John 1:43-51, Heaven Opens for Us

[January 18, 2015] Today, the Second Sunday of Epiphany, in our reflection on the Gospel, we switch back to the Gospel according to John. Last Sunday (see here) we paid attention to the baptism of Jesus and observed that when he was baptized, he saw the heavens torn open and then, as he heard the voice of his Father, the Holy Spirit came on him anointing him (“pouring oil” on him) for the apostolate that laid before him. I stated my impression that for him the heavens remained open for the course of his ministry until that moment on the cross when he cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.” This Sunday Jesus says to the five disciples he had gathered by the Jordan, “In all truth I tell you, you will see heaven open …” (in or on me; verse 51).

Today’s passage is the calling of Philip and Nathanael. The first disciples Jesus called were Andrew and an unnamed disciple (verse 35-40). Then Peter was called (verses 41-42). After this, Jesus called Philip and Nathanael (the last, like the beloved disciple, does not become a member of the Twelve). The structure of these verses form a chiasm. Verses 35-39 correspond to 46-51: notice the repetition of the words “look,” “come,” “see,” and “Rabbi.” Verses 40-41 correspond to 43-45: notice the repetition of the words “follow,” “found,” “Andrew,” and “Peter.” The center verse is 42: Andrew “took [Simon] to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John; you are to be called Cephas’—which means Stone.”

In the first group of verses the disciples asked where Jesus was abiding (pou meneis), saw where he was abiding (pou menei), and then abided (emeinan) with him. This word, obscured in the translations by their using a variety of words, is the same as the word “abide” that becomes so important in chapters 14-16 (and elsewhere).

In the last verse of the last group of verses Jesus compares himself to Beth-el (the “house of God”) in Genesis 28:19. In this earlier passage Jacob (whose name is later changed to Israel; see John 1:47 where Jesus calls Nathanael “an Israelite in whom there is no deception,” alluding to the deceiving Jacob), Jacob takes a stone as a pillow and dreams of “a ladder, planted on the ground with its top reaching to heaven; and God’s angels were going up and down on it. And there was YHWH, standing beside him” (Genesis 28:12-13). God promises him the divine presence and the ground (the land) on which he is lying. Jacob wakes up and says, “Truly, YHWH is in this place and I did not know! … How awe-inspiring this place is! This is nothing less than the abode of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” in the morning he took the stone on which he had laid his head and, pouring oil over the top of it (in other words, anointing or christ-ening it), named it Beth-el. The comparisons to the passage in John are numerous. Nathanael also did not know and is stunned to find the abode of God in Jesus. Notice also that in the center of our passage Simon is named a stone. In John 2:16 Jesus refers to the Temple as “my Father’s house,” then in verse 19 says, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The gospel writer explains, “He was speaking of the Temple that was his body.” In other words, his body is the Father’s house. In John 14 Jesus tells us, “In my Father’s house are many “abodes” (monei). He became our abiding place when he passed through death and arose, glorified.

So Nathanel was abiding under the fig tree (though here the gospel does not use the word “abiding”)—Jesus saw him under the tree that symbolizes the land of promise—and Jesus invites him to abide with him and, at the Last Supper, to abide in him (anticipating Easter). Jacob’s dream was also about the land of promise. Jesus says to Nathanael, “You are going to see greater things than that.” In the Gospel according to John, Jesus himself is the Promised Land.

This is not to dismiss God’s promise to Israel of actual land. Philip says, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Torah and the Prophets wrote.” Jesus is not saying it is one or the other, but that one is the anti-type of the other. Just as Jesus is the Passover Lamb (see John 1:36) by which Israel escaped the bondage of Egypt and passed over into the Land, so Jesus is the Land itself, only now the blessing is able to come on the land, for in him the Father has found his delight. Israel will not enjoy the land as the Promised Land, on which the blessings of Deuteronomy at last come, until they enjoy the Messiah who in his own person is “greater things than that.” So one does not preclude the other.

Jesus’ promise that Nathanael would see greater things than that has an echo in John 11:40 where, in reference to the last sign of Jesus before the passion, the raising of Lazarus, Jesus says, “Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” When Jesus performs his first sign at the wedding of Cana, the gospel writer tells us, “he manifested (phaneroō) his glory, and his disciples believed into him” (2:11). The greater things, it would seem, then, refer to the manifestation of Jesus in chapters 2—12. This, then, is when the disciples would see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.

Philip’s call was simple. Jesus says, “Follow me,” and Philip (presumably) follows as did the two disciples of the Baptist (Andrew and someone else) in verse 37; which means that Philip became a disciple of Jesus and accompanied him to Galilee.

In verse 36 the Baptist sees (emble) Jesus and says, “Look (horaō), there is the Lamb of God,” and two of his disciples began to follow Jesus. Jesus, turning around, saw (theaomai) them and asks, “What are you seeking (teō)?” When they tell him that they want to know where he abides, he says, “Come, and you will see (horaō).” They then went and saw (horaō) where he was abiding and abided that day with him. When Andrew found Simon and brought him to Jesus, the text says that Jesus “looked” (emble) at him before he named him. When Philip finds Nathanael and tells him about Jesus and Nathanael scoffs, Philip says to him, “Come and see (horaō).” Then we are told, Jesus saw (horaō) Nathanael and says, “Look (horaō), truly [here is] an Israelite.” When Nathanael wants to know how Jesus knows him, Jesus says, “I saw (horaō) you under the fig tree.” When Nathanael exclaims—reminiscent of Jacob after his dream—“You are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel,” Jesus says, “You believe that just because I said I saw (horaō) you under the fig tree? You are going to see (horaō) greater things than that!”

Obviously, seeing is a key motif in this passage (beginning in verse 35). When in the concluding verse Jesus uses the verb again, we ought to be paying attention. As elsewhere in the gospel, following the repeated amēn amēn (which is translated “in all truth”), Jesus says something that he wants us to pay attention to. John’s gospel is the only one where Jesus prefaces statements with a double amēn, and he does so 25 times. “In all truth I tell you, you [all] will see (horaō) heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on [or over] the Son of Man.” Jesus says this not just to Nathanael. In verse 50 he still uses the second-person singular, but when we come to verse 51 Jesus switches to the plural: “you all.”

The emphasis on “seeing” Jesus and on what the disciples are seeing and on what they are going to see, introduces the reader to the manifestation of Jesus, or rather, the manifestation of the divine glory in Jesus that we will see in the next eleven chapters, the chapters preceding the passion. It is in these chapters that Jesus performs the seven signs. To his disciples Jesus reveals himself as the “I am,” as life, as resurrection, as light, as the living water, the door, the good shepherd, and so on.

When Jesus speaks to Thomas a week after the resurrection, he is told, “You believe because you can see (horaō) me.” In this scene the emphasis on seeing continues. When the other disciples tell Thomas that they have seen (horaō) the Lord, Thomas insists that he will not believe unless he can see (horaō) the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put his finger into his side. When Jesus manifests himself, he says to Thomas, “Put your finger here; look (horaō), here are my hands.” Like Nathanael’s exclamation in chapter 1, Thomas says, “My Lord and my God!” In the chiastic structure of the Gospel according to John, this resurrection scene corresponds to the passage in chapter 1 that we are considering. What comes between these two passages are all the manifestation of Jesus which the disciples witness, though the manifestation that takes place in the resurrection is something qualitatively different that the manifestation that takes place in chapters 2—12. Jesus is still hidden in chapters 2—12; his glory is objectively manifested in signs and subjectively revealed. In chapter 20 he has been glorified. The divine glory is no longer hidden. Now the objective manifestation and the subjective revelation are the same.

When Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen (horaō) and yet believe,” the gospel is speaking to the reader. John, the author of the gospel, says, “There were many other signs that Jesus worked in the sight of his disciples, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you [the reader] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life in (en) his Name,” the Name being his self-revelation. In other words, while we cannot see (horaō) Jesus in the flesh, we can read this testimony of those who did and believe on that basis. Reading the gospel, in other words, becomes our seeing of Jesus. When he is thus manifested to us by the Spirit, we too can believe. Let me explain.

The gospels were written to take the place of eyewitness testimonies; the eyewitness testimonies taking the place of actually being an eyewitness. Yet not everyone who saw Jesus believed. He was only revealed by the Holy Spirit. So now also, the Holy Spirit breathes life into the text to reveal Jesus to us so that we may believe in his Name. The Holy Spirit, breathed into the disciples on Easter is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to come and abide in us. She is Jesus himself come to us. The text of the gospels is the vehicle she uses to carry Jesus—all that he is—to us.

We return then to chapter one. We are still only looking for a summary of what is going on in these verses. After the prologue in verses 1-18, all the rest of chapter 1 forms an introduction to the rest of the gospel-mandala that John has designed. Let us consider the final note.

Jesus, as he will be presented to us in the gospel, will be an opening of heaven. In him we will see heaven open. As Jacob said, he is the gate of heaven through which God converses with creation, the angels (messengers) of God ascending and descending on (epi with the accusative) him. This is what it means to be the “house of God,” which is what the disciples become when the Spirit comes to them. We become a communicative conduit where God’s angels relay to the creation. It refers to a transformation of human consciousness, something Jesus experienced beginning at his baptism (as we spoke about last time). The reality of heaven and the reality of earth come together in spirit, bypassing as it were the psyche (which must die to the “world,” the false construct of reality), then expressing itself through the renewed psyche (freed of the world).

Finally, Nathanael recalls us also to Eden. Unlike Adam and Eve who sewed fig leaves together to hide from God in their vain attempt to evade the divine light (already constructing the beginning of the “world”), Nathanael sits under a fig tree without any deception or guile. When Nathanael acknowledges Jesus to be the Son of God and King of Israel, Jesus takes him further and reveals himself as the tree of life that was in the center of Eden, from which our ancestors never ate. He is a tree with roots in the earth but whose head is in heaven, by partaking of which we come to know eternal life, the uncreated life of the Triune God. Whether this allusion is really there in the gospel, I do not know. It is interesting, however, that this layer of John’s mandala corresponds to the Sabbath day of creation, the day of rest and fulfillment and satisfaction, a day that creation has never really known but for which it has always been destined (John 20 begins in a garden). Creation finds its completion in the incarnation, or rather in resurrection, which is the glorification of the incarnate one. He is the firstborn of all creation, for from him all creation will be glorified with the glory of God. For this it was created; for this we were created. “YHWH our Lord, how majestic is your Name in all the earth!”

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