THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, 5

Two more disciples, John 1:43—51

Jesus’ first two disciples seemed to take the initiative in following Jesus.  John’s text suggests they were standing with John the Baptist, saw Jesus, and just set out to follow Him.  Clearly, they expected that Jesus on some level was the Messiah, or at least was the best candidate to be the Messiah to ever come along.  Modern readers should not read too much into Andrew’s declaration in verse 41—

“We have found the Messiah”

Given how the disciples behaved during Christ’s earthly ministry, they obviously were filled with many questions about this Man they were following; more questions than answers, in all probability.

With the next two disciples, Philip and Nathanael, Jesus takes the initiative.

1.  Jesus calls Philip, Philip calls Nathanael, verses 43—45

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from Galilee, and probably a fisherman.  His hometown was Bethsaida, which means “house of fishing.”   Looking carefully at the wording of verse 44, we can see into the heart Philip, and we realize that he, like many of his generation, was a “seeker,” longing for the Messiah—

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.”

What a marvelous response to Christ:  to tell others about Him!  This is probably the single most lacking activity in the lives of many Christians; actively witnessing about whom Jesus Christ is and what He’s done in our lives, sadly, seems to be a lost art.  Most believers are more than willing to let the televangelists and gospel pamphlets do their work for them.  In fact, the least effective means of witnessing is the media.  One-on-one sharing of the Gospel is the single most powerful and persuasive way to share Christ with someone;  this Philip did with excitement and vigor.

As Philip shared his testimony with Nathanael, his technique was simple and to-the-point.  He indicated that he himself had been looking for the Messiah through the pages of the Old Testament.  This man was no slouch when it came to the Scriptures.  Even though the Messianic hope was very real to Philip, and even though he knew the Scriptures almost as well as the group of Jews that visited John the Baptist, Philip was not blinded by his own ideas about what he thought the Scriptures taught.  He was able to discern that this Jesus of Nazareth may have been the One.  Notice he refers to Jesus as, “the Son of Joseph,” not the Son of God.  Philip seemed to glimpse some of the truth, though not all of it.

Nathanael’s name means “gift of God,” and the Greek equivalent is “Theodore.”  The exact identity of Nathanael is not certain, even though he is named here.  Some scholars have identified him with Bartholomew, others with Matthew.  Those who conclude Matthew is Nathanael point to the meaning of “Matthew,” which is “gift of Yahweh.”

While we can’t be 100% sure who Nathanael was, his response to Philip’s claims about Jesus seem humorous—

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip.

Some have taken Nathanael’s statement in a scornful way.  There may have existed a sort of rivalry between Bethsaida and Nazareth, which was a small rural village.  So Nathanael, was basically being a smart alec.

Undeterred, Philip was still excited about Jesus and brought Nathanael to Him.

2.  Jesus’ estimation of Nathanael, verses 46—51

What Jesus said when He saw Nathanael coming to Him was a supreme compliment—

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

Nathanael may have been an opinionated wisecracker, but in his heart he was a good man and a faithful man, faithful to the light he had.  Jesus’ comment is suggestive of Jacob, a man who was full of deceit and guile; Nathanael was nothing like Jacob.  Jacob had lied to his father and cheated his brother, yet was blessed by God.  If a scoundrel like Jacob could still be eligible for God’s blessing after all that he did, would not Nathanael be even more worthy of such blessing?

The interchange Nathanael had with Jesus is revealing—

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Some men might have been flattered by what Jesus said, but Nathanael was unflappable, and was curious—and honest enough—to ask how Jesus knew so much about him.   Jesus had two doubters.  We all know the one at the end of the story was Thomas, but the one at the beginning of the story was Nathanael.  He was not phased at all by what Jesus said, but Jesus was not put off and gave Nathanael the doubter the proof he needed to come to the same conclusion Philip did.

It must have surprised Nathanael to discover that Jesus actually saw him from afar of!   Hendriksen described the encounter this way:  Nathanael learns…that the penetrating eye of his new Master had entered even the sanctuary of his inner devotions beneath the fig-tree.

Is anything hid from that “penetrating eye?”  Psalm 139 hits the nail on the head—

You have searched me, LORD, and you know me.  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.

When Jesus sees us from afar off, let’s hope we are engaged in a worthy, worthwhile activity!

3.  Nathanael’s estimation of Jesus, verse 49

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

The first three disciples believed, the fourth needed a little convincing, which Jesus was only too glad to supply.  That is the marvelous thing about our Lord; He meets us right where we are, flaws and all.

Did Nathanael’s estimation of Christ’s character remain steady throughout Jesus’ tenure on earth?  Most scholars suggest the opposite was true; the faith of Nathanael waned as the years of Jesus’ earthly ministry wore on.  Though his faith waned, it certainly did not disappear!  This shows us that the disciples were just men, with faults and flaws like all men have.  This did not stop Jesus from using them, however.

4.  The promise of more, verses 50—51

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”  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.”

Some Bible scholars read verse 50 as a rebuke of Nathanael, although it seems far more likely to me that Jesus is simply stating the obvious:  it took something supernatural to convince Nathanael of who Jesus was.  There are those who might say that is a bad thing; they say that one should simply believe in Jesus for who He is, not for what He does.  Jesus’ response to Nathanael seems to indicate that sometimes it take something more for some to believe.  As evidence of that, verse 51 is a tremendous  promise to Nathanael, not made to any others.

Faith is faith, regardless of how it is birthed.  Some people respond to the message that “Jesus died for them,” others respond to the message that if they don’t repent, they will be damned.  Still others are like Nathanael.  His faith was just as valid and Philip’s, who seemed to just simply believe.  In response to his faith, Jesus promised that he would see into the spiritual world, just like Jacob did in Genesis 28:21.

The ladder that Jacob saw in his vision reaching from earth to heaven typified Jesus Christ, who is the only “mediator between God and man” (1 Timothy 2:5).  The ministering angels are thought to be ascending and descending upon Him.

What were the “greater things” Jesus referred to?  Surely this has a reference to the Jacob’s vision.  Nathanael will recognize that Jesus Christ is not only the Son of God, but also the Son of Man.  This special Man is a Ladder that exists between God and man, and this special man will use all of His considerable power for the sole purpose of saving sinful men from every nation on earth.

(c)  2010, WitzEnd
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