The First Disciples

In the last section of today’s Gospel, Jesus goes public and starts to get His followers together. The passage introduces five disciples and begins with John the Baptist, the first Christian evangelist, doing his job, by pointing two of his own disciples to Jesus the “Lamb of God” as he recognises the unique greatness of Christ.

The disciples Jesus calls couldn’t be more different. First there is Andrew who lived with his brother Simon in Capernaum (Mk.1:29). Both were fishermen. In many ways Andrew is the optimistic disciple, already a follower of John and after the Baptist the first believer in Christ. He couldn’t hide the excitement he felt about finding Jesus and was soon telling his brother about it and taking him to Jesus. Andrew is soon overshadowed by his brother. Nevertheless, he underlines the importance of telling others about Jesus and simply taking them to the place where they can meet Him for themselves. Accompanying Andrew is an unnamed disciple. Sometimes it’s suggested that it’s John himself, the writer of the gospel, but we have no way of knowing that with certainty. Notice that Jesus asks these two enquirers “What do you want?” – He seems to be making sure that they aren’t just a pair of zealots who were only interested in the overthrow of Rome.

To us today it’s saying that we must examine our own motives for following Jesus. Are we seeking His glory or ours, His power, or our own recognition? If we dare to be a disciple we must follow Him for the right reasons. As we’ll see later in this Gospel there are people who are looking for a king, but not a Saviour.

Then we have Simon. Straight away Jesus sees his potential and gives him a new name by calling him a rock – Peter. It took a long time for Peter to fulfill the promise foreseen by Jesus, but he reminds us of all we can become in Christ, even after a shaky start and even when we make mistakes further down the line. He’s not rock-solid throughout the Gospels, but he became a solid rock in the days of the early church.

And so we get to Philip – a very ordinary man who seems to be spiritually out of his depth. Perhaps a bit perplexed, unsure and bewildered. In these verses it was Jesus who took the initiative and found him, “Come, follow me.” (1:43). That gears him into action and then Philip tells his brother Nathanael, “We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.” (1:45) – emphasizing the fact that all the OT prophecies about the Messiah find their fulfillment in Jesus. “Come and see for yourself,” Philip states to Nathanael’s prejudice.

For Nathanael is not very impressed with the idea of the Messiah coming from Nazareth. Some Jews hated Nazareth because a Roman army garrison was based there. He’s thinking it highly unlikely that God would ever want to work in a place like that! Also he lives in the small town of Cana about 4 miles away. This is significant, for it means he’s automatically caught up in the petty rivalry that abounded among the small fishing villages along the lake. Imagine a football derby match between Wolves and West Bromwich Albion and you’ll get the idea! “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he sneers when hearing reports that the Messiah grew up there. He’s doing something we all do. As though our knowledge of a person, place or situation limits the possibility of God working miracles. But once he meets Jesus he discovers that there is no limit to His power.

All these men in some way make this stunning discovery. First century evangelism seems to be very direct and immediate. They go to others, meeting them where they are. Inviting them, like Jesus did, “To come and see.” It’s everyday evangelism. Our approach should be no different now. Evangelism doesn’t have to be overly creative (the Word will speak for itself), it’s not only about open-air preaching, door to door preaching, evangelizing through a sermon or using Gospel tracts…sometimes it’s more about evangelizing through our lifestyle – as endorsed centuries ago by St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

The Gospels make it clear that Jesus drew people to God by showing them kindness and performing good deeds. Disciples aren’t born they’re created in God’s image: “For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink…when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (Mt.25:35,40). However, He also spent a lot of time teaching folk. Andrew and the unnamed disciple went to the place where Jesus was staying, and they remained with Him the rest of the day. I imagine Jesus started with “In the beginning” and explained everything about God up to the point of His arrival and mission. No different today as unnamed would-be disciples are looking for someone to give them security in an insecure world. Ac Christian’s mandate is to point them to Christ. As believers, each of us has our own story of how we met Jesus. Personal testimony is a tool to put the seed of questions in the minds of people who are really seeking answers for their lives. But in sharing the Gospel all we can do is try to give a reason for the hope we have and let people come to their own conclusions: “We can plant and water, but only God can make the seed grow.” (1 Cor.3:7).

For example, a young salesman was disappointed about losing a big sale, and as he talked with his sales manager he lamented, “I guess it just proves you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” The manager replied, “Take my advice: your job is not to make him drink. Your job is to make him thirsty.” So it is with evangelism. Our lives should be so filled with Christ that they create a thirst in others for the Gospel. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Well come and see!”

The first thing Jesus says to Nathanael is “Now here is a genuine son of Israel – a man of complete integrity.” Nathanael is taken aback. “Have we met?” he asks. “How do you know about me?” Jesus tells him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (1:47-49). It was not uncommon practice for a devout Jew to sit at the base of a tree and turn that into a place of meditation, reading of the Scriptures and prayer. But one thing we should take into consideration any time we read the gospel of John is that he speaks quite often in symbols and metaphors.

First of all Jesus is playing with words here. The word “Israel” is another name for “Jacob,” whose name means “leg-puller,” as in, “Are you pulling my leg?” Implying, of course, that he knows full well how cynical Nathanael is. Jesus also knows what we are really like. An honest person will feel comfortable with the thought that Jesus knows him or her through and through. A dishonest person will feel uncomfortable. You can’t pretend to be something you’re not when the eyes of the Lord gaze at your soul.

Secondly, in Jewish thought it is believed that the tree of knowledge of good and evil from Genesis, from which the tempting fruit was picked, was a fig tree. Forget medieval painting showing apples. We don’t know what the fruit it was, but Jewish scholars engaged in studying scripture were said to be “gathering figs.” And, for that reason, Jesus is saying to Nathanael, “I know you’re a “fig gatherer”. I know you’ve been asking those important questions of life: “Who am I?”, “Where am I going?”, “What’s it all about?” I know you’ve been studying. I know who you are, and what matters to you. And so I say to you what Philip said: Come and see.” And Nathanael does.

That’s why Jesus’ invitation is so surprising because behind it is a tremendous miracle. Before we come to faith, we not just mild sceptics like Nathanael. We are an outright enemy of God. Our sinful nature opposes the truth. And if you cast a glance back at the past week you will find words from your lips or actions, or thoughts from your mind that prove our sinful condition’s desire to do the exact opposite of God’s will. Yet we are called out of the darkness of sin and unbelief and into the light of faith and righteousness. And Jesus goes onto say not only to Nathanael but to all those gathered around Him: “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Here Jesus is referring to an incident from the life of Jacob where God comforted him when he was on the run from Esau in a dream that included a ladder, or a staircase from earth to heaven, and angels going up and down on it. Jesus is saying that He is now the ladder through whom we have access all the way up to heaven. His life has bridged the gap between God and human beings because His life met the standards of God’s law that our lives never meet. No wonder we are taken by surprise when we realise the whole purpose of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. Therefore,Come and see” – as Jesus is still gathering disciples, plucking us from under our fig trees and opening our eyes to see God as He really is, and not as the world sees.

Blessed be The Word. Love in the Messiah. 


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