In his book After Heaven, Robert Wuthnow says the watchword of Americans today is spiritual. People say, ‘I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious. I am searching for spiritual reality, but I don’t expect to find it in religious institutions or sets of dogmas.’ What Wuthnow articulates so well here is Americans’ combined rejection of the idea that secular science and reason alone can give us meaning in life or a life worth living’that their real interest is in the supernatural and in the eternal. They don’t want to go back to the perceived creativity-stifling, smug moralism of ‘traditional religion,’ so they say, ‘Ah, the new spirituality, not the old traditional religion.’
In John 1:35-51, we see the account of how Jesus Christ met his first disciples. We see something offered to us that is neither the new spirituality nor the old traditional religion. It’s not a vague or general sense of spiritual well-being or a new set of rules. It’s an encounter with a living Person.
I have chosen this biblical passage because there are patterns here. If you want to find this spiritual reality through Jesus—this man who bridges the gap between spirituality and religion, and who offers us something different from either the new spirituality or the old traditional religion—then you need to see what the key is. The key is this repeated phrase: ‘Come and see.’ What does that mean? Let’s look at it together.
The first time ‘Come and see’ happens, the disciples are kind of nervous. They were just told Jesus is this incredible person, so they follow. He says, ‘What do you want?’ What they want is to know if what they have heard is really true.
Jesus doesn’t demand belief at the moment. He doesn’t say, ‘Well, let me tell you who I am and how I demand obedience.’ He says, ‘Come and get to know me. Come and see how I live. Come and see how I speak. Come and see what I do.’ The second time we see ‘Come and see’ in the Gospel passage is when Philip says to his friend, Nathanael, ‘I found the Messiah.’
Nathanael responds with a valid question. Everybody at that time knew the Messiah would come out of Bethlehem, out of the line of David. So Nathanael looks at Philip and says, ‘He is from Galilee. He is from Nazareth. How could he be the Messiah?’ Philip’s answer is to say, ‘Let’s go find out. Come and see.’
The question we ask today is: ‘How could there be a loving and merciful God when the world is the way it is with all the injustice?’ This is another valid question, so let’s see how Jesus would answer it.
He doesn’t define the ‘new spirituality’ by saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what you believe. Figure out what works for you.’ Although that would be convenient—no critical thinking, no assessment—instead he says, ‘Come and think.’ He does not say to you what traditional religion has often said: ‘Don’t question. Just believe what we’re telling you because we’ve told you.’ No, Jesus says, ‘Come and think.’ How different this is from either the neo-spirituality or old religion.
Although the Gospel writer was addressing people who lived two thousand years ago, those people were in the same boat as we are today. How can they go and look at Jesus? How can they listen to him? How can they look at the evidence of what he said and how he lived? Here is the answer: ‘The next day John [the Baptist] was there.’When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘Look”’
There are two important points here. All through the first chapter of John, we’re told that John the Baptist saw and said. The Greek word used here means essentially, ‘I was actually there. I really saw this, and now my testimony is admissible evidence in court.’ John the Baptist is not talking about an inward experience. He’s not talking about an impression. John is saying, ‘I’m seeing this.’
As we read this passage, we see it has the marks of an eyewitness account. It says they saw where he was staying and they spent the day with him until the tenth hour, which is 4:00 pm.
In Reynolds Price’s introduction to his book Three Gospels, he makes the interesting point that in the ancient world, fictional narratives such as epics, legends, and myths never used details. You don’t see, ‘Oedipus went to see the Oracle at Delphi, and she came out around 4:00.’ Our Gospel passage, however, states, ‘The next day,’ not ‘Once upon a time.’ Price says that when you see such detail, it means that the author is signaling the reader that this is a legal testimony, not an urban legend. This is John’s way of saying, ‘This is an eyewitness account. I’m showing you exactly what he said and did. If you read my account, you will be able to come and see and examine the evidence the way we did.’
How can you come and see? Read the account of the Gospels. Then you will have to decide whether you believe these were deliberate, intricate lies by people who died for those lies, or that a human being was the Creator God who came to earth to save us. But there is nothing in the middle that is warranted.
The only way you know you’ve come and seen is if you have a position that, frankly, is extremely hard. It’s very hard to believe that a human being would be God, and it’s very hard to believe that this incredible movement and these incredible people, who died for this, consciously and deliberately told us lies about it. You have to decide which one is easier for you to believe, but don’t you dare stand in the middle. If you have, it means you haven’t come and seen.
The word come means that I move from where I am to here. I make a change. The reason Jesus says ‘Come’ is because he wants them to follow. He doesn’t just want them to believe. The text gets that across in a couple of ways, but here is the best one. In John 1:29, the Baptist says to his disciples, ‘Look, the Lamb of God.’ It’s not until verse 35 that they actually follow. This is a way for us to see the difference. When John the Baptist told his disciples ‘This is the Messiah,’ surely they believed, but they weren’t ‘followers’ until they actually began to follow Jesus.
That’s the difference between being just a person who ascribes to beliefs, who says, ‘Oh, I like Jesus. I believe in Jesus. I’m trying to follow Jesus,’ and knowing Jesus personally and becoming a follower, a disciple. Now how does that happen in your life? In verse 51, Jesus says, ‘I tell you the truth.’ What the Gospel writer tells us he really says is, ‘Amen, amen.’ The word amen is an Aramaic word that means, ‘This is true.’ Every commentator and historian, anybody who knows ancient cultures, knows this is a unique usage of it. As one commentator puts it, ‘Jesus Christ’s use of amen to introduce his own words is without analogy in all of Judaism and among any other New Testament writers.’ Amen was only used to affirm and approve and accredit the words of another.’
For example, when someone was preaching in the synagogue, the elders would stand up. When they were all done, they would say, ‘Amen.’ Why? That was their way of saying, ‘We’ve checked out what this person says with our understanding of the Scripture, and it’s true.’ Maybe all the people would say, ‘Amen.’
Of course, Jesus Christ made it even harder for us because he affirms the Bible. It’s not that just his words printed in red in your Bible are the ones we have to obey. Jesus himself says, ‘The Scriptures shall not be broken. Not a jot or a tittle will pass away until all is fulfilled.’ We need to remember that all those who wrote the New Testament or provided the material for it were trained by Jesus. If you want to come and see and believe—that is, investigate the evidence—all you have to do is believe that the Bible is reliable reporting. But if you want to be a disciple and if you want to know Jesus personally, you have to be willing to listen to what the Word of God says, whether you like it or not.
Personal following without an infallible Bible is impossible. If you read the words of Jesus and say ‘That’s great’ about some things and ‘I can’t believe that; that’s primitive’ about others, what kind of Jesus do you have at the end of your reading? You have a Jesus of your own heart’s making. You think you’re following Jesus, but you’re following your own heart under the guise of following Jesus.
Unless Jesus compels you to say, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to listen to this. I’m going to wrestle with this. I’m going to submit to this even where I hate it’, if you don’t have that, then you don’t have a personal Jesus.
What’s really interesting about this encounter in the Gospel account is that John the Baptist leads Andrew and the other person, whoever it is, to Jesus. Andrew leads his brother Peter to Jesus. Philip leads Nathanael to Jesus. When Philip says, ‘Come and see,’ what he means is, ‘Let’s go together. Let’s figure this out.’ This is a very important point. While there are exceptions, the general rule is that the way to find Jesus is almost always through someone you know. In this case, it was a friend who had already found Jesus.
Christianity is not a philosophy through some great teacher by which you can save yourself. No, Christianity is an encounter with a Person, and we see in the Bible that people find Jesus through their friends. After being introduced to Jesus, then we need friends who are a couple of steps ahead of us spiritually to help us in our walk.
There are some of you who have already experienced the blessing of having found Jesus through friends. Some of you have a lot to offer, but you’re not finding anybody for Jesus. If you want to know how you can finally be effective and really be helpful to people, then look at the Gospel text. There are three things we see here.
First, patience. John the Baptist says repeatedly, ‘Look, the Lamb of God.’ Finally, they follow Jesus. You have to be patient. Who knows how many times you have to say ‘Look’ before they follow.
Second, courage. Philip says, ‘We found the Messiah, and here he is.’ Nathanael asks him a tough question that he has no idea how to answer. Isn’t this the reason why we’re all such chickens? Aren’t we afraid of being asked a question we don’t know the answer to? But the way to get good at answering those questions is practice by floundering and blowing it for years. Unless you’re willing, unless you have the courage to do that, you’re never going to be effective.
Third, confident humility. What does Philip do when he gets the total stump question of ‘Isn’t the Messiah supposed to be from Bethlehem?’ He says, ‘I don’t know. Let’s talk about it. Let’s study. Let’s go talk to him. Let’s go look.’ There is a humility here because he takes Nathanael seriously enough to say, ‘We do need to think about this, and I don’t know the answer.’ But he also has the confidence to say, ‘If you come, you will see.’
When Nathanael meets Jesus, Jesus says, ‘You believe because.’ You will see greater things than you can imagine. ‘Come and see’ means come and wonder. I am calling you into an adventure so wonderful that it is beyond your imagination.’ How does he do this?
First of all, he calls us to the wondrous adventure of personal transformation. I’ll put it to you this way. Do you remember ever meeting somebody you suddenly realized really understood you? It could have been a counselor, a new friend, or an older, wiser person. It could have been somebody you were falling in love with. Why was it so heady and addicting? I’ll tell you why. To begin with, you’re excited about the possibility of finally being able to figure yourself out. We’re all riddles to ourselves. ‘Why do I do what I do? Why do I feel what I feel?’ You’re also excited that this wise person, this person you love and respect, thinks about you, considers you significant enough to think of you, to ponder you, to consider you. The two together, the prospect of new information and that incredible affirmation, just blow you through the roof. But even this kind of revelation and fulfillment has its boundaries—ultimately, you always find there is a limit to how much that person really knows you and loves you.
When Nathanael walks up to Jesus, he is blown away by something no rabbi ever has done or ever will do. Jesus says to him, ‘Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no guile’ (KJV). What Jesus is talking about is his character. He uses a word that means unpretentious and transparent. Nathanael looks at him and says, ‘You nailed me. Yeah, I am that kind of person. I’m plain spoken. I’m kind of blunt. How do you know me?’ Then Jesus says, ‘Know you? I saw you under the fig tree.’ Nathanael’s eyes get as big as saucers. He says, ‘How could you’? How could any’? You are the Messiah!’
What does that mean? I don’t know. We don’t know. That’s one of the marks of an eyewitness account. But I’ll tell you, it was something so private, so significant, so absolutely impossible that any human being could know that Nathanael is astounded. ‘This is not just somebody who knows me somewhat; he knows me completely.’
That’s not the only reason he is blown away. Jesus Christ is not just saying, ‘I know you.’ He is praising him, even though Nathanael doesn’t know him. Isn’t that astounding? Jesus Christ knows you to the bottom and praises you to the skies. There has never been a Counselor like this. There has never been a friend like this. There has never been a lover like this. This is the Wonderful Counselor. This is the friend you’ve always been looking for. When God comes and calls you in love, by his call he makes you what he calls you.
First, Jesus says, ‘Nathanael, I will give you greater things than that. You have no idea what you’re going to become, transformed by my love.’ Second, Jesus talks about an upward journey, an outward journey. He says, ‘Verily, verily I say to you, you will see heaven open and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’ What he is saying here is astounding.
In the Old Testament story of Jacob, Jacob was running through the desert, fleeing for his life, despairing that he had lost God, that he had lost everything. Going to sleep for the night, he dreams of a ladder on which angels were ascending and descending.
Jesus Christ says to Nathanael, ‘Let me tell you something beyond your imagination. I am the gate of heaven Jacob saw. That was not just a dream; that was a promise. I am the way through that wall into that cosmic reality that is behind this world.’ What does it mean? It means that story is about him. It means all the stories in the Old Testament are about him.
When John the Baptist says, ‘Look, the Lamb of God,’ what is he saying? He is referring to that night long ago in Egypt when the angel of death passed over those who had blood on their doorframes. For those who didn’t have the blood of the lamb on their doors, the firstborn of that house died. John the Baptist says, ‘Jesus is that slain Lamb. That story was about him, about his life, about his death.’
But it goes beyond that. When Jesus Christ says, ‘I am the door and the gateway into the cosmic reality behind everything,’ he is not just saying, ‘All the biblical stories are about me.’ He is saying, ‘All the stories are about me.’ Jesus says, ‘My story is the story to which all the other stories are pointing. Therefore, the stories are true. You can know me, and this same cosmic power from that cosmic, glorious center will come into your life. You will be in the story. Evil spells will be broken. I am the reality to which all the legends point.’
‘Come and see’ means you can get in. ‘Come and see’ means I can’t even begin to describe what is going to happen in your life if you come and follow him. You say, ‘Okay, I have to change my life, right? Obey the Bible, right?’ You’re excited. You’re ready. ‘I have to tell my friends about Jesus. I have to study the Bible.’
No. The key to getting in is not to do anything. Jesus does not say, ‘I’m at the top of the ladder.’ He doesn’t say, ‘Angels are ascending and descending to the Son of Man.’ He doesn’t say, ‘If you try really hard, you can ascend.’ No, you can’t. Psalm 24 says, ‘Who shall ascend into the presence of God? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.’
How are we ever going to get up there? Jesus says, ‘I am the ladder. I came down to bring you to God. I lived the life you should have lived, died the death you should have died. Trust in me. If you do, you get in.’
Come and see. Think. Come and see. Follow. Come and see with friends. ‘Come and see’ means be amazed at his grace. He can’t wait to show you what he is going to do for you. Come and see.