Day Four: Philip and Nathanael (1:43-51) -The Apostle John now moves the scene to the “home office” of Jesus’ earthly ministry, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus reveals another aspect of His heavenly warrant, by knowing what could not be known by men; He also promises an even greater revelation still to come.
43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, He said to him, “Follow Me.” 44 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.” 46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, He said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” 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.” 49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” 50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 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.”
The apparent abruptness of Jesus’ decision to return to the northern region (v.43) hides a very real truth – at around 100 miles, a two- or three-day walk, the journey from Jerusalem to Galilee (specifically Cana, as we will see in the next chapter) was not undertaken lightly. Surely only dedicated disciples would be willing to travel this far beside their master, so in a sense this is also a kind of winnowing…one in a series of decision points that each of us must face as we “walk with Christ”. Upon His arrival, Jesus continues to call His disciples. He finds Philip, and offers the same invitation we saw previously given to Andrew and John, and Peter: to follow after Him, and accept Him as their master. Given John’s recurring theme of evangelism, v.44 would lead us to understand that Philip had probably been approached earlier by Peter and Andrew (they were all from the same small town, they may have even grown up together!), so Jesus is merely giving confirmation that he has been called.
The next verse repeats the scene we saw in Judea, when Andrew went to find his brother; Philip even uses the same words: “We have found Him!” But we also see one of the first skeptical responses, when Nathanael hears Jesus is from lowly, simple Nazareth and gives his famous reply, “Can anything good come from there?” What is that all about? We can think of it on two levels: first, he is expressing a typical prejudice that great things must come from great places, and Nazareth is certainly not a great place! Second, however, he is posing a well-grounded objection: the Scriptures clearly state that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. He was born there, as we know from both Matthew and Luke, but only under
unusual supernatural circumstances…if not for the census ordered by Herod, that required Joseph to travel to his hometown, Jesus would have been “from” Nazareth…and He would not have been our Messiah. Philip responds with the best answer he has…”Come and see.” He knows that meeting Christ will remove all Nathanael’s doubt.
The greeting Jesus uses when He sees Nathanael, one single sentence, exposes a depth of personal knowledge not readily understood by modern audiences, so let’s look at v.47 closely to glean all the details as Nathanael would have understood them. First, Jesus calls him “truly an Israelite”, making a particular distinction in a diverse region equally populated by Hebrew and Greek Jews. In the language of the New Testament, being “an Israelite” was considered worthy of honor, a claim of descent from Jacob, the first Israel and patriarch of the Twelve Tribes. The rest of the greeting is a tacit recognition that, before God changed his name and his nature, Jacob was not a very nice person…he is perhaps best known for cheating his brother Esau out of his birthright (trading a bowl of stew for it) and their father’s blessing (aided by his mother and some goatskin). By declaring that “no deceit“ is in Nathanael, Jesus is affirming that He has intimate knowledge of his character…a bold claim for a man who he never met before! In v.48 Nathanael questions the source of this knowing (notice he does not deny anything Jesus said…He was right!), and Jesus comes right back with another, bolder statement – “I saw you.” Again, there are layers of meaning behind the words. “Under the fig tree” is more than a physical location, it is a cultural idiom peculiar to the Jews – a call to pray specifically for the coming of the Messiah; this is what Nathanael would have been doing when Philip found him…praying for the Messiah to come. Further, by claiming to know his thoughts and his heart from afar, Jesus is calling to mind the words of King David, writing in the Psalms to glorify the Lord for His intimate and inescapable knowledge of us.
In v. 49 Nathanael receives these assertions as sufficient, convincing evidence, and declares his belief in Jesus as “Son of God…king of Israel”. The final two verses of the chapter contain that promise of more revelation, as if all we have seen so far is not enough. Jesus again reaches into the Old Testament for a familiar image, and applies it to Himself; Jacob is once more featured, or rather the heavenly vision he received of God’s servants traveling to and from the earth, attending to the Father’s will. By placing Himself, the “Son of Man” in the place of the ladder, Jesus explicitly makes Himself the conduit of God’s will on earth…and of God’s grace, as well.
Before we leave this chapter, I would like to make a couple of quick comments about some words and phrases Jesus uses here, which have a recurring significance: First, “Son of Man” is the self-applied title most preferred by Jesus; in John’s Gospel alone it appears 13 times. This is a particularly non-political appellation, compared to “king”, “Lord”, “son of David”, etc. as commonly applied to Him by others. Second, Jesus introduces His final remarks with an unusual construction of words. Various translations render them as “surely, surely”, “truly, truly”, or “most assuredly”, but Jesus is actually using a variant style normally reserved for the closing of corporate prayers – His, “Amen, Amen,” at the beginning of speaking, would naturally provoke strict attention to the words that followed, a “signature move” that we will see repeated anytime He has a particularly important point to emphasize.
Next week we will begin Chapter Two, verses 1-12, and see the first of the Signs of Glory (as John calls the miracles of Jesus), which proclaim testimony to His heavenly origin and mission.
On Mondays I present short versions of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved. Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.