Nathanael: An Israelite indeed
© 2021 C. O. Bishop
We have been studying through the Gospel of John and have seen Jesus through a number of different viewpoints: we have seen Him as the Living Word: we have seen Him as God, the Creator; we have seen Him as the Light of the world, and the only source of life. We have seen Him as the Word made flesh…the incarnate God. We saw Him as the only source of Grace and Truth. We have seen Him as the Lamb of God: God’s chosen sacrifice for sin. We have seen Him as God the Son, specifically the “Only Begotten Son.”
These are just the introductory views that the Gospel presents. As He begins interacting with the disciples and others, we begin to see more things that deepen our understanding of Who Jesus really is. In John 1:45-50, we have His initial meeting with Nathanael. Starting in verse 43, we see:
43 The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me. 44 Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. 46 And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see. 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! 48 Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. 49 Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. 50 Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. 51 And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.
There are some “peculiar” things said in this passage, by both Jesus and Nathanael, as well as a number of other unanswered questions. Perhaps we have some answers, perhaps not. Let’s take it idea by idea: First, remember where they were: they were at a place called Bethabara, beyond Jordan, (John 1:28) This is at least six weeks after Jesus had been baptized by John the Baptist, and about sixty miles north, as John’s continuing ministry moved him from one end of the country to the other. Jesus was baptized near Jericho, at the closest point to Jerusalem (still 20 or thirty miles away…east of Jerusalem, near Jericho.)
They were not far from Galilee, now: They were right across the Jordan, in a province called Peraea, which just means “Beyond,” and about 13 miles south of the sea of Galilee, where most of these men worked as fishermen.
In verse 43, it says that Jesus planned a trip back into Galilee, where His hometown of Nazareth was. He already had called Andrew, and Peter, as well as one other disciple, who was almost certainly John, later to become the Apostle John. (John never referred to himself by name in his Gospel.)
Jesus found Philip and called him to follow Him as a disciple. We aren’t told much about that exchange, either. Why would Philip want to follow Jesus? Had he heard of Him? Was there some background that we are not given? I can’t be sure…but somehow, Philip knew who Jesus was and was not only willing to lay aside everything else and become his disciple, but he went and found a friend, Nathanael, and invited him to join him, in following Jesus.
Philip was from Bethsaida, the same village where Peter and Andrew lived. Bethsaida means “House of fishing.” We might surmise that Philip was also a commercial fisherman, though we are not told so. We might even assume that he was already friends with Peter and Andrew, and that possibly this was part of why he was easily able to choose discipleship.
Nathanael is named as one of those who followed Peter back to the boats and the fish, in chapter 21. However, Nathanael was not from the same town, but rather from Cana, where Jesus would be going in the next chapter. Cana was about sixteen miles from Bethsaida, as far as I can tell.
(Part of the problem in determining where Bethsaida is in relation to the other places, is that the city of Bethsaida was abandoned after about AD 65, because an earthquake had filled the north end of the Sea of Galilee with silt, putting the fishing village too far from the water, not to mention possibly having buried all the boats. We simply have to accept that things have changed a bit, over the last 2000 years in that area. We have similar occurrences, here: the Salton Sea of southern California is part of what was once a giant inland sea of 2,200 square miles, which today is called “Cahuilla Lake,” But that lake had filled and emptied many times over the preceding millennia, and had been desert again, for centuries, until about 1905, when an accident caused by human meddling diverted the entire Colorado river into that area for about two years, filling it again, flooding towns and much of the local Indian territory. It has dried up again, mostly, but the event significantly changed geography for more than a century.)
But all of these men (Andrew, John, Peter, Philip and Nathanael) were in Peraea, at the village of Bethabara, when Jesus called them: they were 25 miles (or more) away from Bethsaida, and around 20 miles away from Cana or Nazareth, in a different direction. My supposition is that all these men probably had specifically come there because of the preaching of John the Baptist, and all probably had been baptized by him, identifying with his message of the coming Kingdom. And now, in Jesus, they were meeting the King!
Philip either already knew a fair bit about Jesus, or he picked it up from the others very quickly, because he told Nathanael that they had found the predicted King, prophesied by Moses and the prophets, and Philip referred to Him as “Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph.” It is interesting, too, that Philip used the Greek form meaning the heir (huion) of Joseph, not the common “bar-Joseph” which simply means “son of Joseph.” I can only guess that the difference might have specified that Jesus was the eldest Son: the heir. If that isn’t it, then Philip was simply mistaken, as Jesus was not actually Joseph’s son, at all, though He truly was his “Heir-apparent.”
But Nathanael’s response is interesting, too: He asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” We might assume that he simply didn’t think much of Nazareth, and that is certainly a possibility. Even today, people scorn certain towns as being unimportant and even contemptible. (Consider the various towns called “Podunk”—Podunk, MA; Podunk, NY; Podunk, VT; etc.)
But it seems more likely that Nathanael knew the prophecy regarding Bethlehem as being the birthplace of the Messiah, and the bloodline of David being the ancestry. He may simply have been questioning the possibility of the Messiah originating in Nazareth at all. In that case, he would have been correct, but he simply would not have known that Jesus actually had been born in Bethlehem, and was of the lineage of David, fulfilling that portion of the prophecies. But, Philip’s only answer was “Come and See!”
Come and See!
“Come and See” is a good invitation! We can invite a friend to “come and see the promise of Jesus” in John 5:24, and invite them to deal personally with the promise of Eternal Life: Life to be experienced now, not as a vague, “pie-in-the-sky” hope, but as a present knowledge of the Risen Christ. Philip invited Nathanael to come and meet Jesus personally.
As they approached, Jesus saw Nathanael, and said, “Behold: a true Israelite, in whom there is no guile.” (“Guile” is phoniness: sly trickery, deception.”) Jesus was saying that Nathanael was honest, and that he presented no “false front.” No false “show” of religious piety, as the Pharisees were known to do.
And, Nathanael was startled that Jesus (whom he had never met) was making a statement regarding his character. He asked, “Where do you know me from?’ Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
What about the Fig Tree?
So…what did He see? Was it just that Nathanael “happened to be” under a fig tree before Philip called him? And, did Jesus simply mean, “Yes, I saw you sitting under that fig tree when Philip called you,” Or did he mean, “before Philip called you, back when you were sitting under the fig tree, I saw you.”?
In either case, what was Nathanael doing there, under the fig tree? Was he praying? Was he meditating on God’s Word? Or was he just having a nap? We aren’t actually told, and if it were not for the following exchange, it might not have mattered:
Nathanael completely capitulated on the idea of whether anything good could come out of Nazareth: He blurted out, “Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.”
Now, how could he come to that conclusion with the extremely limited information he had to work with? Jesus asked essentially that very question: He said, “Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.”
And then He said something really strange:
He said “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” I had a hard time following Nathanael’s “jump” to faith, but I have an even harder time following Jesus’s prophetic response! What does one statement have to do with the other?
Is Jesus simply stating something special in Nathanael’s and the other disciples’ future? He didn’t say “You will see Me coming in clouds of Glory and setting up My kingdom here.” He did tell others some things of that sort…but what He said to Nathanael is only matched in one place in the scriptures, as far as I can tell:
It matches Jacob’s vision in Genesis 28:10-17, where Jacob was at Bethel, andsaw a vision of a “ladder,” whose top reached to heaven, and he saw “the angels of God ascending and descending upon it.” What a strange vision! The only thing that cleared it up (a little) was that The LORD was at the head of that ladder, and He used that vision to reiterate to Jacob the promises given to Abraham and Isaac. Is that, perhaps, what Nathanael was pondering and wondering about, when he was under the fig tree? I really have no idea.
But much has been made of that “ladder.” People have gotten the idea that we are somehow to “climb” that ladder: Songs are written about it, saying “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder…every step goes higher, higher…etc.” But that is simply not true!
Believers do not “Climb” into Christ
The day you trusted in Christ as your Savior, you were placed in Christ, and you already have been seated with Him in the Heavenlies, according to Ephesians 2:6. There is no hint of our “climbing into God’s presence,” or somehow by our works gaining worthiness to enter in. Jesus paid our way, and He has entered in, and we enter in by faith… in Him.
So, for what cause are the angels going up and down? (They aren’t doing home renovation, or maintenance work. They aren’t changing lightbulbs!) If I look at Job, the first two chapters, I see that Satan had to get permission to do all the terrible things he did to Job. God permitted it for two purposes: our edification and Job’s education. But angels (both holy and fallen) do have access to this world.
If Satan had to have permission to act, perhaps the vision of Jacob’s ladder and the comment Jesus made, together allow us a peek at a spiritual truth: angelic intervention on earth is only possible through Christ. So, even the holy angels only work on earth as God’s messengers: they are not free to come and go, and just do whatever they think of. And it is further evidence that the fallen angels have no power over us, except as God allows testing in our lives.
And what else did we see…or not see…regarding that ladder? Were there people climbing that ladder? Nope. There were not. Even the Old Testament makes it fairly clear that when a wicked person confesses his guilt and repents, his sins are forgotten. (Ezekiel 33:14-16, compare Psalm 103:12) And in the New Testament, far from our “climbing” into God’s Grace by our works or piety, we are placed into the Body of Christ by the Holy Spirit at the moment we trust in Him; and as a result, we are already fully accepted by God and we are permanently His children.
Transparency and Honesty
I don’t know all that Jesus saw in Nathanael, beyond what He told us: “an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile” Apparently Jesus really likes transparency in His relationship with us. He is most certainly not impressed with man-made “piety” and “shows” of “righteousness.” He pretty strongly condemned the Pharisees for that particular behavior:
In Matthew 23:25-27, He said “25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. 26 Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. 27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.
The English word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek word “hupokrites,” meaning “an actor:” specifically, the kind of actors they had at that time, who literally held up a false-face mask from behind which they read their lines. If they played a “nice guy” they held up a smiling benign-looking mask: if they played a villain, they held up a nasty-guy mask, to show the audience who they were supposed to be. A person who simply fails to do what they really believe is right, is failing, not “acting.” We don’t call a child a hypocrite for falling down when they are trying to learn to walk, nor do we call an adult who has a wreck on a bicycle, a “hypocrite” for failing to maintain his balance…we know he failed. He was in no way “pretending” to ride a bicycle.
The ones Jesus called “hypocrites” were pretending to be Godly men, and hiding a false, evil heart. Nathanael was evidently the opposite of a hypocrite: he was completely transparent, both about his doubts (“How can anything good come out of Nazareth?”) and his faith (“Master, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”) He suffered the same failings as everyone else, but he called them as he saw them. He was not trying to impress anyone. Jesus evidently liked that!
What about us?
Can we be transparent with God, to begin with? Can we then grow in that faith, enough to be transparent with one another? Can we abandon our “Company and Church Face,” and replace it with a Christ-like heart, so that what comes out in the sight of everyone else is genuinely the kind of person Jesus calls us to be?
Believe it or not, people pretty easily see through our “fronts and facades, and fakes” anyway: why not just give up the pretense, confess our faults, and humble ourselves enough to honestly walk with Jesus? Only in that way are we free to love one another, and to help one another, and not suffer shame for who we really are. I may not know, for sure, the connection between Jesus and Jacob’s Ladder; but I can at least lay hold of what Jesus said about Nathanael and try to apply it to my own life. I want to be transparent with God and with my fellow humans, so that the charge of “hypocrite” will never be appropriate.
Lord Jesus, we ask that you open our eyes to the realities of our own lives and allow us to be honest with you and with those around us, about who we are, and the changes that need to happen. Help us to shine as your lights in this world.