John’s gospel opens, as we have seen, poetically introducing us to the most important event in all of human history. The eternal Word of God, the only Son of God, has become flesh. How is it that we now encounter this Word-become-flesh? It’s through witnesses. We go from the heights of theological meditation to, of all places, a witness in the desert.
When we think of the forerunner of the Lord, we think of John the Baptist: the great prophet in the desert baptizing those who repent of their sins. The Gospel according to John is the only gospel, however, that doesn’t include the actual baptism of Jesus. It’s probably more appropriate here to call John the Baptist “John the Witness.” Through his example and the other characters in this chapter, we learn about encountering the Word through witness.
John’s example shows us that to point others to Jesus, one must lose one’s ego. This gospel is filled with the “I am” statements of Jesus. See John 6:35, 8:58, and 10:11 for a few examples. Compare them with Exodus 3:14. Jesus’ message is “I am.” John says three times, “I am not” (John 1:20-21). Is John the Messiah? Is he Elijah incarnate? Is he the great prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15? “I am not … I am not … I am not.” Who is John? Like any good witness, he’s just a voice telling people to pave a road for God’s coming (John 1:23). As John would later explain, Jesus needed to increase while John needed to decrease (3:30).
We then move beyond John when John points his students to Jesus. One of them, Andrew, tells his brother Simon about Jesus. Jesus also calls Philip, and Philip invites his friend Nathanael. We learn about the witnesses’ message. They aren’t talking about meaning, purpose, or how to avoid hell. Jesus isn’t part of the message; He is the message.
This message is, compared to many evangelistic presentations today (including ones I’ve given), a full picture. This is not “Jesus-lite.” Jesus is the one anointed with the Spirit, the chosen one of God, the Lamb of God, the rabbi, the Messiah, the fulfillment of Scripture, the Son of God, the king of Israel, and the ladder between heaven and earth (John 1:32, 34, 36, 38, 45 and 49). It’s through Jesus we find God, truth, forgiveness and life.
Nathanael then shows us how to receive the Messiah. Unlike his deceitful ancestor Jacob, there’s no deceit, craftiness, or ulterior motive with Nathanael (John 1:47). Nathanael is skeptical about Jesus: Can anything good come from Nazareth? But he’s a sincere skeptic, and Jesus knew Nathanael before Nathanael knew Jesus (1:48). When Jesus overcomes Nathanael’s doubts, Nathanael surrenders completely.
How does Jesus respond to those who are open to him? He, first of all, invites them to continue to seek. “Come and see,” he says to Andrew, and Philip repeats these words to Nathanael while Nathanael is still doubting (John 1:39, 46). We also see Jesus taking the initiation. Philip tells Nathanael, “We have found the one Moses in the law and the prophets wrote about!” John reminds us, however, that it was Jesus who first found Philip (John 1:45, 43). Lastly, we see what happens when one accepts the message of the witnesses. Simon is no longer Simon; he’s now Peter. To surrender to Jesus is to be transformed (1:41).