The apostle John continues to give us a day-to-day description of the events that occurred during the early public ministry of Jesus Christ. John 1:43 begins with the words “the next day”. This is the third “next day” after John the Baptist’s interview with the priests and Levites. Verses 29 to 51 could be called “John’s Daily News Updates”, and he reports details that aren’t recorded in the other Gospels.
I. PHILIP THE PRAGMATIST (verses 43-45)
Here in verse 43 we read that Jesus “prepared to go forth into Galilee”. He was headed for Galilee and He had a specific purpose in mind for making this trip. When Jesus arrived in Galilee, He ‘found Philip”. Jesus looked for Philip until He found him. Philip’s name is Greek. It means “lover of horses”. That may have had something to do with his upbringing and with his previous occupation. We don’t know. We also don’t know how much previous knowledge he had of Jesus, nor how much preparation by God preceded this pivotal day in his life. But when Jesus said to Philip, “follow Me”, he not obeyed the call, but he also told a friend and introduced him to Jesus.
There isn’t a lot written about Philip in the Scriptures, and most of that information is found here in John’s Gospel. My personal impression of Philip is that he tends to be a pragmatist, that is, one who has a logical and practical approach to problems. In the feeding of the 5000, Philip assesses the situation, does the math, and gives his logical conclusion: “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little” (John 6:7). When he finds Nathaniel, Philip’s description of Jesus is very clear, precise and thorough: “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”. In verse 46, his reply to his friend Nathaniel’s question is “Come and see”, the same reply that Jesus gave to Simon Peter and John. He sure sounds like, and acts like a pragmatist to me, and I commend him for his thoroughness and objectivity!
II. NATHANIEL THE SKEPTIC (verse 46)
Philip and Nathaniel must have been close friends because Philip immediately searched for him and told him about the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Nathaniel’s reply, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth” may have been said in jest. but he meant the words. Nazareth must have been a very small town hidden away on the hillside in a low-income district. He couldn’t fathom how the Messiah, the King of heaven and earth, could come from a place like that. He was skeptical alright! He had probably been there before, and the town left a bad impression on him. There may have been some prejudice against “those kinds of people” It’s a possibility.
Philip isn’t interested in an argument so he says, “Come and see” – “let me introduce you to Him, and then come to your own conclusion”. Philip used the same words that Jesus used in verse 39. I think Philip was convinced that meeting Jesus would change Nathaniel’s attitude.
Before we look at Nathaniel’s meeting with Jesus, there are some things about Nathaniel that should be addressed. He is somewhat of a mystery! Let’s see if we can come to some kind of an explanation. Nathaniel is mentioned only here in chapter 1 and in chapter 21, verse 2 of John’s Gospel. He is not mentioned at all in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). So who is this person? Why is his name absent from all three of the lists of the disciples (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; and Luke 6:13-16)? Was he a friend of the disciples but not a disciple? Was he a figment of John’s imagination?
There is a theory about this mystery that makes a lot of sense to me for at least three good reasons. The theory is that Nathaniel and Bartholomew are the same person. Reason #1: As I mentioned earlier, Nathaniel is never mentioned in Matthew, Mark, or Luke’s Gospel but Bartholomew is mentioned. On the other hand, Bartholomew is not mentioned in John’s Gospel but Nathaniel is. This leads me to believe that they are one person being called by two different names. Reason #2: Nathaniel is closely associated with Philip in John’s Gospel, whereas Bartholomew is closely associated with Philip in the synoptic Gospels. The words “Philip and Bartholomew” are connected with each other using the same wording in both Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospels. The same connection is made between the brothers “Peter and Andrew“, and the brothers “James and John”. Reason #3: The name “Bartholomew” is composed of two words. “Bar” means “son” or “son of”. Bartholomew was the “son of Tholomew” (or Ptolemy). After His resurrection, Jesus addressed Peter as “Simon, son of John” or “Simon Bar Jonah”. Giving the father’s name helped distinguish people with the same first names. Another way of distinguishing people was to add where they were from. Some people may have referred to Jesus as “Jesus Bar Joseph”, others as “Jesus of Nazareth”. There are other people in the New Testament who are referred to by their “last names” so to speak. For example, there is the blind man, Bartimaeus, Barnabas the missionary, and the insurrectionist Barabbas. Nathaniel may have been Nathaniel Bartholomew and was accustomed to being called by both his names. We don’t know for sure, but this explanation makes sense to me.
III. JESUS AND NATHANIEL MEET (verse 47-51)
When Jesus sees Nathaniel coming toward Him, He says out-loud for everyone to hear, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” He is paying Nathaniel a compliment, saying that he is a person who is honest and straightforward, without deceit. Jesus is saying, in effect, “Behold, this man is not a phony. He’s being honest about his doubts.” Jesus’ words take Nathaniel by surprise. How could Jesus know anything about his character when they have never met before. He asks Jesus, “How do you know me?” He’s really saying, “Who told you about me?” “How did you obtain that personal information?” Nathaniel was shocked, but not as shocked as he is going to be! Jesus answered Nathaniel by saying, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Something really significant must have been going on under that fig tree because Nathaniel exclaims, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.”
In those days fig trees were planted along the roads, and they had large, thick leaves and overhanging branches that would conceal a person who was sitting under one of them. The Talmud, a Jewish book of religious laws and traditions, encouraged people to pray and meditate on God’s Word under a fig tree. It is very probable that Nathaniel was praying and meditating on Psalm 2 under the fig tree when Jesus saw him because the terms “Son of God” and “King (Anointed One) are both found in that psalm. Nathaniel may well have been praying for a manifestation of the Messiah. God’s Word and his own personal desires prepared him to recognize and proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah. The content of Jesus’ words, and the timing with which He spoke them, had a miraculous effect on Nathaniel. This Man who knows my thoughts, my prayers, and my secret desires must be the Messiah that I’m longing for.
Some might call it a “deja vu moment”. The French words mean “already seen”. Have you ever had a “deja vu moment” where you’ve seen something or experienced something that causes you to remember something that has happened to you before or earlier. It’s a time of recollection and amazement, isn’t it? Nathaniel’s response to Jesus was one of amazement and adoration.
In verse 51, Jesus’ makes a promise, not only to Nathaniel, but to all the disciples who are present with Him. The pronoun (“you”), and the verb (“shall see”) are both plural in the Greek text. They will all see something even more amazing that will confirm Nathaniel’s words to Him. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you (plural), you (all of you) shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” That’s quite a promise! When was that promise fulfilled? Are Jesus’ words to be taken literally or figuratively? Has this event already happened, or is it yet to happen?
When the disciples heard that promise from Jesus’ lips, Genesis 28:10-12 must have immediately come to their minds. Verse 12 says, “And he (Jacob) had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” The disciples must have tried to envision that dream in their minds every time they thought of that passage of Scripture, or heard it read in the Synagogue.
Let’s compare the two passages of Scripture. Genesis 28:12 is quoted in the above paragraph, and John 1:51 is quoted in the paragraph before it. Notice that there is a ladder mentioned in Genesis 28 but no ladder mentioned in John 1:51. That’s because Jesus, the “Son of Man” is now the way to God, the only connection between God and man. He came to earth to pave the way to heaven and open its gates at the cost of His life. This is the first of many times that Jesus uses the words “Son of Man” to refer to Himself in John’s Gospel. I believe the angels ascending and descending represent God’s power, His communication, and His protection of His people.
In Jacob’s dream, God reaffirmed His promises to Abraham and Isaac. Jacob’s response was one of worship and commitment to God. In John 1:51 Jesus’ purpose was to prepare the disciples He is addressing to begin to realize that He is truly the Messiah who will do miraculous things through His life, death, resurrection, ascension, and High-Priestly ministry. They are going to be amazed, just as Jacob was amazed by his dream!
The Lord Jesus’ example in His relationship with Nathaniel provides an application for us today. Jesus praised Nathaniel for being an “honest skeptic” because Nathaniel was being transparent about his feelings and was open to the truth. Jesus was teaching His disciples to be patient and kind to skeptics, and He was showing Nathaniel that He appreciated his honest skepticism. How do you respond when someone questions your beliefs? Do you make that person feel welcome or do you express anger and turn that person away?
When I was in college, my roommate and I had a weekly Bible study in our dorm- room. A student across the hall from us had some bad “religious experiences” in his past. He shared some of his experiences and expressed his feelings about God and “religious people”. When he found that we were willing to listen and cared about him, he would drop by to chat. One night, after the Bible study, we were praying for one another when the door to our room opened. It stayed open for about a minute while we were taking turns praying, and then closed quietly. After everyone had left, this student from across the hall came over and said that he listened to us praying. He said “Now I know it’s real” . . . I want what you’ve got!” He became a child of God that night. Afterward my roommate and I prayed and thanked God for enabling us to be patient and kind toward him. How do you treat skeptics? Do you let them know that you appreciate their honesty?
Are you a skeptic? Are there things about God, His Word, and His Son that you find hard to accept and believe? The fact that you’re at this site may indicate that you are seeking some answers to your questions. I encourage you to study God’s Word for yourself. Look for genuine Christians whose lives have been dramatically changed as they have believed and chosen to follow Christ. If you do, God will bring you to the place where you will also say, “Now I know it’s real”. ” I want what they’ve got” – a personal, life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. The Lord Jesus said, “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). The Lord keeps His word, and He will remove all doubts, just as He did for Nathaniel.
As Solomon says about wisdom in Proverbs 2:4-5, “If you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will discern the fear of the Lord, and discover the knowledge of God.” Keep digging deeper, my friends! There are great riches in God’s Word, and your lives will be enriched as a result. It’s time to move on to the next construction site. I hope this study has been as enriching an experience for you as it has been for me.