Rev Mark Barber
When I first preached this at Mt. Zion UMC, I put the sermon title “How to Be a Good Baptist” out on the sign in front of the church. You would not believe how many comments I received from people in the community, especially since the next week’s sermon was “Come to the Wine Tasting”. To the people who read the sign, some must have seen it odd that a Methodist should be teaching Baptists how to be good. However, This sermon isn’t about our brothers and sisters in the Baptist Church. It is about the remarkable witness of John the Baptist. Most of us have seen the slogan WWJD “What would Jesus do?” on bumper stickers and T-shirts, implying that we should do likewise. And this is true to a point. But there are things that Jesus has done that we could never do. We could never save ourselves from our sin. We could never do the works required. Jesus did that for us by His sacrificial death in our behalf. It would be better to have the slogan DWJTYTD “Do what Jesus tells you to do”. One of these commandments is to love one another in the same way Jesus has loved us. Another is to bear witness of Jesus Christ.
The word “testify” or “witness” in Greek is the word we get “martyr” from. The word originally meant to testify in court to what the witness knew about the subject at hand. Many early Christians were hailed into Roman and Jewish courts on the charge of being Christians. Rather than pleading the 5th when asked about Jesus, they confessed Him to their earthly loss and their heavenly gain. So many Christians paid for their testimony about Jesus with their lives that the meaning of the Greek word “martyr” changed to one who dies for a cause.
I cannot begin to tell you all how important the word “witness” is to the Gospel of John as is the word “truth”. People are sworn in court to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” under penalty of perjury. And as Jesus calls himself “the truth”, then a true witness confesses Jesus as the Christ.
The first called witness in the Gospel of John is John the Baptist. He is first mentioned in verse 6 as a man sent from God as a man to bear witness of the Light who is later identified as Jesus. John was sent to tell the world to prepare for the coming of the Christ. And John let nothing get in the way of his message, not even himself. His fame went around the entire Jewish world, even to Jerusalem. Thousands came out to hear him. Many believed, repented and were baptized by him. Others did not. John the Baptist did not let his fame lift up his soul with pride. The message he brought was not about him. The Gospel of John clearly tells us that John was not the light, but was sent to bear witness to the light that all men might believe on Jesus. John was faithful to his calling, even to the end. When he bore testimony about Jesus being the Lamb of God, two of his disciples left him. John brought not complaint about this. Later on in chapter three, it is recorded that Jesus’ disciples had gotten to the point that they were baptizing more people than John was, his humble response was that “He must increase, but I must decrease.” He said that he was not even worthy to undo the thongs of Jesus' sandals. When the Sanhedrin sent out a delegation to ask John what he was about, they asked Him “Who are you?” John the Baptist could have simply answered, “My name is John, the son of Zechariah the Priest. But John perceived more in the question they were asking and went out of his way to nip it in the bud. His answer to them is very emphatic in the Greek. He stated “I am NOT the Messiah.” He answers their questions about whether he was Elijah or “the Prophet” with a more simple denial. Then another group from the Pharisees asked him why he was baptizing if he was none of these. His answers fits his character, “I am a voice crying in the Wilderness”, quoting Isaiah 40. John has completely removed himself from the dialogue. He is a voice, nothing more. The other gospels describe this incident in more detail, but the apostle John omits it as a possible distraction from the message. It’s not about Herod Phillip and his wife. It’s not about the Pharisees being a brood of vipers, true though it was. The message was and still is about “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.
In another place concerning John the Baptist, he is described as the best man. The wedding is not about the bridegroom. It is supposed to be all about the bride and groom. The best man’s role in the wedding is to announce that the marriage had been properly consummated. After this, he was to get out of the way. But the way John left was hard. He would be cast into prison and then executed for his witness, the first “martyr” for Christ.
In verse 29, we can see the fruit of John’s witness of Jesus as the Lamb of God. It was announced to everyone who was in earshot. Yet it is not recorded that any responded. So the next day John saw Jesus walking by and repeated the declaration. This time two of John’s disciples heard it and left John to follow Jesus. A valid witness for Jesus leads those who hear it and believe to follow Jesus Christ. John lets them go. We know one of them was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. But the other one is unnamed. We can put two and two together and surmise this other disciple to be the Apostle John who never mention’s himself. In this way, he is a good “Baptist”. He had learned the lesson well from John the Baptist. The story was not about him. It was all about Jesus.
In the rest of the chapter, we see the calling of the first disciples. Jesus sees John and Andrew following Him and asks them what they wanted. They replied with “Rabbi, where are you staying”. By saying this, they were asking if they could enter into a Rabbi-student relationship with Jesus. They wanted to study at His University. Jesus bids them come. What is interesting here is that they were not content in having this new Rabbi all to themselves. They went out and got their brothers as well. The message of Jesus is for everyone. They told their brothers what they knew, and they came.
We see this willingness the next day as well. Jesus runs into Phillip and bids him to follow Jesus. And Phillip follows by going out to find his friend Nathanael who was under a fig tree, to tell him that they had found the promised Messiah, Jesus from Nazareth. Many a Israelite used the shade of the fig tree to study the Torah, and this may well have been what Nathanael was doing. It seems that Nathanael was pretty familiar with the Torah and was an honest seeker after the truth. Nathanael answered with “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” In other words, he could not make the connection with the Messiah and the tiny town of Nazareth. Phillip, who may not have been as learned as Nathanael his friend, did not get into a theological debate with him. His simple witness was “come and see for yourself”. Phillip was a good Baptist. He directed the attention away from distractions and pointed his friend to Jesus. And Nathanael came.
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming, he makes a surprising statement: “Behold an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” What could that mean? To answer this, we need to go back to the Old Testament, to a man named Jacob. Jacob was a deceiver. He tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright. He then deceived his father in giving Jacob the blessing. In other words, Jacob was full of guile. That is what the name “Jacob” means. We read later on in Genesis that he got into a wrestling match with God, after which God hobbled Jacob so that he could no longer face Esau his brother in his own strength but would now have to trust in God. And God changed Jacob’s name. He was no longer “the deceiver”, but Israel, the “man of God”.
So what was Jesus telling Nathanael? Was it because Nathanael was so good that Jesus called him? Judging from the way God worked with others in the Bible, and Jacob in particular, God seems to call rascals and transforms them. I have the idea that Nathanael may have been reading about the life of Jacob while under the fig tree. He may have been reading about the story of Jacob’s ladder in which Jacob who was running for his life from Esau from whom he had stolen his father’s blessing had a vision of while sleeping on a stone pillow at Bethel, which is translated “House of God”. In this vision, angels were ascending and descending from God’s throne. The reason I think this might be the case is that Jesus tells Nathanael he would someday see angels descend from the Son of Man and ascend from earth to the Son of Man. Whatever Nathan was, whether he was good or bad by human standards, the emphasis is not on what Nathanael was. Rather it is on what Jesus could make of him. Peter hardly deserved the title of “rock”. He was as stable as jello. But God was going to make a rock out of him. And whatever guile Nathanael may or may not have had, God was going to turn Nathanael into the perfect Israelite. Jesus knows what is in every man. And as the Creator of all, he knows every one who has ever lived or will live. So Jesus could see not just Nathanael under the fig tree, He saw into his heart as well. Nathanael becomes a good Baptist by God's grace and joins the others.
So how do we become good Baptists in the Methodist church? First of all, we have to be a witness of Jesus Christ, just like John the Baptist. We need to learn all we can about Jesus, what he said and did so that we can be a true witness of Jesus Christ. To be a good Baptist, we must also realize that the good news is about Jesus and not ourselves. I feel we make quite a mistake when we get off the message which God has told us to proclaim. The Word of God alone has the power to transform lives. The Kingdom of God will not come by politics, by human wisdom, by some human means of self-improvement. It is not about us and our needs. So when we try to meet human needs in order to “reach people for Christ” we are being well-intentioned, but ineffective witnesses.
Being a good Baptist also requires us to realize our humanness. The witness of the early disciples was inconsistent. Even John the Baptist has a period of doubt. We need to be strengthened in our witness by the power of God's Spirit. We didn't figure the gospel out. The gospel has been revealed to us. John himself would not have known about who Jesus is apart from God telling him and offering the sign of the Spirit. A good Baptist just goes and tells others what they have seen, heard, learned, and experienced and invites others to come and see.