The Three Days of John 1:29-51
One can demarcate three sections, each of which begins with the phrase th=| e)pau/rion, “upon the (morning) air” (i.e. “upon the morrow”, in conventional English, “the next day, next morning”):
Th=| e)pau/rion (vv. 29-34)—
- Witness of John the Baptist—Jesus coming toward [e)rxo/menon pro/$] him (“See, the Lamb of God…”), v. 29
- Statement of John the Baptist concerning the true nature and superiority of Jesus (v. 30); his baptizing reveals Jesus to Israel (v. 31)
- Statement of John the Baptist (v. 32); Jesus’ true nature (and superiority) revealed in John’s baptizing (v. 33)—descent of the Spirit & Divine announcement (baptism of Jesus implied)
- Witness of John the Baptist—”This (one) is the Son of God”, v. 34
Th=| e)pau/rion (vv. 35-42)—
- Witness of John the Baptist (with his followers)—Jesus traveling alongside (“See, the Lamb of God…”), v. 35-36
- The Baptist’s disciples leave to follow Jesus; their exchange with Jesus—they remained [e&meinen] with him, vv. 37-39
- Jesus’ followers witness to others (Andrew to Simon), including—(1) a confession of Jesus’ identity (“Messiah”) and (2) a statement by Jesus to the new disciple (Simon), vv. 40-42
Th=| e)pau/rion (vv. 43-50)—
- (Short prefatory narrative introducing Philip, vv. 43-44)
- Jesus’ follower witnesses to another (Philip to Nathanael), with a confession of Jesus’ identity (“the one of whom Moses… and the prophets wrote”), vv. 45-46
- Nathanael leaves to find Jesus; his exchange with Jesus, vv. 47-48
- Witness of Jesus’ follower—(1) a confession of Jesus’ identity (“Son of God”, “King of Israel”) and (2) a statement by Jesus to the new disciple, vv. 49-50
While not completely symmetrical, there are clear points of parallelism between the three sections. One can even detect a trace of “staircase” parallelism (a Johannine technique), whereby the first element of a line or section picks up and builds on the last element of the prior one. Note also that each section contains at least two separate titles for Jesus, each given as a revelatory declaration by the speaker:
- “Lamb of God” (v. 29) / “Son of God” (or “Elect of God”) (v. 34)
- “Lamb of God” (v. 35) / “Messiah” (v. 41)
- “The One of whom Moses… and the Prophets wrote” (v. 45) / “Son of God” and “King of Israel” (v. 49)
The “Three Days” culminate with the statement in verse 50:
“Because I said to you that I saw you underneath the fig-tree, you trust (in me)?
Greater than these (things) you will see.”
Nathanael had responded to a miraculous (but apparently mundane) bit of foreknowledge by Jesus (what Jesus saw); Jesus responds in turn by emphasizing what the disciple will see. This sort of simple but powerful wordplay occurs over and over again throughout the Gospel of John. It also stresses the important Johannine theme of seeing.
Verse 51 may well be a separate (detached) saying of Jesus that has been appended here by the Gospel writer. The saying on its own:
“Amen, amen, I say to you: ‘You will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down [i.e. ascending and descending] upon the Son of Man'”
At the narrative level, it is hard to explain just how it relates to the preceding section. A precise or definite interpretation of the saying itself is also extremely difficult; many pages of possible explanation could be offered. However, I would suggest three primary avenues for interpretation:
1. Jacob’s Ladder. The central image of Messengers (Angels) of God “ascending and descending” almost certainly reflects Jacob’s dream vision at Bethel (Genesis 28:12ff):
And he dreamed and see!—a ‘ladder’ being made to stand up (from) the earth, and its head was touching (to) the heavens; and see!—Messengers of the Mightiest One [i.e. God/Elohim] were going up and coming down on it. 13And see!—YHWH stood himself upon it [i.e. over it] and said…
The Septuagint (LXX) phrase is nearly identical to that of Jn 1:51—oi( a&ggeloi qeou= a)ne/bainon kai\ kate/bainon e)p’ au)th=$ (“the Messengers of God stepped up and stepped down [i.e. ascended and descended] upon it”). The early Rabbis offered various interpretations of the ladder and the vision as a whole (see in Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 68-69); interestingly, they explored the possibility that the suffixed preposition oB in v. 12 might be read “on him” instead of “on it“—in other words, the Angels were ascending/descending on Jacob rather than the ladder. Similarly for the preposition wyl*u* in v. 13: YHWH was standing over/upon him [Jacob] instead of it [the ladder]. It is impossible to know just how old this interpretation is, but it would provide a close parallel with Jn 1:51. Significantly, it is not only the angels, but YHWH himself who is over/upon the ladder (or Jacob); and, while this is not specified in Jn 1:51, the fulness of this Heavenly/Divine glory may be implied. The Aramaic Targums typically substitute the Memra/Shekinah (personified Word/Glory) for YHWH himself in such anthropomoprhic appearances, and so in Gen 28:13 (cf. Onkelos). This is certainly part of the Jewish background to the Word (Lo/go$) concept in the Gospel of John (and note here the interpretation of Jn 1:51 in Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 86:2). One other bit of Christological detail: in the alternative Rabbic interpretation of Gen 28:12-13 mentioned above, the angels ascending and descending represent the exaltation and humiliation of Jacob, respectively (cf. Genesis Rabbah 68.12)—comparable to the “two states” of the incarnate Christ in classical theology.
2. The Baptism of Jesus. A number of words and images in the Jn 1:51 saying are closely related to the Baptism of Jesus:
- Seeing the heavens opened (o&yesqe to\n ou)rano\n a)new|go/ta, “you will see the heaven opened up”). In Mark 1:4, it is said that “he [Jesus] saw [ei@den]” the heavens split and the Spirit/dove descending; also in Matt 3:16 he [Jesus] saw [ei@den] the Spirit/dove, while the heaven opening is a narrative declaration (“see! [i)dou/]”). In John, while the Baptism is not narrated as such, there are numerous references to seeing—the Baptist sees [ble/pei] Jesus (v. 29, 36, “See [i&de], the Lamb of God…”); twice John states that he did not know/see [h&|dein] Jesus (v. 31, 33); he beheld [teqe/amai] the Spirit descending (v. 32, also v. 33 “you will see [i&dh|$] the Spirit…”); and he testifies “I have seen [e(w/raka] and witnessed…” (v. 34); cf. also v. 39, 46, 50. The verb o)pta/nomai (also used in v. 39 and 50), emphasizes looking “with (open) eyes”, i.e. gazing, perceiving (similar to qea/omai), and occurs in John almost exclusively in terms of perceiving Jesus and beholding his glory (Jn 3:36; 11:40; 16:16-17, 19, 22; 19:37; 1 Jn 3:2). The fact that this verb ends verse 50 may be one reason that v. 51 (if originally a separate saying) was added here, by way of “catchword-bonding”.
The verb a)noi/gw (“open up”) is used in the Matthean and Lukan accounts of the Baptism (Matt 3:16; Luke 3:21). Even though the Gospel of John has no comparable account, it is clear enough from 1:29-34 that the author was familiar with the same underlying tradition preserved in the Synoptics, which had a reference to the heavens “opening”. Otherwise, this verb is used in John almost exclusively for “opening the eyes” of the blind (in Jn 9; 10:21; 11:37), and occurs frequently in the Johannine book of Revelation.
- Use of the verb a)nabai/nw (lit. “step up”). In the Mark and Matthean accounts of the Baptism (Mark 1:10; Matt 3:16), this verb is used to describe Jesus’ “coming up” out of (or from) the water. The verb occurs somewhat frequently in John, in a related two-fold sense—(1) to describe Jesus’ “going up” to Jerusalem (Jn 2:13; 5:1; 7:8, 10, 14), and (2) for Jesus’ “ascension” to Heaven to the Father (Jn 3:13; 6:62; 20:17; note esp. reference to the “Son of Man” in 6:62).
- Use of the verb katabai/nw (lit. “step down”). In all three Synoptic accounts of the Baptism, and in Jn 1:32-33, the verb is used to describe the Spirit coming down “as a dove”. In Matt 3:16; Lk 3:22, as in Jn 1:32-33 and 51, we find the expression “coming down upon him [e)p’ au)to/n]”. Parallel to the related verb a)nabai/nw, in the Gospel of John katabai/nw is used in reference to Jesus’ “coming down” (out of heaven [e)c ou)ranou=])—cf. Jn 3:13; 6:33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58.
- Even though it does not occur in the canonical accounts, mention perhaps should be made of the early tradition whereby a great light (i.e. fire/glory) shone from the water at Jesus’ baptism. This is actually narrated in Latin MSS of Matthew 3:15-16 (a vgms), was apparently mentioned in the Diatessaron (Gospel Harmony) of Tatian (2nd century), and is cited by Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 88). The motif was especially emphasized in the Eastern churches, and became a prominent part of the Baptismal liturgies. For more on the relation of this theme to Baptism (and the Baptism of Jesus), see my earlier Epiphany note.
3. The Son of Man. Of the many sayings of Jesus involving the Son of Man, a number relate to his (eschatological) coming in judgment and glory (see esp. Mark 13:26; 14:62 par.; Matt 24:27, 30, 37, 39; Lk 12:40; 17:22-30; 18:8). The Son of Man is specifically associated with angels in Mark 13:26-27 par.; Matt 13:41. In the Gospel of John, the “Son of Man” is mentioned primarily in the context of being glorified, lifted up, ascending, etc.—Jn 3:13-14; 6:62; 8:28; 12:23, 34; 13:31. In Jn 3:13, Jesus speaks of the Son of Man having ascended (a)nabai/nw) and descended (katabai/nw), a significant parallel to the saying in Jn 1:51. There are also quite a few references, in the Synoptics at least, to the suffering of the Son of Man (Mark 8:28; 9:12, 31; 10:33; 14:21, 41, et al. and par.); it may be worth considering in this regard the Rabbinic interpretation of Gen 28:12 (see above), whereby the angels ascending and descending (upon Jacob) refer to his exaltation and humiliation.