Bearing witness to Jesus: preliminary sermon thoughts on John 1:43-51 (and earlier verses too!)

How do you bear witness to Jesus? What do you say about him? Who do you talk to? What sort of person do you need to be in order to be an effective witness? All these themes are addressed in the second half of John chapter 1.

John 1:1-18 is a theological prologue in which the author establishes the divine origin of Jesus: he is ‘the Word’ who was with God at the beginning and in fact ‘was God’, but has now been made flesh and lived among us as one of us. The actual narrative starts at verse 19 with an encounter between John the Baptist and a delegation from the religious authorities in Jerusalem; in answer to their questions, he denies that he is either the Messiah or Elijah or ‘the prophet’, but identifies himself with Isaiah’s ‘voice crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord”’. When asked about his baptizing ministry, he points up the difference between himself and the one coming after him – he himself is only baptizing with water, and is not worthy to even untie the shoelaces of the one to come. And the one to come is already among them: ‘Among them stands one whom you do not know’ (v.26).

In the next section (1:29-34) John sees Jesus and identifies him as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ and the one who he has been talking about, who comes after him but ranks above him. He then testifies that when he baptized Jesus he saw the Spirit descending on him like a dove, in fulfillment of a word he (John) had received from God that this would be the sign that this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, not just with water. This, John says, is the Son of God.

In 1:35-42 John the Baptist is walking with two of his disciples, Andrew and possibly John the beloved disciple (although the second is not identified in the narrative), when they see Jesus again. Once again John the Baptist identifies Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’, and the two disciples go after Jesus. Jesus asks them what they are looking for; they ask him where he is staying and he says, ‘Come and see”. So they spend the rest of the day with Jesus. Then Andrew goes and finds his brother Simon and says to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’. He brings Simon to Jesus; Jesus looks at Simon and says, ‘you are Simon Son of John: you are to be called Cephas (Petros, ‘rock’).

In the last section (1:43-51) Jesus goes to Galilee. He finds Philip and calls him to follow him. Philip is from Bethsaida, the same town on the lake of Galilee as Simon and Andrew. Philip goes to find Nathanael and tells him ‘We’ve found the one the law and the prophets wrote about – Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth’. ‘Nazareth?’ Nathanael replies scornfully; ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ ‘Come and see”, Philip replies. So he takes Nathanael to Jesus, and to Nathanael’s surprise Jesus seems to know him: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”. “How do you know me?” Nathanael asks. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you?” Jesus replies. Nathanael is impressed: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!” Jesus seems to smile at this: “Do you believe, just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? That’s just the beginning; you’re going to see greater things than that – you’re going to see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (this is probably an allusion to the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28:10-22; Jesus is the ladder between earth and heaven, the one who makes it possible for God to come to people and people to come to God).

This passage is all about bearing witness. John the Baptist bears witness to Jesus and refuses to bear false witness about himself. Through the Baptist’s witness, Andrew and John become followers of Jesus – going on from what John has told them about him, to experiencing him for themselves as they ‘Come and see’. Andrew in his turn bears witness to Simon his brother and brings him to Jesus. And Jesus himself is bearing witness: he calls Philip, and Philip invites Nathanael to ‘come and see’ as well (in a gospel where the author pays careful attention to words and structure, it is surely no accident that the phrase ‘Come and see’ appears twice within six or seven verses; surely the author is underlining a point for us).

What is the content of our witness about Jesus? The thing that stands out in this entire passage (19-41) is the amazing richness and variety of it.

John the Baptist calls Jesus ‘The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. This is a sacrificial image; Jesus is compared with a sacrificial lamb, taking the sins of the world on himself and dying for them, so that those who offer the sacrifice can be forgiven. Paul will take up this imagery in his letters when he talks about Christ our Passover having been sacrificed for us. So here the problem of guilt is in view, and Jesus is the one whose atoning death takes away guilt.

John also witnesses that Jesus is the one who has been anointed with the Holy Spirit and who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. This is one of the signs that he, who came after John, is in fact greater than him. A human being can immerse someone in the water of baptism, but Jesus has the power to ‘immerse’ them, to plunge them in and to fill them up, with the Holy Spirit of God, so that their lives are suffused with the presence of God. And he can do this because he is himself the ‘anointed one’ or Messiah (v.41).

The Baptist also calls Jesus ‘the son of God’ (v.34), as does Nathanael in verse 49. In OT times this was a title for the King of Israel (see Nathanael’s words, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” [v.49]), and thus served as a synonym for ‘Messiah’ (which is also what Andrew calls him when he speaks to Simon Peter in verse 41: “We have found the Messiah!”). Jesus is the one God has anointed to be King, the King who will bring justice and peace and set his people free from evil. But in the Gospel of John the phrase ‘Son of God’ begins to take on a higher meaning as well, closer to our theological understanding of Jesus as a divine figure, one who has come from the Father and will return to the Father, one who makes his Father known to us.

I also note Jesus’ witness to himself: he is the ladder between earth and heaven (v.51), the one who will bring God to people and people to God. And he is ‘the Son of Man’ (v.51) the strange figure from Daniel 7:13 who will be given dominion and glory and kingship by ‘the Ancient of Days’ (God) and will rule forever, long after the ‘beasts’ (evil empires) of the world have ben destroyed.

Finally, on two occasions in the passage Jesus is called ‘Rabbi’ as a form of address. This of course is an honorific title; he is being recognized as a teacher of Israel. But ‘rabbi’ doesn’t get a lot of attention in John’s Gospel; in this passage it is what people call Jesus when they first meet him, but they soon move on to more significant titles.

So we have a number of images used to describe Jesus to us: he is a ‘rabbi’ or religious teacher; he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; he is the anointed one, the Messiah or coming King; he is the one who baptizes people with the Holy Spirit; he is the Son of God, not only the King but also the one whom God has sent into the world and who reveals the Father to us.  He is the one who brings us to God and God to us, and he is the Lord of all, the one whose rule over all nations and peoples and languages will last forever.

What is this plethora of titles and images telling us? Surely that Jesus is a many-faceted figure in the New Testament. Each title or image tells us something about him, and together they make a full-orbed picture. Likely, at each point in our Christian journey a different title of image will be most meaningful for us, and so it might be helpful as we are thinking about our Christian witness to ask ‘Which of the biblical titles or images or names of Jesus is most meaningful for me right now, and why? And which ones have been helpful to me in the past, and why? And which ones do I avoid like the plague, and why?’

But we can’t stop there, because witness is not about us so much as it is about Jesus and about those we are hoping to point to Jesus. So being a good witness involves listening to people, finding out what their point of need is, and then thinking carefully about which of the many biblical ways of describing Jesus would make most sense to them at their point of need.

So to be a good witness, we need to speak accurately and helpfully about Jesus, in ways that connect with the people to whom we are bearing witness. But that leads to another question: to whom do we bear witness?

In this passage, John the Baptist bears witness to the religious authorities, who seem to be somewhat hostile to him and his movement. No matter; he speaks a word of truth to them anyway. Later on, he bears witness to two people within his circle of influence: disciples of his, Andrew and perhaps John. Andrew in turn bears witness to his brother Simon, and Philip to Nathanael, who we assume is also his friend.

So none of the witnessing that is going on here involves taking the initiative and going up to total strangers to do ‘cold calling’. It involves either giving a response to people who ask us about our faith (even though sometimes they may be hostile), or going to our friends and pointing them in the direction of Jesus. And note that the witness is not just intellectual; it is invitational as well: ‘Come and see!’ Come on in and try out this Christian life. Come on in and see what we do in church. Come on in and take part in some of our service activities. Come on in and begin to learn to listen to Jesus in the gospels and speak to him in prayer. The swimming pool might look good to you on the sidelines, but you’ll never find out how good it is ‘til you stick your foot in! So ‘come and see’.

(Of course, we might want to give careful thought to the difference between our situation and that of Jesus’ early disciples; they could invite people to ‘come and see’ Jesus in the flesh, whereas we can’t do that. So what does it mean for us to invite people to ‘come and see’ today?)

Finally, I’m struck by what the passage has to say about who can be a witness for Jesus. What sort of person makes an effective witness? I see two things.

First, you can’t be a witness for Jesus if you’re full of yourself. John the Baptist, in John’s gospel, is portrayed as resolutely pointing away from himself toward Jesus; he is a signpost, nothing more. ‘Are you the Messiah?’ ‘I am not’. Later on, in chapter 3, he will say of Jesus, ‘He must increase; I must decrease’. Human beings love to be the centre of attention, but if our witness involves putting ourselves forward, it will not be effective. We need true humility, pointing away from ourselves toward Jesus, remembering the prayer of the Greeks in John 12, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ (John 12:21). ‘I am not the Messiah’ – I am not the answer to people’s needs, and I must not give them the impression that I am. I am not big enough for that job. Only Jesus is.

Secondly, I note that good witnesses are people who have themselves been in the presence of Jesus. Andrew and his fellow-disciple (John?) respond to Jesus’ invitation to ‘come and see’ (v.39); they spend the rest of the day with Jesus, and then Andrew finds his brother Simon and invites him to come and meet Jesus. It is being in the company of Jesus that motivates us to point others toward him. His presence changes our lives in a good way, a way that adds meaning and value to our lives. And we are effective witnesses to the degree that we continue to keep company with Jesus, in prayer and in listening to his teaching. As Jesus will say to us later, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing…If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love’ (John 15:5, 10).

So we must keep company with Jesus, with him living in us and we living in him, being careful to follow his teaching and put it into practice. This is how we ‘abide’ in him, and if we do so, we will bear fruit in many ways, one of them being in this whole matter of being effective witnesses, pointing others to Jesus.

That’s it for now; time to check out the commentaries.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.