For the next three months we will be traveling through the Gospel of John from beginning to end and it may be the first time many of you have done that. You might find it jarring because it is so different from the other three Gospels. Most of the stories and sayings will be familiar to you, but more as stand alone things than as following the story of Jesus. You will frequently find yourself wondering, “What happened to this event?” or saying, “This isn’t the way I remember this happening.” Indeed, we have already encountered this in that there is no birth narrative, no angels, no shepherds, no wisemen, no journey to Bethlehem, no stable. We used Luke’s version on Christmas Eve, but from now till mid-April we will be sticking with John.
Today, on the Sunday in the church year called “The Baptism of the Lord,” we find that John does not speak of the baptism of Jesus. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen and doesn’t mean John didn’t know about it, but it does mean that for some reason John doesn’t want to draw attention to it.
John’s Gospel was written about a generation after the other three were completed. There was no reason to write another “historical” sort of life of Jesus account of the story. With the passing of more decades and the perspective that time gives, John sees a need for a Gospel which addresses the meaning of the life of Jesus for Christians and for the church. He is not trying to correct or improve upon Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He wants to communicate, “Look, this is not just an inspiring story. This is a story which should lead you to committing your life to this man.” Near the end of John’s Gospel we read these words: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Everything John has included in his Gospel is there to serve this goal of leading people to faith.
So today we have the John the Baptist story without the baptism and we have a very different story about the call of the first disciples. In John’s Gospel we find John the Baptist vehemently denying that he is the Messiah. When he sees Jesus he points at him and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. I saw the Spirit descend upon him from heaven like a dove and it stayed on him. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
In the first century and well after there continued to be those who followed John the Baptist – Paul encountered some on his missionary journeys. John wants to make clear that John the Baptist’s role was to point to Jesus as the one to follow. The next story makes it as clear as possible. John is standing with two of his disciples, one of them being Andrew, when Jesus walks by. John points to him and says to his disciples, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And the two disciples left him and followed Jesus. So in this Gospel the first two disciples are pointed to Jesus by their leader, John the Baptist, at Bethany Beyond the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Jesus turned around to see the people who were following him and asked, “What are you looking for?” They asked him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus said, “Come and see.” Andrew went and got his brother, Simon, and told him, “We have found the Messiah!” and brought Simon to Jesus. Jesus immediately gave to him the new name of “Cephas,” translated “Peter” and meaning “Rock.” This happens much later in the other Gospels, but in John we see Jesus knowing the true nature of people immediately in a supernatural kind of way. We will see that again in just a moment.
The next day Jesus decides to go to Galilee, a distance of about 70 miles from Bethany Beyond the Jordan. I presume that he traveled with three disciples from John’s camp – Simon Peter, Andrew, and one who is unnamed but possibly John (the disciple, not the Baptist). They traveled to Bethsaida, which was the home town of Andrew and Peter. There Jesus met Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”
Philip’s first instinct is the same as Andrew’s: there is someone he wants to go invite to come with him. He goes and finds Nathanael and says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” We later learn that Nathanael is from Cana, which is only five miles from Nazareth. This explains Nathanael’s skeptical response: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If you’ve ever lived in a small town which had a big rivalry with a nearby town, you understand.
Philip didn’t try to argue with him. He just said, “Come and see.” Nathanael agreed to do that much, and when Jesus saw Nathanael coming he said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said, “How do you know me?” Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” In astonishment, Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” From skepticism to faith in five seconds flat.
Here is another of the anomalies of John’s Gospel. There is no disciple named Nathanael in any of the other three Gospels. And they all have a Bartholomew who is never listed in John. Most scholars assume they were the same person, but I don’t know why John would have changed this name. Fred Craddock suggests that John may use Nathanael as symbolic of those Jews who overcame doubts about Jesus to come to faith. (Knox Preaching Guides, John, p. 20) How can the Messiah come from Nazareth, which is never mentioned in Scripture? How can the carpenter Joseph be the father of the Messiah? How can this ordinary human being who is no general, no king, nothing exceptional be the Messiah? Philip simply says “Come and see,” and when Nathanael does so he has an experience with Jesus which leads him to faith. Earlier John had written that Jesus “came to his own home and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
Jesus seems to chuckle at Nathanael for his amazement that he saw him under the fig tree, and he tells him he will see greater things than that. He said, “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” This sounds like a reference to Jacob’s dream, in which he saw a ladder going to heaven with angels ascending and descending. Jesus will be the place where heaven and earth meet, where people truly have the opportunity to meet and be in communion with God.
The first chapter of John, which we complete today, serves as an overture to the rest of the book. We are told all of these things about Jesus. He is the Word by which God created the world. In him is life, and the life is the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have received grace upon grace. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. He is the Son of God. He is the Rabbi, the Teacher. He is the Messiah. He is the one about whom Moses in the law and the also the prophets wrote. He is the Son of God. He is the King of Israel. He is the Son of Man.
To all who are skeptical, John says, “Come and see.” To those who want to know what he is up to, Jesus says, “Come and see.” Spend time around him. Listen to his teachings. Observe his manner of life and the way he treats people. He looks pretty ordinary, but over time you will discover the truth of all these titles he is given in the first chapter of John. And, like Nathanael, you will find that you experience even more amazing things in your own life as you walk with him. For Nathaniel that started in the very next story, which we will look at next Sunday, when they went to his home town of Cana for a wedding.
The natural and faithful response of the disciple who has found something important is to go to those he or she loves and invite them to be a part of it as well. Come and see. Come join me on this adventure and in this relationship. Let us go and do likewise.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
January 7, 2018
Central Presbyterian Church