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4. Exegetical Commentary on John 1 (verses 1:19 - 51)

Note L. Morris’ suggestion: The opening of the narrative proper might be understood as the account of the happenings of one momentous week:50

Day 1—The deputation from Jerusalem to the Baptist (1:19-28)

Day 2—John the Baptist points out Jesus (1:29-34)

Day 3—Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus (1:35-40)

Day 4—Andrew brings Peter to Jesus (1:41-42) [Presumably on the next day]

[Using the inclusive method of calculation:]

Day 5—(1st day) Philip and Nathanael come to Jesus (1:43-51)

Day 6—(2nd day) (no events recorded)

Day 7—(3rd day) “KaiV th'/ hJmevra/ th'/ trivth/ gavmo" ejgevneto ejn KanaV th'" Galilaiva"…”

If this is an accurate chronological arrangement we may ask, “What is the significance of this chronology for the Evangelist?” The deliberate allusion to Gen 1:1 by the phrase ejn ajrch'/ in John 1:1 (see Notes on the Prologue) suggests that the framework of John 1:19-51 is also an allusion to the seven creative days of Gen 1. It suggests creative activity—Jesus is about to engage in a new creation, just as he was active in the original creation (1:3). Nevertheless, the point should not be pressed too far, because of the omission of recorded events for day 6 and because John himself does not enumerate the days in this way (cf. 2:1, which the author describes as the 3rd day, not the 7th.

John the Baptist’s testimony does seem to take place over 3 days (cf. the suggested chronology above):

Day 1—John’s testimony about his own role is largely negative (1:19-28)

Day 2—John gives positive testimony about who Jesus is (1:29-34)

Day 3—John sends his own disciples to follow Jesus (1:35-40)

C. H. Dodd observed a (triadic) parallel between the above arrangement and the Prologue (1:6-8) which is probably the expansion of the Prologue we would expect if our theory about its nature is correct:51

(1) John was not the Light (1:8)

(2) John came to testify to the Light (1:7) and (1:8)

(3) His purpose for testifying was in order that all believe (1:7)

[Note: This should not be pressed too far because it does involve a sequential dislocation.]


    2 A The Introduction to the Gospel (1:19-51)

      1 B The Witness of John the Baptist (1:19-34)

        1 C John’s witness about himself (1:19-28)

        2 C John’s witness about Jesus (1:29-34)

      2 B Jesus acquires his first disciples from John (John 1:35-51)

        1 C Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus (1:35-39)

        2 C Andrew finds Peter and brings him to Jesus (1:40-42)

        3 C Jesus calls Philip (1:43-44)

        4 C Nathanael and his confession (1:45-51)


Bratcher, R. G., “‘The Jews’ in the Gospel of John,” Bible Translator 26 (1975): 401-409.

Dodd, C. H., Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: University Press, 1965).

Morris, L., The Gospel According to John, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971).

Westcott, B. F., The Gospel According to St. John (1881; rpt. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978).


    2 A The Introduction to the Gospel (1:19-51)

      1 B The Witness of John the Baptist (1:19-34)

The Baptist is the first witness brought forward by the Evangelist to give testimony as to who Jesus is. See the following discussion for further information on the phrase oiJ =Ioudaioi.52

        1 C John’s witness about himself (1:19-28)

1:19ff. Note again the triadic pattern of the roles proposed for the Baptist by the emissaries of the Pharisees:

1. Are you the Messiah? (this was not explicitly asked but was certainly implied; note John’s denial. )

2. Are you Elijah?

3. Are you the Prophet?

Note also the increasing curtness of John’s replies: (1) ejgw oujk eijmi oJ Cristov"; (2) oujk eijmi; and finally (3) merely ouj. Perhaps John’s patience was wearing a bit thin or, more likely, he wished not at all to focus attention on himself but more and more on the One to whom he did come to bear witness.

A Note on Jewish Messianic Expectation:

      Apparently, no uniform Jewish expectation of a single eschatological figure existed. A majority expected the Messiah. But some apocryphal books describe God’s intervention without mentioning the anointed Davidic king; in parts of Enoch the figure of the Son of Man, not the Messiah, embodies the expectations of the author. Essenes at Qumran seem to have expected three figures: a prophet, a priestly messiah, and a royal messiah.

A Note on the Significance of Johns Baptism:

      In baptizing, John was performing an eschatological action. It also seems to be part of his proclamation (1:23, 26-27). Crowds were beginning to follow him. He was operating in an area not too far from the Essene center on the Dead Sea. No wonder the authorites were curious about who he was.

1:20-21 We may now consider John’s three responses, i.e., who John was not:

(1) John was not the Messiah—A 3rd century work, the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions [1.54 and 1.60 in the Latin text; the statement is not as clear in the Syriac] records that Johns followers proclaimed him to be the Messiah. We have no clear evidence that they did so in the 1st century, however—but Luke 3:15 indicates some wondered.

(2) John was not Elijah—According to 2 Kings 2:11, Elijah is still alive. In Mal 4:5 it is said that Elijah would be the precursor of Messiah. How do we reconcile this with Jesus’ statements in Matt 11:14 (see also Mark 9:13 and Matt 17:12) that John the Baptist is Elijah?

Some have attempted to remove the difficulty by a construction in the Gospel of John which makes the Baptist say that he was Elijah. But surely this is playing fast and loose with the text!

According to Gregory the Great, John was not Elijah, but exercised toward Jesus the function of Elijah by preparing his way. But this avoids the real difficulty, since the question of the Jewish authorities to the Baptist concerns precisely his function.

It has been suggested that the author of the Gospel here preserves a historically correct reminiscence—that John the Baptist did not think of himself as Elijah, although Jesus said otherwise. Mark 6:14-16 and Mark 8:28 indicate the people and Herod both distinguished between John and Elijah—probably because he did not see himself as Elijah.

But Jesus’ remarks in Matt 11:14, Mark 9:13, and Matt 17:12 indicate that John did perform the function of Elijah—John did for Jesus what Elijah was to have done for the coming of the Lord. C. F. D. Moule points out that it is too simple to see a straight contradiction between John’s account and that of the Synoptists:

‘We have to ask by whom the identification is made, and by whom refused. The Synoptists represent Jesus as identifying, or comparing, the Baptist with Elijah, while John represents the Baptist as rejecting the identification when it is offered him by his interviewers. Now these two, so far from being incompatible, are psychologically complementary. The Baptist humbly rejects the exalted title, but Jesus, on the contrary, bestows it on him. Why should not the two both be correct?”53

John was not the Prophet—The reference is to the Prophet “like Moses” mentioned in Deut 18:15-18. (Acts 3:22 identifies Jesus as this prophet. )

1:22-23 Who John was: According to John 1:22-23, John the Baptist was the voice crying in the wilderness. John the Baptist has “telescoped” (paraphrased) the Is. 40:3 quote, which refers to a voice in the desert crying out, “Prepare the Lord’s road, make straight his path” (LXX reads here “God’s” for “his”).

        2 C John’s witness about Jesus (1:29-34)

John the Baptist, who has been so reluctant to elaborate his own role, now more than willingly gives his testimony about Jesus. For the Evangelist, the emphasis is totally on John the Baptist as a witness to Jesus. No attention is given to the Baptist’s call to national repentance and very little to his baptizing. Everything is focused on what he has to say about Jesus.

Again the Baptist’s witness is 3-fold:

1. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29)

2. Jesus is the pre-existent One who has priority over the Baptist (1:30)

3. Jesus is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (1:33)

We may give consideration to each of the Baptist’s statements about Jesus separately:

1:29 (1) Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29)

There are three major explanations for the symbolism of the Lamb in the Baptist’s testimony:

(a) The Lamb as the Apocalyptic Lamb54

  • There appears in Jewish Apocalyptic literature the figure of a conquering Lamb who will destroy evil in the world:

      Testament of Joseph 19:8 (Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs) tells of the lamb (ajmno") who overcomes the evil beasts and crushes them underfoot [although there may be Christian interpolations here, or the entire work may have Christian influence].

      Enoch 90:38—At the end comes a horned bull who turns into a lamb with black horns.

      Revelation 7:17 and 17:14.

  • This fits well with the Baptist’s eschatological preaching as portrayed in the Synoptics: Matt 3:12, Luke 3:17 (“His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor. He will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”)

Problems with this view:

  • The words used for lamb in John and Revelation are different: John 1:29 employs ajmno"; Revelation uses ajrnion. (But Revelation may simply be using a standard apocalyptic term for Lamb, whereas ajmno" suggests broader connotations.)
  • The descriptive phrase oJ ai[rwn thVn aJmartivan tou' kovsmou does not seem to fit an apocalyptic picture. The emphasis lies more with redemption. This is a significant problem for Dodd’s view.

(b) The Lamb as the Suffering Servant

  • In this case the symbolism is picked up from Is. 53:7—”Like a lamb (LXX ajmno") that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so he did not open his mouth.”
  • This text (Is. 53:7) ia applied to Jesus in Acts 8:32.
  • All the Servant-Songs occur in the second section of Isaiah (40-55). The New Testament associates this part of Isaiah with John the Baptist (John 1:23 and Is. 40:3).
  • Jesus is related to the Suffering Servant elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel (12:38 and Is. 53:1).

Problem with this view:

  • The Lamb is said to take away (ai[rein) the sin of the world; the Servant takes on or bears (ferein, ajnaferein) the sins of many. But early Christians would probably not have drawn a sharp distinction as to whether in his death Jesus took away sin or took it on himself (in any case the end result is the same: the kovsmo" has its sin taken away).

(c) The Lamb as the Passover Lamb (C. K. Barrett)

In support of this view:

  • The passover lamb is a real lamb—in the Servant motif the “lamb” idea is only an isolated, incidental element.
  • Passover symbolism is present in the Fourth Gospel, especially in relation to the death of Jesus:

      Jesus is condemned at noon on the day before the Passover (John 19:14) at the very time the priests began to slay the lambs in the Temple.

      hyssop was used to give a sponge of wine (19:29); hyssop was also used to smear blood on the doorposts in the Passover ritual (Exod 12:22).

      John 19:36 sees a fulfillment of Scripture in that none of Jesus’ bones were broken—cf. Exod 12:46—no bone of the passover lamb was to be broken.

Problems with this view:

  • The Passover Lamb was not a sacrifice per se. But probably by Jesus’ time the sacrificial context began to merge with the symbol of deliverance which was the Passover (note 1 Cor 5:7, “Christ our passover has been sacrificed”).
  • The LXX uses probavton, not ajmno", for the passover Lamb. But in reply, Isaiah 53:7 LXX places probavton and ajmno" in parallel. Also, 1 Peter 1:18-19 speaks of the blood of an unblemished and spotless lamb, using the term ajmno". The difference in terminology is apparently not decisive.

Conclusion and Evaluation:

Probably the concept of the apocalyptic Lamb is not to be found in John’s Gospel. But the other concepts, the Suffering Servant and the Passover Lamb, are probably both there. I think the Passover Lamb symbolism is foremost, but there is no reason why John could not also wish to bring to mind for his readers the rich imagery of the suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.

The other important passage to consider is Gen 22:8. In Jewish thought this was held to be a supremely important sacrifice. Geza Vermes states:

“For the Palestinian Jew, all lamb sacrifice, and especially the Passover lamb and the Tamid offering, was a memorial of the Akedah with its effects of deliverance, forgiveness of sin and messianic salvation.”55

1:30 (2) Jesus as the pre-existent one who has priority over the Baptist (1:30):

(Note: The similarity to 1:15 [cf. notes on this verse]; also related to 1:27)

This is based on the idea that priority in time equals priority in dignity. According to the author, priority does indicate superiority, but despite appearances Jesus really was prior to John the Baptist because Jesus pre-existed.

This is further supported by verse 31. Why did Jesus allow himself to be baptized by John, if John’s baptism was a baptism of repentence? (Jesus, of course, had no need for repentence.) For the author of the Fourth Gospel, there is no problem of Jesus receiving a baptism of repentence, for the whole purpose of John the Baptists baptism consisted in revealing to Israel the one to come.

1:32-33 (3) Jesus is the One upon whom the Spirit descends and who baptizes with the Spirit (32-33):

John says the Spirit came to rest on (e[meinen) Jesus. Mevnw is a favorite Johannine word, used 40 times in the Gospel and 27 times in the Epistles (67 together) against 118 times total in the New Testament. The significance of mevnw for John is that this term is used to express the permanency of relationship between Father and Son and Son and believer.

Here the use of the word implies that Jesus permanently possesses the Holy Spirit, and because he does, he will dispense the Holy Spirit to others in baptism. Other notes on the dispensation of the Spirit occur at John 3:5 ff. (at least implied by the word-play), John 3:34, 7:38-39, numerous passages in chapters 14-16 (the Paraclete passages) and John 20:22.

Note the allusion to Isaiah 42:1—”Behold my Servant…my chosen One in whom my soul delights. I have put my Spirit upon him…”

1:34 The summation of Johns testimony about Jesus occurs in 1:34—“He is the Son of God.”

      2 B Jesus acquires his first disciples from John (John 1:35-51)

This section (1:35-51) is joined to the preceding by the literary expedient of repeating the Baptists testimony about Jesus being the Lamb of God (1:36, cf. 1:29). This repeated testimony (1:36) no longer has revelatory value in itself, since it has been given before; its purpose, instead, is to institute a chain reaction which will bring John the Baptist’s disciples to Jesus and make them Jesus’ own disciples.

In these verses, the Evangelist mentions 5 disciples: Andrew, an unnamed disciple, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael.

In the larger section 1:35-2:11 there is a gradual deepening of insight and a profounder realization of who it is the disciples are following. This reaches a climax in 2:11 where Jesus has manifested his glory, and the disciples believe in him (note the use of pisteuvw + eij").

Note the proliferation of Messianic titles given to Jesus in 1:35-37:

      vss. 35-42

      Rabbi (= Teacher), Messiah

      vss. 43-50

      The One described in the Law and the Prophets, the Son of God and King of Israel

      vs. 51

      The Son of Man

Note also the theme of “following” Jesus—the mark of true discipleship—mentioned in 1:37, 38, 40, 43 and later in 8:12, 10:4, 27, 12:26, 13:36, 21:19, 22.

In 1:37 the verb hjkolouvqhsan hints that the disciples of the Baptist are about to become disciples of Jesus—the Baptist, his mission complete, disappears from the scene, and his followers become followers of Jesus.

        1 C Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus (1:35-39)

1:35-38 Their relationship with Jesus began when they went to him to see where he was staying and stay with him; it was sealed when they saw his glory and believed in him (2:11). [Note: the relation between seeing and believing at 20:29]

1:39 There is a significant problem in verse 39 with the phrase the tenth hour”—what system of time is the author using? Westcott thought John, unlike the Synoptics, was using Roman time, which starts at midnight.56 This would make the time 10 a.m., which fits here. But later in the Gospel’s Passover account (19:42, where the 6th hour is on the “eve of the passover”) it seems clear the author is using Jewish reckoning, which began at 6 a.m. This would make the time in 1:39 to be 4 p.m. This may be significant: if the hour was late, Andrew and the unnamed disciple probably spent the night in the same house where Jesus was staying, and the events of 1:41-42 took place on the next day (the 4th day of the “week”).

The evidence for Westcotts view, that the Gospel is using Roman time, is very slim. The Roman reckoning which started at midnight was only used by authorities as legal time (for contracts, official documents, etc.). Otherwise, the Romans too reckoned time from 6 a.m. [e.g., Roman sundials are marked VI not XII for noon.]

        2 C Andrew finds Peter and brings him to Jesus (1:40-42)

1:40 Even though this probably is on the following day John the Evangelist does not mention it, so that the connection with the preceding material is not lost.

1:41 By the time Andrew finds his brother, he knows Jesus is the Messiah. Apparently he learned this during his short stay with Jesus, which according to our understanding would have been the evening of the day before.

1:42 The change of name for Simon is indicative of the future role he will play. Only John among the gospel writers gives the Greek transliteration (Khfa'") of Simon’s new name, Qph (which is Galilean Aramaic). Neither Pevtro" in Greek nor Qph in Aramaic is a normal proper name; it is more like a nickname.

        3 C Jesus calls Philip (1:43-44)

1:43 Jesus is best taken as the subject of euJrivskei, since Peter would scarcely have wanted to go to Galilee. No explanation is given for why Jesus wanted to leave, but probably he wanted to go to the wedding at Cana (about a 2-day trip). Although John thinks of the town as in Galilee (12:21), Bethsaida technically was in Gaulanitis (Philip the Tetrarch’s territory) across from Herod’s Galilee. There may have been 2 places called Bethsaida, or this may merely reflect popular imprecision—locally it was considered part of Galilee, even though it was just east of the Jordan river.

This territory was heavily Gentile (which may explain why Andrew and Philip both have Gentile names).

1:44 Probably ajpov (1:44) indicates “originally from” in the sense of birthplace rather than current residence; Mark 1:21, 29 seems to locate the home of Andrew and Peter at Capernaum.

        4 C Nathanael and his confession (1:45-51)

1:45 Nathanael is traditionally identified with Bartholomew (although John never describes him as such). He appears here after Philip, while in all lists of the 12 except in Acts 1:13, Bartholomew follows Philip. Also, Bar-tolmai refers to the “son of Tolmai,” the surname; the man almost certainly had another name.

1:46 This is possibly a local proverb expressing jealousy among the towns.

1:47 “in whom is no guile” —what provoked Jesus to render this observation? Supernatural insight? More likely, perhaps, Nathanael’s willingness to believe when shown.

1:48-49 Nathanael’s inquiry and Jesus’ reply take on a bit of added significance in the Greek: Nathanael literally asks, from where (povqen) do you know me? And Jesus answers, “from under the fig tree.”

Many have speculated about what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree. Meditating on the Messiah who was to come? A good possibility, since the fig tree was used as shade for teaching or studying by the later rabbis (Midrash Rabbah on Eccles. 5:11). Also, the fig tree was symbolic for messianic peace and plenty—Mic 4:4, Zech 3:10.

In any case, it seems to me that what impressed Nathanael was that Jesus was aware that he had been there. Perhaps there was some special experience he had had with God there, and what Jesus said implied that Jesus was [supernaturally] aware of it.

Seemingly, only something as striking as this would be sufficient to evoke the confession of 1:49.

What is the significance of the confession Nathanael makes? Probably, it is a confession of Jesus messiahship. It has strong allusions to Ps 2:6-7, a well-known Messianic Psalm.

1:50 “You shall see greater things than these”—what are the greater things Jesus has in mind? In the narrative this forms an excellent foreshadowing of the sign-miracles which begin at Cana of Galilee.

1:51 Note the plural uJmi'n. Many relate it to Jacob’s dream in Gen 28:12, where the angels and ladder represent divine communion with man. But this is consummated in the Word become Flesh. Jesus himself is the point of contact between heaven and earth. It is probably better to understand the phrase as a figurative way of saying that Jesus will be the revealer of heavenly things to men. Angels are divine messengers, and now the Messiah’s presence marks the beginning of new comings and goings between heaven and earth. [Note: Jesus as the revealer of heavenly things to men is another important theme of John’s Gospel, cf. 3:12,13.]

There is special emphasis here on Jesus’ heavenly glory and the salvation he came to bring to men. John uses the title uiJoV" tou' ajnqrwvpou (Son of Man) 13 times in his Gospel. It is associated especially with the themes of crucifixion (3:14; 8:28), revelation (6:27; 6:53), and eschatological authority (5:27; 9:39).57

50 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 129 ff.

51 C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 248.

52 See also R. G. Bratcher, “‘The Jews’ in the Gospel of John,” Bible Translator 26 (1975): 401-409. This ground-breaking article argued conclusively for a nuanced translation of the phrase into English, a practice now followed by a number of newer translations (e.g., CEV, NLT, NET).

53 C. F. D. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament (London, 1967), 70.

54 C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 230-238.

55 Geza Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 1961), 225. The Tamid is the continual burnt offering, a male lamb morning and evening (see Exod 29:38-42).

56 Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John, 282.

57 On the use of the term uiJoV" tou' ajnqrwvpou in the Fourth Gospel, see L. Morris, The Gospel According to John, note C, 172, and D. Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1981), 282-290.

Related Topics: Christology, Discipleship

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