Scripture: John 1:43-51
Young people who hear me say this won’t believe me, but there was a period of time—gosh, 25 years ago now—when buying products made by Apple Computer was considered very risky—even foolish. Because many so-called experts were predicting that Apple Computer would soon be out of business…
Back then, being a “fanboy” of Apple, as I was, was a little like being in a religious cult. I’m not kidding. And if so, I drank the Kool-Aid. See, I was very eager to convince friends, family, co-workers, and even complete strangers that their lives would be much better if they purchased a Macintosh computer and not one of those evil Windows PCs. Please don’t make fun of me. I know it’s silly now.
One time, I was at a computer store, looking at all these shiny new Mac computers that I couldn’t afford, when a young man came up to me and asked me if I knew anything about Macs, that he was considering switching from Windows to Mac, and he wanted to know why I thought it was better.
Well, friend, I’m glad you asked… and I proceeded to talk to him for a long time, and patiently answered all of his questions. I enjoyed talking to him about my love of Macs; I believed in these products! He said, “Listen, you’ve been very helpful. I’m going to go home and think about it. But if I have any more questions, would you mind if I gave you a call.” Not at all!
I didn’t give it a second thought, but a few days later he called. And boy did he had questions for me: First, he asked, “Have you ever considered being your own boss? Have you ever thought of owning your own business? Do you want to enjoy financial freedom and independence? If so, let me tell you about… this particular multilevel marketing company!”
I should have known, right?
I mean no offense against multilevel marketing… I promise. I myself have a cabinet full of Tupperware. It’s just that… I know why he was talking to me. He wanted to sell me something—which is fine. But why was I so eager to talk to him. I wasn’t getting paid. I didn’t work for Apple. I wasn’t making a commission.
It was only later when this troubling thought crossed my mind: “Why can’t talking to other people about Jesus be as easy as talking about Apple computers?” It’s an important question because remember your membership vows as a United Methodist. If you have joined a United Methodist church since 1996, you have promised to serve Jesus and support the church through your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness. But you’re not just witnessing because of a promise you made to your church, Jesus commands you to do it!
The word “witnessing” comes from the version of the Great Commission that Jesus gives his disciples in Acts 1:8, forty days after the resurrection and moments before he ascended to heaven: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” When Jesus spoke these words, the continent of North America would have seemed to his listeners like the “end of the earth,” but we are no longer even close to the end. According to a missions organization called the Joshua Project, of 7.75 billion people living in the world right now, fully 3.23 billion live in one of 7,414 people groups who haven’t heard the gospel and currently have no access to it. That represents 41.6 percent of the world’s population!
And of course this doesn’t count the United States, in which a majority of the population identifies as Christian. According to a 2020 study by Barna Research, however, only a quarter of these self-identified Christians “agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month”! Weekly church attendance is down one-third from 1993.
Our country is filled, in other words, with nominal Christians. So it’s no secret that we have a mission field right here, in our own backyard!
And I’m sharing this with you because today’s scripture has a lot to do with evangelism! And more than a few preachers and commentators say that John chapter 1, beginning with verse 35, gives us a template for how to do evangelism. So let’s pay attention.
First, look at verse 43: “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’” This chapter narrates Jesus’ call of his first five disciples: John, the author of this gospel, Andrew and his brother Peter, Philip, and Nathanael, whom we know from the other gospels by his last name, Bartholomew, which means “son of Tholomaios.”
In the the other three gospels, you may recall, it almost seems like, when Jesus calls his twelve disciples, he’s using some kind of Obi Wan Kenobi mind control… Like he’s using the Force or something: Peter, Andrew, James, and John are working on their fishing boats, Jesus passes by and says, “Follow me,” and—without even knowing who Jesus is, as far as we know—they drop everything and follow him.
But John gives us a fuller, more complete picture. The first chapter of John tells us that these disciples already knew Jesus… they had already been converted; they had already begun following Jesus even as they continued working their day jobs. But when Jesus later calls these these five men, and seven others, to be his twelve disciples, he’s calling them to full-time ministry… to leave their homes, their families, their vocations, and to follow him full-time. That’s the difference. The call of the twelve in the other three gospels takes place some time after the events of John 1. John 1 tells the story of when these first five men came to faith in Christ.
But I love verse 43: Jesus goes to Galilee, finds Philip, and says, “Follow me.” Why does Jesus do this? A clue is given in verse 44: “Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” Andrew and Peter, you see, had met Jesus and started following him the day before, in verses 40 to 42. Jesus went to Galilee to find Philip and call him as a disciple, in other words, because Philip’s friends Andrew and Peter had asked Jesus to go. Andrew and Peter already knew that Philip would be receptive to becoming a disciple of Jesus, and they asked him to go. I’m reading between the lines, but this seems like a reasonable inference.
So the first and most important principle of evangelism is to ask Jesus to go to people who are lost and in need of him, to reveal himself to people, to call people to become his disciples. As Jesus himself will later say in John’s gospel, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Before anyone becomes a Christian, something supernatural must take place. We need to pray that that supernatural thing happens!
I think I know Methodists pretty well. And I know myself pretty well. And I know that many of us would rather drink an extra dose of colonoscopy prep than to open our mouths and say something about Jesus and our faith. And we often say we don’t know how to do it, or what to say. And I get it. But I hope you see that this first and most important principle of evangelism is something that you already know how to do. Pray!
Not long ago, a retired pastor and district superintendent in our conference, Warren Lathem—legendary pastor of Mt. Pisgah United Methodist, who got his start right here in Toccoa at St. James UMC, and one of the most successful Methodist preachers of his generation, posted the following complaint on Facebook. He said that now that he’s retired from full-time pastoral ministry, he gets to go and speak and preach at a lot of churches. And these churches, like our church, have prayer times, during which people often share prayer requests. And he said that he hears requests all the time for physical healings and physical safety—healing from sickness, healing after surgery, safety during childbirth, safety for police officers and soldiers. And he hears requests for comfort for people who are grieving for loved ones who’ve died. And there’s nothing at all wrong with these kinds of requests.
What’s wrong, he said, is what’s left unsaid: Rarely if ever has he heard anyone say, “I want to pray for my husband—my son, my daughter, my neighbor, my friend—who is lost. Who doesn’t know Jesus. Who isn’t saved. Who is in need of spiritual healing, healing for their souls. Who is in far greater danger than anyone suffering from cancer, or a heart attack, or a natural disaster, or violence. Why? Because the threat that this lost person is facing doesn’t just kill the body but sends the soul to hell.
Not that we shouldn’t also pray for the physical welfare of ourselves and people we love—by all means—but what if we decided as a church that what happens to us matters far less than what happens to those who don’t know Jesus? What if we lived as if our first and most important responsibility was to fulfill the Great Commission to be witnesses in the world?
Are you praying right now for friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, classmates who need Jesus? Tell Jesus to go to them! You can do that, even if you think you can’t do anything else!
Now let’s look at verse 45: “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’” So here, notice, Philip is speaking from personal experience—“we have found,” I know from first-hand experience that what I’m telling you is true—but he’s doing more than that. Because he likely already knows that if he’s going to convince his skeptical friend Nathanael to follow Jesus, he’s going to have to prove from scripture that Jesus is the Messiah—so he connects Jesus to messianic prophecies from the Old Testament.
But guess what? Philip is not doing a very good job at it. He says, “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Now hold on! While it’s true that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he’s not from there, not originally. He’s from Bethlehem. Nathanael knows his Bible, and he knows that it prophesies that the Messiah must be from Bethlehem. I’m sure that’s in part why Nathanael scoffs in verse 46, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” So Philip is wrong about Nazareth.
Also, he tells Nathanael that Jesus is the “son of Joseph.” Well, he’s the adoptive son of Joseph, but that’s hardly as important as a fact that Nathanael himself would grasp in verse 49, after he meets Jesus: Jesus is the Son of God.
My point is, although I admire Philip’s eagerness to share his faith with his potentially hostile and skeptical friend, he doesn’t say nearly enough about Jesus. And what he says is misleading.
But… this leads us to the second important principle about witnessing that emerges from today’s scripture: You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to get everything right. You don’t have to say all the right words. I’m not suggesting for a moment that you shouldn’t try to get it right, but you shouldn’t let your fear of saying something wrong prevent you from saying anything. Because remember the Great Commission verse I shared earlier: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” It is not ultimately up to you to save anyone. But if you’re in Christ, you have the Holy Spirit living inside you, and he is giving you power to be an effective witness.
Just a few days ago, there was a family—two parents and a bunch of kids—playing on our playground next to my office. And I didn’t know them. And I was busy. But I thought, “Brent, behold your mission field. Go and meet them, talk to them, invite them… witness to them. What an easy opportunity. You know you’re supposed to.” And I thought, “I don’t know what to say.” And I felt as if the Lord were telling me, as he has before, “Just open your mouth. I’ll give you the words.” And so I did… I opened my mouth. And it was easy. And it was great. And Jesus tells us in the gospels, “Don’t worry about how to defend yourself or what to say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what needs to be said.” I know from experience that that’s true.
When it comes to witnessing, do what Philip did… just open your mouth, just take the risk! Trust in the Holy Spirit… Your words of witness have power… not because of who you are, but who God is!
Finally, when Nathanael objects and says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” it seems likely that Philip doesn’t know how to respond. He doesn’t know why Jesus is from Nazareth when he’s supposed to be from Bethlehem. Jesus probably hadn’t told him that yet. He just met him. That’s okay. Witnessing is not about having all the answers. But notice how Philip responds: “Come and see.” As one commentator says, Philip doesn’t say, “Go and see,” as if to say, “You’re on your own, buddy. Figure it out for yourself!” He says, “Come and see. I don’t necessarily know how to answer your questions and handle your objections. I’m going to let Jesus do that. Come with me and let’s have you meet him for yourself… See for yourself if I’m telling the truth. Experience him for yourself!”
And we may recall the story of Samaritan woman at the well, in John chapter 4, later in this gospel. She goes and witnesses to her entire village: “I’ve just met the Messiah! He told me all that I ever did!” So they listen to her words and come and meet Jesus for themselves. John 4:42: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” And some commentators grumble about how this is sexist: “Of course they’re not going to take the word of a woman!” But that misses the point entirely: The point is, no one comes to saving faith in Christ because of anyone’s words—I made this point earlier. But everyone who becomes a Christian does so because of personal experience with Christ… a personal encounter with Christ!
Ultimately that’s what saves Nathanael. Yes, he needs his friend Philip to witness to him, but it isn’t until Jesus speaks to him, with supernatural insight about his character and his life—“Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” And he’s like, “How do you know me?” And Jesus says, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” We always want John to give us more information. And commentators love speculating about the symbolic meaning of the “fig tree,” and what Nathanael was doing, but that misses the point: the point is, Jesus had supernatural knowledge about Nathanael that Jesus couldn’t have known apart from God. Maybe Nathanael was under a fig tree on the other side of the hill… there’s simply no way Jesus could have seen him with his eyes. The point is, Nathanael experiences Jesus for himself—he has a supernatural encounter with Christ—and he confesses his faith and is saved.
So a third and final principle of evangelism is, We must give people an opportunity to experience Christ for themselves. And so one important and practical way we do this is—no surprise here—inviting people to worship with us on Sunday.
Remember the first point—to pray. This third point is a lot like that, in the sense that everyone can do it! It’s not hard to invite! And I know a lot of you are inviting. One visitor that we had recently filled out a visitor’s card and said that she heard about our church because of “that nice lady at the Hallmark store”—referring, of course, to Patti Joiner. So I know many of you are doing this, but I think we can all agree that we can improve in this area. Right? And I know that visiting church is a little sketchy until we get vaccinated and we’re on the other side of this pandemic. But we do have excellent, high-quality live streaming and online services that you can point your friends and neighbors to. You can share the links with your friends. These services can be an outstanding tool for outreach. And I know that’s happening a little.
But what I’m saying is, if we are going to a people who are committed to fulfilling the Great Commission, it’s going to take all of us working together… deliberately.
Are we praying every day for lost people we know who need Jesus? Are we trusting not in ourselves to have the right words but in the power of the Holy Spirit, which each one of us Christians has? Finally, are we inviting lost people to experience Jesus for themselves?
But let’s go back to my question at the top of the sermon: “Why was it easier for me to talk to complete strangers about Apple computers—many years ago—than it was to talk even to close friends about Jesus? I mean, I’m sure there are many interesting sociological reasons. For one thing, we all feel a lot of pressure to conform to our world around us, and let’s face it: talking about Jesus is deeply countercultural. It’s not something that the vast majority of people do. So it’s scary, we feel all alone. But there’s a deeper reason…
It’s been five years since I was personally shaken by a terrifying event in the news. You may recall the headlines. Twenty-one Egyptian Christians were led in chains by ISIS terrorists down to a beach in Libya… where each one of them was beheaded for one simple reason: because they confessed their faith in Jesus Christ. They could have saved their lives, if they had simply renounced their faith. But they refused. And I didn’t dare watch the video that these terrorists posted online. But it’s a fact that before the sword came down on each of their necks, they shouted their praise and thanks to Jesus their Lord.
What courage! What a witness!
And we Christians in the West are simultaneously inspired by their witness and relieved… “Thank God we don’t have to go through that! Thank God we’ll never face that! Thank God that doesn’t happen here!” I mean, those kinds of things happen to Christians every day all around the world—now more than ever… but at least they don’t happen to us here.
And we agree when we hear about something like this, we think, “That is so evil! That is the work of Satan!”
And it is… But let me please ask you: Do you think that the same devil isn’t at work here… I mean, you’ve gotta admit, Satan has done some of his best work here in the United States. What I mean is, literally none of us is coming close to risking our lives, or even our livelihoods, or any measure of our safety or security when we—like those Egyptian Christians—bear witness to Christ, share the gospel, talk about Jesus. Unlike those Egyptian Christians, in most cases, we risk very little harm to ourselves by witnessing. There’s just almost nothing to lose.
Yet isn’t it amazing how Satan has managed to convince us otherwise? He doesn’t even need the threat of a sword, the threat of terrorists capturing us under a lawless government, the threat of martyrdom… The devil doesn’t need any of those things to convince us not to witness! Even with our First Amendment protection, even with freedom of speech, even with religious liberty, we are scared to death to obey our Lord and to fulfill the Great Commission!
It’s unbelievable when you think about it! So like I said, the devil is doing some of his best, most subtle, most destructive work right here in our country!
And look at that headlines recently: He loves distracting Christians with politics! Anything to keep them preoccupied with something other than winning the lost to Jesus Christ!
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Ultimately, Satan is the reason witnessing is so hard. Whereas he couldn’t have cared less 25 years ago whether I talked to anyone about Apple computers, he cares a great deal about whether I talk to someone about Jesus! So he fights me, and he fights you whenever we think about doing it! Let’s not let him win at Toccoa First United Methodist. I urge you: put on the whole armor of God and fight him! But he cares a great deal about whether I talk to someone about Jesus!