embrace the benefit which is offered to all, that each of us may be convinced that there is nothing to hinder him from obtaining reconciliation in Christ, provided that he comes to Him by the guidance of faith.”

Ryle: ‘I hold as strongly as any one that Christ’s death is profitable to none but to the elect who believe on His name. But I dare not limit and pare down such expressions as the one before us. I dare not say that no atonement has been made, in any sense, except for the elect. I believe it is possible to be more systematic than the Bible in our statements. When I read that the wicked who are lost, “deny the Lord that bought them,” (2 Peter 2:1,) and that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself,” (2 Cor. 5:19,) I dare not confine the intention of redemption to the saints alone. Christ is for every man.’

Of course, Ryle repudiates the doctrine of universalism.  The lost will be lost, not because Christ did not bear the penalty for their sins, but because he did, and yet they refuse to benefit from it.  ‘He bore their sins. He carried their transgressions. He provided payment, but they would not put in their claim to any interest in it. He set the prison door open to all; but the majority would not come out and be free.’

Ryle affirms limited election by God the Father and limited regeneration by Spirit.  ‘But in the work of Christ in atonement I see no limitation. The atonement was made for all the world, though it is applied to and enjoyed by none but believers…But Christ’s atonement is a benefit which is offered freely and honestly to all mankind.

‘God could have taken away the sin by taking away the sinner, as he took away the sin of the old world; but he has found out a way of abolishing the sin, and yet sparing the sinner, by making his Son “sin for us”.’ (Matthew Henry)

‘It is related of John Wesley that, preaching to an audience of courtiers and noblemen, he used the “generation of vipers” text  Mt 3:7; cf. 12:34; 23:33; Lk 3:7, and flung denunciation right and left. “That sermon should have been preached at Newgate Prison,” said a displeased courtier to Wesley on passing out. “No,” said the fearless apostle, “my text there would have been, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taken away the sin of the world.”‘ (Spurgeon, My Sermon Notes, II, 123.)

‘He, being Mediator between God and man, takes away that which is, above any thing, offensive to the holiness of God, and destructive to the happiness of man.’ (Matthew Henry)

‘Christ is a Saviour. He did not come on earth to be a conqueror, or a philosopher, or a mere teacher of morality. He came to save sinners…Christ is a complete Saviour…He did not merely make vague proclamations of pardon, mercy and forgiveness. He “took” our sins upon himself, and “bore them in his own body on the tree.” (1 Pet 2:24) The sins of every one that believes on Jesus are made as though they had never been sinned at all. The Lamb of God has taken them clean away.’ (J.C. Ryle)

‘The verb “taketh away” conveys the notion of bearing off. It is perhaps not specific enough to point to any one particular means of atonement, but it does signify atonement, and that by substitution. Sin is removed completely, carried right off. John speaks of sin, not sins…he is referring to the totality of the world’s sin, rather than to a number of individual acts…The reference to “the world” is another glance at the comprehensiveness of Christ’s atonement…Right at the beginning of his Gospel John points us forward to the cross and to the significance of the cross.’ (Leon Morris)

John the Baptist was a great man: he called people to forsake their sins.  But Jesus is greater: he ‘takes away the sin of the world’.  Jesus did not come primarily to be a Teacher, or an Example: he came first and foremost to be a Saviour.  See Isa 53:6; Mt 1:21; 1 Pet 2:24.

Blomberg (Historical Reliability) comments: ‘Given the unique births of John and Jesus, relatives themselves (Luke 1:36), even if they grew up in different provinces and had little contact afterwards, one would think that John would have been told some of the stories about his special cousin. Doubtless, he did not know what to make of them and required the extraordinary events surrounding Jesus’ baptism to confirm for himself that Jesus truly was God’s anointed.’

“A man who comes after me” – This expression could either be taken relationally (i.e. ‘follow me’ as in ‘becomes my disciple) or chronologically. If the former meaning is taken, it could be, as some scholars think, that Jesus became John’s disciple for a while, but there is little collateral evidence for this.

John the Baptist had been proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, and now the Messiah had appeared. John makes quite clear the superiority of Jesus, and clinches it with this amazing statement of the pre-existence of Christ.

“I myself did not know him” – That is, he did not fully realise until know exactly who Jesus was. ‘One might have thought that John’s baptism was concerned largely with leading men to repent. But this was not its final purpose. John baptised in view of the coming of the Messiah. He baptised in order than the Messiah should be “made manifest to Israel”.’ (Leon Morris)

1:32 Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 1:33 And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining—this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 1:34 I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God.”

This occurred when Jesus was baptised, Mt 3:16.  We are not to suppose that he was devoid of the Spirit before his baptism, but that the Spirit fell on him in a new way to consecrate him for his public work.  The dove seems to symbolise purity, gentleness and graciousness.

‘Not that before this he has been empty of the Spirit, but now he is, as it were, consecrated with a solemn ceremony.’ (Calvin)

See Lk 3:22.

This matches the Synoptics’ account of the baptism of Jesus by John.

John, although only a man, was a man ‘sent’.  Cf. v6.  Note that his knowledge of the person of Christ was a matter of divine revelation.  Note also that it is Christ’s work to baptise with the Holy Spirit.  This baptism is nothing less than the impartation of new life and occurs the moment a person is truly converted to Christ.  Only Jesus can baptise with the Spirit, and he so baptises every one of his own, Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 12:13.

The Baptist here summarises the thrust of his whole ministry: to recognise and proclaim the divine Messiah.  That we should believe is the main reason that this Gospel was written, Jn 20:3.

1:35 Again the next day John was standing there with two of his disciples. 1:36 Gazing at Jesus as he walked by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 1:37 When John’s two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 1:38 Jesus turned around and saw them following and said to them, “What do you want?” So they said to him, “Rabbi” (which is translated Teacher), “where are you staying?” 1:39 Jesus answered, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. Now it was about four o’clock in the afternoon.

The Evangelist now introduces us to five of the future disciples of Jesus. He particularly draws out their various testimonies to the dignity of Christ. ‘Through these affirmations John is able to introduce a number of titles of Jesus which will recur in the following chapters and which together form a composite picture of Jesus. Thus he is confessed as Messiah/Christ, (cf. Jn 7; 11:27; 20:31) the Mosaic Prophet, (Jn 5:45-47; 7:40) the Son of God (passim, but esp. Jn 20:31), the King of Israel. (Jn 18:33-19:22) John does not intend us to ask what these titles might have meant to disciples at the very beginning of their experience of Jesus, and we are certainly reminded later on of their puzzlement and lack of real comprehension of Jesus…At (Jn 6:68-69; 14:1-9) the very beginning, under varying titles, the disciples make the confession which the evangelist sets as his aim for his readers. (Jn 20:30-31) Being drawn into the Johannine community of faith places one in the same position as the disciples of old, so that we are their heirs in the confessions we make and in the privileges and obligations which follow.’ (John W. Pryor, John: Evangelist of the Covenant People, 13f)

It is important to remember that the Christ of Jn 1:1 is the Christ of Jn 1:35-51. In other words, the cosmic Christ – the Word who is God – is the Christ who meets people in the particularities of their daily lives and human needs.

How should we harmonise this encounter of the first disciples with Jesus with the account of the call given in the Synoptic Gospels? In fact, as Morris points out, John does not record a ‘call’ at all (apart from Phillip, v43): these men attach themselves to Jesus as his disciples. Only later will they receive a summons to become apostles. It can readily be seen that John’s account fills out that given in the other Gospels by showing that the disciples did not leave everything and follow Jesus at a whim; they had been prepared by this earlier encounter.

Of vv 35-42, Ryle says, ‘These verses ought always to be interesting to every true Christian. They describe the first beginnings of the Christian Church. Vast as that Church is now, there was a time when it consisted of only two weak members.’

The next day – John is careful to note the time sequence (cf. Jn 1:29,39,43 2:1).  He presents this early ministry of Jesus as a week which culminates in the miracle at Cana. Given the very evident recall of Gen 1 at the beginning of this chapter, it may be that John is presenting the work of Jesus in the new creation as a conscious echo of the old creation.

John…his disciples – John continues to witness to Jesus as the Christ. The previous day it had been to a crowd; today it is to a few disciples. Yesterday his testimony had brought no obvious response; today it led to two men taking a decisive step. Yesterday, they viewed Jesus from a distance; today, they began to know him personally.

The Gospels refer several times to the fact that John had a number of disciples, Jn 1:35 3:25-36 Lk 11:1. It is only John who indicates that some of these became disciples of Jesus. Texts such as Acts 18:25 & Acts 19:1-7 suggest that he had a following well after his death. Indeed, ‘to this day there is a small sect called the Mandaeans in parts of Iraq and Iran who claim to have kept this movement going continuously into the modern era. Modern Christendom was first made aware of their existence when Christian missionaries encountered them in the seventeenth century.’ (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels)

‘One of the two disciples is subsequently named as Andrew, but the other’s name is not given. From early times it has been thought that he was the beloved disciple, and, while this is not proven, it may well be the case. It would accord with this that we have some touches of an eye-witness, the picture of John “standing,” and the look he gave Jesus as he walked.’ (Leon Morris)

“The Lamb of God” – cf. v29n. He might have said, “Look, the Messiah!” or “Look, the Son of God!” or “Look, the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit!” But no: here pre-eminence is giving to Christ’s sacrificial and saving work. Whatever other nuances are present within this term, the ideas of atonement and forgiveness are certainly essential elements. This is consistent with the Evangelist’s presentation of Jesus as a Passover sacrifice in the Passion narrative. To follow Jesus involves an apprehension of his Saviourhood. We can assume that John’s repetition of this exclamation (cf. v29) was meant as a hint to follow Jesus.

This was not the first time that John had spoken thus. No apparent good had come out of his first pronouncement of Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’. But his persistence pays off. This is a lesson to us all in keeping up our testimony, whether we see any immediate results or not. We must be prepared to point people to Christ, to invite people to Christ, again and again. Cf. Php 3:1.

John said this to his disciples as Jesus walked past.  It was, then, virtually a call to them to leave him, and to follow Jesus.

John’s words are also a reminder to us of the central focus of our testimony. ‘It is by exalting Christ, not the Church,- Christ, not the sacraments,- Christ, not the ministry; – it is by this means that hearts are moved, and sinners are turned to God…The story of the crucified Lamb of God has proved, in every age, the power of God unto salvation…If souls are to be saved, men must be pointed directly to Christ.’ (Ryle)

Barclay comments, ‘Once again we see John the Baptist pointing beyond himself. He must have known very well that to speak to his disciples about Jesus like that was to invite them to leave him and to transfer their loyalty to this new and greater teacher; and yet he did it. There was no jealousy in John. He had come to attach men, not to himself, but to Christ. There is no harder task than to take the second place when once the first place was enjoyed. But once Jesus had emerged on the scene John never had any other thought than to send men to him.’

So John’s ministry was carried out in the spirit of 2 Cor 4:5: ‘For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.’

They followed Jesus – The next verse suggests that at first they followed at a distance.

This act of following Jesus marked the beginning, not the completion, of a journey of adventure and discovery.

John had been convinced that the ministry of the Messiah would supercede his own. Here is part of the price he paid for being willing to put that conviction into action. He willingly lost some of his most gifted and loyal disciples – Andrew, Peter and (so we may suppose) John himself. We need Christian leaders like John today leaders who are strong and yet self-effacing.

‘The Baptist on this occasion said nothing about following Jesus. But his whole ministry was forward-looking, and he had instructed his disciples well. Thus when this pair heard Jesus acclaimed as “the Lamb of God” they knew what was expected of them. They immediately left John and followed Jesus.’ (Leon Morris)

‘It is not particularly easy to attach disciples firmly to oneself when one is calling for a strenuous following of the right. But when this has been done it is the mark of a truly great man that he can gently, but firmly, detach them, so that they may go after a greater.’ (Leon Morris)

This verse illustrates three steps in salvation:-

  1. John speaks.
  2. The disciples hear.
  3. They follow Jesus.

These two disciples of John followed Jesus. But, evidently, there were others who did not.

Turning around – Suggestive of an eye-witness account, and therefore that the apostle John was the unnamed disciple of v40.

“What do you want?” – These are the first recorded words of Jesus in his public ministry. We can assume that Jesus already knew the answer to this question. It was asked, therefore, for their benefit, to encourage and stimulate them. It is also question which has more than one layer of significance. And note that Jesus does not press for an answer: he allows for these layers of meaning to emerge in thinking and experience of these, his prospective disciples. It will take time, considerable time, for these men to fully appreciate the full stature and saviourhood of Jesus. Although we must bear in mind the unfolding of God’s saving work which is now complete, nevertheless this provides a corrective to those who only know of instant conversion to Christ.

Was part of the answer that these two, having heard John’s testimony, felt the need for cleansing and forgiveness? In any case, this question invites further questions, such as: ‘What do you really want?’ – ‘Why do you want it?’ – ‘Would you recognize it if you saw it?’ – ‘Would you want it if you got it?’

‘It was very relevant to ask that question in Palestine in the time of Jesus. Were they legalists, looking only for subtle and recondite conversations about the little details of the Law, as the Scribes and Pharisees did? Were they ambitious time-servers looking for a place and power, as the Sadducees did? Were they nationalists looking for a political demagogue and a military commander who would smash the occupying power of Rome, as the Zealots did? Were they humble men of prayer and waiting, seeking for God and his will, as the Quiet in the Land did? Or were they simply puzzled, bewildered men and sinners seeking for light on the road of life and forgiveness from God?’ (Barclay)

What do I want? What am I looking for? Security? Prestige? Success? Power? Affection?

‘This winning and friendly invitation, once made to two men, now belongs to all. Therefore, we must not be afraid that Christ will hold back from us or denying easy access, if only he sees us striving towards him. No, indeed! He will stretch out his hand to help our exertions. And will he not hasten to those who come to him, he who seeks afar off the wandering and astray, to bring them back into the right road?’ (Calvin)

“Rabbi” (which means Teacher) – John’s tendency to translate Jewish terms (cf. v41) indicates that he wrote for Gentiles. ‘The title ‘Rabbi’ was one of respect and did not refer (as it came to do later) to one who had been trained in the rabbinical schools.’ (NBC)

“Where are you staying?” – The two do not give a direct answer to Jesus’ question, perhaps out of shyness.  But their response suggests a desire to meet with Jesus and to converse with him. It may not seem a very profound response to the exclamation of John and the invitation of Jesus; but it receives the utmost encouragement, as we see from the next verse.

Matthew Henry remarks that ‘in calling him Rabbi, they intimated that their design in coming to him was to be taught by him’; and, ‘in asking where he dwelt, they intimate a desire to be better acquainted with him.’

“Come…and you will see” – This, says Ryle, is ‘a pleasant type of what he has been saying to the sons of men from that day down to this.’ Certainly, it is a much more encouraging answer than he gave on another occasion, Lk 9:57-58.

They went and saw where he was staying – Which is likely to have been a very humble dwelling. If so, those first disciples had an indication that Jesus was not quite the Messiah of popular Jewish expectation, who would have been found in much more noble and splendid surroundings.

Spent the day with him – we would very much like to know what was said during that first, seminal meetng! But God, in his wisdom, has not chosen for us to know.

The tenth hour – Either 10 A.M. by Roman time; 4 P.M. by Jewish time. This note of time is not only another eyewitness touch, but if that eyewitness was John himself (as is very probable), then it could be that he is marking a pivotal moment in his own life.

These two, then, were the first disciples.  We might almost call them the first Christians.

Andrew’s Declaration

1:40 Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus. 1:41 He first found his own brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah!”(which is translated Christ). 1:42 Andrew brought Simon to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, the son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

John will now give an account of four positive responses to Jesus. The Master will vary his approach, providing an excellent lesson to the would-be personal evangelist in a flexible and individual approach, not too tied to methods and techniques.

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother – This implies that Simon Peter was not only better-known than Andrew, but more precisely that Peter was already known to John readers through the Synoptic Gospels. It is evident that Andrew lived to a large extent in his brother’s shadow. This can be true of many people today: they are identified not so much as themselves, but as the ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘husband’, ‘wife’, ‘son’, ‘daughter’ of someone better known. But God does not have favourites like this. And in any case, the quiet friendliness of Andrew was as important in its own way as the achievements of his more famous brother. It was only because of Andrew that Peter came to Jesus in the first place.

Here enters Peter, the man who has been described as suffering from foot-in-mouth disease! It has been said that when Peter enters the Gospel record, he always comes in with a thud. Three words tell how he came to Jesus: he was sought by his brother; he was brought to Christ; he was caught by what he saw and heard.

Andrew has become something of a model for Christian witness. He had no particular abilities or credentials. His main tool was friendliness. He began at home, with his family. He had a habit of introducing people to Jesus, Jn 6:8; 12:22. ‘Statistics repeatedly demonstrate that while gospel preaching is undoubtedly important, personal witness and friendship continue to be the primary means by which people are brought Christ.’

How often it is that an eminent Christian is brought to Christ by someone relatively insignificant.  This, then, is the nature of faith: one flaming torch serves to light another.

One of the two – The other one is not mentioned by name. He is often supposed to have been John, the author of this Gospel. He always avoids referring to himself directly, cf. Jn 8:23; 19:26, 35; 20:2; 21:7,20,24.

The first thing – Some manuscripts have proi (early in the morning) instead of proton (first). The meaning would then be that this verse records what happened early on the following day, rather than later on the same day.

‘Who can tell what might have happened if Andrew had been of a silent, reserved, and uncommunicative spirit, like many a Christian in the present day? Who can tell but his brother might have lived and died a fisherman on the Galilean lake?’ (Ryle)

‘Andrew brought his brother to Jesus, an act of which Temple says “perhaps it is as great a service to the Church as ever any man did.” Each time we meet Andrew in this Gospel he is bringing someone to Jesus, (Jn 6:8; 12:22) a consistency that is worth noting.’ (Leon Morris)

Peter was brought to Jesus ‘by the private, quiet word of a relative. He seems to have heard no public preaching. He saw no mighty miracle wrought. He was not convinced by powerful reasoning. He only heard his brother telling him that he had found a Saviour himself, and at once the work began in his soul. The simple testimony of a warmhearted brother was the first link in the chain by which Peter was drawn out of the world and joined to Christ.’ (J.C. Ryle)

‘We ought to notice God’s design. He wanted Peter, who was to be far more eminent, to be led to the knowledge of Christ by Andrew’s agency and ministry, so that none of us, however excellent, may refuse to be taught by an inferior.’ (Calvin)

‘That Andrew immediately brings his brother expresses the nature of faith, which does not keep the light hidden within or quench it, but rather spreads it in every direction. Andrew has scarcely one spark; and yet by it he enlightens his brother. Woe to our apathy, if we, more fully enlightened than he, do not try to make others partakers of the same grace.’ (Calvin)

See also v45.

‘To endeavour the conversion and salvation of our near relations is a most important duty…There are many instances of this nature both in the Old and New Testament. Abraham and Joshua were famous in their generations for this work; they counted it their principal business, they made it their great care, to instruct their families in the fear and service of the great God. David also engages to “walk within his house with a perfect heart,” that by his exemplary pattern he might gain over his family to the Lord. (Psalm 101:2.) Matthew the publican, we read, did invite all the tribute-gatherers, that were of his own fraternity and profession, to a great feast, that they might sit down with Christ, and feed upon his heavenly doctrine. (Luke 5:29.) The great man in the city of Capernaum brings in his whole family to the belief of the truth. (John 4:53.) Cornelius, the Roman centurion, who was quartered at Cæsarea, calls his relations together, to hear the doctrine of faith and repentance. (Acts 10:24.) The woman in the gospel, having found the lost groat, after great pains and diligence, calls in her friends and neighbours to rejoice with her. (Luke 15:9.) Crispus, and the jailor, and Lydia, and Stephanas, are eminent examples of this duty; by whose conscientious care and procurement it may be supposed, that their whole households came under the roof of Christ; because, presently after that we have heard of their own personal baptism, we find their families also washed in that sacred laver.’ (Samuel Lee, Puritan Sermons, Vol 1, sermon VIII)

“We have found the Messiah” – This was the joyful conclusion drawn from John’s witness, and from the extended conversation with Jesus referred to in v39. Various Messianic titles are used in this first chapter of John’s Gospel, Jn 1:29,34,36,41,45,49. This appears to contrast with the Synoptics, who do not have Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ until well into his ministry. However, since even John had later doubts about Jesus’ identity, Mt 11:2-3, it should not be surprising if it took several goes before Peter and the others got the message.

Here we see the thorough effectiveness of John’s ministry: he had taught his own disciples not only to expect the Messiah, but also to recognise him and follow him when he came.

‘In early Judaism messianic hope took on a variety of shapes. Some Jews expected a particular Messianic figure in the mold of David to come and retake the promised land by force for God’s people (cf. Pss. Sol. 17). Some Qumranites seem to have expected two messianic figures-a priestly one and a kingly one (cf. 1QS 9.11; also T. Levi 18; T. Reuben 6:8). Still other Jews looked for an eschatological prophet like MOSES (cf. 4QTest; 1QS 9.11; cf. also the Samaritan expectation of a who will be a Moses). There were those who looked for the coming of a messianic age in general without focusing on a particular messianic figure. Other early Jews, apparently including the Sadducees, seem to have had no messianic hopes.’ (DJG)

‘A contradiction has been supposed between this announcement and the synoptic records, which suggest that Jesus was not recognized as Messiah until Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. But there is no need to suppose that here the disciples had anything but a very general idea of what Messiahship really meant.’ (NBC)

‘Experience with Christ allows us to know him better. These new disciples used several names for Jesus: Lamb of God (1:36), Rabbi (1:38), Messiah (1:41), Son of God (1:49), and King of Israel (1:49). As they got to know Jesus, their appreciation for him grew. The more time we spend getting to know Christ, the more we will understand and appreciate who he is. We may be drawn to him for his teaching, but we will come to know him as the Son of God. Although these disciples made this verbal shift in a few days, they would not fully understand Jesus until three years later (Acts 2). What they so easily professed had to be worked out in experience. We may find that words of faith come easily, but deep appreciation for Christ comes with living by faith.’ (Handbook of Bible Application)

‘Messiah’ means, of course, ‘anointed one’. In the OT, prophets, (1 Kings 19:18) priests, (Ex 28:41; 40:15) and kings (1 Sam 9:16; 16:3; 2 Sam 12:7) were all anointed with oil for the purpose of consecrating them for their role. Jesus was anointed, not with oil, but with the Holy Spirit, Acts 10:38.

The weight of OT anticipation fell on the coming of Yahweh in his kingdom, to usher in a time of righteousness and justice and peace for Israel and the whole earth, Isa 65:17-25; 66:20-24. But there appears also a figure who is closely associated with the coming of the kingdom, a figure who has prophetic, (Deut 18:15-19) priestly (Ps 110:4; Zec 6:12-13) and kingly (2 Sam 7:12-13; Ps 2:6; Isa 11:1) elements. In the ‘royal psalms’ (Psa 2,18,21,45,63,72,89,110,132) a vision is offered of a greater than earthly sovereign. Similarly, the servant songs of Isa 42-53 move between the servant Israel and the messianic servant of the Lord, whose role becomes predictive of the person and work of Christ himself, cf. Isa 42:1,6,7; 49:5-6; 50:4-8; 52:13-53:12.

The Messianic expectation appears to have been patiently preserved, not so much by the religious leaders, but by humble, devout people, such as Simeon, Lk 2:25ff, and Anna, Lk 2:36ff. The words of Andrew suggest that he had been taught to ‘wait for the consolation of Israel’, cf. Lk 2:25. Still, his understanding at that stage is likely to have been very incomplete. The people tended to think of the Messiah as ‘a heroic national leader who would drive Israel’s enemies (and especially the Romans) from her sacred territory and would lead God’s chosen people to world supremacy and domination. Their Messiah was a kingly, national and political figure.’ (Mt 21:9 Jn 6:15) (Lewis, The Glory of Christ, 155)

A major strand within this Gospel is the development of understanding of Jesus as Messiah, vv45,49; Jn 3:28f; 4:25,29,42; 5:45f; 6:15; 7:26f,31,40,43; 9:22; 10:24; 11:27; 12:34; 17:3; 20:31.

‘Despite the rarity of its use in the other Gospels, Jesus is confessed as Messiah in Jn., (Jn 1:41 4:29 11:27) but it is interesting that the word never appears on the lips of Jesus himself.’ (NBD)

‘First-century longings for the coming of a deliverer are reflected when John the Baptist answers the questions of the Jews by affirming that he is not the Christ, (Jn 1:20 3:28) and when the Samaritan woman says that she looks forward to the coming of the Messiah (4:25). Throughout the first half of the Gospel there occur statements reflecting common Jewish traditions about the coming of the Messiah (7:27, 41f; 12:34); the great question in controversy with the Jews is whether Jesus is the Messiah (4:29; 7:26, 31, 41; 9:22; 10:24ff). The purpose of the Fourth Gospel is to lead people to see that this is the case (20:31) and thus to reecho the confession of the first disciples (1:41; 4:29; 11:27).

Various facets of Jewish messianic expectation are fulfilled in Jesus. He is the coming one, (Jn 11:27 12:13) an idea that receives a characteristic Johannine nuance (1:9; 3:31). He is called the Holy one of God (6:69), the Savior, (Jn 4:42 1 Jn 4:14) and the Lamb of God. (Jn 1:29,36 Rev 5:6; etc.) The people wonder whether he is the promised prophet. (Jn 6:14 7:40) he is also spoken of as the King of Israel (1:49; 12:13; 18:33-38; 19:3, 14-22), an idea which receives new definition in John; the former of these ideas (and possibly also the latter) may be connected with the expectation of a prophet like Moses (W. A. Meeks).

Despite the rarity of its use in the Synoptic Gospels, in John the title of Messiah is given to Jesus during his lifetime. This does not mean, however, that the so-called messianic secrecy of the Synoptics is given up: although Jesus is willing to confess his identity to the true seeker, he refuses to do so to the unbelieving Jews.’ (Jn 4:26 10:24-26) (ISBE)

Jesus looked at him – we should pause to think of the intensity and the insight of that gaze. Cf. Jn 2:25, ‘he knew what was in a man.’

“You are Simon…You will be called Cephas” – In OT times, a change of name indicated a change of status or relationship (Abram-Abraham; Sarai-Sarah; Jacob-Israel, etc.) So, Jesus is looking ahead to what Peter would become. Cf. Mt 12:20. ‘Peter…is addressed by Jesus in terms of the person he was to become…It is striking how regularly Jesus approached people from the perspective of their potential. (cf. Lk 5:10 18:22 Jn 1:47 4:7 6:70) our concern to declare the sin and fallenness of those we witness to (which has its place, cf. ‘though you are evil’, Lk 11:13) must not inhibit our recognition of the possibilities of grace (‘know how to give good gifts’, Lk 11:13). (Milne)

‘Again there is a difference between John and the synoptics in the time at which the name Peter was given to Simon. Here it is given at the beginning of the ministry, whereas in Mt 16:18 it is confirmed after Peter’s confession. It is worth noting that Jesus here uses the future tense which would point to the Mt 16:18 occasion.’ (NBC)

The Calling of More Disciples

1:43 On the next day Jesus wanted to set out for Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 1:44 (Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter.) 1:45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 1:46 Nathanael replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replied, “Come and see.”

Finding Philip – ‘John brings him before us on a number of occasions. Each time he seems somewhat out of his depth, and it is probable that he was of limited ability. His contribution to feeding the multitude is the information that they could not be fed even with “two hundred shillings” worth of bread. (Jn 6:7) When the Greeks came to him asking to see Jesus he did not know what to do. He had to consult Andrew before the men were brought to Jesus. (Jn 12:21-22) And it was Philip who requested Jesus in the upper room to show them the Father – that is all they ask! (Jn 14:8-9) The fact that on this occasion he did not seek Jesus, but Jesus went to find him may indicate some lack of initiative. If so it is encouraging to reflect that Jesus went out of his way to find this perfectly ordinary Philip and to enlist him in the apostolic band. Some of the apostles were undoubtedly men of great ability, but Philip compels us to reflect that others were perfectly ordinary people. Christ had and has use for such followers.’ (Leon Morris)

Philip, then, seems to have been of rather limited ability, and lacking in initiative.  But Jesus goes out of his way to find him, and call him to himself.

‘We must beware of making the experience of other believers the measure of our own.  We must beware of denying another’s grace because he has not been led by the same way as ourselves.  Has a man got the real grace of God?  This is the only question that concerns us.  Is he a penitent man?  Is he a believer?  Does he live a holy life?  Provided these inquiries can be answered satisfactorily, we may well be content.  It matters nothing by what path a man has been led if he has only been led, at last, into the right way.’ (Ryle)

From the town of Bethesda – ‘The name of the city seems to have been mentioned to show more clearly God’s goodness to the three apostles. We learn from other passages how sternly Christ threatens and curses that city. Accordingly, that some from such an ungodly and wicked race should be received into God’s favour ought to be regarded as their being brought out of hell. And that Christ should deem those rescued from the bottomless abyss worthy of such honour as to be appointed apostles is a magnificent and memorable blessing.’ (Calvin)

“We have found the one…” – We need to sense the great joy of Philip’s exclamation.  It is one thing to wait, as the faithful Jews had waited for centuries, and it is another thing for that waiting to be at an end.  It is one thing to search, as many throughout human history have searched, and it is another thing to find.  Note also the simplicity of Philip’s witness: “we have found him” may not be clever or profound, but it speaks of what has been personally experienced, and that no man can take away.  The idea that Christ is the sum and substance of the Old Testament is fully supported in the teaching of Jesus himself and also the apostles.  This indicates both the importance of the Old Testament for us, and also suggests the key to its interpretation.

‘Many argue acutely about Christ, but so obscure and wrap him up with their subtleties that he can never be found…Would it not be better to stammer foolishly with Philip and yet keep the true Christ than to introduce a fiction in clever and impressive language?’ (Calvin)

‘It is the most sweet and comfortable knowledge; to be studying Jesus Christ, what is it but to be digging among all the veins and springs of comfort? And the deeper you dig, the more do these springs flow upon you. How are hearts ravished with the discoveries of Christ in the gospel? what ecstasies, meltings, transports, do gracious souls meet there? Doubtless, Philip’s ecstasy, Jn 1:25 “eurekamen Iesoun,” “We have found Jesus,” was far beyond that of Archimedes. A believer could sit from morning to night, to hear discourses of Christ; “His mouth is most sweet,” So 5:16.’ (Flavel)

The son of Joseph – This has been taken by A.T. Lincoln and others as indicating that the doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth was unknown to the author of the Fourth Gospel.  But this is rather conjectural, because (a) the words are Philip’s and not those of the author, and there is no reason to think that Philip would have known anything about a virgin birth at this time; (b) Philip’s purpose was clearly to identify Jesus (this being a rather common name), rather than to comment on his parentage; (c) the author may be using irony, knowing that his readers would be fully aware of the virgin birth.

Perhaps this sceptical response was due to small-town rivalry.  Or (more probably) Nathanael was reflecting on the fact that there is no mention of Nazareth in the Messianic prophecies (in fact, Nazareth is not mentioned in the OT at all).

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” – This is taken by some as a ‘curious silence’ on the part of the author of the Fourth Gospel regarding the ‘tradition’, recorded in Matthew and Luke, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Otherwise, Nathanael’s flippant question would have been ‘surely the perfect cue for the true story of Jesus’s birth.’  On top of this is the silence of Mark and Paul regarding Bethlehem.  ‘While this does not prove that the tradition has no factual basis, it seems more likely that the story was developed within early Christian circles to connect Jesus with the Davidic Messiah.’  Similarly, Helen K. Bond (The Historical Jesus:a Guide for the Perplexed) thinks that ‘if John knew a tradition that Jesus had actually been born in Bethlehem he surely would have mentioned it.’  We thinking it surprising that such scholars can feel so sure about their own conjectures, while playing fast and loose with the text in front of them (which was, after all, written by people who were far more in touch with the actual events than they themselves are).

“Come and see” – Once again, Philip’s answer is simple, but effective.  He knew his own limitations and did not try to convince his friend by argument.  Instead he invited him to see for himself.

1:47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and exclaimed, “Look, a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 1:48 Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?” Jesus replied, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 1:49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel!” 1:50 Jesus said to him, “Because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 1:51 He continued, “I tell all of you the solemn truth—you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

“Nothing false” – earlier Gk writers had used the word for ‘bait’; hence, ‘a cunning device for deceiving or catching, such as a net.’

This whole passage recalls the story of Jacob in the OT.  Jacob’s new name had been Israel, Gen 32:28, but Jacob was throughout his life a man of guile.  Nathanael, in contrast, is honest and true: in him there was no guile.  In this respect, he is more of an Israelite than Jacob was.

“How do yo know me?” – That is, “how do you know this about me?”

“I saw you while you were still under the fig tree” – the time and circumstances are not specified. The fig tree was symbolic of home, Isa 36:16; Mic 4:4; Zec 3:10. Its shade was used for prayer and meditation. Perhaps Nathaniel had had some deep experience of God at home, and it is this to which Jesus is referring.

There is evidently something deeper here than at first meets the eye.  Whatever it was, Nathanael will be ready to acknowledge Jesus’ supernatural knowledge.  We may guess that Nathanel had received a special revelation from God under the fig true (a common place for prayer and meditation).  We may further suppose that this revelation (in the form of a dream or vision) was Messianic in its content, just as Jacob’s had been, Gen 28:14.  Other Messianic revelations had occurred near the time of Jesus’ birth, Lk 2:26.

When Nathanael realises Jesus’ supernatural knowledge of him, his doubts evaporate.

Jesus is saying that it is a small thing for him to demonstrate supernatural knowledge of Nathanael.  He will see much more astonishing things than this.

In comparing himself to Jacob, Jesus alludes to Gen 28:12.  In the midrashic traditions, the angels came to gaze upon Jacob, and even ascended and descended on him.  John’s readers were probably intended to understand Jesus as superior to Jacob.

‘The allusion is to the patriarch Jacob’s vision of a ladder on which angels ascended and descended, linking heaven and earth. (Gen 28:10-17) Jesus appears to be telling Nathanael in a figurative way that once again God would reveal himself from heaven to the pious on earth, and that this revelation would directly involve Jesus as the Son of man.’ (cf. Jn 1:14,18 3:13) (DJG)

Jesus’ meaning seems to be, that his disciples will discern in his own life and ministry an unbroken communion with the Father, and an unrestricted commerce between heaven and earth.

Contact!

In a book first published in 1920, Herman Harrell Horne writes: ‘It is essential in all effective teaching that points of contact be established between teacher and taught.’  In John 1:35-51, Horne notes that:-

1. Jesus walked where his presence could be noted by the Baptist.
2. He used his eyes. He “observed” Andrew and John coming after him, he “gazed** at Simon, he “saw” Nathanael approaching, and had previously “seen” under that fig tree in meditation, like Buddha under the Bo tree.
3. He opened up conversation, with the two, with Simon, with Philip, with Nathanael.
4. He asked questions. “What do you want?” “You are Simon, the son of John?” “You believe because I told you I had seen you under that fig tree?”
5. He invited companionship, “Come and see.” They stayed with him the rest of that day. “Follow me.”
6. He utilized the power of the name. We all like to be recognized, and called by name. Further, In handling the names lie took a personal liberty in an acceptable way with a sense of humor. “You are Simon, the son of John? Your name is to be Cephas.”
7. He understood character, and showed that he did. “Here is a genuine Israelite! There is no guile in him.” That astonished the doubting Nathanael. The open compliment was not lost on him. His pride was perhaps tickled as he recognized himself under the fine tribute.  He began to capitulate. Somewhat bluntly, without address, he asked: “How do you know me?” The answer, showing that Jesus had noted him under that fig tree in pious meditation, appreciating Nathanael at his strongest points, led to immediate and unconditional surrender:
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel.”

(The above list is verbatim, with added emphasis).

Horne invites us to observe also how Jesus established a point of contact with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:8), with the disabled person at the pool of Bethesda (Jn 5).

Note further how Nicodemus (Jn 3:2) and the Pharisees and Herodians (Mt 22:16) sought to establish a point of contact with the Lord.

In the case of Zaccheus (Lk 19:1-10), contact was made by the two of them meeting half-way, as it were.

Then there were countless times when a shared meal formed an intimate point of contact.

After Peter’s denial, Jesus graciously re-established contact with him, Lk 22:61; Mk 16:7; Jn 21:15.