I’ve been teaching adult Sunday school this fall and we’ve been looking at things that will help us “return to our first love,” Jesus. So far we’ve talked about reclaiming our love of God’s Word, reclaiming God’s promises, and we just started in on learning to hear better from God. To do this, we’re back in the Bible, specifically, the Gospels where Jesus encounters ordinary people who get their minds blown by what he has to say.
Today, let’s take Nathaniel. Jesus first calls Philip, and then Philip tells Nathaniel, hey, I found the guy who the law & the prophets talk about. (Read the full story in John 1:43-51.) This is where Nathaniel famously makes his remark “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” As Nathaniel is walking down the road towards Jesus, Jesus says
“Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Nathan′a-el said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathan′a-el answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
I have always found this an obscure passage! Why did Nathaniel make that comment about Nazareth? Why did Jesus say Nathaniel was “an Israelite indeed?” Was he being sarcastic? And why was it so important to Nathaniel that Jesus saw him under the fig tree?
One thing that is clear, however, is that Nathaniel recognized something different about Jesus, something that he was open to. And Jesus, in turn, was able to say exactly the thing–the very specific thing–that caused Nathaniel to have a revelation of who Jesus truly is. An incomplete revelation, but nonetheless very full and rich. Nathaniel proclaims the Gospel as he understands it in that moment. It is because of Nathaniel’s openness and recognition that Jesus promises him even greater things–Nathaniel is going to have his spiritual eyes opened wide to see the comings & goings of heaven.
There are three things I want you to note from this passage. The first is that Nathaniel spent time in the scriptures. This is implied in two ways; first, it’s clear Philip and Nathaniel have studied the Torah (the law) and the prophets together. We also know (from a note in a good study Bible) that a fig tree is known as a place for study and prayer. Nathaniel was a good student of the Word of God. Secondly, Nathaniel expected to see God at work in the world. Again, Philip’s message that the one written about in the law & prophets was here indicates that both he and Nathaniel were on the lookout for the Messiah. Granted, their idea of a earthly kingdom wasn’t what God intended, but they were on the lookout and that’s the important thing here. Third, it appears Nathaniel called it like he saw it. He had no guile, no deceit. Even his comment, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was an honest one. Jesus recognizes this about him–he is a “true Israelite,” a model Israelite, if you will.
Nathaniel is studying the scriptures, looking for God at work, and making honest assessments about the world around him. Jesus affirms these traits in Nathaniel and because of them is able to reach something deep inside him that makes him proclaim the truth of who Jesus is.
What do we need to hear from God, to encounter Jesus? Immersion in the Word, openness and an honest expectation that God is at work.