The term “saved” is used many ways in the Bible. It’s easy to understand terms as one-dimensional. When we read that someone “believed” in Jesus… it is easiest to think of an “initial faith experience”, but that’s not always the case.
For many of the people in the gospels… their “faith” in Jesus was not when they began “believing” in God.
In the first chapter of John there is a quick succession of “first encounters” with Jesus. It begins in John 1:35 and continues through verse 51. Let’s take a quick look at these people and see if the text gives us any clue as to whether any of these people could have been justified “believers in God” prior to meeting Jesus.
The setting is “the wilderness”… the desert. John the Baptist is dressing very oddly, eating weird stuff, and saying some very strange things… all in a very remote and desolate place. John was either crazy… or he was a prophet sent from God. Many would conclude the former. No matter what people thought of him, the Baptist was saying things that piqued the interest of everyone in Israel.
John 1:35 (NASB95)
Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples…
The first two people we will look at are these two disciples of John the Baptist. First, let’s acknowledge something; these two were not just on a day trip to check out the freak show that John had become. The text says they were “disciples” of John the Baptist. What does that mean?
We find out in verse 40 that one of these two people is Andrew (Simon Peter’s brother) and most understand the other person (unidentified in the text) to be John, the author of the gospel. These two worked as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee… but they had taken time away from their jobs… traveled away from home… and followed John the Baptist around, at least long enough to be considered his disciples.
It seems most logical to conclude that these two were not just “interested” in what John was saying. They had certainly bought-in and truly believed that John the Baptist was anointed with God’s message.
I would propose that these two were already justified through their faith in a “coming Messiah”. Let’s see how they responded when introduced to Jesus.
John the Baptist points to Jesus and introduces Him as the “Lamb of God”. Their first response is to leave John and follow Jesus (John 1:37). Then, the next thing Andrew does is find his brother Simon. Notice what Andrew says to Simon.
John 1:41 (NASB95)
He found first his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah”…
I have to sarcastically say… “It’s almost like these people were expecting the Messiah to show up.” In fact, they were. They had read the promises in the Old Testament, believed them, and were expecting God to fulfill His promise.
Peter follows Andrew back to meet Jesus… and the very first thing Jesus does is to give Simon a new name. Now, in the Bible, how many times does God give someone a new name? The list is pretty short. There was Abram (changed to Abraham), Jacob (changed to Israel), and now Simon (Peter). Peter’s immediate response is not recorded, but we know that he doesn’t “run away”. Peter sticks around.
Then Jesus asked Peter and Andrew’s friend Philip to join the group. The first thing Philip does is to find Nathanael. Listen carefully to what Philip says to Nathaniel. “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
Nathanael was initially skeptical of Phillip’s description… but he followed his friends to meet Jesus and… before saying anything else… Jesus described Nathanael.
John 1:47 (NASB95)
Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”
The New American Standard Bible says “an Israelite indeed”. Other English versions translate it as, “a true Israelite”, “a real Israelite”, “a true son of Israel”, and “a genuine son of Israel”.
Jesus is not talking about Nathanael’s physical lineage. If that were the case… He would have said this to just about everyone he met. Instead, Jesus is describing the one thing He could see that no one else could… the state of Nathanael’s heart. Nathanael was already a person of faith in God… and that made him a true descendent of Israel (Galatians 3:7)… and Israelite indeed! It would also explain the last part of the sentence, “in whom there is no deceit”.
How did Nathanael respond to what Jesus said?
John 1:49 (NASB95)
Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.”
Nathanael immediately recognized Jesus as the Messiah.
In these verses, we see several “first encounters” with Jesus. Each of these people immediately recognize Jesus as the One they have been eagerly expecting.
Many people today read about the public ministry of Jesus and understand it as largely evangelistic in nature. But a contextual reading of the gospels suggests that the majority of Jesus’ ministry was not an attempt to convert “unbelievers” to faith in God. Rather, Jesus spent most of His public ministry introducing himself to people who already believed in the Father’s promise.
I’ll admit… it almost sounds heretical… so let me say it again. It may take a while for this idea to sink in…
The main focus of Jesus’ public ministry was not an attempt to convert “unbelievers”.
Jesus was much more focused on connecting with those who already believed He was coming. Jesus understood that “the remnant” must recognize Him as Messiah, while still alive, so they could eventually understand His ultimate mission of death and resurrection.