Second Sunday after the Epiphany

John 1:43-51 (NRSV) The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Have to say over the years, when it comes to hearing sermons about the 12 disciples, most of the time, it is about Peter, James, and John. And, understandably, there is a lot more source material in the Gospels about them. But for today’s lectionary reading and reflection, we hear about the story of Philip and Nathanael.

It is thought that Nathanael is also known as Bartholomew who appears in passages where the 12 disciples were named (Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:13-19, Luke 6:12-16). The name Bartholomew only occurs in the New Testament as part of lists of the 12 disciples. His names appears also in the list of 11 disciples found in Acts 1:13. Nathanael only appears in this reading in John 1 and in a list of names of the disciples with Peter when they go back to fishing in John 21.

Nathanael was skeptical when Philip told him about Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nazareth was a small remote town of little renown and in terms of prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures there was no expectation of someone coming from there. Nonetheless, he went along with Philip to see Jesus.

Jesus saw Nathanael and said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

To which Nathanael replied, “Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael was obviously taken aback since they had never met; yet Jesus made a statement about the character of Nathanael.

Jesus further stunned him by saying, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 

Commentators noted that having a fig tree in one’s home was described in 1 Kings 4:25, Micah 4:4, and Zechariah 3:10) and was likely a location for personal reflection, reading and prayer. At this point Nathanael had heard enough and exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

Bill Creasy offered an interesting and plausible explanation as to what Nathanael might have been pondering under the fig tree: the story of Jacob and Jacob’s vision of a ladder from heaven found in Genesis 28:10-17. And that certainly makes senses. Nathanel could have been wondering under the fig tree, how could God be so generous to a deceitful man like Jacob? And then, boom, Jesus walked up to him and told him, you are an Israelite without deceit who was pondering the story of Jacob under the fig tree just before we met!

Jesus then struck again the Jacob theme by saying to Nathanael, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” God used this vision to promise Jacob that God will be with Jacob and will bless him. Jesus claimed the vision for himself and that Nathanael would see the amazing things that will happen because God is with Jesus and God’s blessings will flow forth. 

What are some take home messages from this episode?

One, right off the bat, is the unique and personal way that God reaches out to us. When we read of Jesus encounters with people in the Gospels, he finds a unique connection, something that freezes them in their tracks. Think about how Jesus dialoged with Nicodemus in John 3 or the Woman at the Well in John 4? Think of the parables that Jesus told and how the images in those stories would poke people like a splinter in their fingers. Its amazing how Jesus called forth Matthew and Zaccheus in such public ways to address that fact they were social outcasts as tax collectors.

Coming to trust in God is truly a work of God. It is his divine initiative in reaching out to us in a way that evokes a response from us. Each story is different and a miracle and to be cherished and shared. One of my favorite parts of gathering with fellow believers is hearing the story of how people come to faith. Sometimes, it is when they were young, sometimes it is when they are adults, and sometimes it is in a big Billy Graham meeting while others it is in a quiet personal moment. Thank God that God reaches out to us in unique ways!

I think another part of the story we can take home is the role of Philip. It is God’s initiative that people come to faith but we are given the privilege of participation. Philip said to Nathanael, “Come and see.” Philip served as the bridge from Nathanael to meet Jesus. Philip did the same thing for a group of Greeks in John 12:20-22. He facilitates an introduction to Jesus.

Can we be like Philip and facilitate introductions of people to Jesus?

How do people see Jesus today?

I think there are three ways we can facilitate an introduction to Jesus and thus participate in helping people see Jesus. One, live a Christ-like life. When people see me, do they see a glimpse of Jesus? Two, is my church being Jesus’ hands and feet? We call the church the body of Christ. Lord, have mercy that the church so often fails to show people Jesus! Third, show people the Jesus seen in the Scriptures.

God is at work reaching out to people and we have the honor of being part of the work He is already doing! Lord, help me this week, to yield to you and have ears to hear and eyes to see opportunities to point people to Jesus! Amen.