Yesterday, we saw Andrew being invited by Jesus to “come and see” what God was up to – and he went and brought his brother, Peter. Today, we read a very similar story with Philip and Nathanael.
John 1:43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Normally, disciples would seek out a rabbi. But this teacher reverses this, going out to find his disciples. Again, Jesus’ authority is on display, as Philip obeys his command (and even seeks out another recruit.)
John 1:44-45 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
It may be that Philip was the other disciple of John the Baptist mentioned in v37. If so, it means that the first act upon following Jesus for both of them (Andrew and Philip) was to go out and make another disciple (Peter and Nathanael). The writer of the Gospel is probably drawing our attention to this as a pattern to be followed.
Indeed, Philip says pretty much the same thing Andrew did in yesterday’s story: we’ve found the Messiah! But unlike Peter, Nathanael is initially sceptical.
John 1:46a “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
Nazareth was a cultural backwater. Hardly a fitting place for the Messiah to be living. It’s like Philip had said that he’s found the Messiah – and it’s Josh from Mt Druitt (for Sydney readers), or Frankston (for Melburnians), or Hull (hello everyone in the UK!), or Idaho (no, America, we haven’t forgotten you). But we’re not sure of the precise nature of Nathanael’s prejudice against Nazareth. It could simply be local rivalry, the lack of anything about Nazareth in Messianic prophecy, or even that Nathanael, himself from the region of Galilee, couldn’t conceive of “a prophet from his hometown” (Luke 4:24).
At any rate, Nathanael functions as a “type” of person: someone who is initially prejudiced against Jesus, yet is prepared to investigate. His testimony of faith (coming up in verse 49) is all the more compelling because of his initial scepticism.
When confronted with Nathanael’s initial resistance, Philip simply echoes Jesus’ words:
John 1:46b “Come and see,” said Philip.
So he does.
John 1:47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
OK so firstly, this is freaky. Jesus hasn’t met Nathanael, yet he’s already giving him a character assessment. This freaks Nathanael out a bit, which we’ll see in a minute.
But secondly, it’s a weird thing to say. “An Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” What’s all that about? It’s probably a play on the fact that the very first Israelite – Israel – was called deceitful, and his original name – Jacob – means “he deceives” (Gen 27:35-36). The fact that Nathanael, sceptical though he was, still decided to “come and see” shows an openness that stands in contrast to the original Israel – and all of the leaders of Israel in Jesus’ day whose minds remained closed.
Anyway, back to Nathanael’s freak-out moment.
John 1:48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Jesus’ reply hints at a supernatural knowledge of people. (This is drawn out more at the end of chapter two, when the Gospel writer describes Jesus as “knowing what was in each person.”) And the fig tree seems to be full of symbolism, but precisely of what we’re not sure: they often related to judgement (Jer 8:13; Mic 7:1), but could also symbolise wellbeing (Mic 4:4), or relate to the coming kingdom where those who are forgiven will sit under a fig tree (Zech 3:10).
At any rate, Jesus’ supernatural knowledge is enough to end Nathanael’s scepticism:
John 1:49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
These are both Messianic titles, acknowledging Jesus as the coming king. We’ve gone from sceptic to true believer in an instant. Even Jesus implies that Nathanael is a little too easy to impress:
John 1:50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”
That’s just a party trick. You’ve got no idea what kind of things I’ve got in store for you. Buckle up! It’s going to be quite a ride.
John 1:51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”
Again, we have an allusion to Jacob/Israel. This time the story of Jacob’s ladder, upon which the angels ascended and descended – the place where heaven meets earth. Here, this new, “deceitless” Jacob (Nathanael) will see a new ladder joining heaven and earth: Jesus himself.
This is the first indication we get (apart from verse 14 of the Prologue) of one of the important themes in John’s Gospel: Jesus is the new place where heaven meets earth, not the temple in Jerusalem. In fact, in just the next chapter he goes and symbolically enacts judgement on the temple and predicts its destruction (see next week).
To think about
What about that person you’re going to invite to “come and see” (yesterday) – have you spoken to them yet? Are you worried their initial response might be scepticism? Nathanael’s story is a reminder that God can touch people’s lives in an instant, and turn the sceptic into a believer. It’s happened many times before. Have faith, pray, and ask them to come and see. They may just end up meeting the stairway to heaven in person.