Getting to Know Jesus
Series: The Gospel of John
Given the lofty claims Christians make about Jesus, it’s important to get to know the real Jesus. This passage shows us how.
The past few Sundays I’ve been meeting a lot of you who are new to Philadelphia; every year many new residents move in. When people do move in, one of the first things people typically wonder about is how they can get to know people. Maybe that’s why some of you even came to church. Imagine, however, that when you moved to Philadelphia, people started telling you that someone in Philadelphia was your long-lost parent. You’d probably consider it a really big deal to figure out if they were, right? It would a bigger deal to get to know them than the other typical neighbors. We’re looking at the Gospel of John on Sunday mornings, and there is someone in the territory of Israel named John the Baptist telling the people around there that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the Son of God, the Christ, the one God promised to the people of Israel. That’s a big deal. He’s not just claiming Jesus is one person’s dad; he’s claiming that Jesus is the one who takes away the sin of the world. How would people get to know Him? How would they evaluate that claim? How can you? We get insight into these questions in this passage. Here we meet a number of seekers, people who were really concerned to find the truth, who sincerely wanted to obey God, and by the end of the passage, they all recognize Jesus as the Christ. They confirm that He is who John the Baptist claimed he was. They get to know Jesus. So today we’re going to talk about getting to know Jesus, and this passage shows us four pieces of that. These aren’t necessarily steps in a sequence, but they’re four elements let’s say of getting to know Jesus: Listen, follow, tell, look.
Our passage today begins with the first two followers of Jesus, but in verse 37 we read that they heard something before they followed Jesus. They heard John the Baptist, with whom they were standing, and whose disciples they were originally. When he saw Jesus, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” It’s when they heard him say this that they followed Jesus. It’s not the first time John said it either. We looked last week at what he said the day before when he saw Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” And we saw last week that in identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, John was identifying Jesus as the one God promised would come to suffer for the sins of the world, rise again, and return to judge the world. The Lamb of God rids the world of sin. He bears the sin of the world, forgives all who believe in Him, and judges all those who do not.
But that’s not his only title. Throughout the rest of the passage, when others become disciples of Jesus, they hear some other aspect of who he is. Peter in verse 41 hears from his brother Andrew that Jesus is the Messiah, or in Greek, Christ. The word means anointed one, and it was used to refer to the coming King that God had promised through the prophets, who would come to save God’s people and rule them with justice. In verse 45 Nathaniel hears that Jesus is the one of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote. He’s the one who not only the prophets, but the whole Law, pointed to. He’s the one who would obey the Law in full, He’s the sacrifice all the sacrifices of the Law pointed to, He’s the one who bears the curse of the law for human sin, He’s the one who receives the promised blessings of the Law for His obedience.
So the first part of getting to know Him truly is hearing the message concerning who He is and what He came to do. Jesus isn’t whatever we make him in our minds. In the 1900s there were all these projects to identify the “real” “historical” Jesus, and various characterizations of Jesus occurred until finally people began to recognize that what those searching for this historical Jesus were doing was recreating Jesus in their own image. So if the inquirer had a political agenda, they identified the real historical Jesus as a political revolutionary. If they were more spiritual, they identified Jesus as a spiritual guru. If tolerance was the agenda, Jesus was the most tolerant man ever, and so forth. But a Jesus of our own imagining isn’t the real Jesus. To get to know the real Jesus, we must listen to those who knew the real Jesus, who saw Him, and who were sent by God to testify about Him. When you listen to biblical preaching, are you listening for the preacher to merely affirm or entertain, or are you listening for what the preacher says about who Jesus is, what Jesus has done, based on the testimony of Jesus’ witnesses recorded for us in Scripture? If you want to know the real Jesus, listen for that.
And listen to who He says you are. In verse 42, we read that when Peter came to Jesus, Jesus said to him, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). In doing this, Jesus shows on the one hand that He already knows Peter: You are Simon the son of John. He doesn’t deny or annihilate who Peter is by nature; it’s through Him that Simon the son of John was made, after all. He welcomes him as Simon the son of John. But He doesn’t leave him there either. He gives him a new name, Peter, and a new identity really. Names are like that, you know. One time I visited this workout group and everyone there had a code name. I only went once and they gave me one! And as best as I can tell, it was their attempt to bring me in: You have a name here. And if I had wanted to go deeper in that community, I think I would have had to have let them give me that name. That’s something like what Jesus does here. He assumes the authority to give Peter a new identity, while not denying his former identity. In our world today we’re prone to let others tell us who we are, or to look within ourselves and identify our feelings with who we really are. But only Jesus has the authority to both tell you who you already are, and to make you into who you were made to be. So listen to who He says you are.
And finally, listen to the response that Jesus requires. In the case of the first two disciples, just hearing who Jesus is seems to compel them to follow Him in verse 37. If He’s the true Lamb of God, then of course we should follow Him. In Peter’s case, the implication is that hearing both that Jesus is the Messiah and hearing who he was compelled him to follow Jesus. In the case of Philip in verse 43, the call is more explicit. Jesus Himself comes to Philip and says, “Follow me.” In a sense you can think of this as an invitation, but it’s more than that. He doesn’t just say to Philip, “Hey I’m looking for some followers and I was wondering if you might like to be one. You’re welcome if you’re interested.” That’s what invitations sound like; take it or leave it. This is a command: “Follow me.”
So to summarize what those who get to know Jesus in this passage hear, they hear who Jesus is from those who were sent to testify about Him, they hear who they are according to Jesus, and they hear what Jesus requires of them. Each of them individually doesn’t get all of that at once, and in our case, as we get to know Jesus, these elements may come in a diverse order. We may be drawn to Jesus first because we sense our need for an identity only He can give; I think that’s actually how it began for me. We may be drawn to Jesus first simply because we hear who He is and what He’s done. And we may be drawn to Jesus out of a sense of duty, a sense that He is calling me to follow Him, even though I don’t know what all that looks like. But wherever we begin, we must all keep listening to all of these various elements of His Word if we are to know Him truly. And then we must respond to the call to follow Him.
So verse 37 introduces this idea of following, and then of course Jesus commands it as we’ve already seen in verse 43. It means what it sounds like in a very literal sense: The first two disciples were disciples of John the Baptist when the first day our passage narrates began. To be a disciple of someone was to be their student, except students at that time didn’t just pop in on the occasional lecture. They followed their teachers around, seeking to become like them in every way, and on the way, as they were going, their teachers would teach them. But the main thing John the Baptist wanted to teach his disciples was to not follow him, but follow Jesus. So when John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God, his disciples leave off following him around, and begin following Jesus around.
The first piece of following Jesus that shows us, then, is it requires us to leave off whoever we were following before. It doesn’t mean we have to despise them; these two disciples will no doubt be forever grateful to John the Baptist for pointing them to Jesus. But they can’t keep following him and following Jesus. As Jesus puts it, you can’t serve two masters. And we all are following someone. I know everyone likes to tell themselves, “I’m not a follower; I’m a leader, a trailblazer, an independent,” but that’s honestly naïve. If you’re such an independent thinker, why can sociologists predict with reasonable accuracy what you believe based on where you live, the news networks you tap into, and the shows you watch? Everyone’s following someone. The cool thing about following Jesus, though, is now instead of unconsciously following media moguls, publishers, and politicians, you get to consciously choose to follow someone totally trustworthy.
And you must trust Him if you’re going to follow Him, because He doesn’t tell you where all He’s going. Did you notice that with Philip? He comes to him and says, “Follow me,” but doesn’t tell Philip where He’s going. You can’t bargain with Jesus if you want to really know Him. You can’t say to Him, “Well now if I follow you can I still date this person, could I still take this job, does it mean I have to change my budget in this way?” It requires a complete surrender of the will. It’s a commitment to say, “Jesus, when we come to a fork in the road, and I want to go one way or the world is telling me to go one way, but you’re going the other way, I’m going where you’re going, even though I don’t know where all that is now,” because the idea is that you aren’t following Jesus in hope that He leads you to something else, a better life, marriage, tranquility, etc. You’re following Jesus to get Jesus. He’s the destination. So when He says, “Follow me,” the “me” is the only piece of data you really need to know.
And we see that in the story of the first two disciples, right? Once they start following Him around, Jesus turns around in verse 38 and is like, “Hey…what do you guys want?” and they say to Him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” They’re kinda just saying, “Hey, can we be with you?” That’s what it’s like to follow Jesus. It means wherever He leads, I want to go, because I want to be with Him. Now of course today, Jesus isn’t here on earth bodily. He ascended into heaven. But what has He given us? He’s given us His Word, His Spirit, and His body, the church. So where is Jesus directing you to go? How can you follow Him? Go where His Word in Scripture commands. As His Spirit works in you love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, act on those things in the context of your church. How can you be with Jesus now? Meditate on His Word. Pray in the Spirit. Gather with His church. If you want to get to know Jesus truly, you must follow Him. And as people in this passage do, one natural result of that we see throughout is they tell others.
John the Baptist is the first obvious example of telling in this passage. Two days in a row he says, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Often our telling must be repeated. Then when the first two disciples follow Jesus and stay with Him, we learn that one of them was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, and in verse 41 we read that he found his brother and told him that they had found the Messiah. The implication here is that it was the same day on which he’d found Jesus. You don’t have to be a veteran Christian to tell others about Jesus. John the Baptist had a special calling and had been at this for some time; Andrew became a witness for Christ the same day he became a disciple of Christ. And he just started with his brother.
I remember when Tom DeLucia got saved, it felt like the next week he was talking to me about the conversation he had with his sister about Christ. It really can be that simple. If you are newly converted, in some ways it’s easier. When people ask what’s new with you, you just say, “Well, I got baptized recently.” “Really? Why?” Boom; tell them about Jesus. And even in this passage we see the precise content of that presentation of Christ may vary; John the Baptist calls him Lamb of God, Andrew calls him the Messiah, Philip calls him the one of whom the law and prophets spoke. As disciples who now live on the other side of the death and resurrection of Christ, I find it helpful to remember God, Humanity, Christ, Response as the basic elements I want to get across to someone when telling them about Jesus, and then I can vary my presentation. God exists and He is good, He made humanity in His image, we’ve sinned against Him so that we are now stuck in our sins and deserving of His just judgment. God became human in Jesus Christ to live the perfect life, take the judgment our sins deserved on the cross, and rise again from the dead. The response He now calls for from everyone is to believe in and follow Him, and to whoever does He promises forgiveness of their sins, freedom to obey God’s commands, and eternal life. Could you see yourself believing in Him?
For those of us who are not new converts, you may have to get more creative, but a similar simplicity applies. Just go tell family, friends, neighbors, co-workers what you’re learning about Jesus, and keep telling them for as many days as they’ll let you. When someone asks you how your weekend was, don’t say just say, “good,” try saying something like, “It was good. The sermon in church was about how Jesus takes away the sin of the world, and hearing it really lifted my shame.” You notice a co-worker struggling and instead of just saying, “yeah that’s hard,” you say, “You know I feel like I’ve felt so many of the same things in my time working here, and the main way I’ve been able to get through it is through my faith in Jesus. Would it be ok with you if I shared a bit with you about it?”
If you find the will for such conversations is lacking in you, you aren’t alone. I feel my evangelism muscles have really atrophied after a year and a half of COVID, but this passage encourages me because it suggests that as we get to know Jesus, as we’re with Him more, telling others will be the overflow. So if you find this desire is lacking in you or that maybe you don’t have much to say about Jesus, spend time with Him. Follow Him. Get to know Him better. There must be something we’re missing if we don’t want to tell others about Him. And finally, look to Him.
The last follower of Jesus we encounter in our passage is Nathaniel, who hears about Jesus from Philip. Nathaniel was something of a skeptic, though, and first responded with surprise that anything good could come out of Nazareth. But when Jesus sees him, verse 47 tells us that he identified him as an Israelite, in whom there is no deceit. Nathanael asks him how he knows him, and Jesus says that before Philip found him, Jesus saw him under the fig tree, which evidently wouldn’t have been possible from where Jesus was, so that Nathanael, upon hearing it, confesses Jesus to be the Son of God and King of Israel.
We talked last week about the title, “Son of God.” It was wrapped up in royal expectations; God referred to the king in the line of Israel’s great king David as His son. Jesus is of course the true Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, and thus able to see Nathanael sitting under his fig tree when such would not have been possible by ordinary sight. So Nathanael confesses him to be the one spoken of by the Law and Prophets, who Philip had identified him as, by calling Him the Son of God, which also then means He is the true King of Israel, the Messiah, who came to save His people and rule them with justice. Nathanael looked at the evidence of Jesus’ ability to see him sitting under the fig tree and believed.
But Jesus says in verse 50 that he will see greater things than this, and in verse 51 he tells us what. He says there that not only Nathanael, but a plural “you,” will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Here Jesus alludes to the story of Jacob, who lived over a thousand years earlier. Genesis 28 records for us a vision that God gave Jacob of a ladder that touched the earth, and the top of which extended into heaven, via which angels were ascending and descending on Jacob. God then spoke to Jacob from the top of ladder and confirmed His covenant promise to Jacob. So what Jesus is saying here is not necessarily that Nathanael and others will see literally that same vision of Him, but that they will see signs further signs from heaven that Jesus truly is the Son of God.
And in a real sense, Jesus is the true ladder that Jacob saw, who connects heaven to earth. He is the Word that was with God in the beginning, through whom all things were made, but He came down from heaven, became flesh, and dwelt among us. And on the cross He dealt with the thing separating us from heaven: Our sins. He died for them, rose from the grave, and then ascended into heaven, taking our flesh there with Him, up the ladder, so that we could be there forever with Him. As one of the songs we sang today put it, “Christ has opened paradise.” He has opened the heavens for us. And He will come again to bring heaven down to earth. So to know Him truly, we not only listen to the message concerning Him, follow Him, and tell others about Him. We must personally look to Him by faith as the way from earth to heaven, the way to God. We must renounce our efforts to climb to heaven by our good works and instead look to Him. These first disciples recognized Him; do you? Then keep listening to His Word, follow Him wherever He leads you, live with Him, and tell others about Him.