In John 1:35-51, Jesus finds his first five disciples—Andrew, John, Peter, Philip and Nathanael. They follow him because he offers them what their hearts desire above all else. What exactly did Christ offer them, and what does he offer us today?
Sermon Text: John 1:35-51
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The Powerball lottery has been in the news recently. As of yesterday it was up to $800 million, the largest jackpot ever. According to a math professor at SMU, the odds of winning are “astronomically small”: one in 292.2 million.
By comparison, the odds of playing five-card draw poker and being dealt a royal flush—which is five sequential cards from 10 to ace in the same suit—is one in 650,000—which is 450 times more likely than winning the Powerball lottery. Statistically, the odds of giving birth to four identical babies at the same time are one in 13 million, which is still 20 times more likely to happen than winning the Powerball lottery.
So, all that to say, you’re not going to win the Powerball. And you may say, “Well, someone has to win.” To which I say, “Yes, but it won’t be you.”
But… if it is you, will you at least please tithe!
Of course what happens is, the larger the potential payout, the more people buy tickets. Even people who don’t ordinarily buy a Powerball ticket may be inspired to buy a ticket now. They have decided that the potential reward is so high, even in the face of overwhelming odds, that it’s worth the cost.
So I relate this to the four men in today’s scripture who become disciples of Jesus: like many people we know who wouldn’t normally buy Powerball tickets but decide to do so when the payout becomes large enough, these four men did something they wouldn’t normally do: which is, radically change their lives in order to follow Jesus; and they did so because the payout was so great. Instead of “payout,” I’ll say gift. The gift Jesus was offering them was so great that they just couldn’t pass it up. And he offers us the same thing today.
What is Jesus offering?
First, let’s notice verses 35 and 36: When John the Baptist sees Jesus, he says something to Andrew and this unnamed disciple—probably the apostle John who wrote the gospel—that he said in last week’s scripture. I ignored it last week, but the fact that he repeats it again here means that it must be really important. He says, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” And in last week’s scripture, he added a little more information: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Why is Jesus called the “Lamb of God” and what does that have to do with taking away sins?
We have to go back and look at the Old Testament, first Genesis 22, where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. The two of them go to the top of Mount Moriah. Isaac doesn’t know about God’s command; he thinks they’re going to offer a sacrifice to God. And he sees that his father has wood and fire for the sacrifice. So Isaac asks, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
So Abraham ties Isaac up, lifts the knife, and God tells Abraham to stop. And then the Bible says, “Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” This ram, by the way, was a male sheep, not a male goat.
The point is, here we have a lamb sacrificed in exchange for the Isaac’s life, just as Christ was sacrificed in exchange for ours.
In Exodus chapter 12, remember that God sends an angel of death throughout Egypt, to take the lives of every firstborn son in every household. Remember: The occasion for this judgment is to punish Egypt for their sins against the Israelites. But everyone deserves punishment and death—both Egyptians and Israelites. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and “the wages of sin are death.” If God is going to judge, he’s going to do so impartially. The only way that the lives of the Israelite firstborn sons are spared is by the blood of the lamb, sprinkled on the door posts
So in both cases, a lamb is slain to save people from their sins. It is their substitute. What’s so special about a lamb? Well, nothing much except that both these passages look forward to the the sacrifice of God’s Lamb, Jesus. Because of our sin, we all deserve judgment, death, and hell. And we would all receive those things if not for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. Christ is our substitute.
The point is, these Old Testament passages and others would have been in Andrew and John’s mind when their teacher, John the Baptist, tells them, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” They follow Jesus because John is telling them that in Christ they will have their sins forgiven.
So the gospel of the Jesus Christ must begin with the unpopular fact that something is deeply wrong with us—we are sinners. We are hopelessly sinners. In other words, we can’t help but sin. Something at the core of our being is badly defective. God didn’t make us this way, but we’ve become this way because of sin.
I was listening last week to the public radio show and podcast This American Life. And there was an interview with a computer programmer named Paul who describes living with anxiety and self-doubt. At the time of the interview he was anxious about finishing a project at work; he was anxious about being a father; he was anxious about losing weight; he was anxious about the way he looked. He said it was as if he had this voice in his head constantly making him feel bad about himself. So, being a programmer, he wanted to solve the problem through technology.
So he created a website called “Anxiety Box,” which enables you to type in all the things that you’re anxious about. And then, twelve times a day, you get emails from your anxiety—these emails are automatically generated by this computer program. It’s like a robot. And this robot takes the information you supply it and simulates what the voice of your anxiety sounds like—and sends it to you in an email. These aren’t emails to cheer you up; they’re meant to sound like the discouraging voice in your head.
So, based on Paul’s anxieties, here are actual emails he received from “his anxiety” throughout a particular day:
“History will forget you because history forgets people who are unable to finish anything.”
“Dear Paul: So… you’re probably used to being at the front of the class, and this is a wake-up call that you’re not even in the middle.”
“The simple reason you’re not happy is that you’re unworthy of saving.”
“Your mom and dad would never say anything, but they so want to know why you choose to be unlovable and not smart.”
“People on Facebook look at your picture and think: ‘In possession of a weird nose.’”
I think those are hilarious. And Paul the programmer thought so, too. And that was the point: when you open up your email and you see these ridiculous messages—the same kinds of messages that you tell yourself—you realize how silly and unfair and untrue they really are. You realize how dumb your voice of anxiety really is. It doesn’t reflect reality.
The “Anxiety Box” has become so popular that if you go to the website today, you’ll see that it’s currently being upgraded in order to handle the unexpected demand of the thousands of people who’ve signed up for it. But I think its popularity points to something important: We recognize that we don’t measure up to our standards; we fall short; we fail; we judge ourselves harshly; we feel condemned. In theological terms, I believe it’s because we know ourselves to be sinners. And just think: if we see ourselves through this distorted lens, how do we imagine that God sees us? “Why are you such a horrible Christian? Why are you so phony? Why do you sin so much? Do you really think God is going to continue to love and forgive you?”
But brothers and sisters, this is not the way God sees us at all—not if we’ve become his children through faith in his Son.
Look at what happens when Jesus meets Andrew’s brother Simon. In verse 42: “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas.’” And Cephas, John alerts his non-Jewish readers, is an Aramaic word that means Peter—the “Rock.” Jesus has given Simon son of John a new name, a new identity: He is Peter—or Rocky. Why does Jesus give him this new name? It must be because he’s strong, he’s immovable, he’s unshakable, he’s unbreakable, he’s constant… he’s consistent.
And doesn’t that describe Peter? Of course… Peter is like a rock. For instance, when our Lord beckons him to walk out to him out on the Sea of Galilee, what does he do? He sinks like a stone! So, see, he is the Rock! Or how about when he tells Jesus, during the Last Supper, “Even if all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” And what does Peter end up doing at the very first sign of trouble or danger? He denies even knowing Jesus—three times! In other words, he falls away. Or how about when the apostle Paul calls Peter on the carpet for hypocrisy in Galatians 2: At first, Peter thinks it’s perfectly O.K. to eat with his Gentile brothers and sisters until some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem arrive at the church. These Jewish believers don’t think that they should “mix” with Gentiles. And Peter is afraid of being judged by them, so he separates himself from the Gentiles. He fails to do the right thing not because he’s afraid they’ll hurl stones at him; he fails to do the right thing because he’s afraid they’ll hurl insults at him.
Some “rock,” huh?
But Jesus gives him a new name, not based on who Peter is right now, but based on the man that he knows that Peter will become; the man that Christ himself, through the Holy Spirit, will make sure that he becomes. He’s not “the Rock” right now. But by God he’s going to be! He’s going to become that man, as Jesus tells him at the end of John’s gospel, who will be brave enough, strong enough, rocky enough, to be led to a cross of his own—where he would be crucified, following in the footsteps of his Master.
Jesus gave Peter a new name because he knew the person that Peter would become. And here’s something that blows my mind. Turn to Revelation chapter 2, verse 17: After describing the persecution and suffering that the church at Pergamum is experiencing, Jesus says: “To the one who conquers”—in other words, to the one who remains a faithful Christian to the end—“I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” Did you hear that? Just as Christ gave Peter a new name, which reflects who he’ll be in the future, so he’ll give us a new name, which reflects who we’ll be in the future!
It’s as if Christ sees something good and perfect and beautiful within each one of us—something which the Anxiety Box proves we can’t see in ourselves—and Jesus intends to draw it out of us. He intends to make us into the people that he created us to be, before sin had its way and damaged us.
If you are in Christ right now, don’t you want to know what your name will be when you get to heaven? I do! And here’s one thing I know for sure, and I say it a lot, but it bears repeating: Through all the tough stuff that happens to us in life—all the trials, all the problems, all the adversity, all the failures, all the setbacks—all of it—we can be confident that God is using all of it to shape us into the people he wants us to be, to enable us to live up to the new name that he’ll give us on the other side of eternity.
So we get forgiveness of sins, we get a new identity, and we get something elseAnd this is why we need Jesus too. Notice Jesus’ words to Nathanael, and his response to them, in verses 47 through 49: When Jesus meets him, he says, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” This is after Nathanael scoffs at Philip’s belief that the Messiah comes from Nazareth. “Nazareth!” he says. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” As prejudiced as this statement may be, at least Nathanael is someone who says what he really believes. He isn’t duplicitous. He isn’t two-faced. He isn’t hypocritical. What you see is what you get. And Jesus knows this about him before he even meets him. And what does Nathanael say, “How do you know me?” And then Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael recognizes that this would be impossible—that it would take a miracle for Jesus to see him there—and he says, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Jesus knows everything about Nathanael—who he is on the outside and who he is on the inside. And guess what? Jesus loves him. Jesus knows him completely and loves him completely. And I think this kind of love touched Nathanael’s heart like nothing else.
All of us long to be fully known and loved just like that! It’s our deepest desire, which Christ alone can satisfy.
Think, for example, of romantic relationships. There is no more intense, amazing, wonderful feeling that anyone can feel than falling in love—being in love with someone. Do you know that feeling? Do you at least remember what that’s like? First of all, you can’t believe your luck—that this person actually noticed you to begin with, much less fell in love with you, and loves you as intensely as you love them. You don’t don’t feel worthy of this love—it’s so great. Do you remember how exciting it was for you to open up to this person, to drop your guard, to make yourself vulnerable, to reveal your secrets to them—those parts of yourself that you keep hidden from the rest of the world. And when you did open yourself up like this, far from judging you or criticizing you, or condemning you—this person only accepts you and loves you and embraces you. There is no fear. There is no doubt. This person knows you as well as any person can and loves you as much as anyone can. And you never want to let that person go.
And not only that: When you’re in love with someone, you’ll do seemingly crazy things for the sake of that love. You’ll change jobs. You’ll change careers. You’ll move across the country. You’ll move to a foreign country. You’ll spend all your money on this person. You’ll give this person everything you have. You’ll think about this person constantly. You’ll think about what you can do to please this person. Without a second thought. You’ll dream about this person. When we find this kind of love, we think, “This is what I need more than anything else. I don’t need anything else to be happy, to be content, to be fulfilled. In this person I have everything I need.”
Friends, I’m describing human love at its very best. I’m not saying we can achieve it very often. But if you’ve experienced it even a little, you know what I’m saying is true.
Yet… even human love at its best is only a pale, dim, distorted reflection of Christ’s love for us. And Christ wants to give us this love, both now and for eternity! You may wonder what heaven is like. What if it’s like being deeply in love with someone, except the feeling doesn’t wax and wane; it never diminishes; it never dies. Wouldn’t that be worth everything that we have? Wouldn’t that be worth whatever price we could pay?
I began this sermon talking about the Powerball—how we’ll pay the price if the payout is great enough. There’s no payout greater than what Christ offers us. It’s free and without price. And you don’t have a one in 292.2 million chance in winning; you have a hundred percent chance, if you’ll believe in Christ!
 Especially Isaiah 53, where the Suffering Servant is compared to a lamb.