John 1 - NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible
1:1 In the beginning. Echoes especially Ge 1:1, which spoke of God’s creative activity, here shared with Jesus. Wisdom was the first of God’s creation “at the very beginning” (Pr 8:22–23), but Jesus here transcends wisdom, for in the beginning, he already was. the Word. Philosophers employed logos, or “word,” for divine reason that orders the universe; the Jewish philosopher Philo combines that idea with a more traditional Jewish sense. Jewish people sometimes coalesced the ideas of God’s word, his wisdom, and his law (see, e.g., Sirach 24:1, 23; Baruch 3:28–4:1; cf. Sirach 21:11; 34:8). Jewish people sometimes personified these concepts, especially Wisdom. Educated Jewish critics of Jesus’ movement accused his followers of not knowing the Scriptures; John replies that believers know the full embodiment of God’s revelation: the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (see note on vv. 14–18).
1:3 all things were made. God spoke the world into being (Ge 1:3–29; the rabbis counted ten commands here), and this powerful creative word was associated with his word to his people (Ps 33:4, 6, 9). Jewish teachers also said that God created through Wisdom linked with God’s word (Wisdom of Solomon 7:22; 9:1–3). Some Jewish people in this period envisioned creation organizing chaos; like some other Jewish thinkers, however, John probably means the creation of the universe from nothing.
1:4–5 In him was life . . . light. Scripture and Jewish tradition recognized that God’s word offered life (Dt 8:1; 11:9; Baruch 4:1) and also light (Ps 119:105; Baruch 4:2; cf. Wisdom in Wisdom of Solomon 7:26). (Jewish people used “light” as a symbol at times for holy persons, for Israel, and for God; cf. 2Sa 21:17; 22:29; Isa 42:6; 49:6; Mic 7:8.) The Dead Sea Scrolls also divided the world morally into those who follow God’s light and those who belong to darkness.
1:10–11 the world did not recognize him . . . his own did not receive him. Jewish tradition declared that the nations rejected God’s law at Sinai, leaving it for Israel alone. But Jewish people also had a tradition that they themselves had rejected the prophets (amplifying the existing Biblical tradition on that subject).
1:14–18 For philosophers, the logos and what was truly divine did not become material. The narrative here echoes the giving of God’s Word, the law, through Moses:
1:21 Are you Elijah? . . . the Prophet? The Jewish people expected a return of the prophet Elijah (Mal 4:5–6) and the prophet who would be like Moses (Dt 18:15–18) to precede the coming of the Messiah.
1:23 voice of one calling in the wilderness. The Qumran community also used this verse to justify its location in the wilderness; John’s use of it authentically fits his time and location. Make straight the way. Most importantly, John’s use of the the text points to the new era of divine restoration. Roads would be improved before a king traveled; using this imagery, Isaiah prophesied a new exodus: a new era of salvation and restoration for God’s people (Isa 11:16; 19:23; 43:16–21; 51:10–11; cf. Isa 49:8–12; 57:14). (The “wilderness” sometimes recalls the time of the exodus elsewhere in this Gospel: Jn 3:14; 6:31, 49.)
1:25 Why then do you baptize . . . ? Jewish washings took various forms, but a one-time immersion for conversion characterized Gentiles turning to Judaism. To baptize Jewish people in a radical turning could be viewed as treating them almost like Gentiles. John’s interlocutors wonder why he is requiring this radical commitment unless he sees himself as one of the major promised figures.
1:27 sandals I am not worthy to untie. Handling sandals was the sort of task that only a servant would normally perform; the prophets were servants of God (2Ki 9:7; Jer 7:25; 26:5; 29:19; 35:15; 44:4), but John considers himself unworthy even for this role. Clearly he envisions himself as preparing the way for someone divine who was to come.
1:28 on the other side of the Jordan. John was baptizing especially beyond the Jordan, i.e., in Perea. Josephus reports that John was later imprisoned in this same region.
1:29 Lamb of God. Scholars suggest various possible backgrounds for the title here: sacrificial lambs, Passover lambs, and being like a lamb in Isa 53:7. By this period, Passover was sometimes viewed as sacrificial, so Jesus could be the Passover lamb (cf. Jn 6:4, 51–56; 19:36) and also a sacrifice.
1:32 dove. Doves had various symbolic functions in ancient sources; perhaps the most widespread and relevant for Jewish hearers, if any, would be the dove’s role as harbinger of a new world in Ge 8:8–12.
1:33 Spirit come down and remain . . . will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Biblically, only God could pour out his own Spirit, as he promised to do at the time of the coming restoration (Isa 32:15; 44:3; Eze 39:29; Joel 2:28); as the Spirit-baptizer, Jesus is divine. In the OT, the Spirit often came “on” people without remaining on them (e.g., Nu 11:25; 24:2; 1Sa 11:6).
1:35–37 Ancient schools of teachers were sometimes competitive; only rarely were teachers so impressed with another teacher as to refer their students to them. John refers his own disciples to Jesus.
1:36 Lamb of God. See note on v. 29.
1:38 Rabbi . . . where are you staying? The disciples’ inquiry about where Jesus stays is a polite, indirect way of saying that they would like to visit with him. Jesus invites them over in the same indirect way (v. 39).
1:39 four in the afternoon. It might be too late to walk home if they lived far away.
1:41 We have found the Messiah. See Messiah. John translates “Messiah” into Greek; probably most hearers in the Mediterranean Diaspora, including some Jewish ones, did not know the Hebrew title. Because of fraternal loyalty, people usually took seriously reports from their brothers. For a people who actively looked for the appearance of the Messiah, this was a joyful and serious message.
1:42 Simon son of John. People were often identified by their name and their father’s name. Cephas. Means “rock” in Aramaic, as “Peter” does in Greek. (Cephas is pronounced kay-fas; the “s” ending, however, was added for Greek pronunciation—since Greeks often ended male names with “s”—and was not part of the original Aramaic term.) Many people had nicknames, which usually communicated something about the person. God sometimes gave prophets special knowledge, but see also note on 2:25.
1:43 Follow me. Honorable teachers usually expected prospective disciples to ask if they could follow the teacher; only the most radical directly summoned people to “follow me,” i.e., “become my disciple.” This reality shows that Jesus carefully selected the disciples he wanted to become part of the Twelve, and also reflects the radical nature of what being his disciple means, and thus of our own personal commitment to follow him. We cannot know whether Philip already knew of Jesus, although the connection of Andrew and Peter with Bethsaida (1:44) leaves open this possibility.
1:44 Bethsaida. Because Capernaum and Bethsaida were both fishing villages, it is not impossible that the family maintained property in both places or had moved from one to the other (Mk 1:21, 29; 2:1). Some suggest that probably soon after Jesus’ ministry, around the year 30, Bethsaida more often began to be called Julia; although Josephus later uses both names, the Gospels use only the earlier, local name, indicating that the Gospels report very early and surely authentic memories about Jesus.
1:45 the one Moses wrote about. Philip would have in mind texts such as Dt 18:15–18; Isa 9:6–7; 11:1–5; and the like.
1:46 Nazareth! Can anything good come from there? Village rivalry was common; it could involve the honor accruing to superior buildings, people, or other matters. If such rivalry is in view, this statement reveals Nathanael’s personal perception rather than a commentary on the quality of individuals who lived in or came from the village of Nazareth. Great people also were expected to come from famous places, such as Jerusalem, not from small villages, so that could also be a factor in this statement. Some recent estimates for the population of Nazareth proper are below 500 residents. We as John’s readers know what Nathanael could not: the most important place that Jesus is from is heaven (v. 10; 3:13, 31). Come and see. Teachers sometimes invited hearers to “come and see,” even when explaining Scripture; Philip invites Nathanael to experience Jesus for himself (cf. v. 39; 4:29).
1:47 an Israelite . . . no deceit. Jacob was known for using deception (Ge 27:35), but his descendant here is genuine (cf. Ps 32:2).
1:48 under the fig tree. Because of the sunny and warm climate, people frequently studied Scripture, discussed, and rested in the shade of trees; this was a relaxing location (cf., e.g., Mic 4:4; Zech 3:10; 1 Maccabees 14:12). Whatever Nathanael was doing there, presumably acting as a genuine Israelite (v. 47), Nathanael did not expect the rabbi to have known who he was apart from divine revelation (v. 49). His experience allows him to understand Philip’s testimony concerning Jesus’ Biblical identity (v. 45).
1:51 you will see . . . the Son of Man. Jacob (cf. v. 47 and note) witnessed angels “ascending and descending on” a ladder connecting heaven and earth at Bethel, the “house of God” (Ge 28:12, 17, 19); Jesus is Jacob’s ladder, the connection between heaven and earth (cf. Jn 14:6).
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