Wednesday, August 4, 2004

John 1:29–42

The Gospel of John, not normally noted for its narrative excitement and storytelling, does tell some amazing stories, and this is one of them right here at the beginning. John sees Jesus in the distance and comes out with this incredible Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John bears witness, and two of his disciples hear him. One of them we do not know, but the other is Andrew, and Andrew goes and tells his brother Simon, and says, We have found the Messiah.

And then this weird bit of translating, in only a few verses, John explains that Rabbi means teacher; that Messiah means anointed, and that Cephas means Peter. This is a persistent concern with the fourth gospel, and a clear indication that the Johannine community did not have ready access to any kind of understanding of Hebrew or Aramaic.

But I think there is more to it than that. This passage is all about translation, about interpretation. Indeed, the Gospel of John is all about the big question What does this mean? So here is John, saying that this is the Lamb of God, and then saying something of what this means. Jesus is the anointed teacher, the one on whom the Holy Spirit descended. But the narrative does not describe this. John says, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. And unlike the other gospels, I did not know him.

It was seeing this descent of the Holy Spirit--something we, the readers, do not get to see (unlike in the synoptics)--that told John what this person meant. And he tells the two disciples, and Andrew tells Peter. Then Jesus sees Philip, and Philip tells Nathanael. And each time, what is given is the interpretation, the meaning.

So it’s not an accident, I think, that the author of the fourth gospel puts these three words all needing explanation right in a row. It underscores that what is going on here is interpretation, communication, messages handed on from one to another... and not just each person’s direct experience. Peter would not have known the direct love of Jesus if it were not for the mediating work of Andrew, and Andrew not but for John’s confession, and John not but for the one who sent him and his witness of the Holy Spirit’s descent upon Jesus.

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