The Persuader - John 1:43-51

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 9th September 2007.

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Several years ago a survey was conducted amongst Christians in Britain to try and discover what single factor was decisive in their conversion to Christ. The results were as follows:

1. The influence of a particular church over a period of time- 27.8%

2. The influence of other members of one’s own family – 25.8%

3. The influence of a Christian friend or friends- 19.9%

4. A specific evangelistic event or activity – 13.2%.

What is the significance of that? Well simply this: that when it comes to people- whether boys or girls, teenagers, young adults or older people- the vast majority of Christians come  to such a position not through some crisis but through some process. A crisis could be reading an evangelistic book or tract or attending an evangelistic guest service. God does use such things to bring people to a personal knowledge of himself. But in most cases it is something which takes place over a period of time as a result of exposure to the Christian faith through Christian people. In other words- evangelism involves the long haul and not the quick sprint. And I am quite confident that this has been the experience of most people who are here tonight. And what that knowledge should do is inject into us a healthy dose of realism when it comes to our desire to see family and friends won for Christ as well as inspire us to be part of the process in introducing folk to so wonderful a Saviour. And this evening as we turn to John’s Gospel we see an example of this very thing taking place in the case of Philip, his friend Nathaniel and Jesus. So do turn with me to John 1 and verse 43 in order to see God in action.

First of all we have a faithful follower in Philip –v43-46. v43The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, "Follow me." 44Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45Philip found Nathanael and told him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote--Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." 46"Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked. "Come and see," said Philip.’

Now Jesus has left the Judean desert in the south where he had encountered John the Baptist and has made his way back up north to his own stomping ground in Galilee. And it is there he found Philip and issued the simple command ‘follow me’ and you cannot have a better description of what it means to be a Christian than that. A Christian is not simply someone who is attracted Christ at the level of the emotions. Neither is it someone who has assented to Christ at the level of the intellect. The Christian is someone who has made a commitment of the will, involving heart and head to follow Jesus which means having him as Lord. So where he goes we go. The way of life he leads we lead. The finding is God’s initiative, he seeks us out. The following is our response and the two always go together in John’s Gospel. And since Jesus is in the seeking business, and we are his followers, then we are to be like him in this respect too and Philip models this perfectly- the follower of Jesus is automatically a missionary of Jesus. And there are three things we can learn from Philip’s example when it comes to being a soul winner.

First, be specific. Philip knows someone who is religious and spiritual who could do with meeting the one who will be the fulfilment of his long felt heart’s desire and his name is Nathanael.  Now notice how Philip’s evangelistic zeal is practical, personal and precise. He is not piously idealistic dreaming of winning his whole town for Christ or immediately signing up for some overseas missionary programme. He begins with someone he knows, someone with whom he has some sort of relationship. And that is exactly where we are to begin. There is that commitment to write down the names of one or two individuals we know and to start praying for them. And given that we know something about them to think of the best ways of sharing our faith with them- to ask which of the variety of things on offer here would it be appropriate to invite them to- Time Out, After Eights, Christianity  Explored so that they can be immersed in the timely process of being exposed to God’s Word and the work of his Spirit. Now you may think that there is nothing exceptional about you which qualifies you to do such a thing- surely it is the job of the clergy to do this? But there was nothing exceptional about Philip either except that he followed Jesus-that is all the qualification you need.

Second, be informed. It is obvious from how the story unfolds that Nathanael loves his Old Testament and so that is to be the starting point for him. If Nathanael is to be persuaded at all to follow Jesus then he must be convinced that it is Jesus who fulfills all that the Old Testament looks forward to. And Philip has that conviction so he says, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote--Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’  You see, Moses said that one day the prophet would come, even greater than Moses who saw God face to face and rescued his people from slavery. The prophets spoke of a Messiah, a Christ, that is a king greater than the greatest of them all so far- David. That there would be a Servant who would offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the people to bring men and women back into contact with God. Well, that prophet, priest and King has now come, said Philip, we have met him and his name is Jesus. Now Philip doesn’t come over as some brainy theologian who can dazzle with blindingly brilliant arguments. But he does come over as someone who knows three things. He knows his friend and what makes him come alive- the Old Testament. Secondly, he knows enough of what the Bible says to make a connection between what he has read and what he has experienced-meeting Jesus. And thirdly he personally knows Jesus. It is his grasp of some biblical fundamentals that is the bridge from the one to the other- introducing his friend to the Lord Jesus Christ. And likewise we too need to have at least a grasp of the basics of the Christian faith if we are going to be of service to others. That is why it is good to get hold of some Christian books which go through these things- look at the book stall or come along to Christian Explored yourself so you can get the fundamental story firmly tucked under your belt.

Thirdly, be resilient, don’t be easily put off- Philip wasn’t- v 46"Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked. "Come and see," said Philip.’  Nathanael came from Cana a nearby Galilean village, so there maybe a bit of competitive banter going on- Cana verses Bethsaida-East Hull verses West Hull! But there is probably more to it than that. In Nathanael’s mind Nazareth was a nothing place. Religiously it had nothing going for it at all. It doesn’t even get a mention in the Old Testament- it is Bethlehem not Nazareth which is the place of promise, the town of God’s King. To admit that you come from Nazareth and then, to add insult to injury as does Philip by speaking of Jesus as the ‘son of Joseph’, you have already blown your credibility. No prophet comes from Nazareth. No King can possibly come from the man the locals know as ‘the carpenter’ –Joseph- who used to hang doors in our village. Get real! Hence the derisive snort of Nathanael- ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ And who can blame him? He has logic on his side. He has Scripture on his side- so he thinks. So what else can Philip appeal to? Now we have to admit that the put down of a friend can be one of the most difficult things to handle emotionally. To be accused of ‘being religious’, of ‘Bible bashing’ or being a couple of vouchers short of a pop up toaster can be devastating. That is when you want to find a hole to crawl into or change the subject as quickly as possible. But not Philip. He didn’t panic. He doesn’t go home. What he does do is to offer a challenge and support- ‘Come and see.’ He didn’t say, as we might- ‘Go and see’ – words of detached indifference. But, ‘Come and see’- words of supportive compassion. ‘Well, let’s find out, I will come with you if you like, I know what its like wondering in to a Christian meeting by yourself, you always worry what weird thing they might make you do.’ And that is true. I know a woman who used to come along to my home group when I was a curate who put off making a commitment to Christ because she honestly thought it would mean her becoming a nun- which would have been difficult anyway given she was married with two boys. But it was a genuine fear. Over time she saw that was not so, she came to Christ and a year later so did her husband. Offer to pick you friend up and come along to the meeting with them- offer moral support. Also by saying ‘come and see’ there is also that tacit willingness to learn something more yourself- sending the message that you too are open to finding out more about the faith rather than patronizingly giving the impression that you have all the answers and the non- Christian friend knows nothing. Nathanael certainly knew a thing or two as we shall see in a moment. And that simple answer to the first doubter is still a good one to give today. ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ ‘Come and see’. After 2,000 years we can say, ‘Come and see.’ Come and see the persecuted Christians whose flame tyrants have not been able to extinguish. Come and see the hospitals and orphanages rising from the crumbling ruins of atheism. Come and see Wilberforce fighting against slavery and ruining his own health in the process. Come and see Handel weeping as he composes the Messiah. Come and see the changed lives of lost students oppressed by materialism and meaninglessness. Go to any place on earth you may choose and see what good has come out of Nazareth and no other single individual who has ever lived on this planet has had such an impact as Jesus Christ. Come and see.

So what happens to the sincere seeker- look at v47-49. 47When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false." 48"How do you know me?" Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you." 49Then Nathanael declared, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel."   Nathanael is a significant name and in God’s providence plays its part in the unfolding of John’s Gospel. It means, ‘God has given.’  Remember this is the Gospel which declares that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son’, the Gospel which at its very outset declares that the law was given through Moses but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’. And so right near the beginning of this account of the life of Jesus Nathanael is to be the recipient of the God who gives. No sooner had they met Nathanael was given insight into the person of Jesus. He is to be given a glimpse of his glory and the assurance of life eternal. And God still does the same to any who will come to him, for that is his nature- he is the God who loves to give. And will you notice how Jesus relates to Nathanael- he really does understand and appreciate his character- "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false." This is not the flattery of a used car salesman but the genuine insight of someone who knows us better than we know ourselves. What does Jesus mean when he describes Nathanael as a ‘true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’? Obviously he has his character off to a ‘t’ because Nathanael replies, ‘How do you know me?’, the equivalent of us saying, ‘I am sorry, have we met somewhere before?’  Well, Jesus knows by what can only be supernatural knowledge that Nathanael is a reader of Scripture- that is what is behind the saying , ‘I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ To describe someone as ‘sitting under a fig tree’ was a figure of speech used to describe the practice of diligent rabbis studying Scripture in the privacy of their home. And Jesus knew he was studying the story of Jacob, the ancestor of the nation, who was actually given the name ‘Israel’ by God. But in contrast to Jacob, Nathanael is described as a ‘true Israelite in whom there was no deceit.’ You see, Jacob was a liar and a cheat- in fact that is what the name ‘Jacob’ means- deceiver. His name reflected accurately his character. He was a no good trickster, who had he been around today would have cheated old women out of their life savings. And yet, God took this pathetic individual, turned him around and made a nation out of him and eventually from him was to come the Saviour of the world. But Nathanael was not like that. He was a genuinely good person- a true Israelite. He did take his Bible seriously. He was what we would call, ‘dead straight’ and on that basis as an honest seeker of the truth Jesus deals with him. And let me say, he will do exactly the same with you. Christianity does not fear scrutiny by the open minded, it encourages it. Jesus does not say, ‘Don’t think, just believe’- he provokes Nathanael to think and so believe. And notice how Nathanael does not cling to his original prejudice that ‘nothing good’ can come out of Nazareth, he is open minded enough to have his mind changed by the evidence. ‘Who is this whom I have never met before in my life who knows such extraordinary things about me? Who is it that welcomes me and doesn’t dismiss me for my crass insensitivities? Who is it that can take a man like Philip and change him?’ And so Nathanael in his mind  joins up all the dots of Scripture so that the portrait of the face of the one they have been painting now stands right there before him- v 49 , "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel."  Can anything good come out of Nazareth? At the very least a teacher- ‘rabbi’. You don’t have to be long in the presence of a genius before you recognise it as such. I have met some very, very clever men in my time and it only took a few seconds for me to realise it. Call it intuition, call it tacit knowledge, call it whatever you like but you know it when you see it. Even the critics of Jesus recognise that he was at the very least a genius. One writer draws attention to three areas in which Jesus was unsurpassed- the field of religious poetry; the brilliance of argument and his capacity to express profound truth is simple language. You will not find any equal. And this is from a man who only went to synagogue school.  But for Nathanael the insight given to him was more than that- he was bowled over by the fact that this was ‘the Son of God, the King of Israel.’ At one level ‘son of God and King of Israel’ are just two different ways of describing the same thing- God’s messiah, the rescuer. But given what John has been steadily unfolding so far, ‘Son of God’ means much more than that- it means ‘God the Son’- deity incarnate, the King of heaven who in human flesh becomes the king of Israel. Sure, becoming a Christian may be a process but it doesn’t have to be a long one, not if we are as honest and as open minded as Nathanael- God respects integrity and will reward it. Those who seek, will find- that is not a possibility-it is a promise. Nathanael had just enough evidence for him to make a profession- and so do we. In fact that is the point of John writing his Gospel to supply evidence for faith.

Indeed that is what Jesus goes on to talk about as he brings this encounter to a close and so proves to be the powerful persuader-v 50, ‘Jesus said, "You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that." 51He then added, "I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."  What’s all that about? Well, Jesus is referring to that second reading we had from Genesis 28 and the encounter Jacob had at a place called ‘Bethel’ meaning the house of God in which he saw angel’s- God’s messengers, ascending and descending what has been called ‘Jacob’s ladder’ the stairway to heaven. Jacob, the cheat and twister that he was, was enabled to come into God’s presence. And it is likely that this was the portion of Scripture that Nathanael had been reading when Philip called on him to take him to see Jesus- hence Jesus referring to Jacob- Israel, contrasting him with Nathanael and talking about this event of angels ascending and descending. So how will Nathanael see ‘greater things’?  Well, just think about it. Jacob received mercy from God- forgiveness and assurance that all would be well. He met with God. This was ‘Bethel’ God’s house, God’s presence, the gateway to heaven. Now Jesus speaks of Nathanael and others who are present, ‘the you’ of verse 51 is plural- who will see ‘heaven opened’- a phrase which speaks of divine revelation, God taking the initiative to make himself known. And that is precisely what he is now doing in Jesus-‘the true light that enlightens everyman was coming into the world’- ‘The Word’- God’s self expression- ‘became flesh and dwelt amongst us.’ In fact the scene moves straight away from this saying to Nathanael’s home town- Cana- where Jesus performs two of his great ‘signs’ the turning of water into wine and  the restoring to full health a dying boy. Cana was a very tiny community. These people would have heard of Nathanael’s confession. It was as if in the homes of Cana Jesus wanted not only to unveil his own glory but encourage this new disciple’s faith. Heaven was opening already. Needs were being met and lives were being changed. Jesus is now the meeting point between God and man- Bethel. Jesus is the one who open’s heaven so that we can know God as he is – full of grace and truth. Jesus is the one who brings something of heaven to earth now and will ensure that we get to heaven in the future-for that is why he came- so that ‘whoever believes on him shall not perish but have everlasting life.’ The mercy and fresh start that Jacob came to know back in the Old Testament was nothing compared to what Nathanael and countless others every since have come to know in the Lord Jesus.

What do we say to our non-Christian friends? What Philip said- ‘Come and see.’ What does God say to you if you are serious about life- ‘Come and see.’ And who do we see- ‘Jesus-full of grace and truth.’

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