We were introduced to Nathanael as we looked at Philip last week. If Philip was a “Man Out of His Element” then in contrast Nathanael appears to be a man of great spiritual depth.
Nathanael a Jew from Cana in Galilee is listed as Bartholomew in all four lists of the twelve disciples (Mt 10:3; Mk 3:18, Lk 6:14, Acts 1:13). Bartholomew is a Hebrew name which means “son of Tolmoi.” Nathanael means “a gift of God” the Greek equivalent is Theodore.
So, what is in a name? We all have special names-One of my favorite stories comes out of the 60’s-the hippy days. Those people had children and got married, but they did not name their children Mike, Scott, or Betty. We have Moonbeam, Earth, Love, Precious, Promise-and they all ended up in public school.
That’s when one particular kindergarten teacher in Santa Cruz first met Fruit Stand. Now, there is a tradition, parents would apply name tags to their children, kiss them good-bye and send them off to school on the bus. So it was for Fruit Stand. “Fruit Stand, how about a snack?” “Fruit Stand, would you like to play with blocks?” she would ask. At dismissal time, all the teachers led their students out to the buses. “Fruit Stand, do you know which bus is yours?” his teacher asked.
He didn’t answer. But that wasn’t strange. He hadn’t answered all day. Oh by the way, the teachers also asked the parents to write the names of their children’s bus stop on the reverse side of the name tags. Then the teacher had a “AHA Moment.” She simply turned over the tag. There, neatly printed, was the word “Anthony.”
I digress! Now Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets wrote about-Jesus of Nazareth-the son of Joseph. And Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
Nathanael seems less impress to learn that Jesus was from Nazareth. The Judeans looked down on the Galileans and the Galileans looked down on those from Nazareth. Nathanael’s prejudice is not caused by pride but by humility. His inward thoughts being “surely the Messiah can never come from Nazareth or any Galilean village or town.”
So what could Philip do, but tell him to come for himself and see Jesus. I can tell you that there are not very many people who have ever been argued into Christianity. Often our arguments do more harm than good.
There is a story of Thomas Huxley, the great agnostic, was attending a party at a country mansion. Parties at the turn of the century lasted for days. When Sunday would come around, most of the guests prepared to go to church.
On this particular Sunday, Huxley did not get ready. Instead, he approached a man known to have a simple Christian faith.
Huxley said to him, “Suppose you don’t go to church today? Suppose you stay at home and you tell me what your Christian faith means to you and why are you a Christian.”
“But,” said the man, “you could demolish my arguments in an instant” Huxley said, “I don’t want to argue with you. I just want you to tell me what this Christ means to you.”
So the man stayed home and told Huxley the story of his faith. When he had finished there were tears in Huxley’s eyes. “I would give my right hand if only I can believe like that.”
It was not the argument about faith that touched Huxley’s heart, but simply the story of a man’s faith.
“Come and see for yourself!”
Jesus knew about Nathanael’s character. Jesus greets Nathanael and says that he is an “Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” This describes a man of integrity. There is no pretense about Nathanael, what you see is what you get.
The Psalmist writes in Psalm 32:2, “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is not deceit.”
In the verse we have the first mention of Jacob by Jesus. What Jesus literally was saying here is, “Nathanael you are an Israelite in whom is found no Jacob.”
Nathanael is astonished by what Jesus knows about him and responds in verse 48 “How do you know me? And Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
Going back into Palestine in the time of Jesus, as today, it is very hot and dry. People went outside and they used the shade of a tree as a good place to escape the heat. It was to such a place that one would retire to do their bible study, or to meditate on God’s word and to pray. To be under your fig tree came to mean that you were in a time for prayer and study.
I am inclined to believe that in response to Nathanael’s shock that Jesus knew he was under the fig tree and that he knew what he was reading and meditating about. In my mind I can picture Nathanael reading the story of Jacob wrestling with God. Perhaps it was part of his prayer that morning when he read, “God help me not to be a deceiver like Jacob was in the beginning but help me to be like he became, Israel, Prince of God.” (Genesis 32:28)
Really, all that it took was for Nathanael to believe was for Jesus to look at his heart, assess his character and tell him something that no one else had seen and to have Jesus reveal it to him must have been amazing to him. He affirms that Jesus is the Son of God-in fact he is emphatic about it when he uses the pronoun “You.”
He even goes on to speak to Jesus as the King of Israel. This expression is only found three other times in the New Testament (Mt 27:42; Mk 15:32 and John 12:13).
And Jesus responds to him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’” Jesus goes on to say, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Once again there is a reference to Jacob, this time it is the reference to the dream that Jacob had. If you remember the story, Jacob left his home, fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau. He left for his uncle’s home in Haran.
At the site of Bethel he had a dream. Lonely and frightened, Jacob put his head on a stone for a pillow, fell asleep, and he dreamed that he saw a ladder reaching up to heaven, and on it he saw angels of God ascending and descending.
Here Jesus tells Nathanael, you are going to understand that dream when you learn from me. You will learn that I am the way to God for man, and the way for God to reach us. I am the link, mediator, who spans the gulf between man and God. Here the angels descend and ascend on the Son of God.
In 1Timothy 2:5, Jesus is the only mediator between heaven and earth. When we come to know Jesus we have also found God.
In conclusion, Nathanael is a disciple of Jesus! He is a man of integrity. There is no pretense about him. What we see in him is what we get.
But Nathanael was different. Here is a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false.
As a true Israelite Nathanael didn’t just read the Word of God, he lived it. He was a man who feared God, a man of integrity. His heart gave a singular testimony to God.
That is why Jesus continues to describe him as one in whom there is nothing false. Falseness brings to mind a picture of deception or hypocrisy … and Nathanael was neither. Nathanael was straightforward – a man that people respected because when you spoke to him you knew you were getting the plain truth.
What a huge compliment, a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false, especially when it comes directly from the mouth of the Son of God.
But it isn’t just a huge compliment … it is also a huge encouragement … for all would-be disciples. Because the reality is that many of the Lord’s disciples are found in the strangest places.
The reason we can be found is because Jesus doesn’t focus on what we were. He focuses on what we can become.
So what do we learn from this? What is it we need to “come and see”? Well first, I think we need to acknowledge that there will be times in our life of faith that we are confronted with doubt, skepticism, and uncertainty. We will experience things happening around us, and we will feel as if we are “walking through the valley of the shadow.” We will wonder if God really is good. And we will question everything that we believe in. But here’s the thing. It’s in those moments more than any other that we must recognize the possibility that there is something worth believing in, that there is someone good who has our very best interests in mind. Then, we must seek those opportunities to “come and see,” to encounter the risen Lord in new and unexpected ways. And that means celebrating even the very smallest of miracles at times.
There wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy about Nathanael’s first encounter with Christ. There was no flash of light and blaze of glory. The Holy Spirit did not come out of the sky like tongues of flame. He was not suddenly healed or offered forgiveness for his sins. Jesus simply saw him sitting under a fig tree and noted that he was a genuine Israelite. Jesus sees each of us, too, even in the midst of our questioning and uncertainty, even when it feels as if our faith is faltering. Jesus sees right into our hearts; he knows our longings, our deepest dreams, our fears and failures, our struggles to be “right,” all of our joy and hope. And Jesus speaks the truth of all that is good within us. He calls out of us the people God created us to be.
Are you listening for that call? Are you looking for the signs of God’s continuing work in this world? Are you celebrating the small miracles of Christ’s saving grace, even as you wonder at the injustice and horror we encounter everyday? Because if you are always searching and seeking, always ready to follow the beckoning of Christ in your life, then you will grow in your faith and your life as a disciple of Christ, even in the face of doubt. You will move from being Nathanael, sitting skeptically under the fig tree, to being Philip calling out to all his friends.
“Come and see!” “Come and see.” Amen.