Today, for the second day of Easter (Easter Monday), and following the theme of these seasonal daily notes, I will be examining the Son of Man saying in John 1:51. In an earlier note (for Holy Saturday), I surveyed all of the Son of Man sayings in John, noting three main categories:
John 1:51 generally belongs to the second category. All of these sayings refer in some way to Jesus’ death, and also relate to the two-fold sense in which the Son is “lifted up”, according to the symbolism and imagery in John—(1) his death on the cross, and (2) his exaltation (resurrection and return to the Father).
“Amen, Amen, I say to you—you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon [e)pi] the Son of Man”
This saying has proven sufficiently difficult and obscure for commentators throughout the years, resulting in a wide range of possible interpretations. A fundamental question is whether the saying should be taken as a concrete prediction, or a symbolic picture. If the former, then one must ask to which specific event or episode it refers; there are three possibilities—(1) a supernatural event witnessed by the disciples (similar to the Transfiguration), but otherwise unrecorded, (2) the resurrection and/or ascension, or (3) the future/end-time appearance of Christ. Given the similarities with key eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics, the third option makes most sense; however, it does not especially seem to fit the context where the saying is set in John. If we are to understand the saying primarily as a symbolic picture—whether by the Gospel writer or Jesus himself—then there a number of possible associations or allusions which may be in mind. I summarize the most relevant and important of these here (cf. R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29, pp. 89-91):
The Baptism—There are two details in the (Synoptic) account of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10 par) which are especially relevant:
- The Holy Spirit, in the form/shape of a dove, descends [lit. “steps down”] upon Jesus, using the same verb (katabai/nw) as in Jn 1:51. Also, the versions in Matthew/Luke specifically use the preposition e)pi (“upon”) and narrate the episode as something observable by all the people (in contrast with Mark’s account). John does not narrate Jesus’ baptism as such, but provides a comparable (indirect) description as part of the Baptist’s testimony (cf. Jn 1:32).
- In the descent of the Spirit, the heavens are said to separate; in Matthew/Luke (Matt 3:16; Lk 3:21), the verb used is a)noi/gw (“open up”) as in Jn 1:51.
Matthew 16:27-28 par—Matthew’s version of a core Son of Man saying in Synoptic tradition (Mk 8:38; Lk 9:26) begins: “For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of his Father with his Messengers [i.e. Angels]…” and concludes with the specific formulation:
“…there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who should not taste death (themselves) until they should see [i&dwsin] the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom” (note the parallel in Lk 9:27: “…until they should see the Kingdom of God”, and also Lk 23:42 v.l.)
Several points should be made about the context and significance of this passage:
- The reference is to the end-time Judgment, and (in the developed Gospel tradition) to the parousia (or second coming) of Jesus.
- It is positioned directly between Peter’s confession and the Transfiguration (a vision of Jesus in glory witnessed by several of the disciples). Moreover, in both Synoptic tradition and Jn 1:19-51, the Son of Man saying follows soon after Jesus gives Peter his new name (Matt 16:18; Jn 1:42).
- The Son of Man is associated with Angels in a number of sayings, all eschatological and emphasizing the end-time Judgment—Matt 13:41ff; 16:27 par; 24:30-31 par; 25:31; Luke 12:8-9; cf. also Matt 4:6 par; 26:53.
The Resurrection/Ascension—Note especially the following:
- In Mark 16:4 of the Old Latin MS Bobiensis (k), it is narrated that angels descend to Jesus and ascend with him (cf. also the extra-canonical Gospel of Peter §§36-40).
- The appearance of Angels in the Synoptic tradition, associated with the Resurrection (variously described, Mk 16:5-7; Matt 28:2-7; Lk 24:4-7) and the Ascension (Acts 1:10-11) of Jesus. In Matthew 28:2, it is stated that the Angel “stepped down” out of heaven, using the same verb (katabai/nw) as in Jn 1:51 (cf. above).
- John does not record a visible ascension of Jesus, but note Jn 20:17: “…I step up [a)nabai/nw] toward my Father”.
An allusion to Genesis 28:12—In Jacob’s dream-vision at Bethel, he sees Angels ascending and descending on the ladder; in the LXX “ascending and descending” uses the same verbs (a)nabai/nw and katabai/nw) as Jn 1:51.
- There is a traditional Jewish interpretation which understands the Angels ascending/descending on him (i.e. Jacob), cf. Genesis Rabbah 69:3 (in 68:12 Jacob is seen as being simultaneously in heaven).
- The Targums (cf. Onkelos) express the idea that the shekinah—the visible manifestation and/or personification of God’s glory—was on the ladder. In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (mid-2nd century A.D.), we find the earliest evidence for the interpretation that Christ was on the ladder (86:2).
- Bethel as the “House of God”, i.e. the rock/stone which symbolizes the Temple and its foundation. In Jn 2:19ff (not long after the saying in 1:51), the Temple is identified with Jesus’ own person (and body), specifically in connection with his death and resurrection.
These are the most plausible associations with Jn 1:51, based on similarities of language and imagery—(1) the account of Jesus’ baptism, (2) his resurrection/ascension, (3) his return in glory at the end-time Judgment, and (4) the theophanic dream-vision of Jacob’s ladder in Gen 28:12. In the next note I will look a bit more closely at Jn 1:51 in terms of its likely meaning and purpose within the context and structure of the Gospel narrative.