John 1:15-51 John's Disciples

John's Gospel Commentary by Robert Brow (  2000

1:15 John the Baptist was introduced as "a man sent from God" who came "as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through that light" (1:6). Now we have a whole section about John the Baptist and his disciples. This was important at that time because many continued as disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1-4).

In our day many continue looking to a great preacher or teacher, and never learn to live by the power of the Spirit (Acts 19:5). John the Baptist did his best to discourage any kind of cult of his own personality (1:15, 19-20, 28-30).

1:16 John, the writer of the Gospel, adds a personal comment about the "grace upon grace" he has experienced. John Newton wrote his hymn about "Amazing Grace." And Virginia Mollenkott explained her experience of grace as "There is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there is nothing you could ever do to make God love you less" (in a lecture at Queen's Theological College, Kingston, Ontario).

1:17-18 Law has its uses by way of diagnosis : "This is what a healthy person is meant to be." And the prophets had tried to explain the wrath consequences of not living by the law of Moses. But the Messiah's healing grace and truth (see 1:14) works on quite different principles. It is the Son of God who has made visible the loving heart of God.

1:19-23 John the Baptist made it clear (as in 1:15, 28-30) that he was not the Messiah. He did not even think of himself as a returning Elijah (Malachi 4:5, though Jesus said he fulfilled that prophecy, Matthew 17:10-13). Nor did he claim to be another great prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15). He viewed himself simply as a voice in the wilderness pointing to the one who was to come (quoting Isaiah 40:3-5).

1:24-25 In all ancient cultures a teacher (prophet, guru, rabbi) would enrol and teach his own disciples. Among these he would choose some to be with him most of the time. They would be taught more intensively, and they would themselves engage in teaching the crowds. But the principle remains the same. A teacher teaches those who are enrolled.

The Pharisees had their own famous rabbis like Nicodemus (3:1) and Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). They could only become rabbis after years of studying the Torah. What right had John the Baptist to enrol large numbers of disciples from all over Judea including Jerusalem ? (Matthew 3:5, Mark 1:5)

1:26-27 When someone wanted to learn with a teacher, there was a sign or ceremony for enrolment.. In India a guru might give the person a flower, a garland, or an embrace. In our day we are enrolled by being put on a list before attending the classes. The sign that John the Baptist used was baptism with water (probably by pouring it over the new disciple's bowed head).

John made it clear that his enrolling of disciples was preliminary, a preparation for a much greater teacher who would come. By comparison John felt he would not qualify to act as his servant by untying the thong of his sandals.

1:28 John the Baptist used to enrol and teach disciples at a location called Bethany (not the Bethany near Jerusalem, where Martha and Mary lived, 11:1). It was just across the Jordan near the entrance to the Dead Sea. The nearby river provided water for washing and cooking as large numbers came to camp for several days of teaching after their baptism.

1:29 As he writes his Gospel John makes clear that he is not following a chronological order. He introduces the events with "Now there was" (3:1), and "After this" (3:22, 5:1, 6:1, 7:1). Here the Greek term ty epaurion seems to mean "on another occasion" (as in 1:35, 43, see "The third day" of 2:1).

The account of Jesus baptism is given in the other Gospels (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22). But the writer of John's Gospel remembered an important fact which they had omitted. John the Baptist saw Jesus coming for baptism, and said "Here is the Lamb of God who keeps taking away the sin of the world." Lamb is a metaphorical name, as are the words Light (1:4-6), Bread (6:48-51), Gate (10:7), Shepherd (10:11-14), Way (14:6), Vine (15:1), King (18:33-36). Each name expresses a different aspect of the work and character of the Son of God.

In each case the Son did not begin to be Light, Lamb, Bread, Gate, Shepherd, Way, Vine and King when he took birth among us. As Light he kept coming (imperfect continuous tense) into our world (1:9). He was already the Good Shepherd for David the Psalm writer (Psalm 23:1). And the metaphors Lord and King also come throughout the Psalms. Jesus is therefore the continuing Lamb of God. What does his Lambness mean?

Anybody who loves is going to get hurt. Parents are hurt by their children. Children are hurt by their parents. Lovers hurt one another. Those who serve others soon sense rejection. And when we love a lot we are likely to be hurt very badly, as happened to Jesus himself. When we experience hurt and rejection, we can get angry, curse and swear, blame, lash out, and eventually turn away from loving. But when he came among us we saw how Jesus was "oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep before its shearers, so he did not open his mouth" (Isaiah 53:7). This loving gentleness is part of his gracious character (1:14). And it results in his willingness to keep forgiving us even when we treat him abominably.

1:30 It is often suggested that Jesus only became Lamb when he was crucified on the first Good Friday. But John the Baptist knew that the coming Lamb "ranks before me because he was before me." And one result of his own baptizing and teaching disciples was that the lamb-like nature of the Messiah would be revealed.

1:31 Jesus' mother Mary had stayed three months with John the Baptist's mother, who was a close relative (Luke 1:36, 39, 56). But John's parents were very old (Luke 1:18), and they probably died when their son was very young. He was raised in the wilderness (Luke 1:80), possibly in the Qumran monastery boarding school which was only two hours' walk from where John later baptized and taught his disciples (1:28). But that was a week's walk from where Jesus was raised in the area of Nazareth, so they probably did not meet. That is why John the Baptist knew about Jesus as a relative, but he made clear "I myself did not know him" (both in 1:30 and 33)

1:32-33 How did John the Baptist recognize that Jesus was the Messiah? Among the hundreds who came to hear him there would be one "on whom you see the Spirit come down and settle." The Baptist probably did not guess what that would mean, but when the Holy Spirit took the form of a dove, came fluttering down out of the sky and gently settled on Jesus head, he knew that this was the one indicated. And from that time he could say "I have seen, and I have born witness that this is the Son of God."

The other Gospels tell us that "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than me is coming after me. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16). Both John and Jesus used baptism to enrol disciples (learners), but the syllabus was very different. John the Baptist taught people to turn away from their present way of life to welcome the Messiah. Jesus taught his disciples to live by the Spirit, as he did, and they continued to do this after the Day of Pentecost.

The writer makes clear that John the Baptist had been told about this huge difference between his ministry and Jesus teaching ministry before he saw the dove come fluttering down.

1:34 John the Baptist had been told Jesus was the Lamb of God, and he would baptize with the Holy Spirit. The other Gospels record the voice from heaven "This is my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased " (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22). Having heard those words, John the Baptist now includes that fact in his preaching (as the Gospel also makes clear in 1:14, 3:16, 5:17-23, 36, 6:32, 37, 40, 46, 10:30-38, 16:28, 32, 17:1, 11, 25). The very purpose of writing the Gospel was to help us into faith in the Messiah Son of God (20:31) .

1:35-36 The remainder of the chapter turns suddenly from the theological truths of the first thirty-four verses to a very human picture of the way John the Baptist encouraged some of his own disciples to move over to become disciples of Jesus the Messiah. We see how each individual was added to the small group of Jesus' first disciples. In each case they would be baptized to be enrolled to begin learning with the Messiah.

1:37-39 The first two disciples who moved from being disciples of John the Baptist to follow Jesus were Andrew and an unnamed disciple (who was almost certainly John the writer of the Gospel). When they wanted to know more the Messiah invited them to talk privately away from the crowds who were listening to John the Baptist (see Luke 3:10-17). Jesus had found a place to bed down among the hundreds of others who had come to camp there, and they went and sat with him there till evening.

1:40-41 Next day, having been convinced by what he heard in the conversation the evening before, Andrew told his brother Simon Peter that they had found the Messiah. The Hebrew word meant "anointed," and prophets, priests, and kings were anointed to begin performing their function (Exodus 30:14-15, 1 Samuel 10:1, 1 Kings 19:16). King David was called God's anointed king (Psalm18:50).

Throughout the prophetic writings there are references to the Lord reigning as King, the Lord of hosts, the Lord God, (Isaiah 6:3, 16:5, 30:15, 33:5, 21-22, 37:16, 43:15, 44:6). In that sense the eternal Son of God was already viewed as the Messiah or "anointed" King of his people. When the voice of prophecy went silent for 400 years after Malachi, Jewish theologians began to think of the Messiah coming in the future. John's Gospel makes clear that the Lord, King, Messiah who had reigned throughout the Old Testament period, had now come and taken birth among his people.

1:42 Jesus immediately knew that, in spite of weaknesses and faults, Peter would become the leader of his close disciples, and he names him accordingly. In Aramaic (the common language of the Middle East at that time) the word Cephas means a rock. The Greek word is Petra.

1:43-44 It seems that Jesus "found" Philip among the crowds. He came from Bethsaida, the same city as Peter and his brother Andrew. The city was located at the north end of the Sea of Galilee on the east side of the Jordan. These disciples had all come at least a week's journey to hear John the Baptist, and now it seems they accompanied Jesus on the long way back north to Galilee. Bethsaida was a two day walk from Nazareth, but soon Jesus would move his family home to Capernaum, which was just across the river (Matthew 4:13, 9:1, Luke 4:31).

1:45-46 Philip had already concluded that the Lord, King, Messiah of the Old Testament was now among them. He calls Jesus "Son of Joseph" because Joseph had adopted him as his own son, and so given him the legal title to the throne of David (Matthew 1:20-23). This was recorded in the Bethlehem city archives (Luke 2:1-5), and there is no record of anyone questioning Jesus title to the Jewish throne.

Nathanael came from the town of Cana (John 21:2), which was only five miles from Nazareth. His question "Can anything good come out of Nazareth" may reflect a small town rivalry between the two places. The next chapter tells of a wedding in Cana (2:1).

1:47-49 Nathanael discovers that Jesus already knew him, and very quickly this new disciple calls Jesus both "the Son of God" and "The King of Israel" (another name for Messiah, see 1:41). This rapid growth in spiritual understanding is very common when people come to a living faith.

1:50 Nathanael was impressed by Jesus knowing him, but he would soon see, and experience much "greater things". At the last supper Jesus will say "the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these" (14:12).

1:51 The reference to the angels ascending and descending is from Jacob' dream of the ladder (Genesis 28:12). Perhaps Nathanael had been meditating about that when Jesus met him. What God said on that occasion is that the Messiah is "the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (Genesis 28:13). The disciples would in due course learn that the third part of the three covenant promises (the blessing of all nations) made to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-20), to Isaac (Genesis 26:24), and to Jacob (Genesis 28:13-14) would be fulfilled through the Messiah's church (see John 17:18, 20).

A Note on Jesus' first disciples (John 1:35-51)

The five disciples listed here (John probably the writer of the Gospel, Andrew and his brother Peter, Philip and Nathanael) were Jesus' original core group who later became his apostles (persons sent on a mission). They were joined by John's bother James (sons of Zebedee), Matthew the tax collector, and others. They continued with him as his apostolic team till the resurrection (see 1:13, 21:2). Only Judas seems to have defected. After the Day of Pentecost they became the leaders of the schools of the Holy Spirit which continued Jesus' teaching work throughout the world. And the sequence of first enrolling disciples by baptism, and then teaching them, continued as Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:41-42).

The practice of immediate baptism followed by whatever teaching was possible meant that many of the baptized got miffed and left their Teacher (John 6:66). The parable of the Sower is therefore a picture of what happens after baptism. At first sight it seems wasteful, but it results in huge amounts of good wheat (Matthew 13:23). Sadly within a hundred years churches began requiring a long period of probation before baptism. And wherever this has happened, church growth has slowed to a standstill.

The practice of baptizing women as well as men (Acts 5:14, see 9:2) must have originated with Jesus himself. The Jewish rabbis did not think women should be taught the Torah, and it seems probable that John the Baptist only baptized and taught male disciples. No women are listed among the disciples of John the Baptist who later followed Jesus. The fact that the Messiah taught women (John 4:9-26, Luke 10:39) is one of the many differences between his style of ministry and that of John the Baptist (other differences are given in Matthew 11:16-18).

Later the Gospel will speak of large numbers of additional disciples, and by then the original inner group of disciples were assisting Jesus in the baptism and teaching of the new converts (4:1,2).

2:1-13    Water to Wine