One of my favourite films at the moment is Arrival. It begins with a prologue which appears to be quite distinct from the rest of the narrative, but it is only once you have seen the whole film that you understand what the prologue was actually telling you. The phrases, ideas and narrative in the prologue only make sense with the benefit of hindsight, and when you watch it a second time you keep saying ‘Ah, now I understand why that was included!’ The beginning of John’s gospel functions in the same kind of way. This Sunday’s lectionary reading for Epiphany 2 in Year A continues the seasonal theme of the manifestation of Jesus, often in veiled and allusive ways, in the gospel reading from John 1.29–42. The passage is full of suggestions, anticipations and allusions which only gain their full meaning in the complete narrative of the gospel.
Time is an important theme in the Fourth Gospel, and shares with many other aspects of the narrative a double meaning, both literal and symbolic. Thus Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the evening in chapter 3, and his spiritual sight is dim, whilst the woman at the well in chapter 4 comes at noon, and she can see perfectly clearly who Jesus is. The timing of the last meal with the disciples means that Jesus is sacrificed at the time of the Passover lambs, and Judas leaves the meal ‘at night’ (13.30) in the darkness of his rejection and betrayal of Jesus. In this episode, it is the ‘next day’ from the interrogation by the Jerusalem party in the previous verses—but counting the days on makes the miracle at Cana occur on the seventh day in the gospel’s counting (‘next day’ John 1.35, ‘the next day’ John 1.43, ‘on the third day’ John 2.1), a day of rest and feasting when the glory of Jesus is first revealed. This is the beginning of a new creation (compare 2 Cor 5.17).
Crowds are clearly present, since this is all happening in the place where John is baptising (John 1.28; the Fourth Gospel is careful to specify the places that things happen in a way that the Synoptics often do not), and the group from Jerusalem appear still to be there. Yet, as often happens, the narrative focuses solely on the key characters, like a film that zooms in close to the main actors, whilst the crowd drifts out of focus in the background, and their chatter fades out as we listen to the main characters speak—and we might even be offered no further explanation of what happens to the background figures.
John sees Jesus ‘coming’ towards him, and this might suggest a play on words, since he has already said (John 1.27, in parallel with the saying in the Synoptics) that Jesus is the one ‘coming after me’. This section of narrative is full of notions of discipleship, and the language John uses here (opiso mou) would normally be understood as the language of discipleship; perhaps Jesus did begin as a disciple of John and part of that movement of renewal and repentance, as the Synoptics also hint at.
This gospel is also full of the language of witness, or testimony, summed up in the Johannine epistles:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it… (1 John 1.1–2).
John points to Jesus, and calls others to look towards him: ‘Look!’ As anticipated earlier in the prologue, he bears witness not only to what he has seen, but what this means and has revealed about the truth of who Jesus is. In this sense, he embodies the model witness, telling of his own experience and pointing others to Jesus.
His testimony includes another major theme of this gospel: Jesus as the lamb of God. This is, in part, an allusion to the Passover lamb of Exodus 12. This gospel is, alone amongst the four, organised around three Passover visits to Jerusalem by Jesus—something which, as with John’s use of time in general, has both literal and symbolic meaning, since Jesus as an observant Jew would likely have visited Jerusalem for the pilgrim festivals. This also gives rise to the well-known question of reconciling the chronology of Jesus’ final week between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics, since this gospel appears to depict Jesus’ death to coincide with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs. But there is also an allusion to Is 53.7, and the servant of God who goes like a lamb to the slaughter, since ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’. There is a strong tradition in translation which renders John’s comment, ‘…who takes away the sins of the world’. But the verb airo really means to take up, rather than take away; it is the verb used in the command ‘take up your cross and follow me’ (Mark 8.34).
The action of taking up suggests something more ontological than psychological. Jesus does not remove guilt. The sin of the world is failure, corruption, degradation; it is a dying, decaying thing. Jesus takes away death and brings life. (Jo-Ann Brant, Paideia commentary on John, p 48).
John’s language that Jesus ‘surpasses me, because he was before more’ makes explicit the idea of Jesus’ pre-existence which is hinted at in the Synoptics but set out clearly in this gospel’s prologue. It might seem strange that John ‘did not know him’, given that they are cousins. But knowing and not knowing is more than a question of acquaintance within the narrative; in this gospel, knowing Jesus and knowing the Father is about receiving salvation and eternal life (John 17.3; see the parallel idea in Matt 7.23 ‘I never knew you!’). Thus those in the Jerusalem delegation do not ‘know’ Jesus even though they are apparently acquainted with him (John 1.26). John appears to understand his whole ministry, including baptism, as preparation for the coming of Jesus—both to begin the call to God’s people Israel to repentance through baptism, and so that he might point people to Jesus.
Time and again, the writer of the Fourth Gospel assumes not only that his readers have already read one of the other gospels (usually Mark), but that they are familiar with it. So we know that the Spirit comes on Jesus at his baptism—even though this gospel makes no mention of it! The Spirit is another key theological theme: no-one can see the kingdom unless born of water and the Spirit (John 3.5); the Spirit enables true worship (John 4.24); the Spirit is like springs of living water that flow from Jesus to the believer (John 7.28) and is symbolised by the water from Jesus’ side when he has died (John 19.34); the Spirit will lead us into the truth about Jesus (John 16.13) and is received from the resurrected Jesus (John 20.22).
The Spirit does not merely ‘come down’ on Jesus but ‘remains’ on him, introducing us to another central term (meno) with double meanings in this gospel. At one level, this verb has a simple, literal meaning: ‘Where are you saying?’ ask John’s disciples of Jesus. But the term comes to have a further meaning: where do you abide, make your home, find shelter and protection? Jesus finds his home in the Father (John 15.4), and invites his disciples to abide (meno), remain, find their home in him. And the Spirit abides, finds his home, in Jesus.
Jesus has asked them ‘What do you seek?’ Here we have another term which runs through the whole narrative. Quite often the term is used negatively: his enemies seek to kill him (John 5.18, 7.25), and those misunderstanding seek to make him king before his time (John 6.15). But its final occurrence matches this first one, when the raised Jesus asks Mary whom she truly seeks (John 20.15). The question throughout the gospel is whether we truly seek Jesus, and for what purpose. This connects both with the idea we have already encountered, of Jesus as someone who is elusive—present amongst the people, yet not known by them—in the language of ‘you will seek me but you will not find me’ (John 7.34). In this gospel he is an enigmatic character, often misunderstood and misconstrued. But the language of ‘seeking’ also connects with the repeated theme of mission.
Jesus’ response to the question the disciples ask is not to give them an answer, but to invite them to come and find out for themselves, to spend time with him observing where his true home is. There is no real explanation of who these disciples are; one is not named, but that one who is named, Andrew, is given no explanation, and the narrative assumes we know who these people are without much introduction. The ‘first’ thing Andrew does is emulate Jesus, by extending the invitation to his brother Simon Peter, also introduced without much explanation, as if we already know who he is. Andrew occurs three times in the narrative (here and at John 6.8 and 12.22) and each time he is introducing people to Jesus.
The gospel writer seems to be quite aware that the missional invitation of Jesus which is copied by Andrew will need to be copied by his readers as well. In this gospel alone do we have the Jewish/Aramaic term ‘Messiah’ which is then translated, self consciously, into the Greek term Christos that the other gospels and Paul use routinely, and only in this gospel do we have the Jewish/Aramaic term ‘Rabbi’ translated for us into the equivalent term ‘Teacher’ (didaskalos), an important form of address in all the gospels. Missional invitation of others to encounter Jesus will always involve the translation of language and ideas if it is to make sense to its intended audience.
Jesus’ renaming of Simon as Peter might at first appear to be difficult to reconcile with the Synoptic accounts. Yet from the first, Matthew introduces Simon as ‘called Peter’ (Matt 4.18) and Mark notes Jesus’ giving of the new name at an unspecified time (Mark 3.16). Matthew’s account of Peter’s confession of Jesus, and the significance of his name (Matt 16.18) does not imply this has been the first time that he has been known in this way.
And so this enigmatic figure, perhaps known to us through other stories we have heard, begins to be revealed for what he truly is. Will we come for ourselves and find out where he makes his home, and make our home with him? Will he become for us the lamb of God, who bears our sin and death and becomes life for us? And will we share with John the task of giving our testimony, and with Andrew inviting others to know for themselves the one that we have come to know?
For discussion of all these issues and more, join Ian and James here: