John 1:51 (continued)
“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.”
A proper study of such difficult passages requires a careful two-step approach: (1) analysis of the Greek words/phrases and how they are used, and (2) the context of the passage within the book. Last week we dealt with the first of these, today we will explore the second—that is, the context of the verse within the Gospel of John. Much of the difficulty surrounding this saying has been in trying to identify it with an actual event which the disciples experienced (or would experience). I mentioned three possibilities: (a) an otherwise unrecorded event during Jesus’ ministry, such as the Transfiguration scene in the Synoptic Gospels; (b) a post-resurrection vision or encounter; or (c) an eschatological vision. None of these really seem to fit the narrative setting of this saying—at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just after the Baptism and the call of the first disciples. It seems more likely that it is meant by the author (trad. John the Apostle) as a symbolic picture, and that its fundamental meaning is Christological. I believe that a study of the Greek (last Saturday) already points rather clearly in this direction. But let us examine things a bit further.
1. The Location of the Saying
After the hymnic prologue of Jn 1:1-18, the first main section of the Gospel is Jn 1:19-51, which has, as its primary theme, the testimony of John the Baptist regarding Jesus. The section is divided into four “days”, and with each “day” the witness of Jesus’ identity is developed:
- vv. 19-28—the Baptist’s testimony regarding himself (“I am not…”)
- vv. 29-34—the Baptist’s testimony regarding Jesus
- account of the Baptism (vv. 31-33)
- vv. 35-42—disciples respond to the Baptist’s testimony and follow Jesus
- a disciple (Peter)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 41-42)
- saying of Jesus (v. 42)
- vv. 43-51—disciples respond to the testimony of other (disciple)s and follow Jesus
- a disciple (Nathanael)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47-51)
- saying of Jesus (v. 51)
Each of the last three days follows a basic pattern, which includes a pair of declarations regarding Jesus, using a range of significant titles or descriptions:
- Day 2: “Lamb of God” (v. 29) / “Son of God” (or “Elect/Chosen One of God”) (v. 34)
- Day 3: “Lamb of God” (v. 36) / “Messiah” (“Anointed One [Christ]”) (v. 41)
- Day 4: “the one of whom Moses and the Prophets wrote” (v. 45) /
“Son of God” | “King of Israel” (v. 49)
The saying in Jn 1:51 thus concludes this opening section of the Gospel, which fundamentally has a Christological orientation, in two respects:
- The focus moves from John the Baptist to Jesus (see vv. 8, 15, 30; 3:28-30)
- John and the disciples witness (see) Jesus—that is, they begin to recognize who he is, and testify as to his identity.
The account of Jesus’ Baptism (vv. 31-34) is central to this section. Moreover, its close proximity to verse 51 makes it extremely likely that some sort of allusion to it is intended. Last week I mentioned several words in verse 51 which echo the baptism:
- The Holy Spirit, in the form/shape of a dove, descends [lit. “steps down”] upon Jesus, using the same verb (katabainœ) as in Jn 1:51. Also, the versions in Matthew/Luke specifically use the preposition epi (“upon”) and narrate the episode as something observable by all the people.
- In the descent of the Spirit, the heavens are said to separate; in Matthew/Luke (Matt 3:16; Lk 3:21), the verb used is anoigœ (“open up”) as in Jn 1:51.
The Baptism is not narrated as something that people observe directly—it is only “seen” through the verbal account (or word) of the Baptist. Similarly, throughout this section “seeing” Jesus is intimately connected with hearing and responding to the message of the Baptist and the first disciples (vv. 34, 36, 39, 46). In Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47ff), he also “sees” based on what Jesus says to him; note, in particular, the wording:
“Jesus responded and said to him, ‘(In) that [i.e. because] I said to you that I saw you underneath the fig-tree, you trust (in me)? (Thing)s greater than these you will see!” (v. 50)
This interplay between “seeing” and “saying” should caution us against the simple assumption that a concrete visible event is intended in v. 51.
Consider also that, while the saying in v. 51 concludes the first section (1:19-51), it also marks the beginning of the next—that is to say, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In terms of the Gospel of John, this means the core narrative of the Gospel spanning chapters 2-20. Commentators typically divide this into two main parts:
- Chapters 2-12, sometimes referred to as the “Book of Signs”, in which the narrative alternates between accounts of miracles and teaching (discourses) by Jesus—the miracle (sign) often serving as the basis and starting point for the discourse which follows (see especially in chapters 5, 6, and 9). All but the first and last of the Son of Man sayings are found in these chapters.
- Chapters 13-20, which narrate the Passion (and Resurrection) of Jesus—chapter 13 (a Last Supper scene similar to that in the Synoptic tradition) leads into the great Discourses in 13:31-16:33, concluding with the remarkable Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17.
The last Son of Man saying in John (13:31) opens the Discourses which are set at the beginning of the last major section of the Gospel (chs 13-20). It seems likely that the first Son of Man saying (1:51) is meant to have a similar transitional role in the structure of the Gospel narrative.
2. The other Son of Man Sayings
For a survey of the other Son of Man sayings in John, see my earlier note on the subject. As mentioned above, all but the first and last sayings occur in chapters 2-12, which is significant for two reasons:
- They are part of the Discourses of Jesus in these chapters, marked by a unique style of teaching. A statement or action by Jesus is misunderstood by the audience, leading to a pointed question, and the subsequent response (and exposition) by Jesus, answering the question at a deeper level of meaning. This process of redirection and reformulation always involves Jesus’ identity—his Person and Teaching—the Son in relation to God the Father. Where they occur, the Son of Man sayings (esp. 3:13-14; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 12:23, 32, 34) are central to the Discourse.
- They point toward the death and exaltation (resurrection, return to the Father) of Jesus described in chapters 13-20. Indeed, the principal sayings all have a dual-meaning, centered on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The sayings which refer to the Son of Man being “lifted high” (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) or being “glorified” (Jn 12:23; also 13:31) have both aspects in mind.
The dualism of these sayings is best demonstrated by the use of the verbs katabainœ and anabainœ (“step down”, “step up”), as in Jn 1:51. The saying in 3:13 is followed by that of v. 14 (which speaks of the Son of Man “lifted high”); the sayings in Jn 6:27, 53, 62 have a more complex reference matrix, as part of the great Bread of Life discourse (6:25-66). In schematic form, we might outline the dualism as follows:
According to this outline, the last Son of Man saying (Jn 13:31) reflects the central, inner dynamic of the Father-Son relationship and identity, governed by the verb doxazœ (“give honor/esteem/glory”, i.e. “glorify”). If this is correct, then it is not unreasonable to assume that the first of the Son of Man sayings (Jn 1:51) is parallel to this in some way, and may reflect the outer dynamic—the ascent/descent. Again, this would seem to be correct considering the use of the verbs katabainœ and anabainœ in 1:51. However, in that first saying, it is not the Son of Man descending/ascending, but rather of Angels (“Messengers of God”) ascending/descending on the Son of Man.
3. An allusion to Genesis 28:12
As mentioned last week, in Jesus’ saying there is almost certainly an allusion to Genesis 28:12. In Jacob’s dream-vision at Bethel, he sees Angels ascending and descending on the ladder; in the Greek Version (Septuagint) “ascending and descending” uses the same verbs (anabainœ and katabainœ) as Jn 1:51. Note also:
- There is a traditional Jewish interpretation which understands the Angels ascending/descending on him (Jacob). In one reference (Genesis Rabbah 68:12) Jacob is seen as being simultaneously in heaven.
- The Targums (Aramaic translations) express the idea that the shekinah—the visible manifestation and/or personification of God’s glory—was on the ladder. In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (mid-2nd century A.D.), we find the earliest evidence for the interpretation that Christ was on the ladder (86:2).
- Bethel as the “House of God”, i.e. the rock/stone which symbolizes the Temple and its foundation. In ancient and traditional religious thinking, the Temple served as the meeting place between God and human beings, a point of contact between Heaven and Earth. Moreover, in John 2:19ff (not long after the saying in 1:51), the Temple is identified with Jesus’ own person (and body), specifically in connection with his death and resurrection.
4. A Comprehensive Symbol?
Returning to the specific context of John’s Gospel, there is still more evidence to suggest that the saying of Jesus John 1:51, in its particular position within the structure of the narrative, is intended primarily as a symbolic picture that effectively encompasses the entire Gospel—a framing device representing beginning and end, much like the “Alpha and Omega” (A and W) of Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13 (another Johannine work, with definite parallels in thought and language to the Gospel). Here are some points I would cite in favor of this interpretation:
- The clear parallels with the Baptism (see above, and the discussion last week), which marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry (descent/incarnation). Again, the location of Jn 1:51 strongly suggests an allusion to the Baptism.
- Similar parallels with the Resurrection (ascension), which effectively marks the end of Jesus’ earthly existence.
- Similarities to descriptions of the Son of Man coming in glory at the end-time (especially in the Synoptic Gospels, Mk 13:26; Matt 16:27-28, etc). However, the Gospel of John understands the Son to have had this position and glory prior to his incarnation/birth as a human being (that is, divine pre-existence). This means, in the Johannine context, that such images cannot refer only to Jesus’ exaltation and future return, but to a reality that encompasses and transcends the entire process of descent/ascent.
- The saying in Jn 1:51 is part of a parallel, between the beginning and end of the Gospel. This expressed by the encounter of two disciples (Nathanael and Thomas) with Jesus, and involve parallel confessions:
- Jn 1:49: “You are the Son of God | you are the King of Israel!”
- Jn 20:28: “My Lord | my God!”
It is possible that these confessions themselves as bracketing the entire narrative of chapters 2-20:
- “Son of God” (in a Messianic context)
—”King of Israel” (i.e. Anointed Davidic Ruler)
—”My Lord” (Jesus as Messiah/Lord, cf. Ps 110:1)
- “My God” (Deity)
- “Son of God” (in a Messianic context)
- Each of the confessions also includes a response by Jesus (Jn 1:50-51; 20:29) related to disciples/believers seeing him.
- In the Gospel of John, “seeing” often signifies a level of spiritual perception (or of faith/trust) that is different from visual observation (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:3; 6:36, 46; 9:37-41; 11:9, 40; 12:45; 14:7, 9, 17, 19; 17:24; 20:29, etc). It is likely that the declaration “you will see” (opsesthe) does not refer to a concrete, visible event, but rather to the recognition and realization of Jesus’ true identity—as the Son who reveals and leads the way to the Father. This, of course, is also related to “seeing” the Son in terms of being with him, in his presence, as other instances of the verb optanomai, optomai/opsomai would indicate (Jn 16:16-17, 19, 22).
- As a concluding observation that “seeing” in Jn 1:51 signifies something more than a concrete vision, note the parallel with 20:29:
In both Jn 1:51 and 20:29, the eventual seeing by the believer is contrasted with the disciple believing on the basis of an extraordinary or miraculous experience. Even the concrete evidence for Jesus’ resurrection (in the case of Thomas) should not be relied upon as the basis for faith and trust in Christ, but rather the word that bears witness to him and the Spirit that draws us to him.
It is a great wonder that, wherever you turn in the Gospel of John, there appears to be an almost limitless depth to the passage. Even a careful, objective treatment of individual words inevitably leads down into a wide expanse of meaning and spiritual significance. I hope that I have been able to offer some help in demonstrating how a study of both the words and context of the passage can serve as a reliable guide to exploration. For next week, I would exhort you to continue on in a similar manner, reading and studying the next two chapters of the Gospel as carefully and thoughtfully as you are able. It will prepare you for a discussion on one of the most familiar verses in all the New Testament, but one which is often cited without much consideration for its context in the Gospel. As you may have guessed, this is the world-famous John 3:16—and we will be looking at its context most carefully…next Saturday.