10. Nathaniel

Nathaniel: An Israelite in whom there is no Jacob
John 1:43-51

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Nathaniel.  A man whose name means, “a gift from God.”  In John’s Gospel he is called Nathaniel, but in the other three gospels he is called Bartholomew.  We suspect his full name is Nathaniel Bartholomew, or Nathaniel, son of Tolmai.  We know very little about this man, except for what the Gospel of John tells us about his initial meeting with Jesus.  But from this brief account in John 1:43-51 there are three things that stand out.

First, he is a man without guile.

Jesus looked at the man and gave an evaluation of the man’s character.  An Israelite in whom there is no guile.  Some feel he was making a pun because Jacob’s name means guile or deceit.  He says that Nathaniel is an Israelite in whom is none of the Jacob spirit.  Jacob was constant in using guile and deceit.  He tricked his brother, tricked his father, tricked his father in law, tricked Abimelech, King of Gerar.  He used guile in relationship to his wives and his own sons. But, after a change in character, he is renamed Israel.

But Jesus says here is a child of Jacob who has none of that spirit.  That tells me that not all sinners are the same.  Some people are what we could call good people.  They are moral in their life style.  Some sinners are vile and crude, while others are refined and gracious in manner.  I observe that John the gospel writer tells the story of Nicodemus the Pharisee, he then follows it with the so-called wicked woman of Samaria. Both immoral and the well behaved are included in the ranks of sinners.  Nathaniel was among the moral men who were attracted to Jesus.  He was a man in whom there was no attempt to deceive.  No attempt to be false.  He wore no mask.

He was an earnest seeker

There is a second thing about Nathaniel that occurs in this passage He is an earnest seeker.  If he had not been a seeker after the Messiah, I am sure his friend Phllip would not have come bounding up to him saying, “We have found the Messiah.”  That is not glad news to a man who is not looking for anything or anyone, but Nathaniel seemed to be one of that great number in those days that earnestly looked for the Messiah.  Many in Israel had no interest in looking for a messiah, but there were others like Simeon and Anna and Zechariah and Elisabeth who looked for the consolation of Israel. Nathaniel was among that group of seekers.  And we shall see later that perhaps he was more earnest than most in seeking. I have a feeling that this was one of the greatest reasons Jesus chose the men he did to be his apostles.  He wanted people who recognized the world’s need of a saviour.

He was prejudiced.

There is one other characteristic that strikes us immediately about Nathaniel. He appears to have his prejudices.  Now the people of Judea carried a long held prejudice towards Samaritans and Galileans.  But it is also true that Samaritans and Galileans had their own prejudices against the “posh people” in Judea and Jerusalem.  But even within Galilee there was hostility towards the so called riff-raff in other nearby towns.

When his good friend Philip came dancing up and says, “We have found him, The Messiah” his ears perk up. But when Nathaniel heard the end of that sentence “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” Philip wants to hear no more.  His retort is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth!” Nazareth was a rural village in the hinterlands of Galilee. Historians tell us of intense rivalry that existed between neighbouring small towns. Nathaniel knew that nothing ever came from Nazareth that was any good. On top of that, if Nathaniel knew the tradition of the scribes, he knew that The Christ was to come from Bethlehem.  And so Nathaniel raises a wall of prejudice. 

Philips’s Introduction

Nathaniel was prejudiced, but it was not helped by Philip’s mistake. Phllip is excited.  He comes running to his friend.  “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote!” And to Nathaniel this earnest seeker that is delightful news.  He knows his friend and trusts him.  That is news that has been awaited for such a long time.

Philip has just met Jesus.  He hardly knows a thing about him.  But what he does know excites him enough to share, and so he shares.  But Jesus is not exactly “Jesus of Nazareth”.  He has lived there much of his life, but he was born in Bethlehem.  People were referred to as so-and-so of such and such a town, since that was the place of their birth.  Mary and Joseph had to return to Bethlehem when it was census time.  So Jesus actually did not originate in Nazareth.  But excited Philip didn’t know anything different just yet.

Then we know he makes a second error.  He calls him the “Son of Joseph”.  We know that Joseph was not his biological father, though he was his “step father”. Philip didn’t know that yet.  He had much to learn. But we appreciate Phllip.  He may not know much yet, but he is excited about what he does know.  I wish we were more like that.  Willing to bear witness even though there is much we do not know.  Too many of us are waiting to become theological experts before we feel competent to share our faith.  Phllip knew better.  He had met Jesus and that was enough.  But his words turn poor Nathaniel cold.  He doesn’t want to meet a Nazarene.

Come and see.

Philip is not defeated, and says, “come and see!” Philip could not argue Nathaniel into belief, but he could invite him to see for himself.

Aldous Huxley, the famous agnostic found that out.  Many had argued with him about God but Huxley was not persuaded.  He was the guest of people who were having a house party one weekend.  On Sunday morning the guests and household made their way to the local church, leaving Huxley behind, who preferred not to go.  He approached one of the men who was known to have a genuine simple faith and asked him to stay behind and not go to church and talk with him about his faith.  But the man said, “No, you could demolish my arguments in an instance.  I’m not clever enough to argue with you.”  Huxley said gently, “I don’t want to argue with you, I just want you to tell me what this Christ means to you.”  The man stayed home and told Huxley simply of his faith.  When he had finished there were tears in the agnostic’s eyes.  “I would give my right hand, he said, if only I could believe that.”  It was no clever argument that did that.  It was an invitation as simple as “come and see.”

Where our arguments and words might be to no avail, our friendship and our invitation to come and see, may bring people to the Christ.  So Nathaniel came.

The Confrontation

As Philip and Nathaniel approach, Jesus raises his voice so that the men can hear him, and he says, “An Israelite in whom there is no guile!”  Jesus knew the caliber of the man who approached.  His words brought Nathaniel up short.  “Where did you get to know me?”  He is astonished, as you and I would be.  Here was a complete stranger making a value judgment upon him.

Then follows some words that only Jesus and Nathaniel knew the real import of.  Jesus said, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”  That astounds Nathaniel, presumably because something significant had happened under that fig tree.  Most think that Nathaniel was sitting beneath the fig tree, praying and meditating.  The Jewish Rabbis suggested that the fig tree was a good place for mediation, especially since it was one of the symbols of the Jewish nation.

Perhaps Nathaniel was meditating about the coming Messiah.  He may have been wishing that he would come soon. But some of us suspect that this “Israelite in whom is no Jacob” may have been reflecting on that strange event in the life of his ancestor Jacob. (Gen 28:10-12)

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”

And as Jesus says, “I saw you…” Nathaniel realized that here was one who could see into his mind and heart; one who could read the secrets there.  Here was one who understood his dreams.  There and then, upon the reminder that Jesus already knew him, Nathaniel capitulated forever to the man who could read and understand and satisfy his heart! Then Jesus says to him “You will see greater things than these… I tell you the truth, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” Jesus was pointing perhaps to his own resurrection and ascension that Nathaniel and the other apostles would soon experience.

So Nathaniel makes his declaration of faith.  “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.”  His prejudice melted and he became a follower of the Christ.