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John 1:35-51

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v.37     This development was, of course, entirely natural. John had borne his own witness to Jesus, had said that he was the Lamb of God and that his own calling was to prepare the way for this man he had now identified as the Messiah. No wonder that some of John’s own disciples would be intensely interested in Jesus after what their Master had said about him. John the Baptist was the first to understand and appreciate that attention must now be directed away from himself to Jesus (3:27-30).

v.38     As often, the Lord directed a question at those who followed him either to find out what was on their minds or, as often, to force the issue in their minds. If someone shows an interest, the Lord puts the issue to them directly. “What do you want?” “What are you really after?” “Do you even know?” But, unsettled by such a direct question, they answer in effect by wondering if they might meet with him more privately at the place where he is staying.

Here John, the author of the Gospel, explains for his Gentile readers, what the term “rabbi” means.

v.40     Andrew is identified as one of the two disciples of John who had followed Jesus, the other remains unnamed. It has long been supposed, of course, that the other disciple was John himself, the author of the gospel whose signature is to remain unidentified in situations like this where he was obviously present. Eyewitness touches, such as the detail in v. 39, that they spent the rest of the day with him from the tenth hour (i.e. 4:00 p.m.), further suggest that the account is being written by someone who was himself a participant in the events he is recording.

v.41     Again, John translates “Messiah” for his Gentile readers. Both “Messiah” – in Hebrew or Aramaic – and “Christ” – in Greek – mean anointed one. In this case, he is the one anointed to be the King of Israel, the long-promised seed of David.

v.42     We are learning at the outset that the Lord Jesus as any true prophet has knowledge about people he has not even met (as we will see in the next few verses concerning Nathanael) and by calling them to himself makes them into different people than they would otherwise be. “Cephas” as you know means “rock” in Aramaic, which is what the Greek word “petros” means, which becomes “Peter” in English.

v.44     Peter and Andrew were from Bethsaida, though by this time, apparently, they lived in Capernaum (as Mark tells us, 1:21, 29), another town in the region of Galilee.

v.45     Taking all the evidence together, the simplest conclusion is that this Nathanael is the Bartholomew who was one of the twelve disciples. The others introduced in this section are all eventually to be found among the Twelve and there are several good reasons for identifying the two names with the same man. Bartholomew, in any case, is not a personal name. It is a patronymic meaning “son of Tolmai.” In that case, Nathanael’s full name would have been, “Nathanael, son of Tolmai.”

This will be John’s argument all through the gospel, that Jesus fulfills the prophesies and the expectations of the Scriptures, what we call today, “The Old Testament.”

Philip’s identification of Jesus is precisely according to form in first century Palestine: the man’s name, the name of his village, and the name of his father.

v.46     Nathanael was from Cana in Galilee (21:2), so apparently, even Galileans had a prejudice against Nazareth. Or, perhaps Nathanael is including himself in a remark of real humility. He was from Galilee as was Jesus, and he may have been thinking, “Surely the Messiah could not come from a people as poor and despised as we are!” [Bruce, Training of the Twelve, 7] It was part of our Lord’s abasement that his birth in Bethlehem was not widely known and he was known as Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Bethlehem, with all the royal associations that identification would have conveyed.

v.47     You remember the KJV’s translation: “an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” That is the idea. The word means deceit. It is used in the LXX translation of Genesis of Jacob (27:35) in connection with his stealing Esau’s blessing from his father Isaac. This leads Archbishop Temple to translate: “an Israelite in whom there is no Jacob!” [Readings, 30] Remember, Israel was Jacob’s other name. That Jacob lies in the background here is clear from v. 51 where Jacob’s vision of the ladder between heaven and earth is recalled.

v.48     Nathanael’s guilelessness is confirmed by his response to Jesus’ remark. No false deprecating of the compliment, nor some ploy to get Jesus to say more nice things about him, but simple curiosity about the Lord’s knowledge of him. There is a good bit of speculation about the meaning of the Lord’s remark. The fig tree is often in the Bible a symbol of home and later was regarded as the place for meditation and prayer. This has led some commentators to wonder if the Lord is not making a reference – which, of course, Nathanael would immediately understand – to some remarkable experience of communion with God that Nathanael had had under his fig tree. A.B. Bruce, in his never-enough-praised book, The Training of the Twelve, writes, “He was a man much addicted to habits of devotion; he had been engaged in spiritual exercises under cover of a fig-tree just before he met with Jesus.” [6] That is quite possible, of course, and not unlikely given the fact that the Lord chooses to say something about Nathanael’s character and sincerity. But it may be simply that Nathanael had been sitting under a fig tree earlier that day.

v.49     The Lord’s supernatural knowledge, along with Philip’s witness, convinced Nathanael that Jesus was the Messiah. “Son of God” here probably means someone who is in the closest possible relationship to God. Nathanael spoke better than he knew!

The Lord’s remark about Nathanael is, by the way, an indication that there were, in this period of Jewish history, as we saw with Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna in the birth narrative in Luke, godly men and women who were looking, in faith, for the consolation of Israel. They were a minority then, of course, as they are today. True faith existed before Jesus entered the world and apostasy would continue after he ascended to heaven. The spiritual world in which human beings live was not altered by the Lord’s coming into the world.

v.51     This is the first of many “Truly, truly, I say to you…” or, literally, “Amen, Amen, I say to you.” The NIV has taken the entire phrase and given it another form: “I tell you the truth…” The Lord uses the phrase to emphasize the truth and the importance of something he says.

You will see in your marginal note that the “you” in “I tell you the truth” is plural. He may be addressing Nathanael, but he is including the rest of them in what he says.

The Lord’s remark about seeing heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, of course hearkens back to Jacob’s vision at Bethel, and probably refers simply to the fact that they will receive heavenly confirmation of the Lord’s divine sonship and calling to be the Messiah. They will see the power of heaven in the life and work of Jesus. There is, in any case, no literal fulfillment of this anywhere reported in the NT.

“Son of Man” appears to have been the Lord’s favorite self-designation. He could use it as a Messianic title because of its use in Daniel 7, but it was not apparently used in that way in Jesus’ time. And that probably accounts for his preference for it. Like other titles, such as Messiah, it didn’t carry with it lots of preconceived notions that were, in many cases, mistaken and difficult to overcome, such as the political and nationalistic associations that the term “Messiah” had in the minds of the people. It was ambiguous and so could imply various things: deity, from its use in Daniel, humanity of course, humility and social solidarity. It was a term that allowed him to assert his Messiahship by implication and yet veil it at the same time, given the fact that the people’s understanding of the role of the Messiah was so different from his.

What favored men these were! These were devout men that we meet for the first time here in John 1. They had been naturally drawn to the powerful and hopeful ministry of the Baptist, were even among those known as his disciples. They lived in Galilee, so it was no small thing for them to be in Judea. Work and family had been left behind so that they might be with John the Baptist, hear him, learn from him. And, so it happened that they were among those who saw and heard him point out Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.

You cannot understand, nor can I, what electrifying news that must have been to these loyal, patriotic Jews, who, like all their countrymen, had been hearing from their birth of the promised Messiah who would come to deliver his people. They had grown up a captive people. They had learned, Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day in the synagogue and at home at their father’s knee, the history of Israel’s past glories, but the Israel they knew was a small client state of the mighty Roman empire. It was galling, humiliating. And, for these men, there was, additionally, the spiritual dimension. They loved God and wanted the world to know of his glories. They wanted the church to be revived, for godliness and justice to triumph. The Messiah would see to all of that!

But, you know how it is. You hear sermons enough about how the Lord is coming soon, and get old enough to realize that the rabbis have been saying the same thing for centuries, your active hope begins to wane. Oh, you still believe he is coming. But, you don’t really expect that he is going to come in your lifetime.

But, then, up in Galilee you hear of a great preacher who has come out of the Judean desert. That his sermons are spellbinding and life-changing. Being a spiritual young man, you want to hear such a man yourself. And so, with some like-minded friends, you go south to hear John the Baptist and the first time you hear him you know your life will never be the same. Why, he leads you to a sense of conviction of sin you never had before. You repent of your sins as you never did before; you even submit to baptism by John as a measure of your commitment to God, something you never intended or thought of until you heard his electrifying sermons. I’ll tell you how spell-binding, how authoritative was the preaching of John. There were a good many fine, spiritually minded men, who remained his disciples even after the Lord Jesus appeared on the scene! We might have thought that after the identification of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, that would have been that for John. His crowds would have transferred to Jesus and he would once more be a man apart, alone, as he was before he came out of the desert. But it was not so. Men who owe their very lives to a preacher of righteousness do not so easily leave him for another, even if that other is Jesus of Nazareth.

But not so these five men, otherwise undistinguished, men of whom the world would never have heard, apart from their having heard John the Baptist gladly, and having believed him when he pointed them to Jesus Christ. These few conversations John records are the beginning of what we know as the Christian church of the era of Pentecost. This is not their formal calling as disciples and apostles-to-be. That will come later. For some time, it seems, the Lord was available to them only from time to time and they were only his disciples in principle. Their leaving all to follow him would come later.

But, nevertheless, this is the beginning of it all: the beginning of the twelve, the beginning of their training, the beginning of the band of the apostles who would lay down the foundation of the new church and set it on its course of conquest through the world. And how obscure this beginning! Just a few conversations with a few men. Who could have known what was to come of this! But imagine John, in his old age, sitting at his desk in Ephesus writing his gospel, after his long life and work as Christ’s apostle, his memory stealing back to those first scenes, his first encounter with the Lord, and the excitement and thrill of those first meetings and of the enthusiasm with which he began to speak to his friends of Jesus of Nazareth. How little he then understood, he would have thought. How little he knew of what it meant that Jesus was the Messiah. How differently everything was to turn out from their expectations on that first, wonderful day. They had faith in Jesus already, but it was most decidedly a school-boy faith, a beginner’s faith. Like all faith, its virtue, its power was not in its maturity or accuracy, but rather in that, however imperfect and immature, it brought them into living contact and fellowship with Jesus, the Son of God.

Talk about a beginner’s faith!…. We prayed for Allen Pritzlaff this morning. Remember what Allen told us several years ago when the gospel was forcefully advancing and forceful men were laying hold of it? A young man became a Christian and in the three weeks following his conversion led six others to Christ. He was in the church office one day and someone mentioned the Apostle Paul. “Who’s that?” this young man asked. He had led six people to Christ and didn’t so much as know there was such a person as the Apostle Paul! That is a beginner’s faith: powerful but uninstructed. Such was the faith of these men in John 1.

Now, remember, we are still talking about the witness that various people give to Jesus Christ. John the Baptist gave his witness in the previous paragraph. And now the first disciples give theirs. And they bear that witness and give that testimony to one another. As Frederick Godet, the great French commentator put it, “One lighted torch serves to light another.” [Cited in Morris, 163]

And it may be that there is even more of this witness mouth to mouth and heart to heart than we see at first in our reading of these verses.

The NIV translates v. 43, “The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” That is an entirely reasonable translation of John’s Greek sentence and there are many who believe it to be John’s meaning.

But John literally wrote, “On the next day he decided to leave for Galilee and found Philip. And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.’” The question is: who is the he in the first phrase. Given the fact that Jesus is mentioned by name in the second phrase, many, including the NIV have assumed that Jesus is the antecedent of the first “he.” Jesus decided to leave for Galilee and Jesus found Philip. But there are reasons to doubt that that was John’s meaning.

The narrative is very compressed. And we are, in v. 43, in the middle of a series of incidents, in which these disciples of John tell another about and bring another to Jesus. In the flow of the discourse from v. 40 it is not unlikely at all that the antecedent of “he” is Andrew. Andrew brought Simon to Jesus. And the next day, before leaving for home, he brought Philip to Jesus. And just as Jesus said something to Peter, and would later say something to Nathanael, he said something to Philip when Philip was brought to him. It is also possible that it is Peter who found Philip. Andrew found Peter; Peter found Philip.

In a text in which John is concerned to let his readers hear the witness that others bore to Jesus, the testimony they gave to him, and, perhaps to show his Christian readers the importance of their giving their own testimony to Jesus, and when everyone else in the section is brought to Jesus by the witness of someone else, it seems likely that v. 43 should read, “The next day, Andrew (or Peter) decided to leave for Galilee and he found Philip. [It is then understood that he brought Philip to Jesus as he had Peter the day before.] And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.’”

If you ask why Andrew left for Galilee after meeting Jesus, we must remember that the Lord had not yet called these men to be his disciples. They had spent an afternoon and evening with him two days before and had been with him at least part of the day after that. We don’t know what Jesus may have told them to do. In any case, their livelihoods beckoned and their families. Perhaps they already knew when they would see Jesus again.

What we have, in any case, is what became from the very beginning the means by which the Christian gospel was brought to the world. Someone would encounter Jesus and discover that he was, indeed, the Son of God. He or she would, in turn, tell others. It is what has always made new Christians such effective witnesses. The thrill of discovery, the wonder of new life, the heart full of love and joy animates the testimony they give to others about their finding Jesus.

The message they bring – that they have found the Messiah, the Son of God; that they have discovered a new and eternal life – can seem unbelievable at first to those who hear it. But the combination of the conviction of the new believer and his simple “Come and see for yourself” have been enough through the ages to bring untold multitudes of others to Christ and salvation. “Honest inquiry is a sovereign cure to prejudice!” [Bruce in Carson, 160]

Here Andrew brings Peter and, probably, Philip. And then Philip, with the same enthusiasm and intense conviction, persuades Nathanael. And who can say who might have heard of Jesus that same day, that same evening, with that same excitement and certainty from Nathanael. And so the good news spread and so it has always spread.

I was reading the other day in the biography of Charles Simeon, the great Anglican preacher of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, whose fifty-year-long ministry at Holy Trinity in Cambridge was to have such a mighty influence on the spread of the gospel around the world. Simeon once took a riding vacation in Scotland in the company of James Haldane. The Haldanes, you may remember, were instrumental in the reawakening of spiritual life in 19th century Geneva and, from there, in Germany and France. It was sometimes called “The Haldane Revival” and its influence was immense. Merle D’Aubigne, the great church historian, the influential French Reformed pastors Frederic and Adolphe Monod, and Cesar Malan, the genius who is known as the Watts and Wesley of French hymn-singing all traced their conversions to Robert Haldane, James’ brother. (By the way, it was Cesar Malan who was instrumental in the conversion of John Duncan, the Rabbi Duncan of 19th century Scottish Presbyterianism, whose name you have so often heard from this pulpit.) At any rate, on this riding holiday with his friend, James Haldane, Simeon spent one Sunday in the manse of a small town with its minister, Alexander Stewart. Stewart was a scholar, had written the standard grammar of the Gaelic language, but he was not a Christian. But the long conversation he had about salvation with Simeon, in his room that night, was a turning point. He was converted and began to preach with a new conviction, the gospel was now his message and Christ the Savior made his way into every sermon. There was a young couple, the Duff’s who had sat under Alexander Stewart’s ministry for sometime to no effect, but now they heard their changed minister with a new and powerful effect. They soon became Christians themselves and raised their son, Alexander Duff, very differently than otherwise they would have. He became one of the pioneer Christian missionaries to India, bringing the news of Jesus to a people far away. You see how it goes – the good news being passed from hand to hand and heart to heart.

It can even be done through a book. I’ve told you before that The Bruised Reed, the wonderful book by Richard Sibbes, the early Puritan, was instrumental in Richard Baxter’s awakening to spiritual life. Richard Baxter’s great work, The Call to the Unconverted was instrumental in the conversion of Philip Doddridge, the Great Awakening congregational minister, author, and hymn writer. Philip Doddridge’s great book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, a book that many of you would profit greatly from reading – was used by the Lord to bring William Wilberforce to living faith in Christ. Wilberforce, you remember, became a prominent member of the Clapham sect – that group of Christian men, mostly laymen, who sought to bring the gospel’s power to bear on English society – , a member of parliament, and the man, more than any other, responsible for the end of slavery in the British empire. Wilberforce’s own book, an attack on the nominal Christianity then so prevalent in the English church, Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians…Contrasted with Real Christianity, was then instrumental in the conversion of Thomas Chalmers, the Scottish pastor, whose conversion marks the beginning of the rebirth of spiritual life in 19th century Scotland, and who, later as a seminary professor, infected with his own spiritual zeal the likes of Robert Murray McCheyne, the Bonar Brothers, and the St. Andrews Seven, those seven men who were to take the gospel not only to Scotland but to the world, one of whom, by the way, was Alexander Duff!

What is all of that but just John 1:35-51 over and over again? What a beautiful means, what an effective means for the truth to makes its way through the world of men and women: one heart, one voice, one experience bearing its witness, its testimony to the next, and he or she in turn to the next. “I have found the Christ! Come and see!” And what an unspeakable privilege it is, it must be, it will be for you and me to be somewhere, somehow, a link on that chain.