Monday, May 21, 2012

The Distinguishing Mark of a Follower of Jesus (John 1:43-46)

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John 1:43-46
The Distinguishing Mark of a Follower of Jesus

In the days of Colonial America, several decades before the Revolutionary War, churches across the colonies began to experience unusual growth, spiritual fervor, and unprecedented spread of the gospel. But this “Great Awakening,” as it came to be called, was not without its counterfeits or its critics. Some people began mimicking the phenomena associated with the revival, and it became hard to tell what was a genuine work of God and what was a counterfeit. Others seemed so afraid of a spiritual wildfire that they were reluctant to permit even a spark. To them, the whole affair seemed to be an overly emotional display of excessive theatrics. Meanwhile, America’s most brilliant theologian was right in the middle of it all. As a pastor, Jonathan Edwards was seeing and experiencing the mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit. As a biblical theologian, he was aware that not everything that was happening was of God. So, Edwards began to write several documents that sought to provide a historical chronicle and a theological analysis of the movement. Now, in those days, people really knew how to title a book, so the whole title of one of Edwards’ works is: The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Applied to That Uncommon Operation That Has Lately Appeared On the Minds Of the People of New England: With a Particular Consideration of the Extraordinary Circumstances With Which This Work is Attended. Today, our penchant for brevity compels us to refer to it simply as The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. In this book, Edwards contrasts those phenomena which are never sure signs that the Holy Spirit is at work, with those indications, or “distinguishing marks” that accompany the work of the Spirit. For example, Edwards says that “a work is not to be judged of by any effects on the bodies of men; such as tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body, or the failing of bodily strength.” Though we may be impressed by such a display, Edwards says those things can be produced apart from a genuine movement of God. But once he describes a number of things which are “no sure sign” of the Holy Spirit at work, he turns his attention to those things which are “distinguishing marks” of the Spirit’s activity. The first is that people’s esteem of Jesus is elevated. A growing opposition to sin and an increasing regard for Scripture are distinguishing marks. If people are moved more to love God and men, the Holy Spirit may certainly be said to be at work.

Now, I say all of that by way of introduction to our study of this brief text today. Just as, in Edwards’ day, it was sometimes difficult to tell which were the true movements of the Holy Spirit when there was so much display of religion all around, so too there has always been a challenge to identify the true follower of Christ from all others when so many claim to be Christian. And so we may wonder, “Is there some distinguishing mark of being a follower of Christ?” It would seem that if we were following Christ, we would be doing what He is doing, going where He is going, and saying what He is saying. His mission will be our mission. And as we look at the Lord Jesus, we find Him defining His mission, among other places, in Luke 19:10: “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” I would venture to say that there are any number of things that would distinguish someone as a Christian, but none more so than being a Gospel witness. So many other things can be manufactured artificially, selfishly motivated, and seen as commendable by the world. But being a Gospel witness to a lost and dying world requires transparent authenticity – you can’t fake it and be effective. It requires an emptying of self, because there is absolutely nothing in it for you. And rather than being applauded by the world, you will be hated, criticized, and condemned by the world as you seek out the lost and seek to bring them to Jesus. So, why in the world would anyone do it? (1) to obey Jesus’ command; (2) to follow Jesus’ example; (3) to join in Jesus’ mission. Thus, it may well be that the single most distinguishing mark of a follower of Jesus is sharing Jesus as a gospel witness. I believe the truth of that statement is borne out in this passage.

I. Notice first, the catalyst of our witness (vv43-45a)

In John 1, we’ve been reading about Jesus’ initial encounters with the men who would become His disciples – Andrew, John, Peter, Philip, Nathanael (who is also called Bartholomew in the other Gospels). We learn from the other gospels that there were more, and that a number of these men were fishermen. The brothers, James and John, worked for their father in his fishing business; Andrew and Simon Peter, another set of brothers, were also fishermen. Philip may have been a fishermen, as that was a common trade in his hometown of Bethsaida. Bethsaida means “house of fishermen,” or as F. F. Bruce calls is, “Fishertown.”[1] Perhaps Nathanael was also a fisherman, as we find him out fishing with some of the other disciples later in John 21. But when Jesus called these men to become His disciples, Matthew 4:19 records that He said to them, “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men.” In other words, “No longer will catching fish for the family business be your primary occupation, but rather, you will be catching men for My Father.” Those words, spoken by Jesus, were not a wish but a promise. If they will follow Him, He will transform them into fishers of men: passionate Gospel witnesses. Thus, the catalyst for our witness is our call to follow Jesus.

In verse 43, we read, “The next day He purposed to go into Galilee and He found Philip.” The New American Standard capitalizes the third person pronouns, which leads us to understand that the “He” refers to Jesus. Some other English versions insert the name of Jesus here, though His name is not found in the Greek text. Now, it is not altogether certain that John is talking about Jesus here in verse 43. Who else might he be talking about? A strong case can be made that he is referring to Andrew. You may recall a few weeks ago when I said that every time we see Andrew in John’s Gospel, he is bringing someone to Jesus. Verse 41 says that once Andrew began to follow Jesus, “he found first his own brother Simon (Peter),” and “he brought him to Jesus” (v42). It could well be that the word first is used there to indicate that Simon was the first of many that Andrew went out to find, and on the very next day, he went to Galilee to find his friend Philip and bring him to Jesus. But, of course, the text is vague enough to leave room for the interpretation that it was Jesus, not Andrew, who purposed to go into Galilee, and that it was Jesus, not Andrew, who found Philip. If so, then Philip is unique among all the disciples described in John’s Gospel, for every other one of them was brought to Jesus by someone else. In the end, it doesn’t really matter all that much who found Philip and brought him to Jesus. What matters is that he came to Jesus! But John’s Gospel is clear that for most human beings, the normal course of things is that a person is brought to Jesus by someone who is already following Jesus. Though Philip could possibly be a rare exception to that rule, I would doubt that anyone present here today is an exception. Some of you were brought to Jesus by a parent or grandparent, a sibling or a friend, a pastor or a Sunday School teacher, a traveling preacher or someone making evangelistic visits, or a perfect stranger whom God used to speak a word about Jesus into your life. In many cases, it may have been a combination of several of these, but almost invariably, I would suppose that you first met Jesus because you were introduced to Him by one of His followers.

When Philip met him, Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” That’s a single word in Greek, and John Calvin says that “Philip’s mind was set on fire to follow Christ by this one word.”[2] No sooner does Christ call Philip to follow that Philip goes off to find Nathanael. Just as Jesus came to seek and save the lost, now Philip has joined the ranks of His followers who are also engaged in that mission.  And this is how the Gospel has infiltrated the world since the beginning of Christian history. Jesus calls followers to Himself, and transforms those followers into fishers. Following Him is the catalyst. There can be no fishing for Him unless we are following Him, and if we are following Him, we will be fishing for Him. The key to being His witness is not trying harder or gaining more information to share, though there is nothing wrong with those things. The key is following Him more faithfully and more closely. As we follow, our witness will flow from the overflow of the abundance of joy and love that He produces within us.

II. Notice also, the content of our witness. (v43b)

If you were to ask the average “man on the street” what they know about Christians, what do you think they would say? Ask them to describe a Christian, and perhaps you will hear that Christians are people who have a certain view of marriage, or a certain view on abortion, or who do certain things and don’t do other things. Make no mistake, a consistent Christian will have a biblically informed worldview on social issues like marriage, abortion, gambling, and other things, and a biblically shaped perspective on morality. But these matters are not the content of our witness. Ironically, many people, if asked to define what it means to be Christian, would make no mention of the Lord Jesus Himself. It bothers us to hear that kind of caricature portrayed of Christians, but we have to admit that the world has gained this impression of us in large part because we have sent so many mixed signals.

We can often make the mistake of confusing the Gospel message itself with certain implications and applications of the Gospel. We may think that we are being a witness as we try to persuade others to agree with our Christian convictions on a social issue. But, the other person has no basis on which to agree with us, because they do not know Christ, therefore they have no regard for His will or His word, and we are only beating the wind to try to persuade them to take our side on a social issue. Rather, the core of our conversation with them must be the message of who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for us through His life, death, and resurrection. It is only as they come to know Him that the Holy Spirit will open their minds and hearts to His will and His word, and we can trust Him to change their opinions about social issues. We could say the same about specific behaviors. Often, we want to discuss the way someone acts, and we want to tell them that they must not act that way. We consider that we have witnessed to them because we admonished them to give up a particular vice, or to begin doing some noble deed – perhaps even attending church. But, people act like they act because they are what they are. Therefore, I might as well expect a pig to fly as to expect a lost person to desire a moral change in his or her life. I am not witnessing to them by asking them to do the impossible – to change their nature apart from Christ. My witness to them must be centered on Jesus Christ Himself, and as they come to know Him, they will experience the life-changing power that He brings into their lives. Apart from Him, even if a person could or did change their opinion about social issues and moral behaviors, they would still be lost eternally apart from His saving grace.

Notice in the passage before us that when Philip finds Nathanael, he presents a witness to Him that is thoroughly and exclusively about the Lord Jesus Christ. He does not say, “We have found the answers!” Neither does He say, “We have found a better lifestyle!” He says, “We have found Him!” Who is Him? He is the One that Moses wrote about in the Law, and the One of whom the Prophets spoke and wrote. He is the One whom Moses said was coming into the world as the greater Prophet, the One the Prophets spoke of as the virgin-born, eternal King, who would suffer and die to ransom humanity from captivity to sin. And He is the one who is called Jesus, who is associated with the humble little town of Nazareth, and who people know from his association with his earthly foster-father, Joseph. Many had come, and would continue to come, claiming that they were the One of whom Moses and the Prophets had spoken. Jesus Himself said these false-Christs would continue to appear. But Philip made it clear in his witness to Nathanael that the One, the True Messiah, was none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. In the ancient world, these two statements (one’s hometown and family origin) would be sufficient to identify anyone. Philip’s witness was specific and precise, and pointed Nathanael to the same Christ whom we worship today.

Now, Philip’s description of Jesus was as precise as he know to be, but as we look at it, we can’t help noticing that it was incomplete to say the least, if not inaccurate at points. Jesus came to be known as “Jesus of Nazareth,” but we all know that He did not hail from Nazareth. He was born in Bethlehem, the town which had been prophesied as the birthplace of the Savior. And He was most certainly NOT the son of Joseph. He was and is the Son of God, born of Mary while she remained a virgin. But, God was pleased to use even an incomplete and inaccurate witness of Jesus to bring Nathanael into the family of God. I recall one night several years ago when I pastored another church, and some of us went out to visit a home in the community. I said to one of the ladies with us, “I want you to do the talking.” She began to witness to the man at his kitchen table, and it was so bad, I just wanted the floor to open up and swallow us all. When she finished talking, and not a moment too soon, she asked the man, “Do you understand what I have said?” I thought to myself, “What a stupid question! Who in the world could understand that?” But to my glorious surprise, the man said, “Yes I do.” I was flabbergasted. I said, “Are you sure?” And the man began to recap the Gospel message, and he got it more correct than she did! And that night, he gave his life to Jesus as his Lord and Savior. God was pleased to use her flawed presentation of the Gospel to bring this man into new life! How can I explain that? Only this – the content of her message was Jesus, and though she got many things wrong, she got Him right, and thankfully He is all that matters.

So many of you wonder, “How can I witness to my friends and family members?” You try sometimes to “sneak in the back door” of the conversation by talking about issues, about church, about a book you have read, or something like that. And it seems you are getting nowhere. Can I suggest that you try the front door instead? Talk to them about Jesus! Look at the conversations Jesus has with people in the Gospels. Look at the conversations the Apostles have with unbelievers in Acts. What do they have in common? They are all singularly focused on who He is and what He came to do. Why do we think we need to improve on that? Let the Lord Jesus be the content of your witness. I find that people are very comfortable talking about what is most important to them in life. If the Lord Jesus is the most important person to you, you will have no problem bringing Him into every conversation you have. And you will be amazed with what God can do in those conversations.

III. Notice finally, the characteristics of our witness (vv45-46)

I can remember the cool, beautiful day that we visited a temple devoted to the worship of many different deities. I encountered an old man there, and he initiated conversation with me. “I would like to tell you a story about something that the god I worship did 2,000 years ago.” And he proceeded to tell me the wildest sort of fairy tale that I have ever heard, and how this deity had made such a profound impact upon him. I patiently endured the tale, and when he had finished, I said to him, “Now, sir, I would like to tell you something that the God I worship did 2,000 years ago.” And I told him that this God, the one and only God of the universe, became a man and came to dwell among us. He went about doing good and teaching truth, performing signs and wonders that authenticated Him and His mission. And then this perfect, sinless, righteous, God-man did the unthinkable: He took all of our sins upon Himself and died on the cross. In His death, all of our sins were punished, and He defeated sin and death by His resurrection. As a result of this, we can be forgiven of our sins and made righteous in God’s sight, and have abundant and eternal life that cannot be earned or deserved, but which is given freely to us as a gift from God that we receive by faith. I told him how I had once been an atheist, but that this God had changed my life, and I would like for him to know the God I served. He said, “Oh, you mean Jesus. Yes, I know about Jesus, and I like Him too.” And quickly, he turned and began to rehearse the same fairy tale he had just told me to another person passing by.

Herein lies one of the challenges of being a Gospel witness. One of the most effective and important things we can share with other people is how Jesus has changed our lives. This is our “testimony.” It is a first-hand account of our experience with Jesus. Philip does that here as he tells Nathanael, “We have found Him!” I once heard someone say, “No one can ever refute your personal testimony.” That may be true. But do not be surprised when you share your testimony if the person with whom you are sharing responds with a testimony all their own. And then you get this sort of conversation where the other person is saying, “Thanks for sharing your story. I am very happy for you, but this is not for me. As you can see from my story, I’ve got my own thing going on.” I’ve experienced this in South Asia, in Africa, in Eastern Europe, and in Greensboro. But I keep sharing my testimony anyway. It is important, and many times, it is effective in opening the door to beginning a conversation. But, as my example illustrates, it is not enough. Our testimony is not the Gospel. It is a personal account of the Gospel’s effect upon us. Notice how Philip had to move beyond the testimony of his subjective experience to the objective facts of God’s truth revealed in Scripture. And so must we.

So Philip began to speak of Christ as He had been made known through Moses and the Prophets. We call this the “Old Testament,” and we forget sometimes that the God who is incarnate in Jesus Christ is the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament. In fact, what we call “the Old Testament” was the first Bible of the Christian Church. After His resurrection, Jesus gathered His disciples to Himself, and in Luke 24, we read that He told them, “All things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” These things included the fact that Jesus would suffer and rise again from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sin would be proclaimed in His name to all nations. But in addition to the things that were prophesied about Jesus in the Old Testament, we have what the Apostle Peter calls “the prophetic word made more sure.” We have the writings of the Apostles and their companions, inspired by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the writings of the Old Testament, and the promises of God are amazing about what He will do with His word. He says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). He says, “My Word … will not return to Me empty without accomplishing what I desire” (Isa 55:11). And those are promises we can count on.

So our witness is characterized by testimony, by Scripture, and also notice, by apologetics. Now, apologetics sounds like the word apologize, but it is different. When we make an apologetic for the Christian faith, we are not apologizing for it. We are giving a defense of it. Apologetics is giving a response to the questions and criticisms people have about the Christian faith. It comes from the Greek word apologia, found in 1 Peter 3:15, which says that we must always be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you.” Philip does that here. Notice how Nathanael says here, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” It is not an overstatement to say that Jesus put Nazareth on the map. It was such an insignificant town in Galilee that it was never once mentioned in the Old Testament, the Talmud, the Jewish Midrash, the writings of Josephus, or any ancient Gentile writing. Just as the entire region of Galilee was despised by Jews living in Southern parts of the land, so it seems that Nazareth was despised even by other Galileans. We might speak of it as being “on the wrong side of the tracks.” So Nathanael says what many others have thought: “Jesus cannot be who you think He is, because nothing good ever came out of Nazareth!” And though Bethlehem, not Nazareth, was the place of His birth, Nazareth became His hometown when He was just a boy. But Nathanael’s objection to Jesus was without merit, as so many objections to Him are. As F. F. Bruce says, “Nazareth might be all that Nathanael thought, but there is an exception to prove every rule, and what an exception these young men had found!”[3] So Philip was not deterred by Nathanael’s critical response. He only pressed in further to provide Nathanael a reason to move beyond the objection and encounter the living Lord Jesus. Sometimes we can do that with argumentation and sound reasoning. At other times, words are not enough. Words alone, though, are never sufficient. We must beware of what one of my professors called “sledgehammer apologetics.” There are no magic words to make someone believe on the Lord Jesus. All of us who believe are led to faith by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But words can go a long way toward demolishing arguments and strongholds and overcoming objections. This is what Paul meant when he said in 2 Corinthians 10, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” In other words, we engage in the task of apologetics in order to show that following Jesus is not a blind leap of faith, but a reasonable and intelligent decision. If one continues in unbelief, it is in spite of the evidence and not for lack of it.

With or without reasoning, it is still necessary for a person to have a personal encounter with the Lord Jesus. And that is exactly what Philip offers to Nathanael. In response to Nathanael’s critical objection to Jesus, Philip says, “Come and see.” And those words indicate that whatever your objection may be to Jesus, if you would have a personal experience and encounter with Him, it would all fade from view. I have shared with you before that I had many questions and many objections to Christianity before I became a believer. And frankly, I never found anyone who could answer some of them. But what I realized was that when Christ overwhelmed me in a personal encounter, when the Holy Spirit invaded my life, I could no longer use those questions as an excuse to not believe. His presence and power became for me the ultimate apologetic. I came to Him and saw, and it was enough. And in any of our witness and apologetics, what we are ultimately doing is saying to the unbelieving world, “Come and see.” Come and see this Jesus and meet Him for yourself. And if you do, you will never be the same.

What is the distinguishing mark of the Christian? It is most assuredly a life of consistent Gospel witness. This Gospel witness is the overflow of a life that follows Him; it is thoroughly and exclusively centered upon Him; it is personal testimony, biblical truth, apologetic reasoning, and an invitation to the lost to come to Him and meet Him, and be transformed by Him. I pray that my life and yours will bear this distinguishing mark as we go into our neighborhoods and into the nations for Jesus’ sake. And if you have been brought here today by the providence of God, not knowing Christ in a personal way, then we would say to you what Philip said to Nathanael, “Come and see!”


[1] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 1.59.
[2] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 43.
[3] Bruce, 1.60. 

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