“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 1:51)

The Johannine “Son of Man” Sayings

Having explored all of the “son of man” references in the Synoptic Gospels, we now turn to the Gospel of John. Given the distinctiveness of the Johannine Tradition, and the special contours of the Johannine theology, it is not surprising that the “son of man” sayings in the Gospel of John carry aspects of meaning and significance that are quite different from those in the Synoptic Gospels.

There are thirteen occurrences of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in the Gospel of John, which may be reduced to eleven specific sayings located in eight passages. These will be discussed in the order that they occur in the Gospel.

It is interesting to note that, while scholars and students have long recognized the complexities and difficulties surrounding Jesus’ use of the expression “the son of man” (as it occurs in the Gospels), the Gospel of John provides evidence that, at the historical level, it also could be confusing to people at the time who heard him speak. The question posed by the crowd in 12:34, and which is used as the title for this study series, asks “Who is this son of man?” (ti/$ e)stin ou!to$ o( ui(o\$ tou= a)qrw/pou;).

John 1:51

The first “son of man” saying in the Gospel of John occurs in 1:51, at the close of first main section of the narrative (1:19-51). This section can be further divided into four units (vv. 19-28, 29-34, 35-42, 43-51), organized according to the narrative framework of four successive “days” (see vv. 29, 35, 43). The narrative shifts from John the Baptist (vv. 19-34) to Jesus (vv. 35-51)—part of a broad contrast in chaps. 1-3, between Jesus and John—and deals specifically with the theme of Jesus’ Messianic identity (in contrast to that of John). Various Messianic titles are applied to Jesus in each unit (vv. 20-21 [and 25], 34, 41, 49) and the use of the expression “the son of man” needs to be considered in light of these titles.

Given the way that verse 51 appears abruptly, without a clear connection to what has gone before, it is perhaps best to regard the verse as transitional in nature. It both summarizes the events of vv. 19-50 and points ahead to the “signs” and discourses of chapters 2-12.

Here is the saying:

“Amen, amen, I declare [le/gw] to you, (that) you shall see [o&yesqe] the heaven(s) having opened up, and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon [e)pi/] the son of man.”

How does this saying relate to what precedes it, and how does it serve to summarize vv. 19-50? It is immediately connected to the narrative units of vv. 19-50, focusing on the ‘call’ of the first disciples, by way of Jesus’ closing words to Nathanael in v. 50: “greater (thing)s than these you shall see [o&yh|]”. This verb for seeing (o)pta/nomai) also occurs in verse 51, being one of numerous sight-verbs that occur regularly throughout the Johannine Gospel. It specifically denotes looking or gazing with (open) eyes; however, in the future tense it often functions in the simple sense of “seeing”. It occurs ten times in the Gospel, including earlier in v. 39, as part of the call of the disciples (“come and see”).

In the Gospel of John, and as part of the Johannine theological vocabulary, these seeing-verbs carry special significance, being closely connected with the idea of the revelation of God in the person of Jesus. Moreover, there is a dual idiom in the Gospel of seeing/knowing, playing upon the linguistic dual meaning, for example, of the verb ei&dw (meaning both “see” and “know”). When one comes to trust in Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God), that person both sees and knows the truth. This theological idiom was established in the Prologue (through the parallel light and witness motifs, vv. 4-9, and again in vv. 14-18), and then continues throughout the Gospel. It is therefore not surprising that the first main section of the Gospel (1:19-51) would conclude with this promise of seeing.

A second important Johannine feature, present in v. 51, is the use of the verbs a)nabai/nw (“step up”) and katabai/nw (“step down”). These are common verbs, used frequently in narrative (describing travel, viz., ‘go/come up’, ‘go/come down’), but which have special theological (and Christological) significance in the Gospel of John. I have discussed this on numerous occasions in prior notes and articles, and the point will be addressed again as we proceed through the Johannine “son of man” sayings.

However, here it is important to note the use of the verb katabai/nw (“step down”, i.e., come down) earlier in vv. 32-33, in John the Baptist’s description of the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. This is one of the important ways that John the Baptist functions as a witness (vv. 7-8, 15; see vv. 32, 34). The use of the verb katabai/nw in this context is traditional, occurring also in the Synoptic narrative of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10 par); but, again, this language takes on deeper significance in connection with the Johannine theology. The Spirit (of God) “steps down” upon (e)pi/) Jesus (v. 32f); this is the same idiom (half of it, at least) that occurs in verse 51—viz., the Messengers (angels) of God “stepping down upon the son of man”.

Thus, with regard to both the seeing motif, and the ascent/descent motif (using the verb pair a)na– and kata-bai/nw), verse 51 summarizes aspects of the theological message in chapter 1 (looking back), and also points ahead to the message of chapters 2-12ff. The declaration formula used, with the double amen (a)mh/n [Heb /m@a*]), confirms the importance of verse 51 at this point in the Gospel narrative. This double-amen formula, is distinctive of the Johannine presentation of Jesus’ sayings, being found only in the Gospel of John, and occurring repeatedly (25 times) in the Gospel. Here in v. 51 is the first of these occurrences. The emphatic nature of the formula, indicating a firm and solemn pronouncement, demonstrates that the Gospel writer (along with Jesus himself) is giving special significance to the saying.

The Allusion to Genesis 28:12

Virtually all commentators agree that the saying in verse 51 alludes to Genesis 28:12f, but disagreement remains as to the extent of the reference. The similarity of imagery (and wording) is obvious:

“And he [i.e. Jacob] dreamed, and see! (there was) a ladder [<L*s%] having been set up on (the) earth and (with) its head [i.e. top] touching the heavens—and, see! Messengers of (the) Mightiest [i.e. God] (were) going up and going down on it.” (v. 12)

In the LXX, the italicized portion is rendered as follows:

oi( a&ggeloi tou= qeou= a)ne/bainon kai\ kate/bainon e)p’ au)th=$
“the Messengers of God were stepping up and stepping down upon it”

The differences with the wording of the saying in v. 51 are relatively slight: (a) the use of the imperfect indicative for the verbs, rather than the present participle; and (b) the genitive case after the preposition e)pi/, rather than the accusative.

On the whole, it seems clear that the saying alludes to the scene in Jacob’s dream at Bethel; but what is the meaning of this allusion? The parallel suggests that the place of the ladder is being taken by the figure of the “son of man”. There is a line of Jewish tradition that interprets the suffixed preposition oB (“on him/it”) as referring to Jacob, rather than the ladder, and some commentators have applied this to Jesus’ saying as well. However, the LXX clearly understands oB as referring to the ladder, since, in the corresponding Greek (e)p’ au)th=$), the pronoun is feminine, in agreement with the feminine noun kli/mac (“ladder”). If the Gospel writer (and/or Jesus as the speaker) intends a precise parallel with Gen 28:12, then the “son of man” is best understood as being identified with the ladder that reaches from earth to heaven. The noun in Hebrew (<L*s%) denotes something that is thrown (or cast) up (like a mound or raised highway, etc), and which thus lifts and raises up.

What more can be determined regarding the significance of this imagery, particularly as it relates to the figure of the “son of man”? Earlier 20th-century scholars (such as Odenberg, Jeremias, and Boismard) were inclined read into the Johannine saying a number of different Rabbinic and Jewish-philosophical interpretive traditions regarding Gen 28:12f (cf. the summary by Moloney, pp. 26-32). Most commentators today would be unwilling to go so far, primarily because the Jewish sources cited generally come from a time much later than the Gospel of John. More serious, from a methodological standpoint, is the questionable procedure of applying interpretative traditions for which there is no clear basis in the Gospel text itself. Our approach should focus on the details and points of emphasis actually present in verse 51.

The Components of the Saying

We can isolate four principal components of the saying in verse 51: (a) the orienting location of heaven, (b) the presence of the Messengers (angels) of God, (c) the ascent/descent motif (using the verbs a)nabai/nw and katabai/nw), and (d) the figure of the “son of man” (including the use of the preposition e)pi/).

(a) “the heaven(s) having opened up”

The vision is located principally in heaven, which differs somewhat from the focal point in Gen 28:12 (emphasizing the ladder standing on the earth). The opening of the heavens alludes to the Baptism tradition, even though this particular detail is not specified in the Johannine account (vv. 32-34). The verb a)noi/gw (“open up”) is used in the Matthean (3:16) and Lukan (3:21) description of the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. In John, the emphasis is on the heavenly origin of the Spirit (“out of [e)k] heaven”).

Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, the verb a)noi/gw is used almost exclusively in the context of (Jesus) opening the eyes of someone who is blind; the verb occurs 7 times in chapter 9 (cf. also 10:21; 11:37). This “opening up” of physical sight serves as a symbol for the opening of spiritual sight—that is, recognition of Jesus (i.e., trust in him) as the Son of God (cf. 9:35-41, at the close of the chap. 9 narrative).

Thus the reference here to the “heaven(s) having opened up”, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology, carries two points of significance: (i) an allusion to the heavenly origin of Jesus, and (ii) a revelation of his identity that leads to trust in him.

(b) “the Messengers of God”

This is one of only two references in the Gospel to the Divine/heavenly “messengers” (or ‘angels’), the other being the notice in 20:12 (in the Resurrection narrative). Their mention here is derived primarily, it would seem, from the tradition in Gen 28:12f (see above). However, there are a number of references in the Synoptic Gospels where angels are associated with an (end-time) appearance by the son of man. This will be discussed further below.

I tend to think that the Gospel writer may have in mind an identification of Jesus with the angels, in the sense that, in his earthly ministry, Jesus takes on the traditional character and activity of the angels. From the standpoint of the Johannine theology, this would be realized in several different ways. Most notably, like the angels, Jesus comes from heaven to earth, and then returns back to heaven (see below). He also represents God the Father, serving as the ultimate Messenger. Being the Son, Jesus is far greater than all other Messengers from heaven (compare the line of argument in Hebrews 1, along with the “son of man” reference that follows in 2:6-7ff). Like the Messengers, Jesus makes known the word and will of God to human beings on earth. Finally, the angelic/heavenly mission of Jesus is confirmed by the descent of the Spirit upon him (see above); on the traditional designation of the angels as spirits, see, e.g., Hebrews 1:13-14.

(c) “stepping up and stepping down”

As noted above, this activity of the angels (taken from Gen 28:12), echoes the descent of the Spirit (“stepping down”) upon Jesus at his baptism. However, throughout the remainder of the Gospel, the verbs a)nabai/nw and katabai/nw are applied to Jesus (the Son)—it is he who “stepped down” from heaven, for his mission on earth, and who, once it has been completed, will “step up” again, back to heaven. The activity of the angels thus serves as a type-pattern for the mission of Jesus himself; see the discussion in section (b) above.

The verb katabai/nw (“step down”) is used of the pre-existent Son’s coming down to earth (incarnate, as a human being), to fulfill his mission, the duty (e)ntolh/) which the Father gave him to complete. Conversely, the verb a)nabai/nw (“step up”) refers to the exaltation or “lifting up” of the Son (Jesus)—a process which includes his death, resurrection, and return to the Father. This same language will be discussed further, as it occurs in other “son of man” sayings in John.

(d) “upon the son of man”

Here we come to the specific use of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou). Though here the point can only be inferred, it is fair to assume that the expression is being used primarily as a self-reference by Jesus, much as it was used in many (if not all) of the Synoptic sayings. Conceivably, at the historical level, such a saying (without further context) could have been understood by Jesus’ hearers as referring to a figure separate from Jesus himself. To the extent that this might be true, the reference surely would be to the heavenly figure of Daniel 7:13-14, such as it came to be interpreted and applied in an eschatological (and/or Messianic) context (as, e.g., in the Similitudes of Enoch [1 Enoch 37-71]). However, in the immediate context of the Gospel, the expression can only refer to the person of Jesus. Thus, Jesus would be promising his disciples a heavenly vision of himself (“the son of man”).

How should we understand this promise? The closest parallels in the Synoptic Gospels are the eschatological sayings in Mark 8:38 and 13:26 pars. In each of these sayings, the end-time appearance of the “son of man” involves the presence of angels. As he comes from heaven, the angels descend with him; cf. also Matt 13:41; 25:31. Similar as a vision of the son of man in heavenly splendor is Mark 14:62 par, though this particular saying seems to emphasize the exaltation of Jesus (after his death) rather more than his end-time return. Both Mark 13:26 and 14:62 use the verb o)pta/nomai for the seeing (gazing at) of this vision, just as here in verse 51.

Thus, if a specific visionary event is intended by the saying, then it most likely refers to the end-time appearance of the son of man (i.e., return/parousia of Jesus), when he comes from heaven with the angels. A less likely interpretation is that it refers to the exalted status of Jesus (in heaven), akin to the vision experienced by Stephen in Acts 7:55-56. The ascent/descent of the angels could indicate activity, connected with the appearance of the son of man, such as we see described in Mk 13:27 par (cf. Matt 13:41ff).

However, I do not believe that a particular eschatological event is foremost in the Gospel writer’s mind. Rather, for the author, the language and imagery of the saying is emblematic of the Gospel portrait of Jesus as a whole. The promised vision encompasses the entire message of the Gospel, declaring Jesus’ identity as the Son who descends from heaven and then ascends back. It is an exalted, heavenly identity, one which is worthy of being described as surrounded by angels. The angel-motif alludes back to the Gen 28:12f tradition, as describing the formative revelation of God to Israel (Jacob). It also looks ahead to the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus (following his death), and to his future return in glory.

References above marked “Moloney” are to Francis J. Moloney SDB, The Johannine Son of Man, Second Edition (Wipf and Stock: 1978/2007). This work provides fine summary and analysis for each passage. John 1:51 is discussed in Chapter 2, pp. 23-41.

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