Now is the time

Gospel: John 1:(24-28) 29-42, (43-51)

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared [legei], [ide Behold] ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes  away [airon lifting up] the sin of the world! [sin is singular] 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know  him; [eidein] but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, [eidein] but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see [ideis]  the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed [legei], ‘Look, [ide] here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking [seeking] for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying? [remaining]’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ [erchesthe kai idete] They came and saw [eidon] where he was staying [remaining], and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. [the tenth hour.] 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed [Christ]). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter). [From the word for rock in Aramaic (kepha) and Greek (petra), respectively].

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ [ide] 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know [eidon] me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw [eidon] you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw [eidon] you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

The text is difficult. Wordplay which would be obvious in the Greek is hidden by the translation. The concepts are arcane: "the whole notion of the efficacy of blood sacrifice is no longer knit into the fabric of most people’s universe." And the message is veiled: there is only a promise that we will see; there is nothing here which can be simply grasped by intellect.

But the message is simple:

What do you seek?
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Come and Behold!  
If you follow him and remain with him you will find him.
Now is the time.

What do you seek?
This is Jesus' question in verse 37. The language is loaded. Like all the words in the text, and in the whole gospel, there is another layer under the surface. There is nothing to be found here if we are not searching below the surface of life for some deeper meaning. The story is not easy. If we are not following him (39) we will find nothing.

John is the supreme "insider's" text—almost esoteric, not an introduction for the uninitiated. Yet like Andrew and his friend, if we begin to follow, there will be a response; we will see— and be seen.

This old fashioned word carries portent. It says more than to look. It is to see at depth. In John, it is to see significance, and to have our eyes opened to see beyond mere seeing. In verse 29 John saw (blepo) Jesus coming towards him, and in verse 50 Nathaniel was told he would see (opsei which also has the sense of a vision) heaven opened: these are mere observation; I saw the bus coming. Behold is to fathom something deeper. The root eida is everywhere in the text; see, behold, know are the English translations. (11 times) Look for the green highlight. We are being told there is something deeper to discern here.

The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world
Our culture tends to a formulaic view of language: a=b, or not. Therefore, if meaning in a story is not immediately obvious to us, we tend look for allegorical meanings. Allegory is a story form where the correlation of words and meaning is one to one; in the Narnia Tales, Alsan is Jesus.

John's text is not allegory. We can't say the Lamb of God is this or that.  The text is allusive. It is poetry. To behold the Lamb of God is to be immersed in metaphor. It is to find, or be found by, all sorts of connections. Here we tread interesting ground. This kind of literature takes us beyond the meanings of which the author was aware. If we say John did not mean, or could not mean, a certain thing, we may be closing our eyes to what we are being offered.

Bill Loader shows us some of the offerings

‘Look, the lamb of God’ occurs twice: 1:29 and 35. But what did it mean? It depends what you had for breakfast, so to speak. If you have been feeding on traditional ideas of messiahship (and they have been on the table since 1:19 in many shapes and sizes and will continue to dominate for the rest of the chapter) then you might most naturally think of the image of the lamb or sometimes, the ram, who will emerge victorious over God’s enemies and drive out sin. The Book of Revelation assumes such associations when it hails Jesus as the lamb, even as the slain lamb (5:6,12). John’s gospel uses messianic imagery to underline its message that the Father sent the Son to overcome evil and darkness with light and truth.

Someone coming from thoughts about Jewish sacrifices and feasts might think of the Passover lamb. Those hearing the fourth gospel many times would remember that it alone portrays Jesus as dying at the time when the Passover lambs were killed (18:28; 19:31) and describes his dying in terms which echo Passover imagery (19:29,36). The link would be that Jesus brings an act of deliverance. Others might think of the daily sacrifice or generally of sacrifices, which increasingly came to be interpreted as dealing with sin, though most had other functions originally. Or the ram caught in the thicket might come to mind from Gen 22 and thus provide a link between God’s beloved son and Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac. If we can guess at the author’s intent, I think it was more likely to have been the messianic imagery given what we have heard so far, but perhaps with a hint of the Passover.

Richard Swanson shows us one of the further connections which may arise in our mind.

when Abraham answers he says, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). Everett Fox notes that a translator might choose to use a dash rather than a comma at this point (“God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering -- my son”) to capture in English the irony of the Hebrew sentence.

What matters, I think, is that the phrase “lamb of God” does not point easily and simply to a single symbolic referent. Rather, it weaves this chance encounter with Jesus into the whole variegated tapestry of Jewish Scripture. 

Swanson says later

For one thing, Jesus does not exactly “take away” the sin of the world, at least not in Greek. He lifts it up. Perhaps John means to suggest that, by lifting it up, he takes it away. This is possible. But it is also possible that by lifting it up he makes it visible so everyone can see it easily.

 If this is what John means, he is linking this quick account of a random encounter to the story of the lifting up of the image of the fiery serpent in Numbers 21:9. When people bitten by poisonous snakes looked at the image, lifted up and easy to see, they were healed. John makes this linkage explicitly in chapter 3. Perhaps the storyteller expects the audience to see the same picture. (Ibid)

In this context, John's Gospel is Girardian. Jesus is being lifted up to show us the scape goat.

Come and Behold!  
If you remain with him you will find him.

How do we find meaning in all this? How does it move from obscure and improbably imagery, or mere irrelevant details, and become something which is alive for us, and something which holds meaning and gives meaning?

We have to live the story. We have to stay with Jesus; where are you staying, they asked. The word for remain and stay (highlighted in the blue) is menei. Later in John it will be translate as abide: abide in me. Simply put, we have to live with him, and in him.  It means following, hanging out with him, studying him. Then we will find him, and find the meaning in him. It will become real.

John is using two aspects of the word find. (Dark grey highlights.) We find by searching, and we find by inspiration. I use that word deliberately: something is in-spired, breathed-in to us. (John 20:22) We do not so much find it, as it finds us. Sitting mulling in his bath, spending time immersed, Archimedes suddenly cries "Eureka! – I have found it." It is the same word as John's. Archimedes' insight about displacement and volume was given, not just reasoned.

It is when we remain and immerse ourselves in the story that we begin recognise the connections the author is making. Jesus seeing Nathanael under the fig tree (light grey highlight) is not only some inspired insight.  It is a word play around Jacob, who became Israel, a father of the nation. In life, Jacob was a trickster, deceiving. Jesus sees, discerns, knows, that in this Israelite Nathanael there is no deceit. So he will not only dream of angels climbing to heaven on a ladder, like Jacob did; he will see that Jesus is the ladder, the way to heaven. (Genesis 28)

Now is the time
The meaning of this statement is unclear, but it is not an incidental comment that it just happened to be four o'clock in the afternoon. John doesn't do incidental. The tenth hour is an auspicious hour; it has meaning about staying with Jesus. One obvious possibility  is that ten is one of the perfect numbers:  Now is the perfect time to remain with Jesus.

At the beginning I said, " the message is veiled: there is only a promise that we will see; there is nothing here which can be simply grasped by intellect." It is not possible to explain poetry beyond a certain point. It can only be lived. At some point we must "come and see." Otherwise, although perhaps clever, the poem remains only words.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

In previous years
John 1:29-42 - Beholding the Lamb of God
John 1:29-42 The Sermon Draft: Behold the Lamb of God
John 1:29-42 - 'scaping the Goats
John 1:43-51 - Nathanael
John 1:43-53 - Come and See and Remain with Me
John 1:43-51 - If Y'all Would Come and See...
John 1:43-51 - I am afraid of dying


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