Israelites Indeed, Without Deceit
Text: John 1:43-51
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In John’s gospel, we have this wonderful pattern that keeps appearing—a pattern that, for those paying close attention, has happened throughout the Scriptures. Here, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, whenever His disciples start following Him, it’s because they’ve heard about Him from someone else. They don’t see any miracles, no overwhelming signs or acts. They believe because someone else tells them about Jesus. Just before our reading for today begins, Jesus calls His first Apostle Andrew, who only starts following after Jesus after John the Baptist points Him out and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” John the Baptizer told his own disciples how the Holy Spirit had descended on Jesus, but they only had John’s testimony about it. Then Andrew told his brother Peter, who then became a disciple of Jesus after being introduced to Him. So here today, we see how Nathanael comes to faith. It all begins with Philip telling him all about this man Jesus of Nazareth: “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote.”
But Nathanael will come to faith in a slightly more roundabout way. In this way, Nathanael is a very good representative of God’s people, Old and New Testament. He’s not necessarily skeptical, but he’s been around long enough to know not to get his hopes up too fast—not to just take people at their word. It’s like Abraham, who had God’s promise that he would be protected, but still lied to others to save his skin when things got a little dicey; who still had a child with his wife’s handmaiden Hagar when he had the Lord’s promise that he would be the father of nations through Sarah his wife. Nathanael is like his ancestor Jacob, renamed Israel because of his wrestling with God; Jacob, who had the blessing from his father and from the Lord, but still thought it wise and practical to step in and trick people whenever he could, just to be sure he came out ahead.
For that matter, Nathanael is a lot like us. We tend to think of ourselves as sophisticated and wise, living in the 21st century as we do. We believe we know a lot more about how the universe works than all those people who lived before us. We sometimes even think we’re masters of our own lives, steering and controlling things as we want them to be. So when we hear a word, especially a word from God in the Scriptures, we tend to hold it in suspension of belief. It’s not that we’re skeptical—Nathanael wasn’t really a cynic, nor are we—but like him, we’ve been around long enough to know better, so we think; to not just walk by faith, to judge things as they make sense to us; to maybe trust, but definitely verify.
So Nathanael creates a little breathing room for himself to not have to wholeheartedly believe what Philip tells him about this Jesus of Nazareth: “Nazareth?! Can anything good come out of that backwater?” But Philip insists, “Come and see.”
Jesus sees Nathanael coming and recognizes what He’s observed in His people for thousands of years. Nathanael really does resemble his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon. So Jesus says about Nathanael, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, following in the footsteps of his forefathers. But even so, you’re still coming to see. There’s still that spark of faith in you, trusting Philip’s words about Me, so there’s no deceit, no ulterior motive. You’re still hoping against hope that you might actually see the Messiah.”
This staggers Nathanael. Jesus has seen through him. The bare truth of Jesus’ words, undiluted with cynicism, with sarcasm, with falsehood or disappointment, disarms him. “How do you know me?” he asks. And it’s only at this point, after the words have been proclaimed to Nathanael, after faith has been sparked, that Jesus offers proof—perhaps a small proof of divine power—although Nathanael won’t actually witness that small miracle. He’ll still have to take Jesus’ word for it. “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Jesus saw Nathanael, and before Nathanael had even heard of Jesus, before he saw Him, before he was introduced. Jesus saw him and loved him and knew that he would be one of His chosen disciples.
We see a summary here of how it is that Jesus’ followers—us included—come to faith. Someone has told you about Jesus. It may have been a brother or a sister, parent, grandparent, godparent, friend, pastor, or Sunday school teacher. God spoke His Word to you about Jesus through someone. And there was belief, even if it was like a mustard seed. There may have been some doubts or questions—there might be some even still. Like Nathanael, you’ve been around long enough to know that not all words can be believed. But even then, Jesus’ bracing words of truth still snap you out of it. He sees your heart. He calls you out. It’s not always pleasant; sometimes it’s even shocking. But He still calls you. It might be through a passage of Scripture that especially cuts you to the heart, or a sermon you feel was written just for you, or a well-placed and perfectly timed conversation with a brother or sister in the faith. Through it, Jesus has called you to see the truth, to follow Him: follow Him back to the baptismal font to be cleansed and purified, back to confession and absolution to be forgiven, back to His Supper to healed and made whole, united to Him. You likely haven’t witnessed any overwhelming miracles—the sky hasn’t opened up for you to glimpse the throne room of heaven, no resurrections or turning water into wine—but you have heard about these miracles, the way that John the Baptist’s disciples heard about them. You’ve heard about them from the disciples who witnessed them and recorded them in the Scriptures. You have Jesus’ own words testifying to who He is and what He’s done for you. Faith is created in you through that Word, just as it was for Andrew, for Peter, for Philip and Nathanael.
And it’s then, after faith is created by the Word, that Jesus offers proof you will see. “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Like his ancestor Jacob, who saw a ladder (or staircase) bridging heaven and earth, with angels going up and down on it, Nathanael will be given to see a bridge between those two realms. But this ladder won’t be an it. This ladder is a who: the Son of Man. When He is lifted up and suspended between earth and heaven on the cross, Jesus will become the bridge bringing all of heaven, all of God’s goodness, protection, light, and peace to us here on earth. He will be the bridge for all our prayers, our hopes, praises, and eventually our own ascension to the presence of God in heaven.
Again, this is seen in faith, created by the word of promise. Set aside your resistance. Let the promise wash over you anew. The Son of Man has come to open heaven to you, to be a bridge to the Father. Come and see. Come and hear. Come and receive Him in faith. In the name of Jesus, the Son of Man. Amen.