Summary: Who were Philip and Nathanael? What made them respond to Jesus call?
John 1:43-51 @ Christ Church on 15 Jan 2012
Who were Philip and Nathanael ?
Although Philip is from Bathsaida his name is greek – it means Horse Lover. He was probably a fisherman. Little is known of what happened to him after the resurrection. Some say he travelled in Asia Minor with his sister Marianne and Nathanael. Clement says that he lived into old age (so was not martyred), but all we know is that he is called Philip and is from Bethsaida. He is not the same Philip that is found in Acts speaking to the Ethiopean.
Nathanael is equally mysterious. He is almost certainly known as Bartholomew in the other Gospels. Bartholomew means son of the furrows, perhaps indicating that he was a ploughman. In each gospel he is mentioned with Philip.
We have no information about why Philip responded to Jesus. After getting his first two disciples from John (Andrew and Peter), Jesus decides to go to Galilee. On the way he finds Philip, says “Follow me” and its done. I can't believe that it was really that straight forward, its simply that the full story is lost to us.
Nathanael, on the other hand, is much more interesting. He was obviously already good friends with Philip. After his calling by Jesus Nathanael is the first one to be told. Philip has obviously had some significant conversations with Jesus already. – even before the first miracle that is recorded. Turning water into wine occurs in the next chapter. Philip has already recognised who Jesus is. We can tell this by the way he passes the news on to Nathanael: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote”. Philip means the Messiah.
Messiah expected soon
There was a high level of expectation in Israel in the 1st Century that the Messiah would be sent by God to free the Israelites from Roman rule. Just as He had sent Moses to free the Israelites from Egyptian rule hundreds of years before. The Jewish people were looking out for someone who would fit the bill, and there were many who appeared to and then failed. Philip had identified his candidate and went to tell his friend.
His last seven words though ruined it for Nathanael. “Jesus of Nazareth – the son of Joseph”. Nazareth clearly did not have a good reputation amongst Galileans, perhaps that explains why Joseph and Mary were able to settle there. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Philip is still full of enthusiasm “Come and See.”
As Jesus sees Nathanael approaching he says “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” If I was greeted like that, I would be taken aback. That appears to have been Nathanael's reaction.
“How do you know me?”. Does his response suggest to you that he may have thought he was being stalked? He certainly sounds defensive and uncomfortable – but then who wouldn't be if their character was summed up by a complete stranger.
Jesus' answer “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” may sound simple to us. So Nathaniel was sitting (presumably) under a fig tree and Jesus passed by. How would Jesus draw the conclusion that there was “nothing false” in Nathanael from that? And how would that explain any of the conversation that follows?
Under a fig tree
Well the phrase 'under a fig tree' was used in the 1st Century to describe someone studying or meditating on scripture. That helps explain it. Jesus had seen Nathanael studying and had even seen what he was reading. Jesus may have meant it quite literally, or He may have been given a word of knowledge. Either way it impressed Nathanael.
Titles for Jesus
It impressed him enough for him to respond “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” “Son of God” is the description that John the Baptist give of Jesus when he is describing him to his own disciples. For John it was a revelation that God had given him. “King of Israel” is a title that Jesus would be given from time to time and which He seemed less pleased to accept.
Nathanaels response is quite a turn around from his derogatory remarks about Nazareth. I struggle to shake off the impression that Jesus is laughing at him slightly in the next response.
Read Genesis 28:10-17
Before we look at that it will be helpful if we too spend a minute under the fig tree.
Please turn to Genesis 28 verse 10.
I'm going to read verses 10-17
Remember that Jacob had lied and schemed and cheated his brother Easu out of his inheritance. Here God speaks to him in a dream.