After the sublime opening to the book, this next section suddenly feels more earthed: we see the glorious eternal Word now interacting with ordinary people in the midst of ordinary lives. The focus in this passage remains very much on Jesus, and as we see the first disciples grasping something of who he is, so we are to learn from their discovery. But there is also a theme of sharing that discovery with others, bearing witness to what we have found.
John’s encouragement to his disciples to transfer their allegiance to Jesus is consistent with his understanding of his own ministry as merely preparatory. The repetition of his identification of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” points to that as a crucial way of understanding Jesus and what he had come to do. The dialogue in vv.38, 39 seems so mundane one might wonder at John including it, but I take it we should look for significance in it. Jesus’ question can be seen therefore as a searching one. Their reply shows no interest particularly in a saviour (Lamb of God), it’s almost non-committal, but they are keen to find out more.
Witness, like charity, very often begins at home. So it was for Andrew. He instinctively wants to share with those closest to him what he has discovered. He attempts no great argument to persuade his brother but, as John puts it rather beautifully, “brought him to Jesus”. Verse 42 also would seem to speak too of how Jesus knows each of us, and knows all we will do/become.
Again simple words I think convey weighty truth: “follow me” is a profound summary of the response Jesus calls for. Philip’s discovery (again “we have found”) is one that he knows he must share. Here was the one that all the OT Scriptures had pointed forward to. The disarming “Come and see” is a great riposte to Nathanael’s cynicism and prejudice.
Both v.47 and v.51 allude to Jacob (aka Israel). The original Jacob was renowned for his deceit and trickery before he was given his new name after being given a strange vision of God, so there is perhaps a hint that Nathanael too is seeing God (and a fuller vision will in time be his, v.51). Jesus shows his supernatural knowledge of Nathanael, which leads this Israelite to recognise his king (v.49). Both “son of God” and “king of Israel” were probably meant as simply messianic terms, but in John’s Gospel “the Son of God” tends to point to a larger truth, and Israel’s true king was God. Much richer grounds for his faith than this miraculous display of supernatural knowledge though would be given – and as we read on we will find that out.
The “truly, truly” at the start of v.51 is used throughout John’s Gospel to prefix a statement of Jesus’ of special significance. Jesus is now speaking not only to Nathanael, but to all the disciples. The allusion is to Jacob’s dream at Bethel in Genesis 28, after which he says “Surely the LORD was in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God; this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:16,17). Bethel was a place Jacob encountered God, and God’s plans were revealed. Jesus is therefore claiming that he is the place where people will truly encounter God (cf 2:19-21 where he will claim to be the true temple); in him God’s plans and purposes would be revealed. If the analogy is more particularly to the ladder, then he would be saying that he is the supreme point where God and humanity are brought together. However we quite understand it, the point is to say that the disciples would come to see that he is much more than simply Messiah, but for in Jesus the LORD Himself is being revealed to them.