Our first introduction to John the Baptist is early in chapter one. In verse 6, John the apostle writes, “There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”
A little later, the Pharisees will send some priests and Levites to question him about who he is. After all, the Jews hadn’t seen anybody like John for 400 years. He looked and sounded like a prophet of old. His message had power, and he spoke without regard for who he offended – and he offended a lot of people, including the king (but that’s another story for later). He had all the appeal of a snarling watchdog, but people came by the thousands to hear him, and be baptized by him. And so, the Pharisees are curious and they want to know just who he thinks he is. Listen to the conversation: “Are you the Christ?” “I am not the Christ.” Are you Elijah?” “I am not.” Are you the Prophet?” “No.”
This is getting them nowhere, so they ask, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
And so John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
John’s Gospel doesn’t tell us about his camel hair garment, or eating locusts and honey or condemning the Pharisees or his confrontation with Herod. Those are in the other Gospels. John wants us to know one thing about John the Baptist – that he knew exactly who he was and why he was here. He was here to announce the coming of the Messiah.
John had the envious position of every televangelist today – an audience who listened to every word he said. He had a devoted following and powerful influence. He could have parlayed that into a position of power within the Jewish leadership, but he didn’t. He had no pretensions, he had no ego. He was here to do one thing – proclaim the coming of the Messiah – and then step out of the way. Now I don’t know if you realize what a unique man John must have been. Even the most humble among us have a little bit of ambition for a place greater than we have now. We imagine ourselves having a little influence, exerting a little power. But not John.
Our common assumption is that the most confident people are those with the biggest egos, who are always promoting themselves. But that’s not true. It is only the person who has the truest sense of his identity in God who has the greatest confidence – the one who knows who he is and why he is here – who can humbly step out of the way and let another shine. That was John. He said, “He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
And so, one day when Jesus showed up at the Jordan river where John was preaching and baptizing, John took one look and said – that’s him, the one I’ve been telling you about – He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – this is the Son of God. And then John tells his disciples to follow him, and they do.
John doesn’t go running after them saying, “Wait a minute, maybe I was a little hasty.” No, he has been preparing them for this moment. He has been teaching them about this one who would come after him, this Messiah, this one who was coming to deliver God’s people from their sin. He told them how they would recognize him: “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” John didn’t come to gather a following of his own, he came to prepare the way of the Lord so that others would follow him. And now they do.
John’s Gospel will come back to John the Baptist in chapter 3. In fact, John spends more time on John the Baptist than all the other Gospels put together. And that is because John is such a key part of understanding Jesus. Back in 1:7, John says, “He came as a witness to testify concerning that light.”
Jesus himself will later call upon that testimony as evidence of his claim to be from God. And John’s witness is the triggering event for Jesus’ ministry.
In chapter 3, there is a confrontation between John’s disciples over whether John should be in competition with Jesus. His disciples complain that Jesus is getting all the attention and everyone is going to him. John squashes their indignation by describing the relationship between a groom and his best man. At the wedding, the best man isn’t the center of attention and people aren’t there to see him. The best man’s job is to see the groom and the bride successfully married. The best man rejoices when he hears the grooms voice and is filled with joy when his job is finished. John says, “That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
It is interesting that the first two of John’s disciples to follow Jesus were Andrew and another unnamed man.
When John the Baptist points them to Jesus, they follow, and Jesus turns around and asks them, “What do you seek?” Jesus had a way of asking a question at just the right time that would make people really focus on their hearts. Think of some of the questions Jesus asked:
He asked his disciples, “Who do man say that I am?” and then “Who do you say that I am?”
He asked the crippled man, “Do you want to be healed?”
He asked the father of a demon-possessed boy, “Do you believe?”
He asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these?”
This question in John 1 is an especially important question, “what do you seek?” What we seek, what we desire, what we focus our lives upon really affects everything else we do.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will tell us “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these other things will be yours as well.” God will tell the exiles through Jeremiah, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
If we seek the right things we almost invariably find them, and with them, countless other blessings that come as a result of walking down the right path. Blessings are a result, not of seeking the blessings themselves, but of seeking the most important things.
And so, Jesus asks these first would-be followers, “What do you seek?” He wants to know, are you motivated by curiosity or a real desire to follow me? A few verses later, Andrew comes running to his brother Simon Peter, and what is the statement he makes? “We have found the Messiah!” And he brings Simon to Jesus.
The first question Andrew and John asked Jesus was “Rabbi, where are you staying?” They weren’t asking for an address, but to spend some time with him. And Jesus responds, “Come and see.” It’s an invitation to join him and find what they are looking for.
We get some tremendous insight into Jesus’ ministry when it comes to this critical juncture where he chooses his disciples – those men who will literally make or break the success of his ministry and of this movement.
Notice, he didn’t go to the Temple and pick the top twelve scribes and rabbis; he didn’t go to Jerusalem Christian University or to Antioch Preachers Training School. He didn’t choose the people you and I probably would have chosen. In fact, he chose twelve men that I wonder if anybody would have logically chosen. They were not only not extraordinary, they were common, they had rough edges, they had their doubts, they often didn’t have a clue. But Jesus chose these men, not because they were the best and the brightest, but because these were the kind of men who would be the most powerful object lessons of what God can do in a person’s life.
Let’s read these verses that describe these first disciples of Jesus.
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter ). The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip 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.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” He 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.” (John 1:40-51)
Let’s start with Andrew: Andrew will always be Simon Peter’s little brother. Have you ever lived in the shadow of an overachiever? An older brother or sister who always excelled and always got the attention? Or just as bad – you had to live down the reputation of a family name that had been soiled by someone else’s actions. Andrew seemed to thrive in his role – he knew his strengths and he never failed to do what he could. Whenever we see Andrew he is always bringing people to Jesus. He’ll bring his brother Peter to Jesus; he’ll bring the little boy with a sack lunch to Jesus; he’ll bring the Greeks who show up in Jerusalem asking to see Jesus. And if you could only have one thing you did well – that’s a pretty great one to have – to bring people to Jesus. You got to love Andrew. He didn’t have all the answers, but he knew who did.
We all know Simon Peter. Jesus tells him, “You are Simon Bar Jonah” Bar Jonah literally means, “son of a dove” (perhaps implying flighty, unstable, fearful). “But you will be called Cephas” or Peter – literally, a rock.
Simon will always be the one who speaks first, often before he thinks. Peter is unpredictable and impulsive, but he is also loyal and protective. Yes, he will be the one who jumps out of the boat to walk to Jesus on the water, and then sink like the rock he is, but don’t forget, he’s the only one who had enough faith to get out of the boat.
Peter has a lot of rough edges and flaws, but Jesus sees in him the potential to change the world. And so Jesus will tell Peter to leave his fishing boats and follow him, and Peter will walk away from it all to follow Jesus and never look back.
Jesus will change, not just his name, but his personality.
Illustration – Lindsey Clegg, a London business man told the story of a warehouse property he was selling. The building had been vacant for months and vandals had damaged the doors, smashed the windows and scattered trash throughout the interior. As he showed the prospective buyer the property, Clegg promised to replace the broken windows and repair any structural damage. “Don’t worry about that” said the buyer. “I’m going to build something completely different. I don’t want the building; I want the site.”
That’s what Jesus wanted with Peter – not just to fix the flaws and sand off the rough edges, he wanted to build a foundation on him and start anew. That’s what he wants with all of us – a place to lay a foundation and begin building a new life.
Jesus finds Philip and says, “Follow me” and he does. There is nothing exceptional about Philip. Like Andrew and Peter, he is from the seaside town of Bethsaida in Galilee. Like Andrew and Peter and John, he is a fisherman. He is an ordinary disciple following an extraordinary Lord. But he also can’t keep the news to himself. He goes and finds Nathaniel and tells 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.”
Nathaniel is an interesting one. At a word, everyone else is ready to jump on board and follow Jesus, but Nathaniel is a bit of a skeptic. In fact, when Philip tells Nathaniel that Jesus is from Nazareth, he scoffs and says, “Nazareth! Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Maybe he’s the skeptic because he’s been burned before. Maybe he’s seen too many charlatan preachers come along claiming to be something they’re not. Maybe he’s been to Nazareth and knows it’s a little backwater spot in the road whose claim to fame is that nobody famous has ever been from there.
In spite of his doubt, Nathaniel follows Philip to meet Jesus, and as he approaches, Jesus says, “I know you, you were the one sitting under the fig tree.” I wish we had more of the setting, or more of the conversation, just a little hint as to why that so impressed Nathaniel. But apparently, that little revelation by Jesus convinces Nathaniel on the spot that Jesus is everything everybody says he is and Nathaniel replies, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
And Jesus says, “That’s all it takes to convince you? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
There is one other disciple who remains unnamed – the other disciple with Andrew, who is the first follower of Jesus was John. In John’s Gospel, John is always there in the background. Here, he doesn’t even identify himself, later on he will always refer to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” And I don’t think he calls himself that in a prideful way, but with a sense of awe and humility that he should have such a place of honor.
And in fact, I hope you think of yourself in the same way as the disciple whom Jesus loves. To realize that you have been blessed with a very special and very unique relationship with the Savior that he knows and cares about you, and that you above all the others are special to him.
All of the Gospels tell us about Jesus calling his disciples, but John’s stories give us a unique insight into several of them in ways the others don’t. But what I want us to take away from our introduction to Jesus’ closest followers is that he chose people just like you and me – common, ordinary people who weren’t skilled and savvy; they didn’t have remarkable resumes – they were just willing to follow Jesus, and do it with all their heart. That’s the kind of people Jesus is still seeking to follow him today. Will you listen to his call: “Follow me.”