Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Come and See - John 1:45-51

Audio (poor audio quality this week)

Today we are commonly told we live in the “visual age.” Television, movies, magazines, the internet, all appeal to the eye with a barrage of constantly changing images. Among church leaders, there is a growing debate on the validity of preaching, the oral delivery of a lengthy sermon. It is becoming increasingly common to use images and video while preaching in order to appeal more to the eye than the ear. In fact, in society as a whole, the idea of coming into a room and sitting to listen to someone talk for 30 to 60 minutes about anything is becoming something of an oddity. The world has changed, we are told, and therefore, we must now communicate through the door of the eye, and not the ear. But I think this claim may be overstated. It seems that seeing has long been the favorite way for humans to gather information. In the Garden of Eden, Eve was deceived by the serpent as he said to her that by eating the forbidden fruit, her “eyes would be opened.” And the Bible says that she considered the fruit “a delight to the eyes” (Genesis 3:4-6). We have not graduated to a new state of dependency upon the sense of seeing in our day. If anything, we may say that we have succumbed to the desire for seeing. Just as a place of business may have five doors, with four of them marked “No Entrance,” so it seems that today, like never before, humans have labeled all the other senses with “No Entrance,” forcing all traffic to enter by way of the eye. All of this is alarmingly premature however. Though we long to see things as they are and to behold them with our eyes, it seems from God’s perspective that we have not yet entered the “visual age.” We are still in the age of the ear. Though the world tells us that “seeing is believing,” the Bible tells us that “faith comes by” what? Not seeing, but “hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). And Paul says, “We walk by faith, and not by” what? “Not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Hebrews 11:1 tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And in that brilliant passage, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then (pointing us to a later time) face to face.” And that later time will be the visual age when our eyes are set on God Himself, on the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then we shall “see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2).

Notice how Philip, in our text today, set out to find Nathanael and tell him about Jesus. Now Nathanael, who is also called Bartholomew in the other Gospels, is interested in this discussion. He was a student of Scripture. When Philip said, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote,” Nathanael knew who he was talking about. He’d read the Law and the Prophets. He knew that Philip was referring to the Messiah. But one thing Philip said caused him to lose all interest: “Jesus of Nazareth.” When Nathanael heard that, his curiosity waned. We wonder why, and some have speculated that Nazareth was a despised town in Galilee that even other Galileans sought to avoid. Little is known about the town before the time of Jesus. It was never mentioned in the Old Testament, nor by any ancient writer before the time of Jesus. But its bad reputation among local people is perhaps captured in Nathanael’s statement, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Whether or not anything good could come from Nazareth seems to have been a matter of personal prejudice. But Nathanael also knew his Hebrew Bible well enough to know that, whatever else may come from Nazareth, the Messiah most certainly could not. He knew what the prophet Micah had written, that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Now of course, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and moved to Nazareth as a boy after the brief sojourn in Egypt. But Nathanael doesn’t know that, and maybe Philip didn’t either. It didn’t seem to catch Philip’s attention, but it caught Nathanael’s, and he is highly suspicious of anyone claiming to be the Messiah who is not from Bethlehem. But Philip’s response to him is a simple one: “Come and see.”

And thus, we find the first of six occurrences of the word “see” in these seven verses. But it is an interesting thing: nothing is said of what Nathanael saw. The emphasis is on what Jesus saw, and on what those who believe upon Jesus will see as they follow Him. So, it is these two thoughts – the Christ who sees, and the Christ we shall see – that I want us to consider this morning.

I. Come and see the Christ who sees us! (vv47-49)

One of my favorite places to eat is Stamey’s. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Stamey’s when something unusual didn’t happen. Last Thursday, I was eating lunch at the counter there with the kids, and the man beside of us struck up a conversation with me. After a while he left, and when we got ready to leave, I went up to pay for our lunch, and they told me that the man with whom I’d been talking had paid for my bill. But oddly enough, that is not the most unusual thing that ever happened to me there. I was there at the counter one day with Geoff a few years ago, and a man came and sat beside of me and said, “Are you a preacher?” Now, I’d never seen that man before in my life, and to this day I don’t have a clue how he knew I was a preacher. That’s eerie isn’t it, when you meet someone who knows things about you that they ought not know? Nathanael is about to have just that sort of encounter.

Immediately after Philip says to Nathanael, “Come and see,” the next words we read are, “Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him.” Before Nathanael ever saw Jesus, Jesus saw Nathanael. And then He said to him, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit.” To get the full thrust of this statement, you have to recall something from Genesis, in the account of the life of Jacob. You perhaps recall that Jacob, whose name means something like “deceiver” or “cheater,” earned a reputation for having a nature that lived up to his name. He deceived his father to cheat his brother out of his birthright. In Genesis 27, when his old and blind father asked his name, he said that his name was Esau, and he received the blessing of the birthright from his father. But in Genesis 32, when Jacob wrestled with a mysterious man, the man asked him a strange question: “What is your name?” And at the point, Jacob could no longer speak deceptively. He said, “Jacob,” and the man gave him a new name: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel.” And after the encounter, Jacob recognized that this was no ordinary man; he had encountered the Lord on that day. Jacob, the deceiver, had become Israel.

Now, when Jesus speaks of Nathanael, He says, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit.” It is as if He is saying, “Here is a man who is all Israel, and none of Jacob.” He was a man of honesty and integrity, who had been genuinely seeking God in his life. And Nathanael does not protest the acknowledgement in false humility. He says rather, “How do You know me?” And Jesus said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” The ancient Jewish rabbis spoke of the fig tree as the place where one would sit to meditate upon the Scriptures and to pray.[1] Perhaps Philip had a habit of pondering the Word of God under the fig tree and talking to God there. Jesus says to Him, “I saw you there.” Perhaps he’s been studying the story of Jacob there, and Jesus’ statement about him being an Israelite in whom there is no deceit strikes Nathanael even more profoundly. It’s as if the Lord has said to him, “I know what you’ve been praying about, and I know what you’ve been meditating on in your heart as you sit under that fig tree. I saw you there.”

Friends, when you came to meet Jesus, you were meeting someone who did not look upon you as a stranger. He knows you inside and out. He knows your name, your nature, your desires, and the meditations of your heart. He knows your past, your present, and your future. He knows your hopes and fears. There has never been a moment of your existence lived apart from His sight. Hebrews 4:13 says, “There is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” The Psalmist said, “The Lord looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men; From His dwelling place He looks out On all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all, He who understands all their works” (Psalm 33:13-15). David writes in the 139th Psalm, “O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, And are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O Lord, You know it all.”

Nathanael realized on that day that nothing he had ever done had been hidden from the sight of Christ, and no word ever spoken was apart from His knowledge. He heard every prayer that Nathanael ever uttered under the fig tree, and yes, He even heard him say, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” He knew all of his good deeds and bad deeds. And He knows the same about you and me. That night that you cried yourself to sleep in despair, He saw you. That day that you trembled in fear in the doctor’s office, He saw you. The day that you rejoiced with your child, the day you exchanged vows with your spouse, the day you were most thrilled, most excited, most proud – He saw you. The time you found yourself wondering if He was really there or if He cared about you at all – He was, and He does. The time when you longed to know Him like never before and cried out to Him in desperation, He saw you. That time you did something that you hoped no one would ever see, or said something you hoped no one would ever hear, He saw, and He heard. There’s no getting around that. There’s no need to try to hide from Him, for no one can. And there’s no need to try to pretend you are someone you are not as you come to Him. He knows you better than you know yourself. You are what He knows you to be, and nothing more and nothing less.

Now, I don’t know how that strikes you, but notice how it strikes Nathanael. He exclaims, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel!” These are both titles which indicate his convinced belief that Jesus is the Messiah. The two titles come together in the beautiful Messianic picture presented in Psalm 2:6-7, where the Psalmist gives voice to the very words of God saying, “As for Me, I have installed My King upon Zion, My holy mountain. I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to Me, 'You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.” And the prophets spoke of the coming of this Messiah, the King and the Son of God. He would come with extreme justice and righteousness, but also with mercy and grace. Thus, for instance in Zechariah 9:9, we read, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation.” He is just, and therefore He will come to deal with the perpetual evil of human sinfulness; but He is endowed with salvation, and therefore will come to redeem those who turn to Him by faith and repentance. And Nathanael recognizes that Jesus is that One whose coming was promised. But he wasn’t convinced by what he saw. He was convinced by the Word of the One who saw him. Notice Jesus said in verse 50: “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe?” For Nathanael, as for everyone else, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ – the Word of this one who sees and knows all. The importance here is upon what Christ saw in Nathanael and what Christ said to Nathanael, and what He sees in us and says to us all. As for what we see, the Lord Jesus speaks in the future tense, and we turn our attention to that now. Not only are we beckoned to come and see the Christ who sees, but also to …

II. Come and see the Christ who will show us even greater things! (vv50-51)

Last year, several of us were sharing an Indian meal with Harry, our friend from Nepal, and Nimai, an Indian student whom some of you know. I took a bite out of something and it was extremely spicy, causing me to get somewhat choked up. Nimai chuckled at me, and he said, “This is nothing like what you will eat in India and Nepal! This is just the trailer, you will see the movie in India and Nepal!” In other words, no matter what you’ve seen or heard so far, there is more see. No one ever said it better than Bachman Turner Overdrive: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” And that is very much like what Jesus said to Nathanael, but not to him only. He says it to us all. In the Greek text, there is a subtle shift in the pronoun usage through verses 50-51 that we cannot perceive using proper English. Only Southerners can get this. In verse 50, every time Jesus says the word “you,” it is singular, referring to Nathanael. In verse 51, every time Jesus says the word “you,” it is plural. Proper English translates both of them as “you.” Southerners would say “ya’all” for the plural. So read this like it is supposed to be read: “You (Nathanael) will see greater things than these. … Truly, truly I say to ya’all, ya’all will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Now, who is the Son of Man? This is the first time this title has shown up in John’s Gospel. It will occur 13 times in John, and over 80 times in the four Gospels combined. When the phrase occurs in the Gospels, it is spoken only by Jesus Christ Himself, and only in reference to Himself. No one else calls Him that, no one else is called that within the four Gospels. It is His most frequent way of referring to Himself. It seems that Jesus preferred this title for Himself, because it was free from so much misunderstanding that usually accompanied titles like “Son of God,” “King of Israel,” and “Messiah.” Yet, amazingly, for those who were informed of the Old Testament’s teachings (as Nathanael certainly was), the title “Son of Man” encapsulated all of these concepts, and even exceeded them. Thus in claiming to be the Son of Man, Jesus was not claiming to be less than “Son of God,” “King of Israel,” or “Messiah,” but astonishingly MORE than those titles alone implied. The phrase “Son of Man” is used in various contexts in the Old Testament, and often it merely means “human being.” But the most theologically significant passage of the Old Testament that employs this term, and the one that Jesus seems to reflect in His usage of the term, is Daniel 7. There, beginning at verse 13, we read about Daniel’s night vision in which he saw “One like a Son of Man” coming with the clouds of heaven. “And He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.”

So when Jesus speaks of Himself as “the Son of Man,” He is making some radical claims about Himself. He is the one whose coming was promised, who is resplendent in divine attributes, who has come forth from His Father, the Ancient of Days, with authority and dominion, and glory, to establish a Kingdom that will consist of people from every tribe and nation and tongue who serve Him. And His Kingdom will be established forever.

But what about this enigmatic statement about angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man? Remember that when Nathanael first approached, Jesus made that oblique reference to Jacob, saying that Nathanael was an Israelite indeed in whom there is no deceit. He is all Israel without a trace of Jacob. And we suggested a few moments ago that when Jesus saw Nathanael sitting under the fig tree, perhaps Nathanael had been contemplating Scripture and praying, as Israelites often did in the shade of a fig tree. And it is a possibility, from the context here, that the very passage of Scripture Nathanael had been contemplating dealt with the account of Jacob. There are many accounts of Jacob in the book of Genesis, but one of the most familiar ones concerns a dream he had in Genesis 28, in which Jacob saw “a ladder” which “was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” And the promise Jacob received from God there was a restatement of God’s covenant with his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. That covenant blessing concludes with the phrase, “in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” This is a promise that the Savior of the world would come forth from the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Jacob awoke from that dream, he realized that he had experienced an awesome encounter with the Lord, and he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Jacob called that place “Beth-El,” which means “the house of God” (Genesis 28:12-19).

Now, Jesus uses the exact same language that is recorded there, but rather than a ladder that stretches from heaven to earth on which the angels ascend and descend, Jesus is saying that He Himself is that ladder. He is the place where heaven and earth meet; He is the gate of heaven; He is the house of God – the true Beth-El. This is the Jesus that all who come to Him will see. The Son of Man, God-incarnate, who came from Heaven to earth to open the way to eternal life. The way to heaven is not a ladder like Jacob saw; Jesus is Himself “the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through” Him (John 14:6). If you desire to see heaven opened to you, you must see Jesus as the link between heaven and earth, as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Timothy 2:5: “There is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus.” Jacob’s ladder has been refashioned into Jesus’ cross, and “by the cross heaven is thrown wide open, God draws near to man, and man is reconciled to God.”[2] The familiar hymn, Beneath the Cross of Jesus, contains a stanza in its original version that is rarely sung today.
As to the holy patriarch that wondrous dream was given, so seems my Savior’s cross to me, a ladder up to heaven.

Come and see. See the Christ who sees you. See the Christ who will show us even greater things. What are these greater things? We sang it earlier: “Ask ye what great things I know, that delights and stirs me so? What the high reward I win? Whose the Name I glory in? Jesus Christ the Crucified!”

[1] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 83.
[2] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 1.63.

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