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[1. Prologue (John 1:1-18).
(1) was God (John 1:1-5);
(2) became man (John 1:6-13);
(3) revealed the Father (John 1:14-18).]
(1) In the beginning.—The reference to the opening words of the Old Testament is obvious, and is the more striking when we remember that a Jew would constantly speak of and quote from the book of Genesis as Berçshîth (“in the beginning”). It is quite in harmony with the Hebrew tone of this Gospel to do so, and it can hardly be that St. John wrote his Berçshîth without having that of Moses present to his mind, and without being guided by its meaning. We have then, in the earlier words, a law of interpretation for the later, and this law excludes every such sense as “the Everlasting Father” or “the divine wisdom,” which is before all things, though both these have been supported by here and there a name of weight; much more does this law, strengthened as it is by the whole context, exclude any such sense as “the commencement of Christ’s work on earth,” which owes its existence to the foregone conclusion of a theory, and is marked by the absence of any support of weight. Our law seems equally to exclude from these words the idea of “anteriority to time,” which is expressed, not in them, but in the substantive verb which immediately follows. The Mosaic conception of “beginning” is marked by the first creative act. St. John places himself at the same starting point of time, but before he speaks of any creation he asserts the pre-existence of the Creator. In this “beginning” there already “was” the Word. (See expressions of this thought in John 17:5; Proverbs 8:23; 1 John 1:1; Revelation 3:14.)
Was the Word.—See Excursus A: Doctrine of the Word.
With God.—These words express the co-existence, but at the same time the distinction of person. They imply relation with, intercourse with. (Comp. the “in the bosom of the Father” of John 1:18, and “Let us make man” of Genesis 1:26.) “Throned face to face with God,” “the gaze ever directed towards God,” have been given as paraphrases, and the full sense cannot be expressed in fewer words. The “with” represents “motion towards.” The Being whose existence is asserted in the “was” is regarded as distinct, but not alone, as ever going forth in communion with God. (Comp. the use of the same word “with” in Matthew 13:56; Matthew 26:11; Mark 6:3; Mark 9:19; 1 Corinthians 16:6-7; Galatians 1:18; Galatians 4:18.)
Was God.—This is the completion of the graduated statement. It maintains the distinction of person, but at the same time asserts the oneness of essence.
(2) The same was.—This is a summary in one clause of the three assertions made in the first verse.
The same, that is, the Word who was God, existed before any act of creation, and in that existence was a person distinct from God. Yet it is more than a re-statement. We have arrived at the thought that the Word was one in nature with God. From this higher point of view, the steps below us are more clearly seen. The Word was God; the eternal pre-existence and personality are included in the thought.
(3) From the person of the Word we are guided to think of His creative work. The first chapter of Genesis is still present to the mind, but a fuller meaning can now be given to its words. All things came into existence by means of the pre-existent Word, and of all the things that now exist none came into being apart from Him.
All things.—The words express in the grandeur of an unthinkable array of units what is expressed in totality by “the world” in John 1:10. The completion of the thought by the negative statement of the opposite brings sharply before us the infinitely little in contrast with the infinitely great. Of all these units not one is by its vastness beyond, or by its insignificance beneath His creative will. For the relation of the Word to the Father in the work of creation, comp. Note on Colossians 1:15-16.
For the form of this verse, which is technically known as antithetic parallelism, comp. John 5:20; John 5:23; John 8:23; John 10:27-28; 1 John 2:4; 1 John 2:27, et al. It is found not unfrequently in other parts of the New Testament, but it is a characteristic of St. John’s Hebrew style. Its occurrence in the poetry of the Old Testament, e.g., in the Psalms (Psalms 89:30-31, et al.) will be familiar to all.
(4) In him was life.—The creation, the calling into existence life in its varied forms, leads up to the source of this life. It is in the Word by original being, while of the highest creature made “in the image of God” we are told that God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
“Life” has here no limitation, and is to be understood in its widest sense; the life of the body, even of organisms which we commonly think of as inanimate, the life of the soul, the life of the spirit; life in the present, so far as there is communion with the eternal source of life; life in the future, when the idea shall be realised and the communion be complete.
Was.—This is in the Greek the same verb of existence that we have had in John 1:1-2, and is different from the word in John 1:3. Comp. Notes on John 1:6, and John 8:58. It places us, then, at the same starting point of time. The Word was ever life, and from the first existence of any creature became a source of life to others. But the “was” of the first clause of this verse should not be pressed, for we are not quite certain that the original text contained it. Two of our oldest MSS. have “is,” which is supported by other evidence, and is not in itself an improbable reading. The meaning in this case would be “in the Word there ever is life.” Creation is not merely a definite act. There is a constant development of the germs implanted in all the varied forms of being, and these find their sustaining power in the one central source of life. The thought will meet us again in John 1:17; but see especially the expression, “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3, Note).
And the life was the light of men.—We are led from the relation of the Word to the universe to His relation to mankind. That which to lower beings in the scale of creation was more or less fully life, as the nature of each was more or less receptive of its power, is to the being endowed with a moral nature and made in the divine image the satisfaction of every moral need, and the revelation of the divine Being. The “was” still carries us back to the first days of time, when creation in all the beauty of its youth was unstained by sin, when no night had fallen on the moral world, but when there was the brightness of an ever-constant noon-tide in the presence of God. But here, too, the “was” passes in sense into the “is.” “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” In every man there are rays of light, stronger or feebler, in greater or lesser darkness. In every man there is a power to see the light, and open his soul to it, and the more he has it still to crave for more. This going forth of the soul to God, is the seeking for life. The Word is the going forth of God to the soul. He is life. In the feeling after, there is finding. The moral struggle is the moral strength. The eye that seeks for light cannot seek in vain. The life was and is the light of men.
(5) And the light shineth in darkness.—The vision of brightness is present but for a moment, and passes away before the black reality of the history of mankind. The description of Paradise occupies but a few verses of the Old Testament. The outer darkness casts its gloom on every page. But in the moral chaos, too, God said, “Let there be light; and there was light.” The first struggle of light into and through darkness until the darkness received it, rolled back before it, passed away into it—the repeated comprehension of light by darkness, as in the dawn of every morning the night passes into day, and the earth now shrouded in blackness is now bathed in the clear white light of an Eastern sun—this has its counterpart in the moral world. There, too, the Sun of Righteousness has shone, is ever shining; but as the Apostle looks back on the history of the pre-Christian world, or, it may be, looks back on the earthly ministry of Christ Himself, he seeks in vain for the victory of truth, for the hearts of nations, or of men, penetrated through and through with heaven’s light, and he sums up the whole in one sad negation, “The darkness comprehended it not.” Yet in this very sadness there is firm and hopeful faith. The emphatic present declares that the light still, always, “shineth in darkness.” True are those words of patriarch, lawgiver, prophet, as they followed the voice which called, or received God’s law for men, or told forth the word which came to them from Him; true are they of every poet, thinker, statesman, who has grasped some higher truth, or chased some lurking doubt, or taught a nation noble deeds; true are they of every evangelist, martyr, philanthropist, who has carried the light of the gospel to the heart of men, who has in life or death witnessed to its truth, who has shown its power in deeds of mercy and of love; true are they of the humblest Christian who seeks to walk in the light, and from the sick-chamber of the lowliest home may be letting a light shine before men which leads them to glorify the Father which is in heaven. The Light is ever shining, ofttimes, indeed, coloured as it passes through the differing minds of different men, and meeting us across the space that separates continents, and the time that separates ages, in widely varying hues; but these shades pass into each other, and in the harmony of all is the pure light of truth.
Comprehended it not.—The meaning of this word differs from that rendered “knew not” in John 1:10. The thought here is that the darkness did not lay hold of, did not appropriate the light, so as itself to become light; the thought there is that individuals did not recognise it. Comp. Notes on Romans 9:30; 1 Corinthians 9:24; Philippians 3:12-13, where the same Greek word occurs. See also Ephesians 3:18, which is the only passage in the New Testament, besides the present one, where the word is rendered by “comprehend.”
(6) There was a man, or, There appeared a man. The word is the same as that which is used in John 1:3, “were made,” “was made,” and, as contrasted with the verb “was” in John 1:1-2; John 1:4, signifies the coming into being, as contrasted with original existence. In the same way “man” is emphatically opposed to “the Word,” who is the subject of the previous verses. “The Word was God:” the man was “sent from God.”
On the mission of John, see Notes on Matthew 3:0. The name was not uncommon, but it is striking that it is given here without the usual distinctive “Baptist.” The writer stood to him in the relation of disciple to teacher. To him he was the John. A greater teacher had not then appeared, but when He did appear, former teacher and disciple alike bear witness to Him. Great as was the forerunner, the least in the kingdom of heaven became greater than he was, and to after ages the disciple became the John, and his earlier master is given the title “Baptist,” which distinguishes the man and commemorates the work.
(7) For a Witness.—Stress is laid upon the work of John as “witness.” This was generally the object of his coming. It was specially to “bear witness of the Light.” The purpose of testimony is conviction “that all men through him might believe,” i.e., through John, through his witness. Compare with this purpose of the Baptist’s work the purpose of the Apostle’s writing, as he himself expresses it in the closing words of John 20:0; and also the condition and work of the Apostleship, as laid down by St. Peter at the first meeting after the Resurrection (Acts 1:21-22). The word “witness,” with its cognate forms, is one of the key-notes of the Johannine writings recurring alike in the Gospel the Epistles, and the Apocalypse. This is partly concealed from the general reader by the various renderings “record,” “testimony,” “witness,” for the one Greek root; but he may see by consulting any English concordance under these words, how frequently the thought was in the Apostle’s mind. See especially Revelation 1:2; Revelation 1:9, Notes.
(8) He was not that Light, but was sent.—It is necessary to repeat the statement of John’s position and work in an emphatic form. Now first for 400 years a great teacher had appeared in Israel. The events of his birth and life had excited the attention of the masses; his bold message, like the cry of another Elias, found its way in burning words to the slumbering hearts of men; and even from the least likely classes, from Pharisee and Sadducee, from publican and soldier, there came the heart’s question, “What shall we do?” The extent of the religious revival does not impress us, because it passed into the greater which followed, but the statement of a publican living at the time is that “Jerusalem, and all Judæa, and all the region round about Jordan, went out to Him, and were baptized of Him in Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:5-6). But what was this power in their midst? Who could be the person uttering these more than human words? A comparison of John 1:19-20 in this chapter with Luke 3:15 shows a widespread opinion that he was at least possibly the Messiah. He himself with true greatness recognised the greater, but as in many a like case in after days, the followers had not all the leader’s nobility of soul. We shall meet signs of this in John 3:26; John 4:1. We find traces of it in Matthew 9:14, &c. (see Note at this place), and even in Ephesus, as late as St. Paul’s third missionary journey, we find “certain disciples” knowing nothing more than “John’s baptism” (Acts 19:1-6). It was at Ephesus that this Gospel was written and the existence of a body of such “disciples” may have led to the full statement in this verse made by one who had himself been among the Baptist’s earliest followers.
It was otherwise with the disciple who wrote these words. He is content to claim for his master as for himself the noblest human work, “to bear witness of that Light.” No one may add to it; all may, in word and life, bear witness to it. Every discovery in science and advance in truth is a removal of some cloud which hides it from men; every noble character is bearing it about; every conquest of sin is extending it. It has been stored in mines of deepest thought in all ages. The heedless pass over the surface unconscious of it. The world’s benefactors are they who bring it forth to men as the light and warmth of the rays of the Sun of Righteousness. (Comp. John 5:35, and Note there.)
(9) That was the true Light.—The right rendering of this verse is uncertain. It would, probably, give a better sense to translate it, The true Light which lighteth every man was coming into the world, i.e., was manifesting itself at the time when John was bearing witness and men were mistaking the lamp for the light. (Comp. John 5:35, Note.)
The true Light was not “true” as opposed to “false,” but “true” as answering to the perfect ideal, and as opposed to all more or less imperfect representations. The meaning of the Greek is quite clear. The difficulty arises from the fact that in English there is but one word to represent the two ideas. The word for the fuller meaning of “ideally true” is not confined to St. John, but is naturally of very frequent recurrence in his writings. The adjective is used nine times in this Gospel, and not at all in the other three. A comparison of the passages will show how important it is to get a right conception of what the word means, and will help to give it. (See John 4:23; John 4:37; John 6:32; John 7:28; John 8:16; John 15:1; John 17:3; John 19:35.) But, as ideally true, the Light was not subject to the changing conditions of time and space, but was and is true for all humanity, and “lighteth every man.”
(10) In the world.—This manifestation in the flesh recalls the pre-incarnate existence during the whole history of the world, and the creative act itself. (Comp. John 1:2-3, Note). The two facts are the constant presence of the true Light, and the creation of the world by Him. The world, then, in its highest creature man, with spiritual power for seeing the true Light, ought to have recognised Him. Spirit ought to have felt and known His presence. In this would have been the exercise of its true power and its highest good. But the world was sense-bound, and lost its spiritual perception, and “knew Him not.” This verse brings back again the thought of John 1:3-5, to prepare for the deeper gloom which follows.
(11) He came, as distinct from the “was” of the previous verse, passes on to the historic advent; but as that was but the more distinct act of which there had been foreshadowings in every appearance and revelation of God, these Advents of the Old Testament are not excluded.
His own is neuter, and the same word which is used in John 19:27, where it is rendered “his own home.” (Comp. John 16:32, margin, and Acts 21:6.) What then was the “home?” It is distinguished from the “world” of John 1:10, and it cannot but be that the home of Jewish thought was the land, the city, the temple bound up with every Messianic hope. Traces of this abound in the Jewish Scriptures. Comp. especially Malachi 3:1, “The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple.” (See also Luke 2:49, Note.)
His own in the second clause is masculine—the dwellers in His own home, who were His own people, the special objects of His love and care. (See Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:6; Psalms 135:4; Isaiah 41:9, and Notes on Ephesians 2:19 and Titus 2:14.) We turn from the coldness of a strange world to the warmth and welcome of a loving home. The world knew Him not, and He came to His own, and they despised Him!
Received him not is stronger than “knew him not” of John 1:10. It is the rejection of those for whom no plea of ignorance can be urged, of those “who see, and therefore their sin remaineth” (John 9:41).
There has been an increasing depth in the tone of sadness which cannot now grow deeper. As the revelation has become clearer, as the moral power and responsibility of acceptance has been stronger, the rejection has passed into wilful refusal. The darkness comprehended not; the world knew not; His own received not.
(12) Yet the light ever shineth, and the better things lie hidden.
As many as received him.—The words are less wide and yet more wide than “His own.” The nation as such rejected Him; individuals in it accepted Him; but not individuals of that nation only. All who according to their light and means accept Him, receive from Him an authority and in Him a moral power, which constitutes them members of the true none to which He came, and the true children of God. They receive in acceptance the right which others lost in rejection. (Comp. Romans 9-11) The word rendered “received” is not quite the same as the word so rendered in John 1:11. The latter is the welcome which may be expected as due from His own home. This is the reception given without a claim.
To them that believe on his name repeats the width of the condition, and at the same time explains what receiving Him means. It seems natural to understand the “name” of the only name which meets us in this context, that is, of the Logos or Word, the representation of the will, character, nature of God. (See on John 1:18.) To “believe on” is one of St. John’s characteristic words of fuller meaning. To believe is to accept as true; “devils believe and tremble” (James 2:19). To believe in is to trust in, confide in. To believe on, has the idea of motion to and rest upon: it is here the going forth of the soul upon, and its rest upon, the firm basis of the eternal love of the eternal Spirit revealed in the Word. (Comp. Pearson On the Creed, Art. 1, p. 16.)
(13) Which were born.—The result of receiving Him remains to be explained. How could they become “sons of God?” The word which has been used (John 1:12) excludes the idea of adoption, and asserts the natural relation of child to father. The nation claimed this through its descent from Abraham. But they are Abraham’s children who are of Abraham’s faith. There is a higher generation, which is spiritual, while they thought only of the lower, which is physical. The condition is the submissive receptivity of the human spirit. The origin of life is “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
(14) And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt.—The reality of the moral power and change wrought in those that believed recalls and is itself evidence of the reality of that in which they believed. Man came to be a son of God, because the Son of God became man. They were not, as the Docetæ of that time said, believers in an appearance. “The Word was made flesh.” The term “flesh” expresses human nature as opposed to the divine, and material nature as opposed to the spiritual, and is for this reason used rather than “body,” for there may be a purely spiritual body (see Note on 1 Corinthians 15:40-44); and rather than “man,” which is used in John 5:27; John 8:40, for of man the spiritual is the highest part. It is not the approach of the divine and human nature in the region of the spiritual which is common to both that strikes the writer with wonder, but that men should have power to become sons of God, and that the Word, of whose glory he has spoken in the earlier verses, should become flesh. (Comp. Philippians 2:6-8; 2 Corinthians 8:9, Notes.)
Dwelt among us.—The Greek word means “tabernacled.” “sojourned” among us. It was, probably, suggested by the similarity of sound with “Shekhînah,” a term frequently applied in the Targums or Chaldee Paraphrases, though the substantive nowhere occurs in the Old Testament itself, to the visible symbol of the divine Presence which appeared in the Tabernacle and the Temple. The Targums, moreover, frequently identify the Shekhînah with the “Memra” or Word. (Comp. Excursus A.) The thought, then, of this Presence brings back to the writer’s mind the days and weeks and months they had spent with the Word who had pitched His tent among them. He had been among the first to follow Him, and of the last with Him. He had been of those who had seen the glory of the Transfiguration, who had entered with their Master into the chamber of death, who had been with Him in the garden of Gethsemane. His eye, more than that of any other, had pierced the veil and gazed upon the Presence within. And now the old man, looking forward to the unveiled Presence of the future, loves to think and tell of the past, that the Presence may be to others all it had been to him. He is conscious that the statement of this verse needs evidence of no common order; but this is present in the words and lives of men whose whole moral being declared it true, and the test is within the power of all. (Comp. especially 1 John 1:0)
The glory.—Comp. John 2:11; John 11:4. There is probably a special reference here to the Transfiguration. (See Note on Matthew 17:2, and comp. the testimony of another eye-witness in 2 Peter 1:17.)
As of the only begotten.—Better, as of an only begotten—i.e., glory such as is the attribute of an only begotten Son. The term as applied to the person of our Lord, is found only in St. John, John 1:18; John 3:16; John 3:18; 1 John 4:9. It is used four times elsewhere in the New Testament, and always of the only child. (Luke 7:12; Luke 8:42; Luke 9:38; Hebrews 11:17.) The close connection here with the word Father, and the contrast with the sonship by moral generation in John 1:12, fixes the sense as the eternal generation of the Word, “the only begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds.”
Of the Father.—The English does not fully express the meaning. It would be better to read, from with the Father. (Comp. John 6:46; John 7:29; John 16:27.) The thought is of the glory witnessed on earth of the only begotten Son who had come from God.
Full of grace and truth.—These words do not refer to the “Father,” or to “the glory,” but to “the Word.” The structure of the English sentence is ambiguous, but the meaning of the Greek words is quite clear. They represent a Hebrew formula, expressing a divine attribute, and the passage which is almost certainly present to the thought here is the revelation of the divine nature to Moses (Exodus 34:6. Comp. 2 Samuel 2:6; Psalms 25:10; Psalms 57:10; Psalms 89:15). These witnesses, too, had seen God, not indeed in the mountain only, but as dwelling among them. Every word a ray of truth, and every act a beam of love, they thought of that life “as one with the divine Essence; of that glory” as of the only begotten of the Father. (Comp. John 1:17.)
(15) John bare witness of him, and cried.—Better, John beareth witness of him, and crieth. The latter verb is past in tense, but present in meaning. For the sense comp. Note on John 7:37. The writer thinks of the testimony as ever present, ever forceful. Twice on successive days had he heard them from the lips of the Baptist; three times within a few verses does he himself record them. (Comp. John 1:27; John 1:30.) They are among the words stamped on the heart in the crisis of life, and as fresh in the aged Apostle as they had been in the youthful inquirer. He remembers how he heard them, and from whom they came. That wondrous spiritual power in their midst which all men felt, whose witness men would have accepted had he declared that he was himself the Christ, uttered his witness then, and it holds good now. It is quoted here as closely bound up with the personal reminiscence of John 1:14, and with the thought of John 1:6-7.
(16) And of his fulness.—Not a continuance of the witness of John, but the words of the evangelist, and closely connected with John 1:14. This is seen in the “all we,” and in “fulness” (“full”) and “grace,” which are key-words of both verses.
Fulness is a technical theological term, meeting us again in this sense in the Epistles to, as here in the Gospel from, the Asiatic Churches. (Comp. especially Colossians 1:19; Colossians 2:9; Ephesians 1:23; Ephesians 3:19; Ephesians 4:13.) The exposition belongs to the Notes on these passages. Here it means the plenitude of divine attributes, the “glory . . . full of grace and truth.” “Of,” or better, out of this fulness does each individual receive, and thus the ideal church becomes “his body, the fulness of him that filleth all things in all.”
Have all we received.—Better, we all received. The point of time is the same as in John 1:12, and the “we all” is co-extensive with “as many as.” The power to become children of God was part of the divine fulness which they received in receiving him.
And grace for grace.—Perhaps, even grace for grace gives the meaning less doubtfully. The thought is, We all received of His fulness, and that which we received was grace for grace. The original faculty of reception was itself a free gift, and in the use of this grace there was given the greater power. The words mean “grace in exchange for, instead of, grace.” The fulness of the supply is constant; the power to receive increases with the use, or diminishes with the neglect, of that which we already have. “Whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath” (Matthew 13:12). No truth is in precept or in parable of the Great Teacher more constant than this; no lesson is more brightly or more sadly illustrated in the lives of those who heard Him. What instances of its meaning must have crowded on the writer’s mind in the nation, in the disciples, in the Twelve, and even in the differing power of perception in the inner circle of the Three! “We all received,” but with what difference of degree!
(17) The word “for” connects this verse by way of explanation with what has gone before. The Old Testament thought of grace and truth has been already present in John 1:14. The fulness of these divine attributes has been beheld in the glory of the Word. The revelation of them, that is, the removing of the veil which hides the knowable, has been made dependent on the use of the already known. But this is the essence of Christianity as distinct from Judaism; of a spiritual religion developed from within as distinct from a formal religion imposed from without; of a religion of principles, and therefore true for all time and for all men, as distinct from a religion of works, based, indeed, on an eternal truth (the oneness and the righteousness of God) but still specially designed for a chosen people and for a period of preparation. The law was given (from without) by the human agency of Moses. The true grace and truth came into being by means of Jesus Christ. Therefore it is that we receive grace for grace, there being in Him an ever constant fulness of grace, and for the man who uses the grace thus given an ever constant realisation of deeper truth. Note that here, when the divinity and humanity have both been dwelt upon, and in contrast to the historic Moses, the name Jesus Christ first appears. Is there, too, in this union of the human and divine names a reference to the union in Him of the faculty to receive and the truth to fulfil? St. Luke speaks of Him as “increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favour (grace) with God and man” (Luke 2:52; see Note there).
(18) No man hath seen God at any time.—The full knowledge of truth is one with the revelation of God, but no man has ever had this full knowledge. The primary reference is still to Moses (comp. Exodus 33:20; Exodus 33:23), but the words hold good of every attempt to bridge from the human stand-point the gulf between man and God. “The world by wisdom knew not God” (1 Corinthians 1:21), and systems which have resulted from attempts of the finite to grasp the Infinite are but as the vision of a dream or the wild fancy of a wandering mind.
The only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father.—The oneness of essence and of existence is made prominent by a natural figure, as necessary in Him who is to reveal the nature of God. The “is in” is probably to be explained of the return to, and presence with the Father after the Ascension.
Some of the oldest MSS. and other authorities read here, “Only begotten God, which is in the bosom of the Father.” It will be convenient to group together the passages of this Gospel, where there are important various readings in one Note. See Excursus
B. Some Variations in the Text of St. John’s Gospel.
He hath declared him.—“He,” emphatically as distinct from all others, this being the chief office of the Word; declared, rather than “hath declared;” “Him” is not found in the original text, which means “He was interpreter,” “He was expositor.” The word was used technically of the interpretation of sacred rites and laws handed down by tradition. Plato, e.g., uses it of the Delphian Apollo, who is the “national expositor” (Rep. iv. 427). The verse is connected, by a likeness of Greek words too striking to be accidental, with the question of Jesus the son of Sirach asked some three centuries before, “Who hath seen Him that he might tell us?” (Sir. 43:31). The answer to every such question, dimly thought or clearly asked, is that no man hath ever so known God as to be His interpreter; that the human conception of God as “terrible” and “great” and “marvellous” (Sir. 43:29) is not that of His essential character; that the true conception is that of the loving Father in whose bosom is the only Son, and that this Son is the only true Word uttering to man the will and character and being of God.
(19) The narrative is connected with the prologue by the record of John, which is common to both (John 1:15), and opens therefore with “And.”
The Jews.—This term, originally applied to the members of the tribe of Judah, was extended after the Captivity to the whole nation of which that tribe was the chief part. Used by St. John more than seventy times, it is to be understood generally of the representatives of the nation, and of the inhabitants of Judæa, and of these as opposed to the teaching and work of Christ. He was himself a Jew, but the true idea of Judaism had led him to the Messiah, and the old name is to him but as the husk that had been burst in the growth of life. It remains for them to whom the name was all, and who, trying to cramp life within rigid forms, had crushed out its power.
Priests and Levites.—The word “Levite” occurs only twice elsewhere in the New Testament—in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:32), and in the description of Joses (Acts 4:36). It is clear from such passages as 2 Chronicles 17:7-9; 2 Chronicles 35:3; Nehemiah 8:7, that part of the function of the Levites was to give instruction in the Law, and it is probable that the “scribes” were often identical with them. We have, then, here two divisions of the Sanhedrin, as we have two in the frequent phrase of the other Evangelists, “scribes,” and “elders,” the scribes (Levites) being common to both, and the three divisions being priests, Levites (scribes), and elders (notables). (Comp. John 1:24, and Note on Matthew 5:20.)
From Jerusalem is to be taken with “sent,” not with “priests and Levites.” Emphasis is laid upon the fact that the work of John had excited so much attention that the Sanhedrin sent from Jerusalem to make an official inquiry. The judgment of the case of a false prophet is specially named in the Mishna as belonging to the Council of the Seventy One. (Comp. Luke 13:33)
(20) Confessed, and denied not; but confessed.—Comp. for the style, Note on John 1:3.
I am not.—The better reading places the pronoun in the most emphatic position: “It is not I who am the Messiah.” He understands their question, then, “Who art thou?” as expressing the general expectation, “Is it thou who art the Messiah?”
(21) What then?—Not “What art thou then?” but expressing surprise at the answer, and passing on with impatience to the alternative, “Art thou Elias?” (Comp. on this and the following question, Deuteronomy 18:15; Deuteronomy 18:18; Isaiah 40 ff.; Malachi 4:5; 2MMalachi 2:1-8; and Note on Matthew 16:14). The angel had announced that “he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias.” The Lord declared “Elias is come already” (Matthew 18:12-13), and yet the Forerunner can assert that, in the literal sense in which they ask the question and would understand the answer, he is not Elias, still less “the prophet,” by which, whether thinking of the words of Moses or the fuller vision of Isaiah from which he immediately quotes, he would understand the Messiah himself,
(22) That we may give an answer.—He has given the “No” to all the ideas they had formed of him. There is nothing left to them but to draw the definite statement from himself, or to return to their senders empty handed.
(23) But he still gives the “No.” They think of his person and his work. He thinks of neither. His eye is fixed on the coming One. In this presence his own personality has no existence. He is as a voice, not to be inquired about but heard. They are acting as men who ask questions about the messenger of a great king who is coming to them and is at hand, instead of hastening with every effort to make ready for him. (Comp. Note on Matthew 3:3.)
(24) They which were sent.—The best MSS. omit the relative, and the verse thus becomes, “And they had been sent from the Pharisees.” (For account of the Pharisees, see Note on Matthew 3:7.) The statement is made to explain the question which follows, but it should be observed that in this Gospel, where the Sadducees are nowhere mentioned, the term “Pharisees” seems to be used almost in the sense of “Sanhedrin.” (Comp. John 4:1; John 8:3; John 11:46; John 11:57.)
(25) Why baptizest thou then?—Baptism, which was certainly one of the initiatory rites of proselytes in the second or third century A.D., was probably so before the work of the Baptist. It is not baptism, therefore, which is strange to the questioners, but the fact that he places Jews and even Pharisees (Matthew 3:7) in an analogous position to that of proselytes, and makes them to pass through a rite which marks them out as impure, and needing to be cleansed before they enter “the kingdom of heaven.” By what authority does he these things? They had interpreted such passages as Ezekiel 36:25 ff. to mean that Baptism should be one of the marks of Messiah’s work. None less than the Christ, or Elias, or “the prophet” could enact a rite like this. John is assuming their power, and yet is not one of them.
(26) I baptize with water.—The passage of Ezekiel is probably present to the mind, with its contrast between water and spirit.
(27) He it is . . . is preferred before me.—Insertions made to harmonise the verse with John 1:15; John 1:30. Omitting them we have, “He who cometh after me” as the subject of the verb “standeth,” and the whole sentence, is “He who cometh after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to unloose, standeth among you and ye know Him not.” This is the authority for baptism, the outer sign of the Messiah’s Advent, for He is already standing in their midst. Here is the answer to their question. John’s work is simply ministerial. The baptism of the Spirit is at hand. The coming One has come. (Comp. Notes on Matthew 3:11 and Mark 1:7.)
(28) Bethabara beyond Jordan should be, Bethany beyond Jordan. Origen found “Bethany” in “almost all the copies,” but not being able to find the place, he came to the conclusion that it must be Bethabara which he heard of, with a local tradition that John had baptised there; and in this he is followed by the Fathers generally. In support of this the etymology of Bethabara (= “ford-house”) is compared with a possible meaning of Bethany (= “ship-house”), and the two are regarded as popular names of some well-known ford, one of which gradually ceased to be known as the name of this place, because it became appropriated as a name of the Bethany made prominent in the closing scenes of our Lord’s life. On the other hand, it is believed that this argument from etymology is at least precarious; that ignorance of the place after three hundred years—and these years of war and unsettlement—is not unnatural; that the tradition in favour of Bethabara, which was then a favourite place for baptism, is one likely to have grown with this fact; and that we are not justified in adopting the critical decision of Origen, who rejected the almost unanimous evidence of MSS. in favour of this tradition at second hand. We are, moreover, ignorant of the site of Bethabara, and the identification with either Beth-barah (Judges 7:24), or Beth-nimrah (Numbers 32:36; Joshua 13:27), which in some readings of the LXX. had taken the forms Bethabra and Betharaba, gives a position much too far to the south, for the writer is clearly speaking of a place within easy approach of Galilee (John 1:43 and John 2:1), and he is careful to note the succession of days and even hours. It is not inconsistent with this that the narrative in Matthew 3:5 and Mark 1:5 seems to require a place of easy access from Jerusalem, for the positions are not necessarily the same, and the account there is of a general impression, while here we have the minute details of an eye-witness. Himself a disciple of John, he remembers the place where he was then dwelling and baptising, and he knows that this Bethany is “beyond Jordan,” just as he knows that the other is “the town of Mary and her sister Martha” (John 11:1), and that it “was nigh unto Jerusalem, about fifteen furlongs off (John 11:18). Dr. Caspari believes that a “Bethany” answering the demands of the context is to be found in the village Tellanîje or Tellanihje, which is in the Iolan to the north of the Sea of Galilee (comp. John 10:40). It is near a ford of the Jordan, with several brooks intervening. The identity of name depends upon the frequent substitution by the Arabs of “Tell” (= “hill”) for “Beth” (=“house”), so that the present word represents Beth-anîje, or Bethany. Dr. Caspari’s statement is now accessible to the English reader. Few, perhaps, will fully accept the author’s opinion, “With regard to the accuracy of our conclusion respecting the site, there can, therefore, be no doubt” (Chron. and Geogr., Introd., p. 93), but it is based upon a reading of which there can be no doubt, and is, at least, a probable interpretation.
We have in these verses also a note of time. John now knows the Messiah, though others do not. This inquiry of the legates from Jerusalem was, therefore,, after the baptism of our Lord (John 1:31; John 1:33), and if so, after the Temptation also. (See Note on Matthew 4:1.)
(29) The next day.—We pass on to the witness of John on the second day, when he sees Jesus coming unto him, probably on the return from the Temptation. Forty days had passed since they met before, and since John knew at the baptism that Jesus was the Messiah. These days were for the One a period of loneliness, temptation, and victory. They must have been for the other a time of quickened energy, wondering thought, and earnest study of what the prophets foretold the Messianic advent should be. Prominent among those prophecies which every Rabbi of that day interpreted of the Messiah, was Isaiah 52:13; Isaiah 53:12. We know that on the previous day the fortieth chapter is quoted (John 1:23), and that this prophet is therefore in the speaker’s thoughts. Side by side with these thoughts was the daily continuing tale of grief and sorrow and sin from those who came to be baptised. How often must there have came to the mind such words as, “He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” “He was wounded for our transgressions,” “He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter,” “He bare the sin of many”! The Messiah, then, was the servant of Jehovah, the true Paschal Lamb of Isaiah’s thought. While the heart burns with this living truth that all men needed, and that one heart only knew, that same Form is seen advancing. It bears indeed no halo of glory, but it bears marks of the agonising contest and yet the calm of accomplished victory. “He hath no form nor comeliness,” “no beauty that we should desire Him.” John looks at Him as He is coming, sees there living, walking in their midst, the bearer of the world’s sin and sorrow; and utters words than which in depth and width of meaning none more full have ever come from human lips, “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.”
The margin gives “beareth” as an alternative rendering for “taketh away,” and this union exactly expresses the force of the original. He is ever taking away sin, but this He does by bearing the burden Himself. (Comp. 1 John 3:5.) A reference to the words of Isaiah 53:4, above, fully establishes this. The Baptist probably used the very word of the prophet; but the Evangelist does not, in recording this for Greek readers, use the word of the LXX. as St. Peter does (1 Peter 2:24, “bare our sin in His own body”), but are-translates, and chooses the wider word which includes both meanings.
(30) This is he.—These words meet us here for the third time. They come in John 1:15, and in part in John 1:27. Here, as before, they are a quotation of an earlier and unrecorded statement of the Baptist, uttered in proverbial form, and to be understood in their fulfilment. (Comp. John 3:30.)
(31) And I knew him not.—Better, and I also knew Him not; so again in John 1:33. The reference is to “whom ye know not” of John 1:26, and the assertion is not, therefore, inconsistent with the fact that John did know Him on His approach to baptism (Matthew 3:13, see Note). In the sense that they did not know Him standing among them, he did not know Him, though with the incidents of His birth and earlier years and even features he must have been familiar. It cannot be that the Son of Mary was unknown to the son of Elizabeth, though One had dwelt in Nazareth and the other “was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel” (Luke 1:80; Luke 2:51). He knew not all, but there must have been many wondering thoughts of that wondrous life. Could it be the life that all looked for? but no; there was little of the Jewish idea of the Messiah in the carpenter of a country village (comp. Mark 6:3). What he did know was, that his own work as herald declared “that He should be made manifest to Israel,” and in that conviction he proclaimed the coming King, and began the Messianic baptism. The Person would be His own witness. Heaven would give its own sign to those who could spiritually read it. The Baptiser with the Spirit would Himself be so fully baptised with the Spirit coming upon and dwelling in Him, that to the spiritual eye it would take visual form and be seen “as a dove descending from heaven.”
Am I come.—Better, came.
(32) I saw.—Better, I have seen, or beheld. The vision is in its result ever present, and is all-conclusive evidence. (Comp. the words in their historic setting, Matthew 3:16, Note.)
(32, 33) In these verses the Evangelist again makes prominent the solemn witness of John, giving the process by which conviction had come to his own mind.
(34) And I saw and bare record.—Better, and I have seen and have borne witness, as in John 1:32. The result of personal conviction was, that he forthwith testified to others, and continued to do so until the present. One of the sayings taught to his scholars was, “He was (existed) before me.” The revelation of the baptism and the voice heard from heaven (Matthew 3:17) has given to this its true meaning. Teacher has now learnt, and learner is now taught, that Jesus is this pre-existent Being, the Messiah, the Son of God.
(35) Again the next day after John stood.—Better, The next day again John was standing. The description is of a scene present to the mind, and by one of the two disciples (John 1:40). The “again” refers to John 1:29.
Two of his disciples.—There is no reason for thinking that these were absent on the previous day, and that the testimony is specially repeated for them. Rather it is that, in that band of disciples too, there is an inner circle of those who, because they can receive more, are taught more. They had heard the words before, it may be had talked together about them, at least in individual thought had tried to follow them, and now they have come to the Teacher again. Can we doubt what questions fill the heart or shape themselves in word? He had passed through their struggle from darkness into light. There is a Presence with them which he now knows, and before which his own work must cease. The passing voice is no longer needed now that the abiding Word has come. Can we doubt what his answer is?
(36) And looking upon.—Better, and he looked upon Jesus as He was walking, and saith. The word “looked upon” expresses a fixed, earnest gaze. (Comp. John 1:42; Matthew 19:26; Mark 10:21; Mark 10:27; &c.) At this look, all the old thoughts in their fulness come crowding back. Yes. It is He. “Behold the Lamb of God!”
(37) The disciples understand the words as the teacher meant them. There is no word cutting the link between himself and them; that would have been hard to speak, hard to hear. There is no word bidding them follow Jesus; that cannot be needed.
(38) Jesus turned, and saw them following.—They follow wishing, and yet not daring, to question Him. He sees this, and seeks to draw them forth by Himself asking the first question. They are not prepared for this question, and wish for more than a passing interview. They inquire, “Where dost thou sojourn?” “Where are you staying for the night?” They will visit Him and ask the many things they seek. They address Him as “Rabbi,” placing themselves in the position of His scholars; but they have not yet learnt all that John had taught them of His office. The title is natural from them, for it was the then current title of a revered teacher, and one that John’s disciples applied to him (John 3:26); but the writer remembers it was a modern word (comp. Matthew 23:7-8), known to Jews only since the days of Hillel (president of the Sanhedrin about B.C. 30), not likely to be known to Greeks at all, and he therefore translates it, as he does Messias and Cephas in this same section.
(39) Come and see.—They think of a visit later, it may be, on the following day. He bids them come at once. We know not where. We have no hint of any words spoken. It was the sacred turning-point of the writer’s own life, and its incidents are fixed in a depth of thought and feeling that no human eye may penetrate. But he remembers the very hour. It was as we should say four o’clock in the afternoon (see marg.), for there is no sufficient reason for thinking that the Babylonian method of counting the hours, usual at Ephesus as at Jerusalem, is departed from in this Gospel.
(40) One of the two.—The Evangelist will even here draw the veil over his own identity (see Introduction). The one is Andrew, even now marked out as brother of the better-known Simon Peter. On these names comp. Note on Matthew 10:2-4; but it should be observed here, that on this first day, as the earnest of the harvest to come, we have the two pairs of brothers, the sons of Zebedee (comp. next verse), and sons of Jonas, who are ever leaders in the apostolic band.
[(2) JESUS MANIFESTS HIMSELF TO INDIVIDUALS (John John 1:41 to John 2:11):
To the first disciples—the witness of man (John 1:41-51);
At Cana of Galilee—the witness of nature (John 1:1-11).]
(41) He first findeth his own brother.—The probable explanation of this verse, and the only one which gives an adequate meaning to “first” and “his own,” is that each of the two disciples in the fulness of his fresh joy went to seek his own brother, that Andrew found Peter first, and that John records this, and by the form in which he does so implies, but does not state, that he himself found James. To have stated this would have been to break through the personal reserve which he imposed upon himself. (Comp. Matthew 4:18-21; Mark 1:16-19; Luke 5:1-10.)
We have found.—Implying a previous seeking, and that both were under the impulse of the general movement leading men to expect the Messiah. It is implied, too, that Simon was near, and therefore probably a hearer of the Baptist.
Messias.—The Hebrew form of the name occurs in the New Testament only here and in John 4:25, in both cases in a vivid picture of events fixed in the memory. Elsewhere, John, as the other sacred writers, uses the LXX. translation, “Christ,” and even here he adds it (comp., e.g., in this John John 1:20; John 1:25). Both words mean “anointed” (see margin, and comp. Psalms 45:8).
(42) Beheld.—See Note on John 1:29.
A Stone.—Better, Peter, as in margin. The word means a stone, but the writer translated for Greek, not for English readers. The rule of the previous verse, which places the Greek word in the text and the English word in the margin, should be followed here.
Cephas.—The word occurs only in this place in the Gospels, elsewhere in the New Testament only in St. Paul (1 Cor. and Gal.). Remembering the general significance of Hebrew names, the changes in the Old Testament as of Abram, Sarai, and Jacob, and among these first disciples as of James and John (Mark 3:16; Mark 3:18), all these names of Peter seem meant to characterise the man,—“Thou art now Hearer, the Son of Jehovah’s Grace; thou shalt be called and be a Rock-man.” (Comp. Note on Matthew 16:17.)
(43) The day following, that is, the fourth day from the inquiry by the Sanhedrin (see John 1:29; John 1:35; John 1:43).
Findeth Philip.—Just as he was going forth from his lodging of the previous night (John 1:39). Philip is mentioned in the other Gospels only in the lists of the Twelve. The touches of character are all found in St. John. (Comp. John 6:5; John 12:21; John 14:8.)
Follow me.—This command, so full of meaning, is never used in the Gospels except as spoken by our Lord Himself, and is addressed to but one outside the circle of the Apostles, the rich young man whom Jesus loved (Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:21). In other parts of the New Testament it is used but once, in the words of the angel to Peter (Acts 12:8). We cannot, therefore, limit the words to an invitation to accompany Him on that day’s walk, though this is included, and in that walk from Bethania to Bethsaida there came the revelation which made the “Follow Me” a power binding for the whole of life. (Comp. Matthew 8:22.)
(44) Of (or rather, from) Bethsaida, is added as one of the minute touches of local knowledge which give to this Gospel the colour and vividness that an eye-witness only could impart. It explains the meeting. Philip was going home, and Bethsaida was on the way which Jesus would naturally take from Bethania to Cana (John 2:1-2). It explains, too, the process by which Philip passed from Messianic hope to a full belief in the Christ. He was a fellow townsman of Andrew and Peter. These two had talked together of ancient prophecy and future expectation. One had announced to the other in striking language, “We have found the Messias,” and it is with the same word that Philip tells the good news to Nathanael. This “Bethsaida of Galilee,” as it is called in describing Philip in John 12:21, is thus distinguished from the Bethsaida Julias, which was on the eastern side of the lake. (See Jos. Ant. xviii. 2, § 1, and comp. Note on Luke 9:10.)
(45) Philip findeth Nathanael.—See John 1:41; John 1:44. Nathanael is the Hebrew of the Greek word Theodorus, God’s gift. The former is found in Numbers 1:8; 1 Chronicles 2:14. The latter is preserved in the names Theodore and Dorothea. He belonged to the town to which Jesus was going (Cana of, Galilee, John 21:2). Philip then probably went with Jesus and found Nathanael at or near Cana (John 1:48). He is, perhaps, the same person as Bartholomew; but on this, see John 21:2, and Note on Matthew 10:3. The more formal statement of the proof in this case, as compared with that of the two brothers (John 1:41), agrees with the general character of Philip and with the less close relationship.
Of Nazareth.—Better, from Nazareth. Nothing can be argued from these words, or those which follow, as to ignorance of the fact of, or the events attending, the birth at Bethlehem. It is to be noted that the words are Philip’s, not the writer’s. Very possibly, one who had been in the company of Jesus for a few hours only was then unacquainted with these incidents. In any case he expresses the common belief of the neighbourhood and the time, and it is an instance of St. John’s dramatic accuracy that he gives the words as they were spoken, and does not attempt to interpret them by later events or by his own knowledge. (Comp. John 7:42; John 7:52; John 8:53, et al.)
(46) The question is not, “Can the Messiah come out of Nazareth,” but “Can there any good thing come?” The question is asked by an inhabitant of a neighbouring village who looks upon the familiar town with something of local jealousy and scorn; but the form of the question would seem to point to an ill repute in reference to its people. The place is unknown to earlier history, and is not mentioned even in Josephus; but what we find in Mark 6:6 and Luke 4:29 agrees with Nathanael’s opinion. (For account of the town, comp. Note on Luke 1:26.)
Come and see expresses the fulness of his own conviction. An interview had brought certainty to his own mind. It would do so likewise to that of his friend.
(47) Jesus saw Nathanael coming.—Nathanael is at once willing that his prejudice should give way before the force of truth. He is coming, when the look directed towards others rests also upon him. It finds the character which it tests earnest and honest. What gave rise to the form in which this is expressed is not stated. There is clearly some unexpressed link with the history of Jacob. The word for “guile” is the same word as the LXX. word for “subtlety” in Genesis 27:35. The thought then is, “Behold one who is true to the name of Israel, and in whom there is nothing of the Jacob (Genesis 27:36). There is something in the words which comes as a revelation to Nathanael. Were they a proof that the Presence before whom he stood read to the very depths of his own thought? Under the shade of a tree, where Jews were accustomed to retire for meditation and prayer, had the Old Testament history of Jacob been present to his mind? Was he too “left alone,” and did he “prevail with God?” And does he now hear the inmost thought expressed in words, carrying certainty to his soul, and giving him too the victory of seeing God “face to face with life preserved?” (Genesis 32:24).
(48) The natural explanation of the verse seems to be that Nathanael was at his own house when Philip called him to hear the glad news of the Messiah. The words rendered “under the fig-tree” include the going there and being there. It was the fig-tree of his own garden (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:0; Zechariah 3:10) where, and not at the corners of the streets, or to be seen of men, he was in the honesty of his heart praying to God. Unseen as he thought by any eye, he was seen by Him to whose coming every true Israelite looked, and the answer to the true thought and prayer was then as ever close at hand; but at hand, in the human form in which men find it so hard to read the Divine, and in the ordinary events in which men find it hard to realise God. A travelling Rabbi! He is the Messiah. From Nazareth the All Good cometh! This meeting, then, was not the first. There was an actual Messianic Presence in Nathanael’s inmost thought. He is now startled, and asks, “Whence knowest Thou me?” We have never seen each other before. But in the deepest sense, the Messiah was there; “when thou wast under the fig-tree, I saw thee.”
(49) Thou art the Son of God.—The recognition begets recognition. That strange Presence he had felt as a spiritual power quickening hope and thought, making prophets’ words living truths, filling with a true meaning the current beliefs about the Messiah;—yes; it goes through and through him again now. It is there before him. “Rabbi, Thou art the Son of God; Thou art the King of Israel.” (For these titles as existing in the Messianic expectation of the day, comp. John 11:27; John 12:13; John 12:15; Matthew 26:63; Mark 3:11; Mark 5:7. See also Note on the quotation from Zech. in Matthew 21:5.)
(50) Believest thou.—This is not necessarily a question, and a fuller sense is obtained by taking it as an assertion. (Comp. the same word in John 16:31; John 20:29.) On this evidence thou believest; the use of the faith-faculty strengthens it. Thou shalt see greater things than these.
(51) Verily, verily.—This is the first use of this formula of doubled words, which is not found in the New Testament outside St. John’s Gospel. They are always spoken by our Lord, and connected with some deeper truth, to which they direct attention. They represent, in a reduplicated form, the Hebrew “Amen,” which is common in the Old Testament as an adverb, and twice occurs doubled (Numbers 5:22; Nehemiah 8:6). In the Hebraic style of the Apocalypse the word is a proper name of “the faithful and true witness” (Revelation 3:14).,
I say unto you . . . ye shall see.—The earlier words have been addressed to Nathanael. The truth expressed in these holds for all disciples, and is spoken to all who were then present—to Andrew and John and Peter and James (John 1:41) and Philip, as well as to Nathanael.
Hereafter is omitted by several ancient authorities, including the Sinaitic and Vatican MSS., but there is early evidence for the insertion, and as the omission removes a difficulty in the interpretation, it is probably to be traced to this source. If retained, the better rendering is, henceforth, from this time onwards.
Heaven opened.—More exactly, the heaven opened, made and continuing open. The thought was familiar, for Psalmist and Prophet had uttered it to God in the prayers, “Bow Thy heavens, O Lord, and come down” (Psalms 144:5); “O that Thou wouldest rend the heavens, that Thou wouldest come down” (Isaiah 64:1). The Presence then before Nathanael was the answer to these longings of the soul.
The angels of God ascending and descending.—Referring again to the history of Jacob (Genesis 28:12-13).
The Son of man.—This is probably the first time that this phrase, which became the ordinary title used by our Lord of Himself, fell from His lips; but it meets us more than seventy times in the earlier Gospels, and has been explained in the Note on Matthew 8:20. It will be enough to observe here that it is suggested by, and is in part opposed to and in part the complement of, the titles used by Nathanael. He could clothe the Messianic idea only in Jewish titles, “Son of God,” “King of Israel.” The true expression of the idea was not Hebrew, but human, “the Son of Man,” “the Word made flesh;” the Son, the true representative of the race, the Second Adam, in whom all are made alive; the Son of Man. The word is ἄνθρωπος, not ἀνήρ; homo, not vir. It is man as man; not Jew as holier than Greek; not free-man as nobler than bond-man; not man as distinct from woman: but humanity in all space and time and circumstance; in its weakness as in its strength; in its sorrows as in its joys; in its death as in its life. And here lies the explanation of the whole verse. The ladder from earth to heaven is in the truth “The Word was made flesh.” In that great truth heaven was, and has remained, opened. From that time onwards messengers were ever going backward and forward between humanity and its God. The cry of every erring and helpless child to its Father for guidance and strength; the silent appeal of the wronged and down-trodden to the All-Just Avenger; the fears and hopes of the soul burdened by the unbearable weight of sin, and casting itself on the mercy of the Eternal Love—all these are borne by messengers who always behold the face of God (Matthew 18:10). And every light that falls upon the path, and strength that nerves the moral frame; every comfort to the heart smarting beneath its wrong; every sense of forgiveness, atonement, peace—all these like angels descend that ladder coming from heaven to earth. Ascending precedes descending, as in the vision of old, Heaven’s messengers are ever ready to descend when earth’s will bid them come. The revelation of the fullest truth of God is never wanting to the heart that is open to receive it. The ladder is set up upon the earth, but it reaches to heaven, and the Lord stands above it. It goes down to the very depths of man’s weakness, wretchedness, and sin; and he may lay hold of it, and step by step ascend it. In the Incarnation, Divinity took human form on earth; in the Ascension, Humanity was raised to heaven.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on John 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany