Why People Followed Jesus (John 1:19-51)

The first eighteen verses of the Fourth Gospel have laid John's cards face-up on the table. Jesus is the Incarnate Word whose presence is like light in a dark place. Even though the world in its sinful rebellion against God tried to overcome and defeat him, it was impossible. The light has routed darkness! Death has given way to life! And all who encounter, come to know, and remain with him experience the new kingdom- quality life that John dubs "eternal life" as a gift of his divine grace!

Beginning at 1:19, the Beloved Disciple gives his first case studies in the nature of discipleship. The stories of five people — John the Baptist, Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathaniel — are told to illustrate how different people came to faith in Jesus from different backgrounds and under different circumstances. These opening stories expand what has been affirmed in the Prologue: "To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God" (1:12).

John the Baptist

The five persons whose case studies are given begin with John the Baptist. He has been mentioned already in the Prologue. Of the five about to be named, more attention is given to him than the rest. Among other reasons, I am sure this reflects what our writer knew about Jesus' estimation of this desert prophet: "Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist" (Matt.11:11).

John's personal greatness, it seems to me, consisted of a couple of things. First, there is the matter of his courage. He preached a message of repentance to a nation of people that had come to trust in its claim to be descended from Abraham. John had the courage to tell those people that saving faith is personal and must show itself in repentance, generosity to the poor, honesty in business transactions, and daily obedience to God. In a time when pretending not to see appears to have been a virtue within the religious establishment, John saw the scandalous wife-stealing of Herod Antipas and named it for the sin it was (cf. Luke 3:1-20). Did you hear about the cautious minister who ended all his sermons with these words: "The sinners referred to in my sermon are fictional characters, and any similarity to members of this congregation is strictly coincidental"? John didn't append that disclaimer to his preaching! Second — and this is clearly the point of immediate emphasis in our text — was John's humility. When he was making a name for himself as a prophet and drawing such huge crowds to his preaching, he never once got confused about his message. John wasn't there to call attention to himself; he was an advance man for Jesus and was not under some delusion that his ministry was self-focused.

When a delegation from the religious power-brokers in Jerusalem came to check on John, they wanted to know just who he thought he was. He was creating a stir. His direct, challenging call for repentance and baptism within Israel was troubling them. Baptism, after all, was a rite of initiation for Gentiles who were converting to Judaism. It was different from the many self-administered immersions the pious practiced for the sake of ritual purity. It marked a passage from light to darkness, from alienation to inclusion. So why should John be requiring people to be baptized in the Jordan River? Weren't these people already Jews?

A fact-finding board went to John and demanded an explanation. Just who did he think he was? The Messiah? No. Elijah back from the dead? No. The Moses-like prophet who had been predicted in Deuteronomy 18:15ff? Again, no.

Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said,
"I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,' "
as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal" (1:22-27).
John wasn't there to call attention to himself or to make himself out to be the Messiah or to build a personal fiefdom. In fact, he didn't even call himself a "disciple" of the Messiah. John said he wasn't even worthy to be the slave of the One whose forerunner he was. Slaves — not students — tied and untied the thongs of another person's sandals, and John said, "I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal!" Phony humility? Not on your life! John knew his place in relation to the Word become flesh.

John was a cousin to Jesus and six months older than he. Zechariah had told his son what happened in the temple on that fateful day when an angel told him about John's birth and mission. Elizabeth had told her son about Mary's coming, John "leaping" in her womb, and Mary's prophetic song. All these things are related in Luke 1, and there was no need for John to repeat the details here. But John had been taught by his parents and prepared for faith in the Messiah. Yet no one can live on another's faith, so a time and place of personal encounter had to come for the wilderness preacher. Even now, no matter who your parents were and how devout they were in their devotion to God, you have to make your own decision about and commitment to Jesus.

John's moment came in connection with his preaching one day. As he saw his cousin approaching, the Spirit of God moved him to cry out, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (1:29). Then, when Jesus presented himself to be baptized by John in order to be obedient to all things divine, John received the definitive authentication for which he had been waiting. "And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit." And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God' " (1:32-34).

Andrew and Peter

Next come two brothers — Andrew and Peter (doesn't it sound strange to name Andrew first!) — and an unidentified friend of Andrew's (cf. vs.35,37, esp.40) who most of us suspect was none other than John himself. Andrew and the unnamed man — which would be so typical of John, for he never uses his own name anywhere in the Fourth Gospel — were there when John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" They peeled off from the larger group of folks listening to John preach that day and followed Jesus.

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter) (1:38-42).
John the Baptist, prepared for faith by his parents and convinced about Jesus through a sign from God, had now been instrumental in getting Andrew, Peter, and probably even John ready to encounter the Son of God. But notice, however, that they had to meet, see for themselves, and make their own personal decisions about following Jesus. The Enfleshed Word never coerced faith. He never forced anyone to follow him. He came and presented his claims, encountered people and answered their questions. Occasionally, he provided signs pointing to his identity. But he always left it to each person to make his own choice about becoming a follower and remaining with him.

Philip and Nathanael

Well to the north of where John the Baptist had preached and where he first met the fisherman brothers and John, Jesus would encounter two other men who would become disciples and apostles. Because the place was the home city of Andrew and Peter, we speculate that he went there at their invitation. Just as Andrew had wanted his brother to know Jesus, so the two brothers were apparently now thinking of others from their circle of friends who needed to meet him too.

The first of the two almost appears to have become a disciple upon simply meeting Jesus. There is surely more behind the story than we are told. Perhaps he, Peter, and Andrew had had dozens of discussions about the Messiah, had essentially the same questions and concerns, and the brothers shared what they had learned with him. But we don't know. I'm only speculating in an effort to account for something so direct as this: "The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.' Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter" (1:43-44).

That's certainly a far cry from the person who then came to Philip's mind and his initial encounter with Jesus. This Gospel calls him Nathanael, and many of us suspect he is the same person who is called Bartholomew (i.e., bar Tolmai = son of Tolmai) in the Synoptics (Mark 3:18; cf. Acts 1:13). He doesn't come to faith so easily as Philip. He is possessed of a cynicism that will require some convincing.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (1:45-51).
Interesting. When Nathanael was cool toward Philip's offer, Philip — who must have known his friend's temperament — didn't argue with him. He just invited his friend to look into it by using the same words Jesus had used earlier with Andrew and John: "Come and see" (cf. 1:39). Then, when he did so, Jesus didn't chide him. He didn't get his feelings hurt or get mad and walk away from Nathanael bar Tolmai because of his initial cynicism. He simply made it clear that he already knew more about Nathanael than Nathanael had indicated he was willing to consider about him! He said, in effect, "Nathanael, you may not be too interested in who I am and what I have to say. But I certainly care about you and believe that my Father has made you as you are for some holy purpose! You may not care about me, but you can be sure that I care about you!"

All of a sudden, Nathanael was not only open to Jesus but enraptured by him. He was calling him not only "Rabbi" but "Son of God" and "King of Israel." Indeed, Nathanael was a man void of guile or deceit. All he had to do was look for himself, and he could recognize something that was of God immediately!

Jesus then told Nathanael, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." The "you" in this statement is not singular but plural. Maybe we are to understand it to embrace not only him but Philip, Andrew, John, and Peter. But perhaps we are to understand it in a broader sense still. Maybe the "you" of this verse is not only those first-century eyewitnesses but all the rest of us who would read this Gospel. We too will see the heavenly witness to and confirmation of Jesus' identity by reading it. As we follow the stories and learn more about Jesus, our eyes will be opened. Our cynicism will be swept away. Our darkness will be dispelled. Death will yield to life as we are brought to our own crescendo of faith in and confession of the Son of God.

Conclusion

So what background do you bring to the experience of Jesus? Did you grow up in a home like that of John the Baptist that inclined you to faith and prepared you to recognize Jesus as the Lamb of God? Or did a preacher such as John the Baptist have the impact on you that he had on Andrew, Peter, and John to open your heart to know him? Were you like Philip and fortunate enough to have had friends like Peter and Andrew who led you to Christ by their passion for him? Do you hear your own cynicism about Jesus in the skepticism of Nathanael? Was that skepticism answered less by arguments than by realizing — as Nathanael did — that Jesus knows more about you and your needs than you do?

So be it! There is no one path by which all of us encounter Jesus and his claims. There is no one temperament that can generate faith in him. By whatever route and with whatever personality you come to him, he will receive you and be for you the one and only path to his Father. He alone is the Way, Truth, and Life. No one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6).

For now, I simply ask you to be open. I ask you to read through the Gospel of John with us. Look at the man. Listen to what he says. Notice how he treats people. Pay attention to the difference he makes in their lives from those encounters forward. As Jesus said to Andrew and John or as Philip later said to Nathanael, this is all I ask — in the confidence that it will be enough to convince you: Come and see. Come and see.

Once you see who he is, I'm convinced you'll finally get a true read on who you are, and you will realize that can never be who you were meant to be until you meet him personally, know him intimately, and remain with him faithfully. People were attracted to Jesus because of who he was. They heard the confident, authoritative ring of truth in what he said. Yet his authority was the gentle authority of authentic concern and grace. When they had their moments of encounter with him, he won their hearts and showed them the way to the Father. That's why people followed him back then, and it's why so many of us follow him now.

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