Today I want to continue on in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, with a verse that is one of the most difficult to interpret in the entire book—the saying of Jesus in Jn 1:51. Unlike the situation in verses 18 and 34 (discussed the past two Saturdays), there is no question about the text of the verse. The Greek is secure and there really are no significant variant readings. But this only raises a different sort of critical question: how does one proceed when we are sure of the text, but the passage is still difficult to understand? Consider the saying itself as I give it here in a (literal) translation:
“And (Jesus) says to him [i.e. Nathanel]. ‘Amen, amen, I say to you (that) you [pl.] will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down upon the Son of Man’.”
This saying has proven sufficiently difficult and obscure for commentators throughout the years, resulting in a wide range of possible interpretations. To what, exactly, is Jesus referring here?
A fundamental question is whether the saying should be taken as a concrete prediction (of a future event), or a symbolic picture. If the former, then one must ask to which specific event or episode it refers; there are three possibilities—(1) a supernatural event witnessed by the disciples (similar to the Transfiguration), but otherwise unrecorded, (2) the resurrection and/or ascension, or (3) the future/end-time appearance of Christ. Given the similarities with key eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics, the third option makes most sense. Heavenly “Messengers” (i.e., Angels) are present in both the eschatological Son of Man sayings (Mk 13:26-27; Matt 13:41; 25:31, etc) and the resurrection/ascension scenes (Mk 16:5; Lk 24:23, etc; Acts 1:10f). However, neither of these seem to fit the context where the saying is set in John. If we are to understand the saying primarily as a symbolic picture—whether by the Gospel writer or Jesus himself—then there a number of possible associations or allusions which may be in mind.
An important part of Biblical criticism involves examining the intent of the author, as far as this can be determined. In order to do this, we must explore the verse from two vantage points, much as we did in studying the text of Jn 1:18 and 34. These two aspects are: (1) the specific language and terminology (i.e. the Greek words and syntax) used, and (2) the context—both the immediate context, and that of the Gospel as a whole. Today I will examine (1) the language and terminology, leaving (2) the context for next Saturday.
1. The language and terminology used in the saying
Interpretation should always be based on a careful study of the original language (here the Greek of the NT)—the specific words and phrases, and how they are used in the passage (i.e. the grammar and syntax). I will look briefly here at the significant words and phrases, in the order they appear in the verse.
[Amen, amen]—The Greek am¢n (a)mh/n) is a transliteration of the Hebrew °¹m¢n (/m@a*), an adverb which means something like “surely, certainly, truly”. As a Semitic idiom, it was used frequently by Jesus, and is often preserved in its Hebrew/Aramaic form in the Gospels (41 times in Matthew, 13 in Mark, and 6 in Luke). It occurs 25 times in John, always in the double form (“amen, amen…”) we see in 1:51. In this form, it tends to be used by Jesus when addressing his disciples (or would-be disciples) and declaring to them something of the utmost importance. A comparable form of address in English idiom might be something like: “You may be sure of this…”, “I tell you the truth when I say that…”, etc. The formula introduces key sayings in the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, and often are central to the theological (and Christological) points being made by Jesus in his exposition (cf. Jn 3:3, 5, 11; 5:19, 24-25; 6:26, 32, etc).
[you will see]—The Greek verb optanomai (o)pta/nomai) in the future tense commonly means “see”, though its concrete, fundamental meaning would be something like “look with (open) eyes”. The motif of seeing, especially the idea of seeing Jesus, has special theological (and Christological) significance in the Gospel of John. Typically it refers to something more than the ordinary (sensory) experience of sight. There are too many passages to cite them all here—e.g., 1:14, 33-34; 3:3, 36; 6:36, 46, 62; 9:37ff; 11:9, etc. The future form (of optanomai) occurs 9 times elsewhere in the Gospel, the first being in 1:39, where it relates to the basic idea of the disciple encountering Jesus, and realizing something of his true identity. In 3:36 the context is the experience of salvation (i.e. eternal life) through faith/belief in Jesus. The context of 11:40 (the miracle of raising Lazarus) indicates that it primarily refers to witnessing the splendor of God manifest in the person of Jesus, by way of his life-giving (and miracle-working) power. The four occurrences in 16:16-22 are more difficult to decipher, due to the wordplay and dual-layered meaning running throughout the passage: of the disciples encountering Jesus (a) after his resurrection and/or (b) in the future, following his return to the Father.
[the heaven opened up]—The wording here is an echo of the earlier baptism scene (vv. 29-34). Even though John does not describe the heaven “opening up”, the Gospel writer (trad. John the Apostle) almost certainly was aware of the historical tradition (vv. 32-33). In the Synoptic account (Mk 1:10), we find the specific image, including the same verb (anoigœ, a)noi/gw, “open up”) in Luke’s version (3:21) as used here in v. 51. Elsewhere in John, this verb is often used in the idiom “open up (one’s) eyes”, as a reference again to the important theme of seeing.
[the Messengers of God]—”Messenger” is the proper translation of the Greek angelos (a&ggelo$), which is usually transliterated into English as “Angel”. Here, of course, it refers to God’s heavenly Messengers (Angels) rather than human messengers. As noted above, in the Gospels, Angels are associated both with the resurrection/ascension of Jesus (as in Jn 20:12), as well as a number of the eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics (cf. Mk 8:38; 13:26 par; Matt 16:27, etc). However, there is also here likely an allusion to Genesis 28:12.
[stepping up and stepping down]—The Greek verbs anabainœ (a)nabai/nw) and katabainœ (katabai/nw) are usually translated “ascend” and “descend”, but literally mean “step up” and “step down”, respectively. Both verbs are used frequently in the Gospel of John, and often with special theological (and Christological) significance. This will be discussed when addressing the context of v. 51 next Saturday. This is the first occurrence in the Gospel of anabainœ, but katabainœ was used earlier in the description of the Baptism scene (vv. 32-33), of the Spirit descending (lit. “stepping down”) upon Jesus. These two verbs are also used in the Greek (Septuagint) version of Gen 28:12, of the Angels ascending and descending upon (the ladder). This makes an allusion to that Old Testament tradition here all but certain.
[the Son of Man]—This is a translation of the Greek ho huios tou anthrœpou (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou). The expression is a Semitic (Hebrew/Aramaic) idiom which is generally synonymous with “Man”, referring to human beings or humankind, sometimes in the specific sense of human nature or the human condition. Jesus makes use of the expression in several special ways, which have been preserved in the Gospels. Two fundamental groups of “Son of Man” sayings relate to: (1) Jesus’ suffering and death, and (2) his appearance in glory at the end-time. Similarly, in the Gospel of John these two aspects are found in the (twelve) Son of Man sayings, though expressed in language and imagery that has special meaning in the context of the Johannine theology (and Christology). A number of Son of Man sayings involve the very verbs—anabainœ and katabainœ—used in this verse. I have recently discussed these sayings in a separate note, which may be helpful for you to read as part of this study.
Next week we will be examining the context of this verse more closely. In the meantime, I would recommend that you continue to study and meditate on Jesus’ saying. Based on what we have done so far—studying the specific words and phrases that are used—does this offer you any new insights on the meaning and significance of the verse? You may wish to write these down, or at least keep them in mind as we continue…and I will see you next Saturday.