In the Sojourners class at Central Moravian we discussed the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Here are some of what we discussed.
The Lamb of God: Twice John the Baptist proclaimed that Jesus was the Lamb of God. Many people have pointed out that this is one of the things that should make us cautious about reading the Bible too literally. We could use this verse to prove that Jesus was really a four-legged animal. I imagine that more than a few children in Sunday School have been confused by this practice of calling Jesus the Lamb of God, which brings to mind the old joke about the new pastor giving the children’s sermon. She asked the children what is gray, furry, and gathers nuts for the winter. There was a long pause and then one of the children said, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”
In describing Jesus as the Lamb of God, John the evangelist was drawing on Jewish symbolism, but scholars disagree over what the symbolism was. One of the things that connect the Gospel of John and the Apocalypse of John is this image of the Lamb of God. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we have learned that the Lamb of God was an apocalyptic figure was to appear during the last days to destroy evil. This is an intentionally paradoxical image of the peaceful and innocent Lamb obliterating the enemies of God. If it is true that the Lamb of God represented God’s victory over evil in the Last Days, then its use in the Gospel of John is somewhat ironic. Jesus the Lamb of God did not kill evil doers; instead he gathered disciples. The Day of Judgment in John’s Gospel is the day that each person must decide whether to believe in Jesus and follow him. It is the day that Andrew and Simon choose to follow Jesus.
Paschal Lamb: Another theory about the Lamb of God is that it is related to the Jewish Passover. In Exodus, you may remember, God rescued the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt with a series of devastating plagues. The final plague was the death of the first-born. The Angel of Death passed over those homes that had the blood of a lamb smeared on the door frame. The lambs that were slaughtered by the Hebrews protected them from the Angel of Death. The Lamb of God, then, represented the blood that saved the people. The connection between Jesus and the Passover Lamb is made explicit later in the Gospel when Jesus was executed on the same day that the lambs were slaughtered in the Temple for the annual Passover sacrifice. This connection between the crucifixion of Jesus and Passover is made repeatedly in the NT, especially when dealing with the Lord’s Supper. The connection between the Lord’s Supper and the Lamb of God is made clear in the Moravian communion liturgy when the pastor says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
There is a third possible meaning of the phrase “the Lamb of God,” which relates directly to the sacrificial system of old Judaism. We talked about animal sacrifices quite a bit in our study of Genesis, so I will just remind you that in the ancient world the idea developed that the death of an innocent animal could substitute for punishment owed by a guilty person. John may have been pointing to Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for sin, which Paul also taught. This idea does connect the death of Jesus with the forgiveness of sins. We tend to focus on the violence of the image – an innocent lamb is slaughtered, but the early Christians focused on the idea of the forgiveness of sins and the victory of the Lamb. Whether as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world or as the Passover lamb or even as the apocalyptic Lamb, the work of Jesus is one of forgiveness and overcoming evil. This is announced at the very beginning of John’s Gospel so that the reader will not be confused by the story that follows. The Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world. Notice that John does not say, “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the repentant or the righteous.” The Lamb takes away the sin of the world.
We should also not overlook the lamb when discussing the Lamb of God. In our culture, we still use the word “lamb” to indicate innocence and gentleness. March comes in like a lamb and leaves like a lion. The least warlike animal I can think of is the lamb. By proclaiming that Jesus is the Lamb of God, John the Baptist was pointing the essential peacefulness and gentleness of Jesus. Though he will be the victim of violence, he will not be the agent of violence. Though he will be killed, his death brings life to others. Though he is the word of God who has all knowledge; he is innocent. The sin he takes away is the intoxication of violence. Keep all of this in mind when you look at our Moravian seal. We are the people of the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
What are you looking for? Two disciples of John decide to follow Jesus because of John’s witness that he is the Lamb of God. This is what good preaching is all about. The goal of preaching is not to win people to a certain church or to follow a certain preacher, no matter how telegenic or eloquent he is. The goal of preaching is to help people become followers of Christ, to become disciples. John the Baptist will gradually disappear from the Gospel of John as Jesus becomes the main story. We aren’t even told the names of these two disciples. We learn that one is Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, but the Beloved Disciple remains anonymous. The two disciples represent all of us who hear the good new of Jesus must decide whether to follow him.
For the first time in the gospel, Jesus speaks. Actually, he asks a question. “What are you looking for?” This is quite different from the other gospels where Jesus emerges from the wilderness and proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God. In John’s version, Jesus’ first words are a question. “What are you looking for?” We will see throughout this gospel that Jesus asks questions when we are expecting answers. It seems genuine to me that the Gospel begins with a personal question addressed to two anonymous seekers. Jesus asks these young men to examine themselves. What we find in this life often depends on what we are looking for. Are you looking for wealth, prestige, and worldly honors? Then you probably will not find Jesus. Are you looking for power, victory over your enemies, and security? Then you probably will not find Jesus. Are you looking for forgiveness, love, and the peace that passes all understanding? Come and see, Jesus says. Are you looking for what is good, true, and beautiful? Come and see. Are you looking for a teacher who provides the path of true life? Come and follow.
Rabbi The disciples of John call Jesus “Rabbi” and ask where he is staying so that they may become his students. Rabbi literally means “great lord,” and it became the title of the official teachers of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple (Brown, 74). The Gospel of John translates the word Rabbi with the Greek word for teacher, didaskalos, and it is primarily in John’s Gospel that Jesus is called Rabbi. This is one of the indications that this Gospel was written by a Jew for a Jewish Christian community. The time of 4 p.m. is probably significant because it indicates that the disciples spent the Sabbath with Jesus, most likely studying the Scriptures with him.
This is one of those passages in John’s Gospel that it is probably more historically accurate than the Synoptics. It makes sense that Jesus’ followers called him Rabbi, which is a Jewish title, rather than by the Greek title Kyrios, which means Lord. It appears that the other evangelists translated Rabbi as Lord rather than teacher. In the second half of John’s Gospel, the disciples call Jesus Kyrios rather than Rabbi. This may indicate that the first half of the gospel is older and was written by a different person than the second half, but there may be another meaning in that. We will see that Jesus moves from being Rabbi to Kyrios, and these disciples move from being students to friends.
The Messiah: The text is a little ambiguous about what comes next, but it was most likely the next day that Andrew went to his brother Simon and told him that they had found the Messiah. The implication is that by studying Scripture with Jesus, Andrew and the Beloved Disciple came to understand that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the anointed one. John’s Gospel gives the Hebrew word Messiah and translates it with the Greek word Christos. By the time of Paul, the followers of Jesus were so accustomed to calling him the Messiah that the word Christ became his last name instead of a title.
We will discuss the idea of the Messiah throughout the year, but the important point for today is that Andrew was proclaiming something very important and controversial to his brother. Many people in Israel were looking for a descendent of King David to rescue them from Roman oppression and the corruption of the priesthood. John the Baptist was one of those people, and it is not surprising that one of John’s disciples was the first to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.
In the other gospels, it took months for the disciples to come to the conclusion that Jesus was the Messiah, but John collapses that history into a single night. John was writing for people who already believed that Jesus was the Messiah and writing against people who denied this, so he puts this claim at the very beginning of the work. Like the Synoptics, John connects the proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah to the naming of Simon Peter, but in John’s Gospel it comes after Jesus looks at him. This was not a passing glance. This was the kind of look that explores your inner soul, and the change of name indicates a change in life for Peter. We don’t have the story of Peter leaving his fishing nets behind in John’s Gospel, but we do have the renaming to indicate a change of life and identity for Peter. It is interesting that John gives the name in Aramaic and translates it into Greek, which is another mark of authenticity. Simon’s new name is Kephas, which became Petros in Greek. If we translated this into modern English, it would be Rocky.
Calling Nathanael: The next day, Jesus set out for Galilee and called Philip to follow him. The other gospels mention Philip as one of the Twelve, but it is only in John and Acts that we learn much about him. Philip converted the first Ethiopian to Christianity, which is why St. Philip’s Church is named for him, by the way. Here in John’s Gospel, Philip tells Nathanael that the promised one has come and that his name is Jesus, son of Joseph. This did not get a positive response from Nathanael who asked sarcastically, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Some think that this represents rivalry between Bethsaida and Nazareth, but it is probably just a reminder that Jesus came from an unimportant village in an outpost of Judea. He was literally an outsider to the power structure of Judea. No one looked to Nazareth for a Messiah, which is why Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
What is more important for us today is that Philip did not argue with Nathanael about what the Scripture teaches about the Messiah. He simply urged his friend to “Come and see for yourself.” You decide if he is worth following. This is what evangelism is all about. It is sharing the good news about Jesus and inviting others to come and see for themselves whether the news is true. It is not about fighting over biblical interpretation and apocalyptic calculations.
Israelite with Guile: Nathanael is an interesting figure in John’s Gospel. He is not mentioned in the other gospels at all, and it is not clear if John included him among the Twelve, but he gives him the honor of being the first human to proclaim that Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus says that Nathanael is an “Israelite without guile.” There is a contrast in John between the true Israelites who recognize Jesus and the Jews who ruled in Jerusalem. The reference to Nathanael being “without guile” was probably intended to draw a contrast between Nathanael and his ancestor Jacob, who was a cunning and deceitful man. Those who controlled the Temple in Jerusalem and were proud of their ancestry were Israelites who shared in the guile and deception of Jacob. Nathanael was an Israelite who shared in his ancestor’s faith.
The Fig Tree One of the oddest aspects this story is that Nathanael believed in Jesus because Jesus said that he saw him under the fig tree. This may simply be a miracle story that showed Nathanael that Jesus had already seen him in secret and knew what Nathanael was doing. This would mean that Jesus was like God who sees in secret, and it makes sense that this would be connected with Nathanael’s proclamation that Jesus is the Son of God and King of Israel.
There is another possibility, though. There was a tradition that in ancient times rabbis taught or studied under fig trees. Early Christian scholars knew this and concluded that Nathanael himself was a scribe or even a rabbi, which makes sense in context since Philip tells mentions the Torah. By saying that he had seen him under the fig tree, Jesus could have been telling Nathanael that he was an honest interpreter of the Scriptures who would recognize the Messiah. If this is true, then we can see parallels with the story of Nicodemus. It is even possible that Jesus was relating a vision he had of Nathanael. The fig tree was a symbol for peace and prosperity in Micah (4:4) and Zechariah (3:10), and the phrase “sitting under the fig tree” became a term for the reign of the Messiah. By saying that he had seen Nathanael sitting under the fig tree, Jesus may have been announcing the coming of the Messianic kingdom.
The beautiful thing about John’s Gospel is that all of these possibilities may have been intended in this cryptic story about the calling of an obscure follower of Jesus. Nathanael is not on the list of the martyrs and heroes of the faith. There have never been churches named for Nathanael, but John uses him to teach valuable lessons about faith in Jesus. Like Peter, Nathanael is known by Jesus before he confesses faith in Jesus. He is invited to come and see the teacher, and he in turn names Jesus as the Son of God. The confession of Nathanael at the opening of John’s gospel was the confession of the Christian church after the resurrection of Jesus.
Angels: This connection between Nathanael and Jacob probably helps explain the rather odd statement in verse 51 that he will see angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. This seems to be a reference to Jacob’s famous dream of a stairway or ladder to heaven. In Genesis, this dream told Jacob that he was sleeping on holy ground and he should build an altar. This statement in John indicates that it is Jesus who is the holy ground and the true Temple. He is the bridge between heaven and earth. We have no record of Nathanael ever having such a vision, but it is the kind of vision early Christians did have.