The third part of our Bible Study on the Gospel of John focuses on the beginnings of the Lord’s ministry. Here we see that Jesus’ first priority is to gather followers around Himself, as He begins His mission of redemption and the establishment of His Church. These first disciples will go on to become Apostles, the ones who’ll hear every teaching, witness every miracle, and catch the little lessons that will come from being near Jesus on a daily basis. It will be there responsibility to spread the Good News after Jesus has died, risen, and ascended to the Father.
This section of John 1 we’re looking at (John 1:35-41) comes the day after our our reflections on the ministry of John the Baptist. Once again, we encounter John the Baptist, this time with two of his own disciples, who will leave John to follow the ‘Lamb of God’ (John 1:35-40). Jesus first words in this Gospel are addressed to these two, and He simply asks them “what are you looking for?” In many ways, this is the question He asks all who wish to be His disicples: He wants us to share with Him the deepest desires of our hearts.
When they reply “Rabbi, where are you staying?” they both recognize Him as a gifted teacher and express their desire to stay with Him as they had done with John. Jesus’ invitation, to “come and see” recurs often in this Gospel. The idea of coming to Jesus (3:21, 5:40, 6;35, 37, 45) and seeing (5:40, 6:40, 47) are two signs that indicate faith – and we will hear Philip use the same phrase when he invites Nathanael to meet Jesus (John 1:46).
One of these two first disciples who came from John to Jesus was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. He immediately goes to his brother, bringing him back to Jesus. Jesus sees Simon and tells him: “You are Simon, son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (John 1:42). You likely know that Cephas means rock, and is usually translated as ‘Peter.’
What makes this moment significant is twofold. When someone’s name is changed in the Bible, it represents a significant moment in history, and they are given a new mission. Simon the fisherman becomes Peter – who is usually remembered as the head of the Apostles, the rock upon whom Jesus will eventually build his Church (Matthew 16:18). Jesus has changed Peter’s mission in life. But it’s also important because in the history of Israel, only God changed someone’s name/mission (think of Abram becoming Abraham or Jacob becoming Israel. For Jesus to do the same to Simon Peter carries significant meaning: Jesus is God, and this is, once again, a significant moment in Salvation history.
(John 1:43) we find the heart of everything we believe:
“This is the heart and soul of Christianity. Not its creed, not its ceremonies, not even the Bible, but the person of Christ the Lord, looking into the eyes of every man and woman, and inviting them to follow him. If he is the Lord then he is to be followed; he is to be obeyed. Not because after much study and reflection we have concluded that he is worthy of our standards, but because he is the Lord. Our hearts were made to know, love, and follow him, which is why his call stirred Philip so radically, and which is why we always know when he’s asking something of us.” -Fr. John Bartunek, The Better Part
Mirroring the actions of Andrew, Philip goes to find Nathanael and invites him to encounter Jesus. When Jesus sees Nathanael, he calls him an Israelite in whom there is no deceit (John 1:47). While this might seem like a strange greeting, there is an underlying lesson here. Nathanael had some misgivings about Jesus – particularly that He came from Nazareth (John 1:46) – but these didn’t keep him away from Jesus. He came to Jesus with his misgivings and was willing to listen. You can contrast this scene with others who encounter Jesus in the Gospels, and because of their misgivings they either test Him or reject him. What makes Nathanael different is his choice to follow anyway. Their first conversation might seem strange to us, but features imagery from the Old Testament. Nathanael wants to know how Jesus knew Him, and Jesus replies I saw you under the fig tree, which prompts Nathanael to call Jesus both the Son of God and the King of Israel. For someone who knows their Old Testament, the fig tree is an image of Messianic peace (Zechariah 3:10), and the King of Israel is known as the Son of God (2 Samuel 7:14.)
Jesus concludes this section by promising Nathanael that this is only the beginning: he will see greater things (John 1:50). He goes on to say that they will all see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (John 1:51). The promise of ‘greater things’ foreshadows the signs that will reveal Jesus glory to the disciples, signs which John’s Gospel begin presenting immediately with the wedding at Cana. The image of angels descending & ascending echoes Jacobs dream of Genesis 28:11-12, but is now a promise to believers: it tells us that Jesus is the link between heaven and earth.
It might seem like a lot to consider the stories of all five of these first followers of Jesus in one sitting. In each of these encounters with Jesus, we learn something about the ways He can call to each of us. He questions the desires of our hearts. He calls each of us to “come and see.” He assigns us a share in the mission of spreading the good news. He invites us to follow. He reads our hearts. Finally, He promises us that this is only the beginning and that there is far more to live, to see, and to experience. It’s unlikely these five disciples had any clue just how much their lives were to be changed from their knowing of Jesus… and even though we know their stories, I suspect it’s unlikely we understand the depths of His promises either.
(This is the third part of a Bible study I’m hosting with students at St. Peter the Apostle CHS in Spruce Grove during the 2017-18 school year.)