John (Part 5): Gathering Disciples (Ch 1:35 – 1:51)
On day 3 of John’s record concerning this opening series of events that highlight the presentation of Jesus, we find John the Baptist again declaring that Jesus is the Lamb of God, just as he did on day 2. On day 2, however, he was speaking to the priestly contingent that had come from Jerusalem. They seem to have been unimpressed. But on day 3, John is pointing Jesus out to two of his disciples. These two (Andrew and John) immediately then begin following Jesus. Jesus turns and asks them, not “Who are you looking for?” but rather, “What are you looking for?” In other words, it was a broader scoped question of purpose. The disciples’ reply is on point. They are looking for where Jesus is staying. They could have said, “We want to be your disciples,” but their answer served the same purpose. Looking to follow after and stay with a rabbi/teacher meant you wanted to be a disciple. And Jesus invites them to this purpose in saying, “Come and you’ll see.”
John notes that they did stay with him, and he mentions the time. The Greek says that it was the tenth hour. The HCSB translates that as “10 in the morning.” The NIV translates it as “four in the afternoon.” That’s quite a difference. (The KJV, ESV, and NASB all merely state “the tenth hour” avoiding any controversy.) The difference between the HCSB and the NIV concerns the timing construct used. The Romans started the day at midnight (as we do), counting two twelve hour cycles. Thus, the tenth hour would be 10 in the morning or 10 in the evening. The Jews began their day at evening sunset. As the need for more precise timing arose, the Hebrew hours were coordinated to a 6 PM start of the day. Thus, the tenth hour in Hebrew reckoning would be 4 PM as the NIV has it. So, which was it in the case of John 1:39? Both the NIV and the HCSB are consistent in John’s Gospel, translating the hour as either Roman (HSCB) or Hebrew (NIV) in other cases. For example, in John 19:14, Pilate is questioning Jesus at the 6th hour. The HCSB translates this as 6 AM (according to Roman time), while the NIV translates this as noon (Hebrew time). While they are consistent, a problem occurs with the NIV when comparing to other Gospels. In Matthew 27:45, we read of darkness over the land while Jesus hung on the cross from the sixth hour until the ninth hour. Being consistent, the NIV translates this as from noon until 3 PM. However, this consistency has created a discrepancy with John’s Gospel. Christ could not have both been standing before Pilate at noon (John 19:14) and on the cross at the same time (Matthew 27:45). The text argues that consistency in applying a Roman or Hebrew standard is not the reasonable way to go. We find reasonable timeframes as we translate the “hour” to our clock by noting the society of background focus. In Pilate’s chambers, the Roman time should be assumed. In Jewish settings, the Hebrew time should be used. Therefore, In John 19:14, as Jesus stands before Pilate, the sixth hour should be recognized as 6 AM according to the Roman time. But as Christ hangs on the cross in the Jewish context, the sixth to ninth hour should be reckoned as noon to 3 PM according to the Hebrew time. Being consistent on this reckoning, we may translate the tenth hour of John 1:39 according to the Hebrew time as 4 PM. This, in fact, makes sense in context. John notes the time simply to give reason as to the disciples being with Jesus at the place where he was “staying” or spending the night. It was late in the day (4 PM), so the disciples “stayed” or spent the night there with Jesus. Ten AM in this case would not work.
The next day Andrew goes out to find his brother, Simon (Peter). Since we are here near the site of John’s baptizing ministry, Simon must have also been intrigued by and come out to hear this prophet. It would have been possibly disappointing to them all as they heard the Baptist teach that he was not the Messiah. But now Andrew comes running up to Simon saying that they have indeed found the Messiah. Simon takes off with Andrew to come to Jesus. Upon seeing him, Jesus says, “You are Simon (which means, one who hears), son of John. You will be called Cephas (Hebrew for stone).” And that’s all John has to say about that. Surely there was discussion. Surely Peter (Greek name for stone) has something to say. But we hear nothing more of this meeting than simply that Jesus calls him “Stone.” Is Jesus looking ahead into Peter’s life and recognizing some fortitude that Peter eventually will have? Well, that’s conjecture. John doesn’t say. Let’s move on, but we will come back to this later.
On the next day, Jesus is deciding to leave the area. He meets Philip and calls him to be a disciple. Philip runs off to find his friend, Nathanael. No mention of the name Nathanael as one of the 12 is found in the Synoptics. In those Gospels, a disciple named Bartholomew is numbered among the 12, but, conversely, that name is not mentioned in John’s Gospel. Most scholars believe these two names identify the same person. Remember that in the Hebrew, “ben” was used to denote “son of.” In the book and movie, Ben Hur, the main character’s name was Judah ben Hur or Judah, son of Hur. In Aramaic, the “ben” changes to “bar.” Matthew 16:17 speaks of Simon Barjona, which is Simon, son of Jonah or John. Therefore, the name Bartholomew actually means son of Tolmai. This disciple, then, is Nathanael, son of Tolmai.
Philip tells Nathanael that they have found the one Moses wrote of, and that this one comes from Nazareth. Nathanael is probably not being snarky with his comment about good coming from Nazareth. He had come to hear John the Baptist to find out about the Messiah. He probably imagined (as most people did) that the Messiah would hail from Jerusalem or Caesarea or some other grand place. If the Messiah came from Galilee, surely it would be from a larger town like Capernaum. But Nazareth? A small, inconsequential village like Nazareth? Nathanael is probably merely wondering how could anything so good and great as the Messiah come from a small village?
As Nathanael approaches him, Jesus says, “Here is a true Israelite; no deceit is in him.” Notice then the continued odd exchange. Nathanael asks whether Jesus knows him. Jesus replies that before Philip called him, he saw him beneath the fig tree. And then Nathanael exclaims, “You are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” Did we miss something there? What provoked such an outburst?
Imagine that you had been out alone in a wooded park around your home. You sat down for a while under a maple tree. Imagine then that later that day you are at a friend’s house and your friend introduces you to a third person. That third person says to you, “I saw you under a maple tree.” Would you immediately exclaim, “You are the Son of God!” I rather doubt it. Even if you had been out backpacking in a wilderness area, thinking you were miles and miles away from any other person, and you stopped beneath a maple tree, if later that day someone said, “I saw you under a maple tree,” you may be astounded and almost incredulous. But I still doubt you’d exclaim, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of creation!” So why is Nathanael so beside himself?
Let me first suggest what I think is going on. And then, I’m going to try to give greater assurance that what I am suggesting fits with the greater context. I think Nathanael had been one of those people who is always conniving, always manipulating, always being a little deceptive in order to make himself look good. His concern is to cast himself in a good light—to influence others' perceptions through stretching the truth, dropping details, or just manipulating conversation in some way. He came out with everyone else to hear John the Baptist preach. Something that the Baptist said touched him. The message was surely about repentance. Turning from a religion constructed for your own benefit was the focus of the Baptist’s ministry as he urged repentance because the coming kingdom was at hand. Nathanael sought a private place to consider these thoughts. He sits beneath a fig tree and battles with his pricked conscience. And the Holy Spirit impacts his heart so that he does really repent. He does promise God that he will turn from his deceitful ways and give himself away as he trusts in his care-giving God. Just as his commitment is made, Philip comes racing up with his news of the Messiah. Imagine then what must be going through Nathanael’s mind as he approaches Jesus, and Jesus says, “Here is a true Israelite; no deceit is in him.” Nathanael is probably just a little taken aback. He had just been struggling with this idea and had renounced his own deceit, and now this man is talking about it? Nathanael maybe cocks his head and narrows his eyes and asks, “How do you know me?” And then Jesus says, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Now Nathanael’s eyes are wide open in wonder. He had struggled with the question of deceit in his own heart and mind. He had promised God that he would leave that life behind. And now, this man… he knows? Somehow he heard the aches of his heart and his private prayer to God? No wonder he bursts out with “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus had not simply seen him. Jesus knew him! Jesus knew his heart!
This scenario does make sense, but does the greater context support such speculation? Notice first that Jesus ends this exchange with an allusion to Jacob’s ladder. Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see greater things—“heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” While most (actually, all that I’ve seen) commentators merely mention the allusion as forward-looking to the things Jesus would do, I think this comment should move us to deeper reflection on the connection to Jacob.
In Genesis 28:10-22, we learn that Jacob is on the road to his uncle Laban’s land to get a wife. He stops to spend the night and gets comfortable by grabbing a stone for a pillow. During the night he dreams of a stairway reaching from heaven down to earth with angels ascending and descending. Yahweh speaks to him, telling him that he will provide care for Jacob. Jacob wakes, is overcome by the experience, sets his stone pillow up as an altar, and determines that if God will provide for him, he will trust God for that provision.
Notice the elements in the Jacob story that are repeated in the section we have just studied in John:
1. Jacob stops to spend the night. Disciple story #1 focuses exclusively on Andrew and John spending the night with Jesus.
2. Jacob uses a stone on which to rest his head. Disciple story #2 focuses exclusively on Simon’s name change to Stone.
3. Jacob, recognizing the caregiving of God, gives up on his deceitful self-advancement manipulation to trust in God’s care. Disciple story #3 mentions Nathanael as a true Israelite without deception (our conjecture had Nathanael giving up a lifestyle of deception).
The connection seems to be one in which Jacob, the original Israel, is being replaced by Jesus, the true Israel. Of course, Jesus has no sin to turn from, and so John uses the actions of Jesus’ disciples to carry the thought of abandoning deceit and self-serving motive to a life lived in dependence on God. The stone in Jacob’s story becomes a memorial altar. The Stone (Peter) in Jesus’ story becomes one of the pillars upon which the Church is built. Everything about the John 1:35-51 story is intended to present Jesus as the true Israel of God.
Following the meeting with Nathanael on the fifth day, Jesus travels, as he had planned (1:43), to Galilee. Chapter 2 verse 1 mentions that “on the third day” Jesus is in Cana (near Nazareth) for a wedding. The phrase “on the third day” is a shorthand way of saying “the day after tomorrow,” thus, making this the 7th day of John’s narrative. This short period (about 2 days or less traveling) lends support to the idea that John’s baptism took place at an area of the Jordan about 12-15 miles south of the Sea of Galilee instead of just north of the Dead Sea (about 60-70 miles further south) as many have surmised.
Jacob’s story of Genesis 28 has a greater connection to John’s 7 days than simply the meeting of the disciples on days 3 through 5. Earlier in Genesis 28, Isaac sends Jacob off on his journey with a blessing (Genesis 28:3-4). This corresponds to John the Baptist’s testimony of Christ on the first couple of days in John 1. Furthermore, Jacob is traveling to find his bride—in other words, traveling toward a wedding, just as Jesus travels toward a wedding.
Weddings of this time period were accompanied by grand feasts. The feast structure of the wedding was intended to publicly declare the committed intention of the couple marrying. There was no license issued by the Sanhedrin to give proper legal approval to a marriage. The marriage was declared publicly among family and friends, and a contract between groom and bride’s father was signed specifying terms of dowry and timing and providing the needed bonding constraint that God intends for marriage. Usually about a year passed (sometimes longer) during which time the couple was bound to each other although still living apart, showing commitment without rashness as their intention. At the end of the betrothal period on the wedding day (in the evening), the groom left his (or his parent’s) home walking over to the bride’s home, gathering wedding guests on the way. Once at the bride’s home, the bride’s father gave her away to the groom who then took her back (amid the gathered guests) to his home. The marriage was consummated at the groom’s home while the guests partied. Following the consummation, the wedding feast continued for seven days.
It was likely toward the end of this seven day affair that Jesus arrived in Cana. Mary was at the feast, so it is likely Jesus had been invited earlier. His five disciples traveling with him would certainly have been invited on his arrival—social custom was magnanimous although resources may have been wanting. It is probable that this number of people arriving toward the end of the feast, in which provision had been planned to be exhausted as the feast ended, put a burden on the party so that Mary makes her comment to Jesus, “They don’t have any wine” (John 2:2). We will explore the conversation of Mary and Jesus next time.