John 1:47-51 The call to follow Jesus


What chance is there of a devout orthodox Jew coming to faith in Jesus as his lord and messiah? In particular, one who was committed to his faith and settled in his convictions? For Nathanael then, and Saul of Tarsus later, it would have been a source of amusement to them if anyone had suggested that they would become followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanael was pictured being in the place recommended for study of his faith under a shady tree in the garden near his home. He was not looking to make any changes in his life. Now we can make assumptions that we know other people well and can estimate that they would have no interest in our faith so it is hardly worth sharing our faith with them or inviting them to some form of outreach event. Yet who knows what is going on in someone’s heart and mind? Only God does for certain! Although we can acknowledge that some people might appear closer to our faith and apparently more likely to respond to invitations we cannot assume on the one hand or give up on the other with the people that appear to have no interest. Philip, who was a natural evangelist had invited Nathanael but was given a clear negative response. Yet that was not the final outcome.  For the people you and I have contact with today let us continue to pray for them and trust that God will be at work in their lives. It is vital to retain a sense of expectancy – even though we will have disappointments sometimes when invitations are turned down.  Nathaniel was to become a disciple of Jesus – this is the point of this very short account of his meeting with Jesus. Who are you praying for this year? Make a note for yourself and bring them to God regularly in your prayers.

1. Preparation for discipleship (John 1:45)

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.’

(a)His devotion The impression is given that Philip and Nathanael were good friends and that they probably had spent time studying the Old Testament and the commentaries on the text produced by the Rabbis. It is good that they had gained this knowledge spending time in God’s Word and probably prayer as well, but you can have a good head-knowledge without having a personal relationship with God. However, knowing about God is not the same as inviting Him to be the Lord and Saviour of your life.  Nathaniel, though, had a great start in knowing so much about his faith and being aware of the promised Messiah in the Bible and in the sermons of the Pharisees in the local synagogues. So, for example, Nathaniel would know that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Therefore, in an age where people only travelled for essential work matters or religious festivals in Jerusalem it was safe to assume that people would be born, live and die in the same local community. This was the default position that would have been assumed. It was entirely logical for Nathanael to assume that if his friend had got it right – Jesus of Nazareth – then this man might be a good rabbi, but He could not be the Messiah because Micah 5:2 declared that this person would be born in the little community of Bethlehem south of Jerusalem, at the other end of the country! Not only Nathanael but the vast majority of the Pharisees would have taken a similar view. In John chapter seven there is an account of a lively discussion by attendees at the Feat of the Tabernacles (Tents) in Jerusalem. The big debate on this particular day amongst some of those present was the identity of Jesus. There were different opinions held. 40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, ‘Surely this man is the Prophet.’ 41 Others said, ‘He is the Messiah.’

Still others asked, ‘How can the Messiah come from Galilee? 42 Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?’ (John 7:40-42). Yet this was not the only opinion offered that day. Another viewpoint was expressed by local people from Jerusalem in John 7:27:But we know where this man is from; when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.’ Clearly the influence of the Sadducees who dominated the Jewish religious leadership in the capital city was being felt here. They did not accept the majority of the Old Testament as Scripture, only the first five books of Moses – so no wonder they had no clear guide to the identity of the Messiah. By contrast the Pharisees accepted the whole Old Testament from Genesis to Malachi as Scripture. Nathaniel clearly stood with the majority Pharisee position that the Messiah was born in Bethlehem. What do we learn from this disagreement? People filter what we say through the grid of their own beliefs and convictions. So, although a proportion of people have enough background knowledge to understand the Christian message when we present it, other most certainly won’t have that blessing. What you and I may say to them may be ‘translated’ to mean something quite different. It is not an intentional misrepresentation of the message at all. On the contrary the person is trying to make sense of what you or I are saying within their own religious or philosophical context, which for Nathanael was most probably a Pharisaic one. What philosophical or religious views underlie the world view of the people you are praying for? A Hindu believes in a vast multitudes of gods; a Muslim believes very strongly that there is only one God; and an atheist can be equally dogmatic in saying there is no God.   We don’t need to have all the answers before we witness, but it is worth taking a little time to find out their core convictions – if we can have that conversation with them.

(b) His spirituality Jesus was very complementary of Nathanael commending his character. He was not a Jew in name or heritage only, but one who lived out his faith in practice. In every religious community there are people who self-identify as professing that creed, but they may never attend a church or mosque or temple; or may profess non-belief whether of the agnostic or atheistic kind. However, the vast majority of the latter group have a moral code that sets boundaries for their lives. Nathanael was a seeker after God. He did not pretend to be something he wasn’t but quite genuinely and openly lived what he professed with his lips. We must not pretend to be something different to what we declare with our lips or we risk not being taken seriously. Nathanael was the sort of person who would happily have a chat to you about matters of faith, but he would have been very careful not to commit to anything different without first giving it the most serious consideration. Praise God for the genuine people like Nathanael who are willing to explore faith questions because they really do want to know the truth about the subject under consideration. 

2. Prejudice against discipleship

(a)The place where Jesus was alleged to come from (John 1:46) ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked. ‘Come and see,’ said Philip. New Testament scholars inform us that there was rivalry between the neighbouring communities of Nazareth and Nathanael’s home town of Cana in Galilee. It was not serious but there was the local banter like residents of Glasgow and Edinburgh describing the people of ‘the other place’! it was probably a light-hearted comment, but Nazareth was not a significant place even in Galilee at that time. What is more important is that there was no biblical hint of any connection between the expected Messiah and Nazareth. The irony is that although Jesus was born in Bethlehem the time the family spent there was so limited that there would probably be only the vaguest memories at best of living outside Nazareth. Now like Nathanael when we make judgements about things we can do so with the best of intentions, but if we don’t have all the facts needed for an accurate judgement we can make mistakes as well. We need to understand as well that many people who appear disinterested in an invitation to follow Jesus today do so without any serious knowledge of who Jesus is or why He came. Fifty years ago, for example, there were a proportion of the population who rejected the Christian faith and values but who had some connection to a church or Sunday School. By contrast, the majority of people today have never spent any meaningful time considering the possibility of following Jesus. Therefore, with the exception of some earnest atheists who propagate their faith with the zeal of a committed believer in God, the majority of our fellow citizens are not consciously opposed to our faith. The challenge is to pray that God will open their minds to be willing to spend the time exploring the Christian faith.

(b) The person who came from that place People tend to be associated with a particular place although their direct links to it may be quite limited. Bruce Milne, a well-known Baptist minister who was brought up in this city of Dundee revealed in one of his books that due to the wartime evacuations during World War Two he was actually born in Forfar, Angus. So although to many older Scottish Baptists who knew him he was thought of as from Dundee, the wider Christian community would more readily think of him as the Spurgeon’s College, London lecturer in Christian doctrine who wrote the best-selling Christian discipleship book Know the Truth. Canadian Baptists are most likely to think of him as the minister for many years until his retirement at First Baptist Church, Vancouver. Unfortunately association with a particular place can affect your life chances. Residents of Easterhouse, the housing estate on the edge of Glasgow, have long complained that their chances of success at job interviews have diminished when their postal address is known. This is not fair –if true- but as human beings we can all consciously or unconsciously judge people in ways that are not entirely accurate. Thankfully, Philip was able to persuade his friend to look beyond his prior misconceptions and investigate more closely the identity of Jesus.       

3. The means of initiating discipleship

(a)The wise testimony of a friend The reality today is that although many people are searching for meaning and purpose in their lives in our country there is no automatic assumption that they would consider attending a church as part of their spiritual search or journey. It simply does not occur to some people that a church could contribute to that. Although there are many different reasons why this might be the case, in the past few decades  it has taken the invitation of a family member, friend or other human individual we respect who has invited us to consider Jesus that has been the catalyst in most journeys to faith in Jesus. It is important to be encouraged and realise that other people are observing how we live and some of them are genuinely hoping we may have the answer to their spiritual search, but they are quite reluctant to commit themselves to it as they have no prior connection with a church. But as we have seen in recent years there has been real encouragement when we have had growing connections with people who have felt welcomed in our church when they have visited us not just at Christmas but on other occasions as well throughout the year. 

(b) An invitation to see for himself (John 1:46b) Philip did what he could with his invitation.  ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked. ‘Come and see,’ said Philip. We are often only a link in a chain. I have observed in a number of examples of people who have come to faith that have had input from a number of different Christians that has been a part of the spiritual journey. This releases pressure on us as we learn more to be both open to God giving us opportunities to contribute to someone’s search for faith or assisting them with a next step to faith. We are a small part of something much bigger that God is doing. Am I or are you willing to ask the Lord each day -this is what I have planned and I expect to do –if you want me to speak to someone about You or share something of my story please allow me an opportunity to do that.  When we give the day to God with a sense of expectancy we can enter into it with confidence that we are available and leave the rest to Him. 

(c) Jesus’ insight into human character (John 1:47) When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, ‘Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’  We may want to ask questions about the words Jesus chooses for His first conversation with Nathanael. This is as unlikely to have been a normal conversation starter in New Testament as in conversations today. There is an extraordinarily revelatory point here. Jesus knew the kind of man who stood before Him. This assessment is confirmed by the response to Jesus from Nathanael. ‘How do you know me?’ Nathanael asked (John 1:48). The individual who mostly likely had come to meet Jesus with low expectations of accepting His identity or agreeing with what Hew might say, but was now quite curious about the man he had come to meet. Nathanael would know and possibly think of the words of the familiar Psalm 32 from synagogue services that began in this way: Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit (Psalm 32:1-2). Why does Jesus highlight this aspect of Nathanael’s character? It is likely that prior to meeting him Jesus was reflecting on the call of Jacob the Old Testament figure whose story is found in the book of Genesis. Jacob was a character who was less than honest in his dealings with other people. In fact his name Jacob means ‘he grasps the heel’ or as a figure of speech ‘he deceives’. What a name to give a child! He lived up to it conning his brother out of his special inheritance from his parents and then having to flee to save his life. It was in that context that God met with this fugitive and challenged him about the direction of his life. Genesis 28 records his dream as he slept in the open-air on his way to visit his uncle and aunt in Syria. Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the Lord, and He said: ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.[d] 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you’ (Genesis 28:10-15). Jesus was in effect saying to Nathanael you are a man of integrity openness and honesty the exact opposite of Jacob. I respect you for the kind of person you are. We may never know other people as Jesus did but if we make time for others we do get to know them quite well and can earn the right to speak with them about topics more deeply than would be possible in casual conversations.

(d) Jesus’ revelation into his spiritual state (John 1:48b) Jesus answered, ‘I saw you while you were still under the fig-tree before Philip called you.’  Some people have experiences when their whole life appears to flash before them. These events can be life-changing for certain people. For Nathanael there was something special that happened when he heard Jesus utter these words. We have to assume that Jesus had not seen Nathanael by any ordinary means open to any other person standing nearby, but by supernatural means was aware of his location prior to his guest coming to speak with him alongside his friend Philip. We do need to know that Nathanael was not sunbathing or chilling out in the garden reading the ancient equivalent of a beach novel. To be ‘under the fig-tree’ in that cultural context would be understood as taking time out for Bible study, meditation and prayer. Some Bible commentators have suggested that the time of year this meeting took place was in March which would potentially have been a pleasant time of year to be outdoors in Israel. If we assume that Nathanael was studying a passage or passages of the Old Testament relating to the coming of the Messiah and wondering if he would come in his lifetime – then we can sense how this occasion could have been much more dramatic than it appears on the printed page of John chapter one. My suggestion is that he had come to the conclusion that only an extraordinary individual like the Messiah could know what I was doing when in another location earlier today! For the Christian to grasp that God knows me better than I know myself – and still loves me unconditionally through Jesus is wonderfully reassuring. Therefore, I want to be the best I can be for One who loves me like that.  Yet for other people it appears quite frightening that you cannot keep your thoughts, words and actions hidden from God! How do you feel about God knowing you completely?

4. Acceptance of discipleship (John 1:49)

There is an extraordinary revelatory moment as this devout Jew probably falls on his knees and utters some amazing words recorded in John 1:49: Then Nathanael declared, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.’ Nathanael used three key words or phrases to describe Jesus in this verse. It was a declaration of his acknowledgement of Jesus’ claims over his life. I think it probable that he had only a limited understanding of what he was saying, but that can be true for all of us in so many situations. As long as the statement was made with absolute sincerity then Jesus would have accepted them. How does Nathanael describe Jesus?

(a)Rabbi It is a title of respect to a Jewish religious teacher. If your greeting to a religious teacher was simply the ancient equivalent of good morning or hello – words we would happily utter to anyone then rab would have done. To go a step further as he did is to demonstrate personal respect to the individual in question. I may not be your follower as such or worship in your synagogue, but I totally acknowledge you for who you are as a fellow Jew and as a religious leader who is entitled to be respected because you are ‘walking the talk’ of your faith. It is likely that Nathanael became a follower of Jesus that day, but he was deeply conscious that this journey had a long way to go before completion as a fully mature follower of Jesus. There is another term used in the New Testament towards a religious teacher and that is Rabboni it means someone to whom you are totally 100% committed. It was used by Mary Magdalene when she recognised that Jesus was alive after His resurrection.  Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned towards Him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’). 17 Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to My brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.”’18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that He had said these things to her. What term would signify your level of trust in or attitude towards Jesus of these three? Respect in general terms being polite; recognising Him as a great religious leader or as someone to whom you have committed your life?      

(b) Son of God   John has already made clear earlier in the chapter: No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made Him known (John 1:18). Now there is another witness to the fact that Jesus is not just a good man; not just a good or great religious teacher; not even just the traditional Jewish understanding of the Messiah – but more than that. For a traditional theologically conservative Jew to make such a statement is truly astonishing. 

(c)King of Israel To us in 2019 this seems an anti-climax. We would have put this declaration before Son of God. What does Nathanael mean by this phrase? It is not that Jesus should be the King of the Jews in the legal sense of replacing a human king or Roman governor. It is so much more than that. It is in the light of the Messianic Psalms, Psalm 2 and Psalm 110. So Psalm 2 begins with these words: Why do the nations conspireand the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against His anointed (Christ or Messiah), saying…  I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to Me, ‘You are My son; today I have become Your father. Ask Me, and I will make the nations Your inheritance, the ends of the earth Your possession. (Psalm 2:1-2, 7-8). No earthly ruler could be sufficient for such terminology. This title is rarely found in the Bible. It was used by people who mocked Jesus on the cross (Matthew 27:42 and Mark 15:32); it was also used of the crowds celebrating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (John 12:13); two usages of ridicule the vocal speakers strongly opposed such a conviction. Yet on Palm Sunday there were others who took a different view of Jesus’ identity – also acknowledged here by Nathanael. Jesus asks you and me- who do you say I am? What response would you give?

5. The rewards of discipleship (John 1:50-51)

50 Jesus said, ‘You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig-tree. You will see greater things than that.’ 51 He then added, ‘Very truly I tell you, you will see “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on” the Son of Man.’ What a moment of joy for Jesus at the remarkable testimony of Nathanael! You are so impressed because I told you exactly what you were doing at home before I met you? You have seen nothing yet! What God has in store for those who love and trust Him is so much greater that we have yet seen or imagined. Do you need to hear that encouragement today? God’s intervention in his life will be so different to His work in your life and mine, but may we love Him and entrust our future into His hands, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.