Sometimes a passage of scripture is more than a passage of scripture. So often when we read scripture it is in very small amounts, almost episodic in nature. This happens at church, in devotionals and bible studies, so it isn’t a criticism of the way you might read scripture. Most of us read scripture this way. Consider the two thousand year gap between when the gospels were written, never mind the Old Testament, and there is a large cultural gap that also exists. This often means that some of the passages of scripture we read are often full of context that we simply don’t get. Our passage from John this morning is one such passage.
Scripture: John 1: 43-51
I want to begin today’s sermon with a question: Where does Jesus find Philip?
Our passage begins with the words, “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Come with me!’”
Philip is not mentioned in John’s gospel before this. The conclusion this brings me to is that Jesus did not know Philip before he found him as referenced in this passage.
Where does Jesus find Philip?
Philip then finds Nathanael, now here we might assume a pre-existing relationship. Though it isn’t outright stated we can infer it by the dialogue, it appears to be friendly banter. We might infer that the two know each other, but perhaps not.
Where does Jesus find Philip?
Where does Philip find Nathanael?
Now that is actually an easy question to answer, Philip finds Nathanael underneath a fig tree and it turns out that is really important. We will look in more detail at that in a moment.
These two questions of where did these individuals meet or rather where they were found raises more questions for me. When Jesus found Philip, what did he say to him? We don’t know? Is the conversation between Philip and Nathanael and Jesus and Nathanael accurate or might more have been said? We have wonderful highlights of the ministry and teaching of Jesus in the gospels, but we don’t have many conversations recorded that simply took place while they were travelling. What were the conversations like when Jesus recruited the disciples? Was it really as simple as it’s made out to be in our gospel lesson today? Or were the discussions longer, more drawn out?
If you were Nathanael, and you held the opinion of people from Nazareth that Nathanael holds, would the words of Jesus spoken here convince you to follow him?
Why does Jesus say that Nathanael is an Israelite with no deceit? We might read that and think ‘what an odd thing to say to someone, especially when you first meet them!’ But as is often the case there is more going on here than we are aware of. Let’s look at that sentence again Jesus says to Nathanael, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
First, the word deceit isn’t the best translation however it’s perhaps the best word to use for the sentence to make sense in English. A better word is guile. Now, think of a biblical character who was known for their guile. Who as I think of it was known to be deceitful.
His name is Jacob and Jacob features very prominently in the Old Testament as you are aware. God also changes Jacob’s name to Israel. With that context the sentence “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” takes on entirely new meaning.
Jesus basically says, here is an Israelite that isn’t Jacob to Nathanael. It tells us something about the character of Nathanael. Jesus has just said that Nathanael isn’t like Jacob that he doesn’t lie, he isn’t a trickster, there is no falsehood in him.
Nathanael has just asked ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Jesus sees the honesty of Nathanael, appreciates that he’s a straight shooter who calls things like he sees them. Jesus appreciates the honesty and even takes a friendly jab at him.
Yet, somewhere in this exchange Nathanael see Jesus for what he is: The Son of God, the King of Israel. Nathanael declares as much in the presence of Jesus and Philip.
Think about what John has just setup in this gospel account. He’s introduced us to Nathanael who was relaxing under the shade of the fig tree. Nathanael has questioned Philip on whether they should follow Jesus or not, after all can anything good come from Nazareth? Think about it, Philip has told Nathanael that Jesus is the Messiah, but doesn’t the Messiah come from Bethlehem and not Nazareth? Jesus declares that Nathanael is an honest individual who doesn’t trade in falsehoods and then Nathanael declares Jesus to be the Son of God.
It is a wonderful narrative that John has provided asserting the authority of Jesus. Often, we read these stories in isolation, sometimes we only read short excerpts on Sunday morning and we lose all the context embedded within. So let’s look at the additional context, remember the fig tree?
Rolf Jacobson writes, “From the Old Testament, there were many titles given for the Messiah—Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, Key of David, Desire of Nations, Dayspring, the Seed, the Servant, and the Branch of Jesse. Or simply, the Branch.
“In Jeremiah 33:15, for example, the prophet promised, “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David.” Daniel promised, “a branch from her roots shall rise up in his place” (Daniel 11:7).
“And in Zechariah, the prophet promised:
“I am going to bring my servant the Branch. For on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven facets, I will engrave its inscription, says the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. On that day, says the LORD of hosts, a man shall call his neighbor under the vine and fig tree.” (Zechariah 3:8b-10)
“So notice the messianic expectation: when the Messiah comes—that is when The Branch comes—an Israelite shall “call” his neighbor under the fig tree.” (Rolf Jacobson).
Suddenly this simple passage about calling a disciple isn’t so simple and is loaded with implication. John isn’t just introducing us to a new disciple. Rather the introduction of the disciple Nathanael is being used to reinforce the claim that Jesus is the Messiah. Many of the references that we might just take as narrative flair are actually deeply rooted images which speak to God’s providence.
The encounter between Jesus and Nathanael is the focus of this passage, yet Nathanael isn’t a well-known disciple. In fact, right now you are probably having a hard time thinking of any other gospels stories that feature Nathanael. And there is a reason for that, because he only shows up twice in the gospels.
Nathanael doesn’t show up again in the gospels until the end of John, in chapter 21. These are the only two places where Nathanael is explicitly mentioned to be doing anything, our passage this morning and the end of John’s gospel. In our reading today Nathanael asks can anything good come from Nazareth? The powers of the world agree with that question that nothing good can come from Nazareth and so they kill Jesus. In John 21, Nathanael and a few other disciples go fishing and Nathanael is mentioned as one of the disciples present. The risen Jesus appears and asks if they’ve caught anything. The answer comes back no, and so Jesus says throw your nets over the other side. The disciples proceed to catch more fish than they know what to do with.
There is Jesus, risen from the grave, he still bears the scars of his wounds. The signs of the abuse his body suffered are plain to see, but he is alive. Nathanael is there and you have to imagine that Jesus doesn’t look any more impressive on that day than when first they met, in fact Jesus likely looks a sight worse. But I imagine that Nathanael is thinking back to the words that Jesus first spoke to him three years ago during that chance encounter. After Nathanael declares Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus says to him, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”
Think of all that Nathanael saw at Jesus’ side. Think of what Nathanael was seeing on that day, Jesus risen from the grave, having defeated death itself. You will see greater things than these. Nathanael, the most honest man in Israel, no deceit or guile about him.
It takes the entirety of John’s gospel for that message to be delivered and it speaks to the completeness of God’s plan for creation. It speak to the power of chance encounters and the recognition that with God nothing is left to chance. Jesus coming and living amongst us wasn’t Plan B, it was always the plan. Our encounters with the divine aren’t chance, they are intentional. The opportunities we have to say to others ‘Come and see’ aren’t random. They are divinely inspired, and you just never know what you might see and experience. Amen.
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