The narration begins with the call of two disciples of John the Baptist and then of Simon, Philip, and Nathanael.
The two disciples who go behind Jesus inspired by the witness of John the Baptist are challenged by the question of Jesus, “What do you seek?” The question is about the very meaning of their existence. It may be interpretatively formulated as “what for do you exist?” In a vocation, as different from profession, our response is to the basic meaning and purpose of one’s existence. Through the response one takes up a corresponding life style of which is radical. They responded through a counter question: “Where do you stay?” They are asking about the very basis of Jesus’ life. Jesus abides in the Father and they are asking the secret of such a life. The means to experience how Jesus “stays” in the Father is “come and see” which is equal to “believe”. They experienced the same and it was so impressive and unforgettable in their lives that they remember even the time, that is, “the tenth hour”. The “tenth hour” in Jewish division of the day will be 4 o’clock in the afternoon. But the meaning is that they remember even the time because the experience was so crucial.
Vocation has its origin and growth in the search for meaning of one’s existence inspired by an authentic witness and in responding to that question in radical faith and in the experience of abiding in the Father just like Jesus.
Andrew’s witness to Simon brings him to Jesus. Simon’s special position among the disciples and his role is shown through the change of name. The giving of name or changing of name is symbolic of the special mission the person has to fulfil and of the authority the naming person has over the person named. This importance of Simon is confirmed in John 21: 1-19 at the end of the Gospel of John.
The meaning of the name “Kephas” in Aramaic is clear through the play of words which is less perfect in Greek “Petra-Petros”. “Kephas” means rock or stone. Such a proper name did not exist in Aramaic. So it points to the role of Simon as the foundation of the new community.
Philip gives witness to Nathanael presenting Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfilment of law and prophets. But Nathanael reacts using a proverb about the insignificance of Nazareth. Then Jesus recognizes Nathanael as an authentic Israelite because, he found him under the fig tree. The Jews used to sit in the rich shade of the fig tree to study the law. Studying the law is a sign of fidelity to the covenant relationship with Yahweh. So Nathanael is a good Israelite. Moreover, Jesus knew the hearts of people (Jn 2: 25). Nathanael in turn confesses Jesus as the King of Israel and the Son of God. Jesus is thereby recognised as the Messiah. But Jesus, in response, reveals himself to be more.
Jesus begins with the introductory formula: “truly, truly I say to you”. This is used only by Jesus in the Gospel. It implies the authority of Jesus as the Son of God. This authority is underlined by the expression “truly, truly”. Usually this formula introduces a Christological revelation that follows. It will be the articulation of one or the other aspects of the identity and mission of Jesus. So the reader’s attention is called by the formula to the revelation that follows.
Here Jesus reveals himself as the Son of Man on whom the angels of God ascend and descend. The background is that of the dream of Jacob in Genesis 28: 10-17. The dream of Jacob at Bethel was that of a ladder between heaven and earth and angels of God ascending and descending upon the ladder. Jacob exclaimed saying, “this is the house of God and the gate of heaven”. It was God’s intervention in the history of Jacob and it showed how God from heaven had decided to use Jacob on earth as the link and medium for revealing himself. A ladder makes the double movement possible. So too Jesus is more than all that has been revealed so far – Lamb of God (Jn 1: 29), Messiah (Jn 1: 41), the fulfilment of law and prophets (Jn 1: 45), King of Israel, Son of God (Jn 1: 49) – the ladder between heaven and earth. Jesus is the one through whom God is revealing himself to human beings and the one through whom human beings can go to God. The title “Son of Man” reveals that Jesus is the one who will come at the end time to judge the world, as he is the Messiah now saving people in his earthly ministry. The “Son of Man” is a title used by Jesus as a self-designation avoiding “I”. But theologically it has the background in Daniel 7: 13 referring to the appearance of God as the judge at the end of time.
With John 1: 51 the evangelist has introduced what follows in the next chapter onwards, namely “the greater things than these”. The ministry of Jesus will reveal clearly what is “greater” than these.