In the language of another time, George Hutcheson (d. 1678) observes that ‘private conference and mutual edification are notable means for advancing the kingdom of Christ, for by these means Christ gathered his disciples’.
Today, we might casually call this ‘networking’ or ‘sharing’. It has been variously called personal, conversational, and even lifestyle evangelism.
The calling of Jesus’ disciples seems so casual and unstructured, perhaps even haphazard. There is no standard procedure or prescribed method, beyond people talking to people. The record of these conversational transactions is spare, although there was surely much more communication going on behind the scenes (cf. John 1:39).
The people involved knew each other or came from the same town. Some were even related by blood. They were all Old Testament believers, so there was no ‘cold turkey’ evangelism of complete unbelievers at this point in the ministry of Jesus.
What is perhaps most astonishing is that Jesus does not take the initiative in calling many of the men who were to become his ‘inner circle’ of twelve disciples. Philip, the fourth to be called, is the first to hear Jesus say directly and personally to him, ‘Follow me’ (John 1:43).
The first two, John and Andrew, follow Jesus entirely unbidden (John 1:36-37). Peter, the third to be called, is invited by his brother Andrew (John 1:41) and the fifth, Nathanael (Bartholomew) of Cana (John 21:2), is sought out by his friend Philip (John 1:45). None of them could have known that they were to be Jesus’ inner circle and become the future apostles of the New Testament Church, but they surely gleaned some insight into the normal way in which Jesus would call people to himself.
This is also the case in the conversation between Jesus and Nathanael (read John 1:43-51). Here too, is a model of the way in which Jesus makes a disciple. As John records it, this encounter is in two distinct phases: first a call is issued, and secondly a question answered; and a couple of lives are changed forever (John 1:47-51).
Call issued (John 1:43-46)
Jesus calls Philip
‘Follow me’, says Jesus to Philip. This is, as Leon Morris puts it, the ‘foundational challenge’ of the gospel. This is the basic issue when you first hear the gospel, when you first come to saving faith and start to follow Jesus. And it is the question every day in life, in connection with every decision you make.
Will you follow Jesus, or will you follow the crowd, or culture, or simply your own will? Philip might have said ‘No’. Plenty of people did so then and do so now. How about you?
Philip, of course, did say ‘Yes’ and went on to be a faithful follower of Christ. Like every positive response to the Lord, this was of God’s grace. We don’t call ourselves. Christians are ‘called according to [God’s] purpose’ and the fruit of a divine initiative that began in eternity past and in the purpose of God (Romans 8:28-30).
Human nature is fallen and, left to ourselves, we put up the shutters against Jesus. But, as Paul discovered when Jesus stopped him in his wicked ways and called him to be his follower, the gospel is ‘the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes’ (Romans 1:16).
‘You did not choose me’, Jesus tells the disciples, ‘but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit’ (John 15:16). In Philip’s case, the fruit starts right away.
Philip calls Nathanael
The first thing Philip did was to speak to someone. Nathanael would appear to be a friend of his. We can’t be sure, but their exchange doesn’t look or sound like a first meeting of strangers. The most natural response to believing the gospel is to tell the people within the circle of your acquaintanceship. Anyone can do that. That is where to begin.
The second thing Philip does is to invite Nathanael’s interest by telling him the facts, as he believes them to be, namely, that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Scriptures, the law and the prophets.
It is so simple and natural. There is no big production, no list of compelling arguments, no scripted sales pitch, no emotional appeal based on ‘how Jesus has changed me’, and no ‘sinner’s prayer’. Philip just points to Jesus in terms of who he really is.
Nathanael reacts with a distinct scepticism; ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? This can be interpreted in ways from withering to whimsical. We can’t hear his tone of voice or see the look on his face.
My good friend from Glasgow in college days used to joke with me, referring to my home town, that, ‘The only good thing that ever came out of Edinburgh was the Glasgow train!’ But Nathanael’s question is neither about jocular local rivalry (he was from Cana), nor tribal prejudice. It is best understood as a thoughtful theological question.
‘Jesus of Bethlehem’ would have perked his interest, but never ‘Nazareth’ because everybody knew that Scripture prophesied that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Nathanael was an honest man, checking Philip’s (and John the Baptiser’s) claim against the Scriptures.
We might have been tempted to try and persuade Nathanael, but Philip is content to let the Lord speak for himself. All he says is ‘Come and see’.
Could it be that a lack of confidence in the Lord is the reason for the kind of hyper-evangelism that tries to ‘seal the deal’ on the spot, before allowing the target to go away and think before making a commitment? We are certainly to plant the seed and water the ground, but the rebirth of the soul is the prerogative of God and he may be trusted to do his work (1 Corinthians 3:6). Sometimes the simplest and even sparest answer is the best.
Question answered (John 1:47-51)
Jesus now enters the scene with a remarkable greeting, which opens up a conversation that changes Nathanael’s life forever.
You will notice that Jesus seizes and holds the initiative throughout their interaction. Each of his three statements is a special revelation. All together, they answer Nathanael’s question as to the validity of the claim that Jesus is the divine Messiah promised in the Scriptures.
An Israelite indeed
Jesus’ first statement is a remarkable assessment of Nathanael’s character; ‘Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit’. He is most obviously acknowledging that Nathanael was an honest man. There is, however, a deeper dimension to this tribute that serves to illumine the future impact of the coming of Jesus the Messiah and the gospel age.
There is subtle reference here to the patriarch Jacob, by way of a contrast. Nathanael is an ‘Israelite indeed’, characterised by being without ‘deceit’. Jacob, who was the very first ‘Israelite’ (cf. Genesis 32:28), was not without deceit, particularly in his securing the birthright of his brother Esau (Genesis 27:35).
‘Jacob’ (lit. ‘supplanter’) was to become ‘Israel’ (‘prince with God’). Jesus identifies Nathanael here as a new Jacob, but one who is as straight as a die. Later, Jesus introduces another parallel with Jacob in his reference to Jacob’s ladder (cf. 1:51 and Genesis 28:12). The Lord’s point here is to make clear to Nathanael that he sees him as an Israelite without deceit and how Israel ought to be. This is not only a veiled pointer to Nathanael’s future as a disciple, but is also Jesus’ first answer to Nathanael’s question.
The man from Nazareth clearly has a lot more to him than Nathanael has been inclined to assume!
Under the fig tree
Jesus’ second statement responds to Nathanael’s disarmed expostulation over Jesus’ assessment of his character. ‘How do you know me?’ asks a flustered Nathanael. And the answer comes, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you’.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? How about a man who had never met you and never been anywhere near you, coming out with information like this? Jesus has answered his question!
The ‘fig tree’, like the ‘five husbands’ in Jesus’ later encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:18), is a precise detail that proves Jesus’ supernatural knowledge. This man from Nazareth is no ordinary man.
Today the Lord is not physically with us to reveal truth to us, but he persuades us as surely and as supernaturally, by the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures — as he did Nathanael. He reveals to us the truth of his claims as the Saviour of sinners and Lord of all. The Word of God can speak to our hearts as immediately and effectively as Jesus, the Word made flesh (John 1:14) spoke in person in his earthly ministry.
He is not bound by his exaltation to God’s right hand and the distance of two millennia. Neither is the Bible limited by being a book made of printed paper. Jesus shows us the real truth about ourselves, our world, the human predicament and the divine solution. And he pours out his love in the hearts of those he calls to himself, by the Holy Spirit whom he has sent (Romans 5:5).
Conviction of sin and conversion to Christ in repentance and faith are never merely intellectual transactions. They involve the supernatural work of God in our hearts. Jesus persuades by Word and Spirit, revealing himself as the Saviour who loves his people with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3).
Greater things than these
Jesus’ third statement responds to Nathanael’s open-hearted confession of faith. This confession is itself a parable of his conversion experience: ‘Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’
Notice the progression: ‘Rabbi’: Nathanael had never doubted Jesus was a teacher; ‘the Son of God’: Nathanael now confesses Jesus to be the Son of God (cf. 1:34); ‘the King of Israel’: Nathanael grasps the particular focus of the Messianic expectation, namely that Jesus delivers, and is King over all things (cf. Ephesians 1:22).
The point for Nathanael is that, because Jesus is the divine Son, he is also the King of Israel. He is in effect saying what Peter will say later, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (John 6:69), and what Thomas will confess to the risen Jesus, ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28).
Jesus replies with a promise of greater things to come. Nathanael had believed on account of the evident supernatural knowledge that Jesus had of his character and location (‘I saw you under the fig tree’), but greater wonders are in store.
He will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’. Here is the reference, mentioned earlier, to Jacob’s vision of the ladder (Genesis 28:12). Nathanael as a kind of Jacob, does not share the patriarch’s weakness for guile, but will share the patriarch’s blessing in his vision of the ladder.
Christ, the ladder (John 1:51)
But in what sense did this insight come to Nathanael? There is no evidence that he was ever literally given to see such a vision.
We should note first of all that the ‘you’ in John 1:51 is a plural. Jesus addresses all his disciples here. They will all experience the blessing that is conveyed in the vision of Jacob’s ladder.
Jesus also appears to be speaking in a continuous sense to say, ‘You (all) shall see again and again the ministry of God by his angels in the ministry of the divine Son, Jesus Messiah’. Matthew Henry comments on this: ‘Christ is to us as Jacob’s ladder, by whom angels continually ascend and descend for the good of the saints’.
And what exactly do all of Jesus’ disciples — which includes every Christian in every age — see? We see Jesus our mediator demonstrating his messianic mission of redemption and reconciliation in every aspect of his person and his ministry.
His preaching, teaching, healing, suffering, dying, rising and ascending to glory together are our ladder to heaven and everlasting life. His self-identification in the vision as ‘the Son of Man’ is one of over 80 instances of its use in the New Testament. In close conjunction with his identification as ‘the Son of God’ (1:34, 49; cf. Daniel 7:13-14), this title emphasises his uniqueness as the incarnate Son. God the Son is also the Son of Man.
The meaning and application of Jacob’s vision to Nathanael and every follower of Jesus that ever lives and breathes, is that Jesus is his or her Saviour, personally, intimately and eternally.
The glorious issue is sharing the testimony of Nathanael’s heart that Jesus is ‘the Son of God’ and the Lord of life. And that we who are his, by his grace through faith, love him ‘because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19).
Gordon Keddie served for 40 years in pastoral ministry with Reformed Presbyterian churches in Pittsburgh (PA); Wishaw, Scotland; State College (PA); and Southside, Indianapolis. He is a well known writer and conference speaker.