5 January – Gospel

Commentary on John 1:43-51

Today in the Gospel, we have the calling of two more disciples, with the revelation of Jesus to Philip and Nathanael (in that order).

Notice that the passage again begins with “The next day…”. We are now in day four of this week that begins John’s gospel. We are told that Jesus now goes to Galilee, the province in the north where he will do much of his work. Up to this, he had been further south on the banks of the Jordan River, where John the Baptist had been baptising.

Jesus came across Philip and invited him to be a disciple, “Follow me”, says Jesus. Philip came from Bethsaida, which was also the hometown of Peter and Andrew. Later in the Gospel, Philip will be pictured as a rather simple and naïve person. During the feeding of the crowds, Jesus asks Philip, “Where will we get enough food for these people to eat?” This draws from Philip a not very helpful response (John 6: 5). Later, at the Last Supper, as Jesus speaks about his Father, Philip says: “Master, show us the Father and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8). This gives Jesus the opportunity to explain how and where the Father can be ‘seen’ (note: this Philip is not to be confused with another Philip, one of the deacons who appears in the Acts of the Apostles).

We do not know what else happened between Jesus and Philip but, like Andrew, the new disciple was immediately fired up to go and find Nathanael. He tells Nathanael two things about Jesus: first, that he is the One written about by Moses in the Law and also by the prophets, and second, that he is the son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathanael is not very impressed. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” is a rather cynical response. Later, the leaders of the Jews will discount Jesus because of his origins, or what they believe to be his origins. It is something we can sometimes be tempted to do with people we meet.

Philip’s response is perfect: “Come and see.” It was the same answer that Jesus gave to the two disciples who asked where he stayed. The only way to know Jesus is not by hearsay or reading books, but by personal experience of him. This same answer will come again in the story of the Samaritan woman.

When Jesus sees Nathanael, he says: “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.” The first person to be called “Israel” in the Hebrew Testament was Jacob (Gen 32:29), but he was guilty of serious duplicity. He cheated his older brother Esau of his birthright (even though the Scripture implies that Esau did not deserve it anyway; see Gen 27:35-36). There can hardly be higher praise given a person than to say they are free of duplicity. Integrity is a very high virtue – Christian and human. It is a quality of wholeness, of total harmony between what goes on inside the person, and what is seen on the outside. Such a person can be trusted; such a person will never cheat or dissemble or wear any kind of mask. It is a quality in which most of us fail to some extent.

Nathanael is obviously surprised: “How do you know me?” “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” The full meaning of this escapes us, but it deeply impressed Nathanael. In the Hebrew Testament, the fig tree was seen as a symbol of messianic peace. In the book of the prophet Micah we read: “Every man shall sit under his own vine or under his own fig tree undisturbed” (Micah 4:4). In speaking words of assurance to Joshua the High Priest, an angel of the Lord concludes with the words: “On that day you will invite one another under your vines and fig trees” (Zech 3:10).

These words of Jesus are enough for Nathanael to make an extraordinary profession of faith: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” The title “Son of God” was used in the Hebrew Testament as an adopted name for the Davidic King (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7; 89:27), and “King of Israel” is used here with a messianic sense. For John, of course, “Son of God” also implies the divinity of Jesus.

Jesus responds to Nathanael’s declaration: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” And Jesus continues: “You (plural) will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” The reference, of course, is to the famous dream that Jacob had where he saw angels ascending and descending on a stairway which joined the heavens and the earth (Gen 28:12 and see note in New American Bible). Longer experience with Jesus will reveal to Nathanael and the other disciples, the mutual relationship between Jesus and his Father. God comes to them through Jesus; they will go to God through Jesus. Jesus is the Stairway between us and God the Father.

It is not clear whether Nathanael was one of the Twelve, because he is not mentioned in any of the lists of the Twelve in the Synoptics. He only appears here in John, and in the epilogue Chapter 21 (verse 3). However, he is worthy of being remembered for his insightful faith into the identity of Jesus, and the great virtue of integrity. They are qualities which each Christian should treasure and pray for.

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