Forget your ideas about Jesus the philosopher, or Jesus the example, or Jesus the moralist. If you want to know who Jesus really is, then you have to grasp that he is nothing less than God.
And so, without apology or preparation, John launches his Gospel account straight into truths about God that will stretch and exhaust the deepest thinker. Of all the Gospel writers, John most clearly presents Jesus as the great Creator God of the universe. Understanding who he is and what he has done will lead you to profound wonder and worship.
John uses two symbols, or pictures, to help us understand something about Jesus and about God. He tells us that Jesus is the ‘Word’ and the ‘light’.
A lot has been written about these famous opening verses but really it all boils down to this—John calls Jesus the ‘Word’ because it’s a special way of saying that Jesus is the one who makes God known. Do you want to know what God is like? asks John. Then take a good look at Jesus.
There are some things about God that can’t be immediately understood when we look at the flesh-and-blood Jesus—for example, that God is the eternal Creator, the source of all physical and spiritual life. That is why John puts together his opening sentences as he does, emphasizing these attributes (vv. 1–3).
This is a recurring image in John. It helps us answer one obvious question: If Jesus the Word is the one who reveals God, then why doesn’t everyone see that? Shouldn’t it be obvious?
Why don’t people recognize their Creator? Because they live in the darkness. Why didn’t all the Jews recognize their promised Messiah? Because they lived in the darkness. Yet Jesus came to remove the darkness and open eyes; he came to show the glory of God and the way of rescue. Do you know why God would act in such a way for rebel people? Have a look at Jesus—he reveals what God is really like. Through him God’s grace shines out (v. 14). That’s why Jesus came from God to rescue us: God is a God of grace (vv. 12–13).
John supplements the symbols of ‘Word’ and ‘light’ with two additional titles: ‘the Son of God’ and ‘the Lamb of God’ (vv. 34–36).
The title used here must be interpreted in the context of what has already been revealed.
Jesus, being fully divine, became, at the same time, fully human (v. 18). He is as much God as the Father is God; equal but distinct. So when John the apostle quotes John the Baptist saying that Jesus is the Son of God (v. 34), we are obviously meant to understand it in a particular way. This Jesus is no mere man. This Jesus is actually God. When the people saw Jesus, they saw God in human flesh.
This is astounding. John expects us to believe not only that there is but one God, but also that Jesus is as truly God as is the heavenly Father. How can it be humanly reconciled or understood? It has to come to us by revelation from God himself. So as we come to deal with the truth that Jesus Christ is declared to be eternally God and at the same time truly human, we are dealing with a truth that brings to a climax centuries of revelation and leads to wonder, amazement and praise.
John the Baptist calls Jesus the ‘Lamb of God’ on two occasions (vv. 29, 36). This description must have meant something to his Jewish followers or John would never have used it so pointedly. They might have thought of the lamb that was sacrificed by Abraham so his son could go free (Gen. 22). They might have thought of the Passover lamb—killed so Israel could be set free from slavery (Exod. 12). They might have thought of the lambs sacrificed in the temple morning and evening for the sins of Israel (see, for example, Lev. 14; Num. 6). They might have thought of the lamb described by Isaiah in chapter 53, who was to carry the punishment of sinners. Whichever image came to mind, the lambs had one thing in common—they were sacrificed to deliver people from slavery and set them free from sin.
So when John the Baptist pointed at Jesus and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’, there was no mistaking what he was saying. This Jesus, who was walking towards them, was God’s perfect fulfilment of all these pictures, pointers and prophecies about the one who would deliver people from their sin and its consequences. This Jesus was going to be the final, perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sin.
Such has been the potently effective tool of Christian mission, the invitation to ‘come and see’.
You can sense John’s passion to make Jesus known, and you can detect his delight at recounting how he and Andrew came to meet Jesus in the first place (there is no ‘proof’ that this passage describes John’s first meeting of Jesus, but he is the one traditionally identified. Specific references (such as the time given in 1:39) seem to indicate that this is an eyewitness account). One phrase is repeated in this passage: Jesus said to Andrew and John, ‘Come and see.’ Philip said to Nathanael, ‘Come and see.’ And such has been the potently effective tool of Christian mission, the invitation to ‘come and see’.
John includes for us the account of how Philip was instrumental in introducing Jesus to Nathanael (vv. 44–51). Nathanael started as one of the most sceptical people about Jesus before becoming one of his most convinced followers, calling Jesus ‘the Son of God … the King of Israel’ (v. 49). You can’t get titles any higher than that. To Nathanael, Jesus is nothing less than the Messiah-Deliverer who is to come and eject the occupying Roman forces and restore a golden age of Jewish self-government. That is the best anyone could ever do, Nathanael thinks. He can’t think outside that idea of political deliverance.
Notice how Jesus answers him (vv. 50–51). It’s as if Jesus is saying to him, ‘Nathanael, what I am going to do will astound you. It’s going to be bigger than anything you can ever imagine.’ And to reinforce his point, Jesus makes a reference that Jewish readers will immediately have understood. In verse 51, he refers to an incident in the life of Jacob, when he ran away and had a dream of a ladder to heaven (see Gen. 28:12).
Jesus is claiming that he not only reveals God (that is, brings God to us), but he also opens the way up into God’s presence (that is, brings us to God). He is the ladder. He (in the words of Jacob) is the stairway to heaven. And that, says Jesus to Nathanael, is something bigger than you could ever imagine, bigger even than the national deliverance of Israel.
For further study
To think about and discuss