Hi I'm Josh Hawkins and this is Episode 46 of Opening Up the Gospels. In the last episode we looked at the calling of the first few of Jesus' disciples just a couple of days after Jesus' return from the wilderness. Two men from Galilee, Andrew and John, were hanging around Bethany beyond the Jordan where John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing. John says "behold the lamb of God" and Andrew and John leave John the Baptist and cleave to Jesus, spending the night with him. Andrew had a brother named Simon who Jesus called "Cephas", which is just the word for "rock" in Aramaic. Simon Peter had no idea what was going to transpire in just a few short years, but the Lord knew that Peter would be like a rock or a pillar for his church throughout the ages. I spent the latter part of Episode 45 talking about how it's so important to rightly understand the chronology of these early chapters of John and where they fit with Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These disciples mentioned John 1 are the ones who were with Jesus for the wedding at Cana and the cleansing of the temple in John 2, for Passover in John 3, and for the woman at the well in John 4. Matthew, Mark, and Luke talk about Jesus calling them to a formal discipleship relationship later on, after John the Baptist had been put in prison. It's not like Jesus just met them for the first time when we read about Him calling them by the Sea of Galilee. I'll review this and develop it a bit more as we move forward in the story.
Let's pick up the narrative today in John 1:
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
(John 1:43–46 ESV)
Here we are just another day later on our timeline. The Gospel begins with priests and Levites coming from Jerusalem to question John the Baptist. Then the next day, Jesus emerges from the wilderness and John first calls Him "the lamb of God". Then the next day John sees him again and that's when Andrew and John follow Him. They stay overnight with him and now the next day Jesus wants to go to Galilee. So we are now four days after John began his narrative with the visit from the priests and Levites from Jerusalem. Now Galilee is where a good portion of Jesus' ministry takes place. Galilee is in the northern part of Israel, where we find many of the towns mentioned in the Gospels, like Capernaum, Nazareth, Cana, and Bethsaida.
We're not sure why Jesus wanted to go to Galilee or why He sought out Philip, but it's probably safe to assume that Philip was an acquaintance of Andrew and Peter because they all lived in Bethsaida. Philip isn't mentioned much in the Gospels - only here in John 1, once in John 6, once in John 12, and one final time in John 14. The book of Acts talks about someone named Philip, but that's not the Philip we're looking at here. In Acts, Philip was one of the "seven men of good repute" that the apostles chose along with Stephen, the church's first martyr. We see that Philip first mentioned in Acts 6.
Here in John 1, Philip finds his friend Nathanael. Like Philip, Nathanael is barely mentioned in John's Gospel and isn't mentioned at all in the other Gospels. John says later on in his Gospel that Nathanael was from Cana in Galilee. In the other Gospels we see someone named Bartholomew who is coupled with Philip - check out Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, and Luke 6:14. Because of this, scholars have concluded that it is likely that Nathanael and Bartholomew are actually the same person.
So Philip finds Nathanael and tells him "We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Remember, from the very beginning, Jesus' disciples believed Him to be the Messiah, the one that would fulfill what the Law and the Prophets spoke about. Philip is expressing that same belief to his friend Nathanael here. But Nathanael is pretty skeptical, saying "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Think about this for a second... Nathanael is from Cana, which is not all that far from Nazareth in Galilee. Think about the town or city you live in for a second, and now think of the suburb or a town nearby that's maybe a little shady or a little trashy - you know, where the neighborhoods and schools aren't that nice or the houses are run down and people don't have as much money as those who live in the city. And maybe that suburb or small town has a low reputation among people in the area because of that. Well, that's kind of what Nazareth was like in the days of Jesus. No historian or record keeper ever mentions Nazareth with any significance, so it's pretty safe to assume it was a no-name place in Galilee. And this is probably why Nathanael said "can anything good come out of Nazareth?" If Nazareth is where Jesus was raised, think about what people must have thought of Him. The trashy suburb or small town is the last place you'd expect Him to be raised, right? Well, that's what He chose. Because of the reputation of Nazareth, I'm sure Nathanael comes to Jesus not expecting much. But he's about to get the surprise of a lifetime. Let's keep reading in John 1:
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
(John 1:47–51 ESV)
Jesus begins by describing Nathanael as "an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit." Jesus here is contrasting Nathanael with his ancestor Jacob, who was pretty deceitful. Remember how he tricked his father and cheated his brother Esau out of the blessing? You can read that story in Genesis 27. Jesus is saying that Nathanael was authentic and free from a deceitful heart. It was as if Jesus was saying "Look, Israel without a trace of Jacob left in him!" I believe his sincerity is what prepared him to consider whether the claims of Jesus being the messiah were actually true or not. And Jesus, with his all-knowing, piercing gaze, says “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
This statement has caused a lot of scholars to speculate what Jesus actually meant here. One option that seems fairly plausible is understanding that it was the custom of Jewish rabbis that were studying the law to be under a vine, a fig tree, or an olive tree. Some say that specific posture represented the seriousness of the rabbis' study of scripture and it reflected their expectation of God's activity in history. So Jesus' reply to Nathanael did two things: first, it confirmed what he had just said to him as being an authentic Israelite and second, it confirmed that Jesus Himself was the one who embodied all of Israel's hopes and expectations. This is why it seems like he exclaims with such excitement: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
If you recall from the past few episodes, the term "son of God" here is a reference to the promise God made to David in 2 Samuel 7, that one of his descendants would rule over Israel forever. The very next phrase Nathanael uses, "you are the King of Israel" confirms this parallelism. Nathanael's skepticism about Jesus was proven false by this dramatic incident.
The final things Jesus says are so awesome. He says:
"You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.””
This is such a clear reference to Genesis 28 and the story of Jacob's dream.
And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
(Genesis 28:12–17 ESV)
There's a couple of very significant things going on here, and I'll only just mention them for the sake of time. Jesus used the plural "you" in verse 51 when he says "you will see heaven opened", meaning the promise is for much more than just Nathanael. Also, the promise of the heavens opening not only connects what Jesus is saying to Jacob's story but also to his baptism just weeks before. Remember when He was baptized, John said that the heavens were opened? This isn't just a random fact that he throws in - there's real theological significance to it from the Old Testament. So Jesus is referencing Jacob's story because through his encounter in Genesis 28, God reaffirmed that through Jacob he would be faithful to the promises that He made to his ancestor Abraham. And in referencing the baptism, I believe Jesus is confirming His identity as the true seed of Abraham, the one who would receive and enact the promises. I talked about the baptism back in episode 41, so check that out if you missed it.
There's so much more to be said as always. But here's a few points for your meditation this week:
1) Think about how much life has changed for Jesus in the last month and a half. It was only weeks before that he was still living in Nazareth with His family. What must His friends and family have thought about Him now?
2) Put yourself in the place of one of the disciples of Jesus. After everything he's said so far and after everything John has said about Him, how would your heart be swelling with expectation that Jesus really is the Messiah?
Well be sure to check out the other episodes in this series on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. In the next episode we'll look at one of my favorite events from early on in the Gospels - the wedding at Cana. God bless.