by John Piper
Scripture: John 1:43–51
What do Jesus' titles in the first chapter of John say about him?
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." 46 Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!" 48 Nathanael said to him, "How do you know me?" Jesus answered him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." 49 Nathanael answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" 50 Jesus answered him, "Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these." 51 And he said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."
As we come to the end of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, we have seen at least ten titles or names for Jesus. One of the reasons it’s important to see these is that the titles not only tell you who a person is and what their job is, but they also may explain, as in Jesus’ case, why he was treated the way he was and why he got tortured and executed.
Here the 10 titles for Jesus in John 1:
1. The Word. Verse 1: "In the beginning was the Word."
2. God. Verse 1: "And the Word was God."
3. Light. Verse 9: "The true light . . . was coming into the world."
4. Jesus Christ. Verse 17: "Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."
5. Lamb of God. Verse 29: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"
6. Rabbi. Verse 38: "And they said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teacher), where are you staying?"
7. Messiah. Verse 41: "We have found the Messiah" (which means Christ)."
8. Son of God. Verse 49: "You are the Son of God!"
9. King of Israel. Verse 49: "You are the King of Israel!"
10. Son of Man. Verse 51: "You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."
What I want to do in this message is focus on the last three of these and see what they mean and how they bring Jesus to his death—and how they become, therefore, doubly precious and powerful in our lives. They not only show us how great he is, but they also point us to his death where our sins were taken away and eternal life was obtained for us.
1) Son of God, King of Israel
First, let’s consider the titles Son of God and King of Israel. Jesus tells Nathanael where he was and what was in his heart without having been there, and Nathanael bursts out in verse 49, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Now what Nathanael meant by that was great, but probably not as great as what the words will come to mean in the ministry of Jesus and the Gospel of John.
Nathanael probably means: "You are the Messiah. You are the long-expected Jewish ruler that will bring deliverance for Israel and establish God’s rule over the nations." Both the term Son of God and King of Israel were references for the Messiah.
David’s Son—And God’s
For example, in 2 Samuel 7:12–14, God says to David the king of Israel, "I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son."
Now at one level, this refers to David’s son, Solomon. But at another level, it refers to the final "Son of David," the Messiah, because verse 13 says, "I will establish his kingdom forever." There would come a descendant of David whose reign would never end. When Jesus was born, the angel said to Mary in Luke 1:32–33, "The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." In other words, 2 Samuel 7:13 was fulfilled in Jesus.
But notice that 2 Samuel 7 not only calls him a king (he will reign), but also says that he will be the "Son of God." Verse 14: "I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son to me." So from the time of David on, the Messiah was known as "the Son of God" in a unique way. So the angel goes on to say to Mary in Luke 1:35, "The child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God."
Twin Titles for the Messiah
So Son of God and King of Israel were linked in the Old Testament as twin titles for the Messiah. You can see it again in Psalm 2:2–7,
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed [that’s the word for Messiah]. . . . Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, "As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill." I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you."
So here we have Messiah, King, and Son all referring to the same person. That’s the background for Nathanael’s outburst in John 1:49—"Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" He means, "You are the one expected in 2 Samuel and Psalm 2. You are the Messiah. The time of fulfillment is here. The Kingdom of God is about to be established on earth and the enemies of God’s people will be defeated. The Messiah will take the nations for his inheritance and rule the nations with a rod of iron just like Psalm 2:8–9 says."
"Making Himself Equal with God"
But even though Nathanael was right about Jesus being the Messiah, he believed too much and too little about Jesus’ sonship and kingship. Too much because this son and king would be executed as a criminal rather than conquer the Romans. And too little because these terms Son and King meant so much more than he knew.
Consider the title Son of God and what it came to mean in Jesus’ ministry. John 5:18 says, "This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God." Something was happening in Jesus’ ministry that the Jewish leaders could not tolerate. Jesus was teaching, or at least implying, that his sonship meant his deity—"making himself equal with God." This was blasphemous, unless it was true.
"You Make Yourself God"
In John 8:57, the leaders ask him derisively, "Have you seen Abraham?" (who lived 2,000 years earlier). Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." In other words, not only did Jesus claim to exist before Abraham, but he actually used the exalted name of God, "I am," taken from Exodus 3:14, where God said, "I am who I am." So John 8:59 says, "They picked up stones to throw at him."
Later, in John 10:33, they tell Jesus, "It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God." So when Jesus’ accusers finally took him before Pilate in John 19:7, they made the connection between this charge of blasphemy and Jesus claim to be the Son of God: "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God." So "Son of God" had come to mean much more than merely human Messiah. "You make yourself God." That was the meaning.
Son of God to His Death
So the greater the title Son of God became in the life of Jesus, the more it carried him to his death. That was the way God meant it to be. And the way Jesus meant it to be. "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Jesus steadily, quietly, and at first unobtrusively, filled up the greatness of his titles until they exploded in the hatred of his enemies. This was the way he loved us.
And as he filled them up this way, he was not going against the Old Testament meaning; he was making it plain. He knew the promise of Isaiah 9:6–7, and he meant to show that this was who he was:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
He was the Son and he was the King—and, therefore, he was the "Mighty God." That was the meaning that he poured into his titles—the meaning that was already there in the Old Testament.
King of Israel at His Death
The title "King of Israel," just like the title "Son of God," was more and less than most of Jesus followers saw at first. Less because he would not become an earthly king and destroy the Roman overlords. (See especially John 6:15 and 18:36). But more because this kingship too, just like the sonship, was a divine kingship.
In the end, the Jewish leaders would use the charge of treason to get Jesus crucified by the Roman governor Pilate. John 19:12: "Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.’"
His Infinitely Loving Life-Strategy
So the more sure and glorious the titles of Jesus became, the more deadly they became. And that was the way he planned it to be. "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us" (1 John 3:16). This was a deadly and infinitely loving life-strategy. He did it so that you and I could be rescued from our sin (John 8:24) and from the wrath of God (John 3:36) and have eternal life (John 20:31).
So whenever you hear the titles Son of God and\ King of Israel, hear something very great and very terrible and very loving.
2) Son of Man
Now consider the title Son of Man. It’s probably not what you think it is. John 1:50–51: "Jesus answered [Nathanael], ‘Because I said to you, "I saw you under the fig tree," do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’"
Angels Going Up and Down
In this strange passage, Jesus is calling to mind the picture from Genesis 28 where Jacob has a dream and sees angels going up and down on a ladder.
And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. . . . Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. . . . For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it." (Genesis 28:12–16)
What helps me understand the significance of the angels going up and down in John 1:51 is that neither in John 1 nor in Genesis 28 is a single word spoken to explain what the angels were doing. It doesn’t say why they were going up and down. It seems to me, therefore, that what John has done is simply capture the whole incident from Genesis to say two things. One is that Jesus is the decisive, final connection between heaven and earth. In John 1:51, the angels are going up and down on the Son of Man, not on a ladder. And the other is to say Jesus is the place where people now meet God. Jacob called that place Beth-el—"house of God"—because he said, "Surely God is in this place."
Where God and Man Meet
Now Jesus is the new Beth-el. He is the place where God is present. Heaven has opened, and Jesus has appeared. And from now on, Jesus will be the place where God appears most clearly among men, and where men find their way into fellowship with God. There are no holy geographic places any more designated by God as his meeting place with man. Jesus is that meeting place.
Jesus was saying to Nathanael, "If you follow me, you are going to see far greater manifestations of my divine glory than what you just saw. I am the final, decisive link with heaven. Both upward and downward." When we move heavenward, we move on the Son of Man. When God moves earthward, he moves on the Son of Man.
Why Son of Man?
But why is he called the Son of Man in verse 51? It’s not simply because he is a man. It’s because the figure of a "son of man" in Daniel 7:13 is both human and far more than human. This was Jesus’ favorite designation for himself—Son of Man. It’s used over 80 times in the Gospels, and only Jesus uses it to refer to himself.
He got the title "Son of Man" from Daniel 7:13–14:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
This is the language of kingship and glory and sovereignty (John 3:13; 5:27; 6:62). But it has a different ring than the terms Son of God and King of Israel. It sounds more lowly and ordinary. So when he used it, his claims to kingship and glory and sovereignty didn’t sound so overt. Only those who had ears to hear broke through to the exalted meaning of the term Son of Man when Jesus used it.
So this time it was not the Jewish leaders who used the title to bring him to the cross. Jesus himself used it that way. The key verse is John 3:14–15: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
God’s Greatest Glory: Dying for Sinners
So you could say that the greatest glory Nathanael, or you and I, would ever see is the glory of the Son of Man, the Lord of heaven, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, lifted up on a cross to die for sinners.
So when you see him this Advent season as Son of God, and as King of Israel, and as Son of Man, make sure that you see him dying to give you eternal life and, therefore, see him as glorious.
Copyright © Desiring God; Website: desiringGod.org
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