Summary: Nathaniel provides the example of the kind of honest skeptic Jesus delights in meeting, changing, and sending into ministry.

Jesus and the Honest Skeptic

John 1:43-51

Dr. Roger W. Thomas, Preaching Minister

First Christian Church, Vandalia, MO

A little preschooler came home from her first time at Sunday School. Mom wanted to know how things had gone and what the little girl thought about the experience. Mom hoped she would like it and want to keep going. “How was it?” mom asked.

“Oh, it was fine and it was fun. But I think my teacher was Jesus’ grandma!”

“What makes you think that?” asked the surprised mom.

The little girl answered without hesitation, “Because she kept showing us pictures of baby Jesus. And he’s all she talked about!”

John chapter one introduces a number of people who kept talking about Jesus. John the writer of the book we are reading was one of those. This entire book is about Jesus first, last, and always. John had so much to say about Jesus that he couldn’t write it all down. Do you remember how he closes the book: (John 21:24-25) "This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. {25} Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."

John’s whole purpose for his book is revealed a chapter earlier: (John 20:30-31) "Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. {31} But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."

He couldn’t be clearer: Christianity, eternal life, heaven—are all based on what you know and think about Jesus. Some religions require an intimate knowledge of rituals, ceremonies, or philosophies and laws. Christianity is about a person. Those who would point others to heaven must point to a person—Jesus Christ. Imagine what an impact we might have if folk thought we might be Jesus’ grandmother or grandpa, because we talk about him so freely.

Another person who talked about Jesus was John the Baptist, so named because he was immersing so many people in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. “Someone is coming a whole lot more important that me,” he told any who would listen. (By the way, note how John 1 is organized by the calendar as if someone were keeping a daily log of events: 28—This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing; vs. 29, the next day John saw Jesus; vs. 35, the next day John was there again; vs. 43, the next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee; 2:1, On the third day a wedding took place.) When Jesus showed up, he said, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He soon faded into the background so all of the attention could be given to Jesus. Another worthy and difficult trait!

Andrew was one of the first to follow Jesus. Once convinced that Jesus was the one he had been waiting for, he immediately found his brother Peter and brought him to Jesus. Andrew would never be the bright light that his brother would be among the Apostles, but Peter might never have known Jesus if his brother hadn’t insisted on talking about Jesus.

This brings us to Philip. Jesus invites him to join him on his road trip to Galilee. But note what Philip does first. He finds his friend (some Bible scholars think he was a cousin, perhaps even a brother) Nathanael and tells him about Jesus. Nathanael is the focus of our study today, but think about Philip for a minute. He was a brand new disciple. He may not even have half understood what he believed yet. But he knew Jesus was the best thing he had ever heard of. Jesus was simply too good to keep to himself. He couldn’t help himself. He had to talk about him. He had to tell his friend.

Interesting, it is most often new followers of Jesus who are the most effective and most enthusiastic about telling others about Jesus. This is true for a number of reasons. New believers still have more contacts with those on the outside. Often, they haven’t yet gotten their faith all cluttered with opinions and traditions. They find it easier to keep the main thing the main thing. But most importantly, they haven’t yet come to believe that other people aren’t interested. After all, they were interested.

Oh, Lord, give us more Philips. What a difference it would make in this church and in this town, if more people were so impressed with Jesus that they couldn’t help talking about him! Oh, how we need men and women and teenagers who love their friends and family so much that they want more than anything to bring them to Jesus. It doesn’t take a lot of learning, education, or experience. The only real requirements are a love for Jesus, a love for our friends, and the kind of faith that believes no one is beyond the reach of God’s love.

This month we are going to looking at four different people who meet Jesus. Each came from a different place. Each had a different story. Each had a different reason why others might have thought they would have little interest in Jesus. We will look at one who was a notorious sinner. She could never change! Another was already quite religious! Another had so many problems that people just didn’t want to be around him. And then there was Nathanael. I will term him —our honest skeptic. First some facts:

Nathanael was a Jew from Galilee. His home town was Cana (Jn 21:2), where Jesus would perform his first miracle in a few days. His name meant “a gift of God,” that maybe tells us something about his parents heart when he was born. He probably was a fairly knowledgeable student of the Old Testament. When Philip invites him to meet Jesus, he appeals to his knowledge of the prophesies about the Messiah. But the most obvious characteristic of Nathanael was his skepticism. In fact, he probably could have qualified as a “missourian.” Show me first could have easily been his motto.

Did you catch his first response to Philip. His friend says, "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." {46} "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked.

Some think that Nathanael understood the Old Testament so well that he knew the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem, not Nazareth. So if Jesus was from Nazareth, he couldn’t be the Promised One.

But it seems more likely that there was some sort of prejudice or stereotyping going on. Maybe Nazareth had a reputation. Perhaps Nazareth High was the big basketball rivalry to Cana in the All Galilee Conference. If you were from Cana, you just couldn’t say anything good about anybody from Nazareth. You know how it goes. Where I grew up it was Saybrook vs. Colfax. Here maybe its “Can any good thing come out of Curryville.”

Maybe it was a historic reputation like the Hatfields and the McCoys or the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Maybe Nazareth was the wrong side of the tracks. Some of you know how that is. Some places or regions get a reputation that sticks to you deserved or not.

For example, my kin folk hail from Kentucky. I hope I don’t offend anyone from Kentucky, but you know that a lot of northerners just can’t see much good in Kentucky except, as they say, “bluegrass, moonshine, beautiful horses, and fast women.” My folk are from there so I can say it. It was Kentucky that Jeff Foxworthy was talking about when he said “You might be redneck if . . . .“ “If your front porch collapses and kills more than three dogs you might be from Kentucky.” “If you’ve ever been involved in a custody fight over a huntin’dog . . . . “If your baby’s first words are ”attention K-Mart Shoppers . . . .” “. . . if your family tree does not fork.” And my all time favorite, “If your wife has ever said, “Come move this transmission so I can take a bath!” you just might be from Kentucky.”

Just to prove to you that my folk hail from Kentucky I want to read you a letter my cousin received from his mother back home in Morgan County.

Dear Son—I am writing this slow ‘cause I know you can’t read fast. We don’t live where we did when you left. Your dad read in the paper where the most accidents happen within twenty miles of home, so we moved. I won’t be able to send you the address as the last Kentuckian family that lived here took the numbers with them for their next house so they wouldn’t have to change their address.

This place has a washing machine. The first day I put four shirts in it, pulled the chain, and haven’t seen em’ since. It only rained twice this week—three days the fist time and four days the second time.

The coat you wanted me to send you, your Aunt Sue said it would be a little too heavy to send with them heavy buttons, so we cut ‘em off and put ‘em in the pockets. We got a bill from the funeral home, said if we didn’t make the past payment on Grandma’s funeral bill, up she comes.

About your father. . . he has lovely new job. He has over 500 men under him. He’s cutting grass at the cemetery. About your sister . . she had a baby this morning. I haven’t found whether it’s a boy or a girl, so I don’t know if you are an aunt or an uncle. Your Uncle John fell in the whiskey vat at work. Some men tried to pull him out, but he found them off playfully, and he drowned. We cremated him. He burned for four days.

Three of your friends went off the bridge in a pickup. One was driving, the other two were int he back. The driver got out, he rolled down and the widow and swum to safety, but the other two drowned as they couldn’t get the tailgate down.

Not much more new this time, nothing much has happened. Love, Ma. PS—I was going to send you money, but the envelop was already sealed.

Whatever the reason for Nathanael’s dim view of Nazareth, the story doesn’t end there. It is what happens next that I really want you to see today:

First, Jesus has time and room for skeptics and doubters. We tend to act like having questions or doubts is a sign of weakness. It can be, but not always. Let’s face it, if we are honest, we all have doubts. If we didn’t we would be so gullible that we would be an easy target for every snake oil salesman that came down the pike. Followers of Jesus are not called to have blind faith that believes anything. We are called to be tender hearted and tough minded. The Bible tells us to “not believe every spirit, but to test the spirits” (1 Jn 4:1). 1 Thess 5:21 says, “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” To do otherwise causes us to be, what the Bible calls, “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14).

Jesus never scolds anyone for questions or honest doubts. He welcomes the opportunity. He can reassure any doubt honestly held. He is not afraid of any question. He is the truth; he holds the truth; and welcomes all who seek the truth.

I have started using a new word recently. You have probably heard me use it from time to time. When I speak of people who don’t know the Lord, I have begun to refer to them as “pre-Christians.” I used to use such terms as “unbelievers,” “unchurched folk,” “non-Christians,” or some similar term. Several months ago I heard a speaker use the term “pre-Christian” and when he explained it, I thought, “that makes sense. That’s how I want to think.” “Pre-Christian” is an expression of faith and hope. When I use that term, I making a claim—an expectation—that it is only a matter of time until that “pre-Christian” person comes to Christ. I am speaking the way I want to think—that anyone, no matter, who they are, how bad they are, what the obstacles to faith may be in the way—that person can be touched by the Holy Spirit of God through the Word of God and be brought to faith in Jesus. It will happen in God’s timing, but mean while, I prefer to wait with expectation and hope.

If you are here this morning because your wife drug you to church (and anybody can see you heel marks in the street outside, if they look) or because your parents said you either go to church or you can’t have the car next week or you are here for any other reason—but you don’t really believe what’s being said—I am serving you notice today. I don’t consider you an “unbeliever;” even though you don’t believe –yet!; in my book, you are a “pre-Christian!” It is just a matter of time and Jesus is going to get you on his team. Even if you don’t believe in Jesus—Yet; he believes in you!

Our big problem today is not so much unbelieving “sinners,” but unbelieving Christians who have ceased to believe that Jesus can reach anyone, no matter how skeptical or full of doubt.

A new believer was standing outside after church one Sunday when a veteran member noticed he had tears in his eyes. The older member asked what the problem was. “I just started thinking about all of the lost souls out there. There are so many people who need the Lord and we seem to be having such a small effect on them!” The veteran sought to console the new comer. “Don’t worry. After you have been here a while, you will get over it.” He responded, “Yes, I know. That’s why I am crying!”

Jesus especially appreciates honest skeptics. There is a difference between skepticism that is honest and open to answers and phony intellectualism. I have met people, and I am sure you have, too, who always have religious questions but are never really interested in exploring honest answers. I quickly begin to suspect that their questions and skepticism are just excuses. They use the questions to keep spiritual discussions from getting to close to home. Sometimes there is some secret sin or habit pattern they are not yet ready to deal with so they fake some false skepticism to hide the real issues. You know people like that. We will see an example of it in a couple of chapters (cf. John 4).

Nathanael wasn’t like that. He had his doubts. Maybe he was suspicious and skeptical by nature. But he apparently read and studied his Bible. He was looking for answers. He wasn’t just using his doubts to hide behind. When invited to come and see, he came!

Notice how Jesus greets him. “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false.” The KJV uses the quaint phrase “in whom there is no guile.” It describes a person of integrity. What you see is what you get. No pretense, just honesty. The name Israelite was taken from the Patriarch Jacob whose name was changed to Israel. Jesus will make a reference to Jacob’s dream later in the conversation. Jesus is probably making a play on words here. The original Israel was known for his deceit and scheming. He conned his brother out of his inheritance and then was conned by his father-in-law. The old Jacob wasn’t to be trusted. Jesus found a refreshing difference in Nathanael. He was real! Jesus likes that!

If you have doubts but are an honest doubter, you can do no better than what Nathanael did. He kept searching and asking God for answers. He looked in the right place—God’s Word. He hung around the right people—those who believed. And when invited to come and see, he came to see!

Jesus actually prefers honest skeptics who are willing to “come and see” over “tag alongs” who talk a good walk, but who aren’t really on board. Jesus likes honest skeptics because he knows their heart. This seems to be the theme that runs through these early chapters of John. Note how John notes it, (John 2:24-25) "But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. {25} He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man."

There is an interesting and puzzling conversation between Jesus and Nathanael. “How do you know me?” Nathanael asks, perhaps with a bit of suspicion. Then Jesus says I saw you under the fig tree. That doesn’t make much sense to us, but most Bible scholars think there is something special going on. A fig tree has important meaning in Jewish thinking. In fact, the rabbis would often use the phrase “being under your fig tree” like we might use the idea of “a prayer closet” or “quiet time.” To be under your fig tree, literally or figuratively, often meant to be in a time of prayer, meditation, and Bible study. Jesus maybe saying to Nathanael, “I saw you praying. I heard your questions. I know you are seeking God’s truth.”

Whether or not that is exactly what Jesus is saying, the Lord does know our hearts . . . from beginning to end. Before, during, and after our prayers, he knows our hearts cry. Listen to David. (Psa 139:1-4). O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. {2} You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. {3} You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. {4} Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD."

If you have doubts that you struggle with, if you don’t have everything all figured out and tied in a nice bundle, but you really would like to find out what God has for you, then you have come to the right place and to the right person. Jesus delights in revealing heaven to honest skeptics. This is probably the heart of Jesus final words. He promises Nathanael answers and to even bigger questions than he has now. Jesus refers to Jacob’s dream of ladder with angels coming and going to heaven in Genesis 28. He claims that he is the one who makes such revelations of heaven come to pass. As his follower, Nathanael will come to know and understand such things.

The same is true for any honest skeptic who comes to the Lord seeking answers. If you come, doubts and all, and are willing to learn, listen, and eventually obey, there is no limit to what God has for you.

Conclusion: I don’t care if you are skeptical about religious matters or if you are religious and often find yourself skeptical about skeptics, you can learn a thing or two from Nathanael and Jesus. Doubters, you can bring yourself, doubts and all to Jesus. Come and see. He will love to help you real answers to honest questions. On the other hand, if you tend to doubt if skeptics can ever find Jesus. Don’t worry about it. You don’t have to wait until the people around you have no more doubts before you talk about Jesus. Jesus doesn’t have any doubts. You just talk about what you have found, invite them to come and see, doubts and all, and Jesus can deal with the rest.

***Dr. Roger W. Thomas is the preaching minister at First Christian Church, 205 W. Park St., Vandalia, MO 63382 and an adjunct professor of Bible and Preaching at Central Christian College, 911 E. Urbandale, Moberly, MO. He is a graduate of Lincoln Christian College (BA) and Lincoln Christian Seminary (MA, MDiv), and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary (DMin).