It is important to recognise that this episode represents the initial contact between Jesus and three men – John the gospel writer / Andrew / Peter – all of whom, according to the other three gospels, leave their livelihoods as fishermen to follow Jesus. This episode, unique to this gospel, demonstrates that the context for this first meeting with Jesus is the fact that John and Andrew as followers of JB have been told about the coming Messiah and so when JB announces Jesus they are compelled to spend time with him.
The first thing that Andrew does after spending time with Jesus is find his brother Peter and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (v. 42). Andrew comes to know Jesus / Andrew finds Peter who comes to know Jesus / Peter preaches at Pentecost and 3000 come to know Jesus! On seeing Peter, Jesus declares, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (v. 42): Jesus sees what Peter is but also what he will be – the key leader of the early the church (see Matthew 16:18).
Just as Andrew sought out Peter to tell him about Jesus, so Philip finds Nathanael. Nathanael is not listed as one of the twelve but is thought by some to be the disciple named Bartholomew elsewhere. Philip’s claim “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote …” (v. 45) highlights the fact that the OT found its fulfilment in Jesus. Philip’s expression “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (v. 45) is consistent with the culture of the time where an individual would be known in terms of his hometown and his father’s name.
Jesus’ assessment of Nathanael as “a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false” is not a response to the man’s cynicism about Nazareth but rather an insight into his true character – i.e. Jesus “knew what was in a man” (2:25). The reference to “a true Israelite” is given extra significance in relation to the reference to Jacob’s vision at Bethel that follows: we are reminded that although Jacob was naturally a deceiver of men – i.e. episodes with his brother Esau and his uncle Laban – God could nevertheless see the potential in him. Jesus’ appraisal of his character is inevitably correct and understandably Nathanael is struck by this profound insight.
The main point of Jesus then saying “I saw you while you were still under the fig-tree before Philip called you” is that Jesus has supernatural knowledge of Nathanael before even meeting him. Jesus’ special insight combined with the testimony of Philip is enough to convince Nathanael of who Jesus really is – “Then Nathanael declared, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel’ ” (v. 49).
The clear allusion to Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Genesis 28) is made by Jesus in order to highlight the fact that Nathanael will come to have even greater confirmation that Jesus is indeed the Son of God by way of a divine demonstration of God’s glory and power revealed in Jesus’ ministry. Although Jesus avoids using the provocative title the Messiah with its political overtones, the Son of Man still has strong connotations of divine authority because of its connection with the figure in Daniel 7.
Praise God for the way he called us to himself and let’s believe for a greater knowledge of him in his grace and glory in these days and beyond.
Prayer: Let’s praise him for all he is and has done for us. Use the picture above to help you consider our wonderful Saviour. Spend some time thanking him in prayer.
Song: We’ve come to praise you