We return to John’s Gospel this morning after a short interlude for Christmas and Epiphany. And after the exalted language and poetic prose of John’s prologue, we come back down to earth in today’s passage. We’re no longer contemplating the Son of God’s pre-existence in eternity, but now beginning to look at his life and work in history. And as we look at Jesus in today’s passage, we see him joined by a whole cast of characters – individuals including John the Baptist, Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip and Nathanael.
• As events unfold, today’s passage reminds us of the true identity and mission of Jesus – as the Spirit-filled ‘Lamb of God’ who came to take away the sins of the world.
• It also challenges us to tell our friends and neighbours about him – to invite people we know to consider the claims of Christ for themselves.
• And thirdly, this passage ends with an enticing invitation for us to keep on reading this Gospel – to discover all the great things that Jesus said and did as the rest of his ministry unfolded.
Before we dive in, let me pray…
Look to the Lamb!
Today’s passage begins on the banks of the river Jordan. John has spent recent months calling people to repentance and then baptising them in the river as a sign of their contrition. Repentance was essential preparation, he said, for the coming of the Lord. And now the Lord has come! Because in verses 29 and 36 today we’re told twice that when John laid eyes on Jesus he declared “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
You may wonder why John used this strange expression “the Lamb of God” to identify Jesus. The answer is that the Lamb of God is an Old Testament concept, a concept that refers to a Heaven-sent substitute, a God-given sacrifice, designed to take away human guilt. For example, as far back as Genesis, God provided a lamb on a hillside as a substitute for Abraham’s son Isaac. This lamb, rather than Isaac, was offered as a sacrifice before God. Fast forward a few hundred years, and the Passover Lambs in Exodus were killed – and their blood daubed on doorposts – as a way of saving the firstborn sons of Israel from God’s judgement on Egypt. And when we come to the book of Leviticus, lambs and other animals were central to the sacrificial system that the Lord gave to the Israelites. They would die in place of the people, their shed blood would be (what theologians call) a ‘substitutionary atonement’ for sin, so that the Israelites could remain in a state of friendship and fellowship with God.
But things came to a climax in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. When the prophet Isaiah describes the Messiah, the human Saviour whom God would one day send, he describes him as like a lamb. This Messiah would be like a lamb to the slaughter, said Isaiah, for “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
With the arrival of Jesus, this sin-bearing ‘Lamb’ has come says John. The Messiah has arrived! The Saviour is here! And his death on the cross will be a sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world. From now on forgiveness is available through faith in Jesus, declares John! In verse 34 John adopts a different vocabulary and calls Jesus “God’s Chosen One” – another expression that identifies him as the heaven-sent Messiah. But how did John know this about Jesus? How can we be sure this wasn’t a case of mistaken identity? Was Jesus really the Messiah, or had John made a mistake? Out of all the God-fearing Jews coming for baptism beside the River Jordan, had John singled out the wrong man?
‘No’, says John, there’s been no mistake. Listen again to his words in verses 32 and 33 today: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on Jesus. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’
What John the Baptist saw and heard when Jesus appeared convinced him he was the real deal, the promised Messiah. We know from the other Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), that when John baptised Jesus he saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descend on him, in the form of a dove. And simultaneously, John also heard a voice from above, the voice of God himself, declaring that “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” I hope you agree with me – that doesn’t leave much chance of mistaken identity!
Because of what John saw and heard that day, we can be confident that Jesus is the real deal. He is the Son of God, the Spirit-filled redeemer, the magnificent Messiah, the Heaven-sent King of Israel – and all the other superlatives ascribed to him in this passage. So can I encourage us all to love him, trust him, and follow him ever more closely as we commence this New Year? Spend more time with him in prayer, more attentive to his words in Scripture, and more willing to make personal sacrifices in his service. After all, as the Lamb of God, he made the supreme sacrifice for us!
Spread the word!
Having identified Jesus as the Messiah, John doesn’t keep this news to himself, does he? He immediately points out Jesus to a couple of his own followers, one of whom was named Andrew. Not only does Andrew immediately switch allegiance and begin following Jesus instead of John, but he goes and finds his brother Simon and tells him all about Jesus too!
As well as having a great name(!), Philip is the next person in the chain. Coming away from his encounter from Jesus he rushes off to find his friend Nathanael. Despite his initial skepticism, Philip succeeds in persuading Nathanael to ‘come and see’ Jesus for himself – and he too comes to faith in him.
What we’re witnessing is a holy ‘domino effect’, as the identification of Jesus as the Messiah is passed from person to person – as one individual after another accepts John’s testimony and begins to follow Christ. If we are Christian believers here this morning, then we are the latest stage in this 2,000 year old evangelistic domino effect. If John, and then Andrew, and then Philip, had not spoken up, the message of Jesus would not have reached us two millenia later and two thousand miles away. And you know what I’m going to say next, don’t you? The good news about Jesus can’t end with us. If we are Christians today it’s our responsibility to keep the domino effect in motion – to pass on what we ourselves have heard.
As a church we need to grow. We need to draw more people into our congregation, we need more ‘bums on seats’ on Sunday. Partly, of course, this is for pragmatic reasons. Our congregation won’t survive unless people keep coming through the door. And we have no hope of balancing our budget and paying our bills until there are more people giving more generously to our church. But, even more importantly, we should want to draw people into our Church family so that they can come to know Christ! It should be our heart’s desire for our family members to ‘come and see’ how wonderful Jesus is. For our friends to see how he’s the most remarkable man who ever lived (or should I say, still lives!). And for our neighbours to discover that Jesus is the only person who can give us true meaning in life, full forgiveness from guilt, and real hope beyond the grave.
Just like Andrew and Philip in today’s passage, our ambition should be to help others meet with Jesus. And we can do this by inviting them along to church – to this place where we see Jesus in the Bible, sing his praises in our songs and speak with him in prayer. Churches will typically only grow when congregation members start bringing new people along. It’s very rare for people to walk into a church on their own, straight off the street. Newcomers usually need a Church member to invite them along and accompany them in. So just as Andrew and Philip brought their family and friends to Jesus, so should we. Nothing beats a personal invitation! So why not spend some time today thinking (and praying) about one or two friends in this village who could be persuaded to come with you one Sunday – you could change their lives forever, and we’d certainly love to welcome them here!
Wait and see!
Before I finish this morning, its worth spending a moment looking at Jesus’ interesting exchange with Nathanael in the final few verses of our reading. It makes for an enticing introduction to the rest of John’s Gospel.
As we’ve already seen, Nathanael was initially sceptical when his friend Philip told him that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he said – perhaps expressing a little local rivalry, or simply surprise that somewhere so insignificant could be home to a heaven-sent King? Whatever their cause, Nathanael’s reservations are removed as soon as he speaks with Jesus. Listen again to verses 47 to 49: ‘When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel!”’
It would seem that Jesus displayed supernatural knowledge of Nathanael’s location before Philip had found him. There seems to have been no earthly way that Jesus could have known where Nathanael had been. This display of divine omniscience seems to have been enough to convince Nathanael that Jesus truly was God’s Son. In response to Nathanael’s declaration of faith, Jesus says to him: “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that. Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” In other words, Jesus is saying to Nathanael that if sticks around he will see some remarkable displays of Jesus’ divine power. If Nathanael becomes a disciple of Jesus he will witness some amazing miracles and further convincing signs that he is God’s Son – more supernatural evidence that Jesus truly is the ‘stairway to Heaven’.
Fortunately for us, these ‘greater things’ that Jesus did were written down for posterity. In particular, as we journey through John’s Gospel over the coming weeks we will get to see some of the most miraculous signs that Jesus performed – like turning water into wite, giving sight to the blind and raising the dead. All culminating, of course, in his own Resurrection on the first Easter day. The enticing promise given to Nathanael in today’s passage really should whet our appetite for what’s to come!