Christ Followers or Sign Followers

Most New Testament scholars agree that the apostle John penned the gospel that bears his name.  There is some disagreement about the date of the book.  One camp believes that John’s gospel was written before the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  Another camp asserts that the gospel had been written between 85-90 A.D.  Both of these camps agree that the major theme of John’s gospel is the deity or divinity of Christ in human flesh (John 1:14, ESV).  This is also termed the incarnation of God the Son.  All of the miracles and the teachings of Jesus found in John’s gospel serve to portray and advance the theme that Jesus is God as a human being.  The apostle John wastes no time in asserting Jesus’ divinity in the second chapter of his gospel with the miracle of Christ turning the water into wine (John 2:1-11, ESV).

One of the key verses in John’s gospel, the second chapter, is the eleventh verse: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory.  And his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11, ESV).  There are a few things to highlight about it.  First, Jesus exercises his divine authority in performing the sign of turning the water into wine.  Second, he reveals his divine nature in the act of performing it (John 2:11a, ESV); and third, the disciples witness Jesus’ glory and believe in him (John 2:11b, ESV).  Based on the preceding context of John chapter one, these believing disciples figure to be Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael.   Some may balk at this assertion of mine; however, chapter breaks in the bible did not exist until the thirteenth century.  The point being is that I disagree with the chapter break between the first two chapters of John’s gospel.  I believe these form one continuous narrative.

At the end of John chapter one, Nathanael professes Jesus as the Son of God due to the prophetic nature of his selection as an apostle (John 1:47-51, ESV).  Based on Jesus’ words about Nathanael, the latter believes and follows the Lord wholeheartedly; however, Jesus raises the stakes for believing and following him.  He tells this initial band of followers that greater things lie ahead for them to see and by implication to believe (John 1:50-51, ESV).  According to John’s narrative, the next major event is Jesus turning the water into wine.  These first apostles witness a glimpse of Christ’s glory, which leads to their professing belief in him (John 2:11, ESV).  At this point, it appears that attracting genuine followers is a slam dunk for Christ.  All he needs to do is either speak a prophetic word or perform a miraculous sign, and presto, new followers come on the scene.  Well, not so fast my friend.  Here are the last three verses from the second chapter of John’s gospel:

“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.  But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:23-25, ESV).

In the run up to these verses, the apostle John depicts Jesus driving out the merchants and money-changers as they turned the house of worship into a place of business (John 2:14-17, ESV).  Throughout Israel’s history as a nation, the tent of meeting and then the temple stand as the center of worship and prayer.  It is the heartbeat of the people.  For millennia, the Israel’s faithfulness to God ebbs and flows like the ocean’s tide.  There are many ups and downs like a rollercoaster.  During Christ’s first coming, the nation of Israel is on a major downturn.  Instead of worship and prayer, Jesus finds the temple, the house of God, full of people buying and selling and bartering.  According to the apostle John, the Jesus’ zealous display in cleansing the temple fulfills Psalm 69:9 where the Psalmist writes that “…zeal for your house has consumed me.”  It is an expression of his divine authority, but the money-changers and the merchants (or the the Jews) question this very thing (John 2:18, ESV). Christ’s words and actions in the temple fail to elicit genuine belief in this audience, which is quite different from his apostles.

What needs to start coming into focus is the contrast in faith between the apostles and those witnessing Christ cleansing the temple.  The apostle John refers to the questioners as Jews and this is correct; however, it is not meant to universalize the response of the Jews toward Jesus. Clearly, some respond in genuine belief as exemplified by the apostles.  There are others who reject him outright such as those questioning his authority.  May I submit to my readers that there is a third group, who represents a false, middle position between the apostles and the questioning Jews.  It is this group that I believe the apostle John refers to as believing in Jesus’ name, but the Lord rejects them as his own (John 2:23-24, ESV).  Now, someone might say that the text does not state explicitly that Jesus rejects this particular group; however, it seems to me that this is the best way to understand the meaning of John’s words about Jesus refusing to entrust himself to them (John 2:24, ESV).

Based on John 2:23-25, this middle group demonstrates all the outward signs of allegiance to and belief in Christ.  After all, this segment of the people believe in Jesus after seeing him do great signs or miracles (John 2:23, ESV).  Apparently, this did not cut it for Jesus because the apostle John writes that “…[the Lord] did not entrust himself to them…because he knew…what was in [them]” (John 2:24-25, ESV).  Later on in John’s gospel, this middle group falls away as the Lord continues upping the ante for believing and following him (John 6:61, 66, ESV).  Of course, none of this surprises the Jesus, who predicts their falling away while giving the sermon on the mount.  His teaching about the seed that falls on rocky soil pertains to them.  This particular soil represents people who receive the word with great enthusiasm; however, the profession of faith and belief is shallow (Mark 4:16-17, ESV).  When persecution or testing comes because of the word, these people fall away or turn their backs on Jesus (Luke 8:13, ESV).  Allow me to call this middle group sign followers instead of Christ followers.

If Jesus’ ministry attracts pretenders of the faith, or people who give off all the signs of being Christians and are nothing of the kind, then it seems important to expect the same thing in our churches and ministries today.  There will always be those who talk the talk, but do not walk the walk.  Jesus never caters his kingdom message to this group or any group.  Instead, he raises the bar even higher to the point where folks may have said to themselves, to the disciples, and the Lord himself: “This guy is nuts.  His views are extreme and his sayings are hard to understand.”  Jesus does not stop these men and women from leaving him.  He does not adjust his approach or tone down the rhetoric. Instead, Jesus engages his apostles with a question about their willingness to follow him (John 6:67, ESV).   The point being is that he demands my all in believing and following him.  He is not a genie who performs signs and wonders on my behalf.  He is God, or more specifically, God the Son, who is the second person of the Trinity.  To follow him means to testify about him and to obey him (John 6:68-69, ESV).

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