John 1:43-51 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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.”
“Come and See.” That’s what Philip told Nathaniel after Jesus called him to be a follower. The season of Epiphany (Ordinary Time) is a moment during which we pay attention to the ways in which God is manifested in Jesus. Led by the star we come to pay homage to the one in whom God is made known (Matthew 2:1-2). Those who follow the star, who see and hear the good news, have the opportunity to bear witness to the one who has come into the world as the revelation of God.
It has become a well-known fact that many Christians find it difficult to share their faith. Several years ago Martha Grace Reese published several books that share the news that mainline Protestants struggle with the “e-word.” We tend to keep our religious beliefs to ourselves. For one thing, we consider religious beliefs to be private, but we also have an aversion to offending others. Thus, religion, like politics remains off-limits in polite company. But, can we keep silent about that which defines our very being?
When Jesus went to Galilee, after his time at the Jordan where he had called Peter and Andrew to join him, he added to his band by inviting Philip, who happened to be from the same town as Peter and Andrew, to join them. Perhaps Peter and Andrew introduced Jesus to Philip. After Jesus invited Philip to join him as a disciple, Philip decided he had to share the news with Nathaniel, who might have been a brother or a friend. Philip told Nathaniel the good news. We have found the one the Scriptures talk about. He is Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth. Philip is excited. He’s ready to join up. He’s willing to spread the news. But he meets a skeptic in Nathaniel. How often is this story – we’ve got good news to share but the one we want to share it with is seemingly unimpressed. Perhaps Nathaniel has heard this kind of news before!
In the case of Nathaniel, at least in John’s story, the issue seems to be Jesus’ hometown. Nathaniel and Philip come from Bethsaida, along the Sea of Galilee. Nathaniel, like many people are wont to do, isn’t always impressed by people from rival communities. Apparently he’s not a big booster of Nazareth’s virtues – how can “anything good come out of Nazareth.” But, perhaps it’s not normal community rivalry (growing up in Klamath Falls, we looked with disdain at our rivals in Medford). Nor is it necessarily that Nathaniel is thinking of the moral virtues of Nazareth’s citizenry. Perhaps the issue is where Nazareth fits in Jewish Messianic expectations. As a community Nazareth was nothing special – just a small village lying near the never mentioned capitol of Galilee, Sepphoris. There was nothing in Scripture that connected it with messianic expectations. Surely, one should be looking to someone from a place more significant than Nazareth to be the redeemer of Israel, which may explain the importance that Luke and Matthew give to Bethlehem. We don’t expect great things to come from small insignificant communities (though history is littered with examples). Nathaniel expresses the same skepticism that many of us have applied to this story. But Philip isn’t deterred by Nathaniel’s less than enthusiastic embrace of his message. He just says – “come and see.” Let your eyes and ears determine whether or not I’m right about this man who is teaching in the area. Isn’t that the point of evangelism – not to convince with arguments but simply invite people to come and see what this faith is all about?
Nathaniel may have come with Philip reluctantly, but his encounter with Jesus would be mind-altering. Jesus gets his attention with a comment about his being an Israelite without deceit. Nathaniel’s response appears at first to be a bit cocky: “Where did you get to know me?” How did you know I’m an honest man who tells the truth (as I see it)? Part of me wants to read Jesus’ statement as a piece of sarcasm, which elicits the sense that Nathaniel might be a bit taken by himself. Whatever the nature of Nathaniel’s sense of his own righteousness, Jesus seems to answer rather straightforwardly: “I saw you under a fig tree.” I saw you talking with Philip a long way off. With this John introduces us to a Jesus who is not bound by at least some human limitations. When we read these words, we need to read them in light of the earlier prologue. Jesus may be fully human, but there is something very different about him. He is the Word of God in the flesh (John 1:14). He can see things that you and I cannot.
With this response, the once skeptical Nathaniel is immediately converted. He had agreed to Philip’s invitation, and now he understands why Philip was excited. This man standing before him had to be the promised one. Filled with awe, Nathaniel addresses Jesus with three important titles: Rabbi, Son of God, and King of Israel. He affirms that the one whose origins are in Nazareth is now worthy of veneration.
That Nathaniel recognizes him to be a teacher is not surprising. The more significant – long term – titles are Son of God and King of Israel. These are messianic titles, reflecting John’s belief that for all his humanness Jesus embodies the divine presence. He is the chosen one who represents God and will rule over God’s chosen people.
Jesus’ response to Nathaniel’s confession of faith in him is once again intriguing. It is almost as if Jesus is saying to him – well, you’re impressed by my ability to see you from afar, just wait till you see the angels ascending and descending on “the Son of Man” (another title, and here we probably should be taking our clues from Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man). There is certainly an allusion here to the story of Jacob’s ladder, where Jacob has a dream where he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth with angels descending and ascending. In response Jacob declares: “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” Jesus seems to be inviting Nathaniel to come and witness the ongoing connection between heaven and earth that is centered in his own being. Jesus is the one who serves as the “gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:10-17).
Nathaniel came to Jesus as a skeptic and followed him as a disciple, for even if he didn’t understand it all, he knew that he had found the one he was looking for. But even more than that, he had been found by Jesus.