Prior to 1883, the only real feasible way to travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan, or vice-versa, was by taking a ferry across one of the fastest flowing and busiest rivers in North America. Terrifying! And intolerably slow! I’ll just stay home in Brooklyn, thank you.
Such a formidable barrier as the East River not only kept many people from crossing over from city to city, it also helped maintain the varying development of business and culture and government in these to cities. And indeed they were two distinct cities. Brooklyn was its own municipality in those days and was, in fact, the third most populous city in America for much of the 19th century.
But in 1883, Washington Roebling completed construction of the monumental Brooklyn Bridge, the first to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River. Now pedestrians and vehicles alike could span the 1,500 foot gulf in a matter of minutes. The vast chasm that had separated these two great cities had been crossed. Everything had changed.
It wasn’t long, then, before Brooklyn and Manhattan, along with the other three boroughs of New York, merged in 1898, forming one massive city.
A similar gulf between two realms occupies a major theme in John’s gospel. In John’s mind, however, it is not two cities, but rather the chasm between earth and heaven.
For many years already, prior to Jesus’ birth, Jews had recognized that their God the Creator was not particularly close to the people of Israel. Although there had been in their history certain golden ages during which it seemed that God was closely partnered with the nation of Israel (the Exodus, the Conquest, David’s reign), these had been in the distant past. In the first century, however, many Jews wondered where God had gone and whether He might ever return.
This was not the ideal, of course. No, the Jewish conception of the ideal was something like a marriage between heaven and earth. They hoped for a day when God would act to put an end to all sin and death and evil that had separated earth from the realm of God. They hoped that when God acted so decisively, the two domains would once again see heavy traffic flowing back and forth.
Just as the Brooklyn Bridge connected and eventually married these two great cities on New York harbor, so many Jews were waiting for a bridge to be erected between God’s domain and the home of humankind.
So, when John describes the meeting of Jesus and the young man Nathanael, Jesus first remarks that Nathanael is a true Israelite. That is, he hopes for what his people hope; he dreams of what his countrymen dream. In other words, he’s a native Israelite, through and through.
And Jesus promises precisely what Nathanael wants. “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51, NIV). If Nathanael would only follow Jesus, in other words, he would see a highway connecting heaven and earth, and it would run straight through Jesus himself.
Jesus has similar comments for Nicodemus a couple chapters later. Engaged in a compassionate yet challenging debate with the religious leader, Jesus assures Nicodemus that he knows the way between these two realms. “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man” (Jn 3:13).
If the Jews were waiting eagerly to reestablish connection with their God, Jesus tells Nicodemus he’s been there before and he knows how to get back. If this bridge between heaven and earth was going to get built, he was the guy to do it.