The Surrender Of Nathanael
1:43-51 On the next day Jesus determined to go away to Galilee; and there he found Philip. Jesus said to him: "Follow me!" Now Philip came from Bethsaida, which was the town from which Andrew and Peter came. Philip went and found Nathanael and said to him: "We have found the One about whom Moses wrote in the law, and about whom the prophets spoke--I mean Jesus, the son of Joseph, the man from Nazareth." Nathanael said to him: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him: "Come and see!" When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said: "See! A man who is really an Israelite! A man in whom there is no guile!" Nathanael said to him: "How do you know me?" "Before Philip called you," said Jesus, "I saw you when you were under the fig-tree." "Rabbi," answered Nathanael, "you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel." Jesus answered: "Do you believe because I said to you, 'I saw you under the fig-tree'? You will see greeter things than these." He said to him: "This is the truth I tell you--you will see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."
At this point in the story Jesus left the south and went north to Galilee. There, perhaps in Cana, he found and called Philip. Philip, like Andrew, could not keep the good news to himself. As Godet said: "One lighted torch serves to light another." So Philip went and found his friend Nathanael. He told him that he believed that he had discovered the long promised Messiah in Jesus, the man from Nazareth. Nathanael was contemptuous. There was nothing in the Old Testament which foretold that God's Chosen One should come from Nazareth. Nazareth was a quite undistinguished place. Nathanael himself came from Cana, another Galilaean town, and, in country places, jealousy between town and town, and rivalry between village and village, is notorious. Nathanael's reaction was to declare that Nazareth was not the kind of place that anything good was likely to come out of. Philip was wise. He did not argue. He said simply: "Come and see!"
Not very many people have ever been argued into Christianity. Often our arguments do more harm than good. The only way to convince a man of the supremacy of Christ is to confront him with Christ. On the whole it is true to say that it is not argumentative and philosophical preaching and teaching which have won men for Christ; it is the presentation of the story of the Cross.
There is a story which tells how, towards the end of the nineteenth century, Huxley, the great agnostic, was a member of a house-party at a country house. Sunday came round, and most of the members prepared to go to church; but, very naturally, Huxley did not propose to go. Huxley approached a man known to have a simple and radiant Christian faith. He said to him: "Suppose you don't go to church today. Suppose you stay at home and you tell me quite simply what your Christian faith means to you and why you are a Christian." "But," said the man, "you could demolish my arguments in an instant. I'm not clever enough to argue with you." Huxley said gently: "I don't want to argue with you; I just want you to tell me simply what this Christ means to you." The man stayed at home and told Huxley most simply of his faith. When he had finished there were tears in the great agnostic's eyes. "I would give my right hand," he said, "if only I could believe that."
It was not clever argument that touched Huxley's heart. He could have dealt efficiently and devastatingly with any argument that that simple Christian was likely to have produced, but the simple presentation of Christ caught him by the heart. The best argument is to say to people: "Come and see!" Of course, we have to know Christ ourselves before we can invite others to come to him. The true evangelist must himself have met Christ first.
So Nathanael came; and Jesus could see into his heart. "Here," said Jesus, "is a genuine Israelite, a man in whose heart there is no guile." That was a tribute that any devout Israelite would recognize. "Blessed is the man," said the Psalmist, "to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit" ( Psalms 32:2 ). "He had done no violence," said the prophet of the Servant of the Lord "and there was no deceit in his mouth" ( Isaiah 53:9 ).
Nathanael was surprised that anyone could give a verdict like that on so short an acquaintance, and he demanded how Jesus could possibly know him. Jesus told him that he had already seen him under the fig-tree. What is the significance of that? To the Jews the fig-tree always stood for peace. Their idea of peace was when a man could be undisturbed under his own vine and his own fig-tree (compare 1 Kings 4:25 ; Micah 4:4 ). Further, the fig-tree was leafy and shady and it was the custom to sit and meditate under the roof of its branches. No doubt that was what Nathanael had been doing; and no doubt as he sat under the fig-tree he had prayed for the day when God's Chosen One should come. No doubt he had been meditating on the promises of God. And now he felt that Jesus had seen into the very depths of his heart.
It was not so much that Jesus had seen him under the fig-tree that surprised Nathanael; it was the fact that Jesus had read the thoughts of his inmost heart. Nathanael said to himself: "Here is the man who understands my dreams! Here is the man who knows my prayers! Here is the man who has seen into my most intimate and secret longings, longings which I have never even dared put into words! Here is the man who can translate the inarticulate sigh of my soul! This must be God's promised anointed one and no other." Nathanael capitulated for ever to the man who read and understood and satisfied his heart.
It may be that Jesus smiled. He quoted the old story of Jacob at Bethel who had seen the golden ladder leading up to heaven ( Genesis 28:12-13 ). It was as if Jesus said: "Nathanael, I can do far more than read your heart. I can be for you and for all men the way, the ladder that leads to heaven." It is through Jesus and Jesus alone that the souls of men can mount the ladder which leads to heaven.
This passage presents us with a problem. Who was Nathanael? In the Fourth Gospel he is one of the first group of disciples; in the other three gospels he never appears at all. More than one explanation has been given.
(i) It has been suggested that Nathanael is not a real figure at all, but an ideal figure standing for all the true Israelites who burst the bonds of national pride and prejudice and gave themselves to Jesus Christ.
(ii) On the same basis, it has been suggested that he stands either for Paul or for the beloved disciple. Paul was the great example of the Israelite who had accepted Christ; the beloved disciple was the ideal disciple. Again the supposition is that Nathanael stands for an ideal; that he is a type and not a person. If this were the only mention of Nathanael that might be true; but Nathanael appears again in John 21:2 and there is no thought of him as an ideal there.
(iii) He has been identified with Matthew, because both Matthew and Nathanael mean the gift of God. We saw that in those days most people had two names; but then one name was Greek and the other Jewish. In this case both Matthew and Nathanael are Jewish names.
(iv) There is a simpler explanation. Nathanael was brought to Jesus by Philip. Nathanael's name is never mentioned in the other three gospels; and in the Fourth Gospel Bartholomew's name is never mentioned. Now, in the list of the disciples in Matthew 10:3 and Mark 3:18 , Philip and Bartholomew come together, as if it was natural and inevitable to connect them. Moreover, Bartholomew is really a second name. It means Son of Tholmai or Ptolemy. Bartholomew must have had another name, a first name; and it is at least possible that Bartholomew and Nathanael are the same person under different names. That certainly fits the facts.
Whatever else, it is true that Nathanael stands for the Israelite whose heart was cleansed of pride and prejudice and who saw in Jesus the one who satisfied the longing of his waiting, seeking heart.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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