Gospel Lesson: John 1:43-51
Prepared by The Rev. Dr. Tim Hegedus, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary.
This text forms part of a longer passage about the call of Jesus' disciples in the first chapter of John's Gospel. After John the Baptist publicly proclaims Jesus as 'the Lamb of God' (John 1.36), two of John's disciples respond to Jesus' invitation to come and see where he was staying (1.39). One of these disciples is Andrew, and he goes to tell his brother Simon about Jesus, identifying Jesus as the Messiah (1:40-41; the text explains that this latter term means 'Christ', i.e 'anointed one'. Andrew brings Simon to meet Jesus (1:42). This is why traditionally St Andrew has been regarded as the patron of Christian missions. And when Jesus meets Simon he renames him 'Cephas' (1.42; the text explains that this Aramaic word means 'Peter' in Greek; both are connected with the word for 'rock,' cf. Matthew 16.18). Thus the theme of the call to discipleship has been well established by the time we get to today's text, John 1.43-51. And here too one disciple brings another prospective disciple to Jesus, Nathanael.
In 1.43 Jesus calls Philip, saying 'Follow me,' the very same words found in the story of the call of the first disciples when they are out fishing (Mark 1.16-20; Matthew 4.18-22). It was of course common for a rabbi like Jesus to develop a following of disciples; however, according to the Talmud (Mishnah 'Abot 1.6, 16) it was expected that disciples would seek out their own teachers. Thus Jesus' call 'Follow me' reverses the usually expected order; as we see elsewhere (Mark 2.14; Matthew 9.9, Luke 5.10, 27) here too Jesus summons people directly to be his disciples. Jesus' call, and the wholehearted response of disciples such as Philip, demonstrates the compelling nature of Jesus' call. For behind Jesus' call is the person of Jesus himself; it is because of who Jesus is that people respond to the call to discipleship.
Chapter 1.43-44 emphasizes the location where the call took place, Galilee. According to John 7.1, Galilee is a safe place for Jesus' ministry in contrast with Judea (where Jerusalem is located, the place where Jesus will suffer and die). Since Galilee was regarded as 'the boonies' of Palestine, the location of Jesus' ministry in Galilee is evidence of God's presence and work among 'nobodies', the socially marginalized (cf. 4.43-44, 7.52). The other characters in this passage are from Galilee as well. Philip is from Bethsaida (1.44), a fishing town on the Sea of Galilee, and Nathanael is from Cana (John 21.2) which is near Nazareth also in Galilee.
Just as Jesus 'found' Philip (1.43) so in turn Philip 'found' Nathaniel (1.45). Philip proclaims to Nathanael that Jesus is the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote (1.45). Since Moses was regarded as the author of the Pentateuch this must be a reference to the 'Law and the Prophets,' a way of referring to the Hebrew Scriptures (Matthew 5.17, 7.12; 11.13, Luke 16.16, Romans 3.21). Philip is confessing that the Scriptures point to Jesus, that the prophecies and promises of the Bible are all fulfilled in him. This is a common notion in the Gospel of John (2.17, 22; 6.45; 7.37-39; 12.14-16; 20.9). Philip's confession to Nathanael in 1.45 is structurally parallel to Andrew's earlier confession that Jesus is the Messiah in 1.41. These confessions of faith in Jesus will come to a climax in Nathanael's confession made directly to Jesus, 'Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!' (1.49). Note that Philip describes Jesus as the 'son of Joseph from Nazareth' (1.45, cf. 6.42). This is not in ignorance of or opposition to Jesus' birth from the Virgin Mary, which was a very early tradition as well. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus' descent from Joseph (Matt 1.16; Luke 3.23; 4.22) is meant to emphasize Jesus' Davidic heritage (the Messiah was to be a descendant of King David) and likely that is the best way to take Philip's words in 1.45 as well.
Nathanael's famous response 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' has puzzled many Christians. It is most likely a flippant comment but there is also a note of contempt in Nathanael's words. In John 7.52 it is understandable that Jesus' enemies (who are Judean) say 'no prophet is to rise from Galilee' but why does Nathanael, himself a Galilean, take offense at the fact that Jesus is from Galilee? Perhaps this is another example of how people were reluctant to accept that one of their own could be the promised One sent by God; as Jesus says elsewhere, prophets are not without honour except in their own country (John 4.44; Matthew 13.54-57; Luke 4.24). Another contrast between Nathanael and the Judean leadership in chapters 7 is that while in 7.10-52 extensive argument fails to convince the leadership that Jesus is to be believed despite his Galilean origins, Nathanael comes to believe through a personal encounter with Jesus. According to John's Gospel, through Jesus one is given a personal experience of God (1.14, 18; 9.25; 10.4; 14.6-11). In Nathanael's case, this occurs because of Philip's invitation to 'come and see' just as in 1.39 Jesus had invited Andrew and another disciple to 'come and see.'
Jesus' divine insight (cf. 2.24-25) into Nathanael's character is expressed in 1.47 'Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!' In the Gospel of John, just as Jesus is true (1.9; 6.32, 55; 7.18; 15.1) so Nathanael is a 'true' Israelite, implicitly contrasted with 'the Jews' who oppose Jesus in the Gospel of John. It is important to remember that Jesus himself was one of 'the Jews' and so it is anachronistic to portray 'the Jews' as a whole in opposition to him. This negative portrayal of 'the Jews' in the Gospel of John is not historical but reflects a later situation of alienation between the Johannine community and the Jews at the time of the Gospel's writing (around the end of the first century); out of the enormous quantity of literature on this topic I would recommend as a starting point Befriending the Beloved Disciple by Adele Reinhartz (New York: Continuum, 2001). As well, describing Nathanael as one 'in whom there is no deceit' may be an implicit contrast with the father of the people of Israel, Jacob, who cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright (Genesis 25.29-34). The image of Nathanael beneath a fig tree (1.48) is unclear; the fig tree may stand for Judaism, and so Nathanael may represent those to whom John the Baptist said that Jesus would be revealed (1.31). The point of 1.48 is that Jesus already knows Nathanael even before they meet face to face. When Nathanael hears this he comes to faith in Jesus, confessing this faith in 1.49.
Jesus replies with a promise that Nathanael will see 'greater things than these' (1.50) and then follows (1.51) one of the 'Very truly I say to you' (?μ?ν, ?μ?ν λ?γω ?μιν in Greek) statements that are only found in the Gospel of John (25 times). Such statements are authoritative and are directed not just to the individual Jesus is speaking to (in this case, Nathanael) but to us as readers of the Gospel as well (the pronoun 'to you' is plural). As with the confessions of Philip and Nathanael, the point of Jesus' words in 1.51 is christological: he identifies himself as the 'Son of Man' upon whom the angels will ascend and descend. The title 'Son of Man' is common in the Synoptic Gospels, and is likely a messianic reference. Here in John 1.51 it seems to express the notion that the Son of Man bridges heaven and earth by coming from heaven to earth (John 3.13); the opening of the heavens also occurred at Jesus' baptism (Matthew 3.16, Mark 1.10, Luke 3.21). And of course the image of angels ascending and descending recalls Jacob's dream of the ladder in Genesis 28.10-17, except that in John 1.51 Jesus himself takes the place of the ladder: Jesus is the bridge between heaven and earth, the divine and human come together in and through him.