What do we know about Nathanael? Surprisingly, little. In fact, everything we know comes from just two passages in John’s Gospel (all other references to him are as a name on a list):
So, Matthew 10:2,3 / Mark 3:18 / Luke 6:14 and Acts 1:13 merely mention Nathanael as one of the 12. We then have a description of his first encounter with Jesus recorded by John at the end of John 1, and his inclusion among the disciples who returned to Galilee recorded at the end of John’s gospel.
Nathanael means “gift of God”, he is also named in other places as Bartholomew: Does he have 2 names? Is this odd? Not really, there are loads of characters in the Scriptures who have two names … Abram was renamed to Abraham, Jacob was renamed to Israel, Simon was renamed to Peter, Saul was renamed to Paul, Joseph (from Cyprus) was called Barnabas etc etc etc. But for clarity today, I will call him Nathanael.
We also know that Nathanael was from Cana in Galilee (John 21:1) which is where Jesus’ first miracle was performed.
I want to look at the passage in John’s gospel and focus on Nathanael and his conversation with Jesus in John 1:
John 1:43-50. The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 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.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”
I want today to think about three things which this passage throws up. Two of them come from what Jesus said to Nathanael, and the third comes from Nathanael’s response.
- Jesus says of Nathanael “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” (John 1:47). I want to talk about the importance of the inner man.
- Related to this, Jesus then says, “I saw you when you were sitting under the fig tree” (John 1:50). God sees us in the unseen place.
- Lastly, I want to talk about Nathanael’s description/confession of Jesus, he says: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (John 1:49). I want to consider what it means that Jesus is our teacher (I recognize your role), what the expression “Son of God” tells us about his nature, and how the title King of Israel shows Jesus’ authority.
The importance of the inner man
The first thing I want to look at is the first part of Jesus’ description of Nathanael.
In today’s society, there is a focus on externals. How we look, act and how we behave, what we say is scrutinized and if we step out of line, or express a view in public which does not accord to the values of today’s society, we can find ourselves in real trouble. Increasingly we have seen in our media programmes stories of some Christian individual losing their job, or a Christian firm being sued for acting in line with the Bible and not society.
Notwithstanding that, for the moment at least, what we believe and how we think, what we say in private is still our own domain. We have not yet entered the realms of Brave New World, 1984 or Minority Report where people are accused and sentenced for their thoughts.
Jesus saw Nathanael in a way no human could. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus remarked “When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” John 1:47.
We can often get hung up on human understandings of membership of particular groups of people. When people talk about Israel and Israelites, we have a nation state we can look at, and for us, the label Israelite we mean something similar as saying English, or French or American. Even when we say Jewish, we’re talking about a cultural group. When he calls Nathanael a “true Israelite”, Jesus is not talking about his human descent, he is not even talking about his adherence to a cultural group. He is, rather talking about what really makes someone an Israelite.
Jesus’ was not talking about Nathanael’s works, he wasn’t commending him for his good deeds, or the righteous life he led. He wasn’t commenting on his public declarations of faith, He isn’t even talking about the fact Nathanael told the truth per-se, He was talking about his inner character.
Paul talks of the inner man, he says in Romans 7:22 “in my inner being I delight in God’s law”
And in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, he places his sense of self-worth entirely on his inner man when he says “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
In fact, when we are reborn in the Spirit, Paul describes what happens as a new creation … 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV) “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”. Paul isn’t talking about a physical transformation here, though when people come to faith it is not uncommon for their friends to recognize there’s something different and to look for something physical. It’s not uncommon for someone to say there’s something different about you, have you had your hair done? On some rare occasions, the outward change can be astounding.
But the overwhelming witness of Scripture is that God is far more concerned with our inner person, with our character than he is with our appearance.
There are a number of other characters in the Bible who are seen for who they are inside….
- Gideon. Despite his hiding from the Midianites is described as a “mighty warrior”.
- David is called “a man after my heart”
- Nehemiah describes some of the leaders of Israel as “men of integrity who fear God more than most men do”
One of the most well-known verses which speaks to this is when Samuel looks at Jesse’s son Eliab and God says to him “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
But this is by no means the only place the Scripture shows us that God sees what is in our hearts, and that our position in the kingdom is not by virtue of our actions, but by something much more embedded in our inner man.
A lot of the book of Romans tackles this issue, and Paul explains that we, the gentile believers are “grafted” into the people of God through faith (Romans 11:11ff elaborates on this), and Paul emphasizes it clearly to the Ephesians when he writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8,9). In other words, what is important is not what you do with the outer man, but what happens in the inner man which is important.
John 1:12-13 says, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
Romans 2:28-29 “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God”.
So, although Jesus is clear that how we treat one another is important, these outward expressions of our faith are exactly that. They are expressions of our faith. Our outer actions reveal what is in our inner man.
Jesus says, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart” (Luke 6:45). // with Proverbs 4:23 (NIV) “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
Matthew 7:15-20 (NIV) “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
He is talking about prophets here, but there is a prick cripple which is true for everyone, which is in v18 “by their fruit you will recognize them”
In other words, we do not do good things as Christians to become Christians. We do the stuff we do because we ARE Christians.
People we talk to will think they are Christians because they do what they think are “good deeds”, and so they will go to heaven. Setting aside the fact that they think they not God are the ones to determine what is good and bad, they are falling into the trap of believing that it is those things which make them Christian. This is a disastrous misunderstanding of the Gospel.
We are ingrafted branches, we can know we are Abraham’s spiritual children because of the faith in our hearts, not the actions of our hands, so Paul can say, “those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God … The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” and “we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ”. (Romans 8:14, 16,17)
We would do well to remember that!
God sees the unseen
Jesus said to Nathanael, “I saw you when you were sitting under the fig tree” (John 1:50). This point is linked to the above point. We may feel small and unimportant, but Jesus notices us.
Candid Camera / Game for a Laugh (and I’m sure there are others) made very popular television shows out of recording people’s reactions when they are put in situations and filmed without their knowledge, but as a general rule, how people act when they think no one is watching or around is very interesting. People’s reactions to being filmed or observed without their permission is not positive, and it can often evoke anger.
Our society seems interested in and obsessed with the big, the important, the famous! In fact, years ago if you asked a child what they wanted to do when they get older, you would hear answers like “doctor” “train driver” and the like. Now all kinds seem to want to aspire to is being famous. But God is not interested in that stuff, He is interested in the hidden / the unnoticed / the bypassed. Those who the Bible describes as the widow and the foreigner / children / lepers / tax collectors / those collectively called “sinners”, etc etc etc. Have you ever felt like no one notices what I do? I’m hidden, unnoticed and therefore by implication I’m unimportant?
Takes away from this that Jesus notices you. Who you are (and what you do) matters to him.
I used to think that whatever I did, there was no point, no one will notice, and no one will care. But Jesus does notice, and He does care.
So, Jesus could look into Nathanael’s character and see the inner man, but he can also see us when we think we are alone. He sees us when we think no one else is watching!
Hebrews 4:13 “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account”.
Psalms 33:13-15_”From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all mankind; from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth — he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do”_.
Proverbs 5:21 “your ways are in full view of the LORD, and he examines all your paths”.
Jeremiah 16:17 (God says:) “My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my eyes”.
Jeremiah 23:23-24 “Am I only a God nearby,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far away? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” declares the LORD.
Daniel 2:22 “He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him”.
Who is Jesus?
Nathaniel’s declaration: John 1:49 “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel”. In other words: teacher, I recognize your nature (divine) and I recognize your authority (king).
In other words, where does our understanding of the things of the world come from? Culture? Reason? Or do we take our cues from God himself?
Did Jesus ever call himself Rabbi? — No. But he was called Rabbi by people around him
Rabbi is a Hebrew, not Greek word, and it simply means “master” or “teacher”.
The significance for us today is that if Jesus is our master or teacher, we are accepting a couple of things:
- We have something to learn. In other words, we are not there, we don’t have the world sussed, we are not the arbiter of all knowledge. Interestingly, people will often express this view that they see Christians as arrogant people who “think they know it all”, yet it is by their actions and not their words, they reveal that the opposite is true, that they think they have the answers. In the same breath they will say this or something like it “who do you think you are to tell me what to do” in other words, there’s nothing you can teach me, I already have the answers. By contrast, Christians if they are honest recognize that they don’t know everything. We are disciples after all and a disciple is “one who learns”.
- We recognize the place to learn is at the feet of Jesus. We have reams of teaching from Jesus, and the most precious thing he teaches us is our worth, what He did to rescue us from Sin, and how to appropriate his offer of life for ourselves.
If we could get to the place where like Nathanael, we recognize that the place to be is in the presence of Jesus, that there was something he has to teach us, and that spending time with him is the best way to learn and develop our faith, we would make far fewer mistakes as we walk through life.
At the moment as a church we are following the 40 Days in the Word series, and one of the daily devotionals this week I think is helpful to us in this.
Hebrews 4:12 says “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
If we think about the phrase “the word of God is living and active” is this about Jesus? (John 1:1 which is clearly about Jesus says, “in the beginning was the word”) or is it about the Scripture? Which is it?
This question has had scholars debating and arguing for centuries, but as Spurgeon pointed out, The question actually reveal great truth because much of what we can say about Jesus we can say about the Bible.
Don’t forget that the huge bulk of what we know about Jesus is found in the Bible. In other words, the Bible is alive and active because Jesus is in it.
He is DIVINE
Jesus is not just a good man, he is God.
The phrases “Son of” and “child of” denotes a characteristic, so :
- James & John are “sons of thunder” = temper.
- Barnabas means “son of encouragement” = encourager.
- In John 17:12, Jesus description of Judas is translated as “the one doomed to destruction” in the NIV, but the Greek “huios apōleia” quite literally means “son of destruction” or even “son of hell” (KJV says “son of perdition”).
- In Matthew 23, Jesus says to the Pharisees “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” Matthew 23:15 (emphasis mine)
So, the two terms Jesus used of himself, “son of man” and “son of God” say something about his nature.
- “Son of man” speaks to his human nature.
- “Son of God” speaks to his divine nature.
When Nathanael calls Jesus Son of God he is clearly declaring Jesus’ divinity.
I think it is very telling that John should record this detail. Reading John 20:31, shows us that the whole purpose of John’s gospel is to get us to the place where we recognize and believe this.
John starts his gospel declaring “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God”, almost at the end, he tells us the purpose of his gospel “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The progress of people through the Gospel of John shows people who believe in Jesus.
Nathanael is, perhaps the very first person John records doing this.
John’s letter is full references to the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, AND in his letter he says that “if anyone denies Jesus is the Christ, such a person is the antichrist denying the Father and the Son”. (the same Greek word is translated as “Christ” here and “Messiah” in John 20:31)
Many deny Jesus’ divinity. In fact, this one belief alone sets Christianity apart from all other religions. Christians alone believe that Christ is divine.
He has AUTHORITY
The declaration by Nathanael that Jesus is the King of Israel is in fact the only confession of Jesus kingship that we find in the Gospels outside the Palm Sunday declarations and Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. As Christians, it is fairly common to declare Jesus is our Bing, but I believe we sometimes miss the significance of what it means when we declare Christ as King.
God’s original intent for his people was that they should have no King. So for example in Isaiah 43:15, 44:6, Malachi 1:14, Zechariah 14:9 & 4:16-17 God says He is their King; Therefore Israel should need no King. So, when we read in the Bible about King David, and Saul and Solomon and all the other Kings, we are reading about something that wasn’t part of God’s original intent for His people.
The problem, however, was this, Israel got thrashed by the Philistines at the battle of Aphek in BC. 1050. This is a turning point in the history of Israel, and they demand a King. You can read about their demand in 1 Samuel 8:4-9, then 19-22. In 1 Samuel 8:7, God says plainly to Samuel that Israel rejected Him as their King. The people of Israel really missed the point, they shouldn’t have asked for a King, and the fact they did shows us how far they were from God in so many ways.
The result, then is that Samuel anoints Saul as King. Saul makes such a pig’s ear of being a King that David is chosen. David for all of his love and his heart after God had so much blood on his hands that he was not permitted to complete the temple. Solomon fails as King, and the Kingdom is divided into Israel [Northern] and Judah [Southern]. Then we see a succession of Kings in both Kingdoms, some good and some bad, but none of them perfect. And by the time of Jesus, the “King” of the Jews (Herod) was not actually a pure Jew, he was a half-breed (a Jew of Idumean descent), a puppet King, put on the throne by the Romans.
When we think about Jesus as King, we think of the human model of Kingship we see around us. But this is not how God intended to rule as King. I could describe for you all what a King does and what Kingship as we would see it means, but I believe that this is but a poor reflection of God’s intention as our King. In fact, John 6:15 describes Jesus withdrawing because he knew the people wanted to make him King, and in John 18:36 He says this: “My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my Kingdom is from another place.”
If, then we restrict our understanding of Jesus’ Kingship to that which we see in earthly Kings, then we are missing something. I want to consider how Jesus truly fulfils his function of King.
Neither Temporal nor Geographical
Ephesians 1:20-22, Matthew 18:28, 1 Corinthians 15:25. Jesus’ Kingship is not about physical, geographical areas, it is, as Paul says, “far above all rule authority, and power and dominion”. We also tend to think in terms of the future when we think of Jesus as King, especially when we look at passages like Revelation 15:3, 17:14 and 19:16, which put Christ’s Kingship into the future, but Christ won’t be the King of Kings, he IS the King of Kings.
We live in a world that is full of chaos and turmoil. Over the last few years we’ve seen dictators fall, we’ve seen uprisings and struggles for geographical power, and we’ll see more as the years progress. We need to constantly be aware as we look at these things on our TVs that our King is above all these things.
Not about Power or Status
Human role models look for authority, power and status, but the role model we have for Kingship is quite different. Jesus does not lord it over us, he does not follow the modern, or indeed any human example of Kingship, and His example of Kingship is one of a servant. The key passage here, I believe is Philippians 2:6ff
Not about Force
The Jews of Jesus’ day were sick of being under the rule of Rome, they were looking for a leader, a King who would overthrow the Romans and usher in a new time of victory and prosperity for the nation. They looked back to the Kingdoms of David and Solomon and the King they were looKing for was a King from out of the same mould, a King who would give them political victory, victory in battle, victory over their enemies, the oppressors of God’s people. This is why I believe they were caught up in the moment of that day: they wanted a release.
The Bible says in John 6 that Jesus withdrew from the crowds because He knew that they intended to make him King by force (John 6:15).
That is not the way Jesus works. He will come to you, He will speak truth into your heart and your life, but whether you act on that truth is entirely YOUR choice. Christ will live as King in your life only when you choose to make him king.
Far too often we claim to be Christians, and then live as if our King is not our King (I realised this and it is this which prompted me to go forward at Billy Graham). We are either subjects of the King of Kings, and citizens of his Kingdom, or we are not. Jesus will not take my life and force obedience like an earthly King, He asks for it, he deserves it, but he will not force it on me. If there is an element of your life where you feel that Christ is not victorious, it is possible that you have not yet made him King there. Just as Jesus refused to win the earth by force, he refuses to force his way into our lives, or the lives of people around us.
- Since we know that it is our inner man and not our outer actions which define who we are, and ultimately are what has eternal significance, is it not at least important that we deal with.
- How do you respond when you realise that God can see you even in the hidden place? When you know God see your very character? Do you shrink from the light because you hate the darkness? (John 3:20) Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed). Or, like Nathanael do you respond with love and faith?
- Do you dismiss the Bible out of hand because it was written by men thousands of years ago? By men who have little or no concept of life in the 21st century? Or do you accept it as the word of God, as living and active, and God breathed, and useful for (as Paul says to Timothy) “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,”
- Do we live like Jesus is our king? I mean really live? People live in the UK, they complain, and they moan, and recently, we’ve even seen them riot. They live as citizens of this nation, but they live with contempt for our laws and for our way of government and in some cases for our way of life. Is that how you live as a Christian? Do you claim to be a citizen of heaven, but kick against the implications that brings? Colossians 2:20 (NIV) “Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules?” Romans 6:2 (NIV) “We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”