The First Disciples (John 1:35-51)
Like many, my wife and I were first brought together by a relative. Jeannette, my wife-to-be, was a college student in Seattle while I still lived at home with my parents. My sister Ruth lived on the same dorm floor as Jeannette, and they became friends. When my sister married David Harrison (whom I had been trying to set up with Jeannette), the wedding was held in Shelton where I lived, and Jeannette had a part in the marriage ceremony. A year or two later Jeannette and I became good friends when we both held a leadership position in our college class at church. I actually borrowed Jeannette’s car to take “Nancy” out on a date. Eventually it became apparent to Jeannette and to me that we were to be much more than “friends,” though never less. Thanks to my sister Ruth, Jeannette and I began a life-long relationship.
Relationships often commence with the help of a friend or relative, and when such a relationship begins, one has no idea where it may lead. This was certainly true of my relationship with Jeannette. I got much more than I bargained for, and even got the best of the bargain! This was also true for the disciples of Jesus, the earliest of whom were brought to Him by a friend or relative.
The disciples of our Lord play a very significant role in the New Testament. Each of the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)66 has two “callings.” The first “calling”67 is preliminary, which comes very early in our Lord’s ministry and does not seem to be permanent. At this time only two sets of brothers are called: James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and Simon and Andrew. In Matthew and Mark, the calling of the four fishermen is more briefly described.
A more expanded account of the first calling is found in Luke chapter 5, which goes a long way in explaining the terse accounts of Matthew and Mark. Jesus came to the Lake of Gennesaret,68 where He began to teach the multitude gathered to hear Him. Two boats were nearby, one belonging to James and John, and the other to Peter and Andrew. Jesus got into Peter’s boat and asked him to push off from shore so that He could teach those on the shore more easily. After Jesus finished teaching, He instructed Peter to set out into deeper water and let down the net for a catch. He didn’t suggest that they try to catch fish, but spoke of it as a certainty. Peter and his partners had been up all night fishing, with no success. If there was one thing in which Peter felt he was an expert, it was fishing. He let Jesus know this was not his idea of a great plan, but he did as Jesus instructed. When they reached deep water and drew the net in, it was filled. Peter had to call to James and John for help. They brought their boat alongside, and both boats were so full of fish they began to sink. Peter suddenly realized that Jesus was far greater than he had supposed, and he fell before Him. Peter told Him to depart from him because he was a sinful man. Immediately following this, Jesus challenges these men to follow Him, because from now on they “will be catching people” (Luke 5:10). Luke then tells us that they beached their boats and left everything to follow Jesus. John does not even mention this first “calling.”
We know that it was not until the second “calling” that Jesus appointed the twelve to be His disciples. This later calling is recorded in the Synoptic Gospels,69 but it is not found in the Gospel of John. In fact, there is no “calling” of disciples in John except for the “calling” of Philip70 found in our text. There is not even a listing of the names of the twelve disciples in John’s Gospel. There are only four references to “the twelve,” three found in the same chapter (John 6:67, 70, 71), and the final one found in chapter 20, verse 24. In John, the most extensive listing of our Lord’s disciples is found in the final chapter: “After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius. Now this is how he revealed himself. Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael (who was from Cana in Galilee), the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples of his were together” (John 21:1-2).
Here, three disciples are named: Simon Peter, Thomas, and Nathanael. James and John are referred to indirectly as the “sons of Zebedee,” and two other disciples are mentioned as present but not identified. There is no mention of James by name in John’s Gospel, no mention of the inner three (Peter, James, and John). The closing verses of chapter 1 are the only description of how Jesus obtained any of His disciples. From chapter 2 on, we read of “Jesus and His disciples” (2:2), or just “His disciples.” Let us look, then, at these verses which describe how Jesus obtained some of His disciples.
Jesus and the Two Disciples of John
35 Again the next day John was standing there with two of his disciples. 36 Looking at Jesus as he walked by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When his two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned around and saw them following and said to them, “What do you want?” So they said to him, “Rabbi” (which is translated Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 Jesus said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. Now it was about four o’clock in the afternoon (John 1:35-39).
One day we find John speaking of Messiah as One who is somewhere in Israel, among His people but not yet recognized (1:26-27, 30-31), and the next day he is proclaiming Jesus as the promised Messiah (1:29-30). The identity of Jesus as the Messiah is revealed to John at the Lord’s baptism (1:31-34). Immediately, John begins to declare that Jesus is the One of whom he has been speaking. Shortly afterward, the Lord walks by John and two of his disciples. As Jesus walks away, John tells his two disciples that Jesus is the “Lamb of God” (verse 35). These disciples leave John’s side and set out after Jesus. As they begin to draw near to Jesus, He turns around, and seeing that they are following Him, asks, “What do you seek?”
Jesus does not ask them, “Whom do you seek?” but “What do you seek?” This is not an unfriendly question, intended to put them off. Rather the question seems designed to encourage them to verbalize what they want from Him and to crystallize just what they are doing. These two men may be caught off guard by the question because they respond, “Rabbi, where are You staying?” I must confess I initially was inclined to think this was a rather stupid response, the kind I have given when caught off guard and I cannot think of the right thing to say. Their answer may be more thoughtful than I first suspected. They may be politely asking Jesus to be His disciples.
Our Lord’s answer is encouraging: “Come and see” (verse 39). It is a very different answer than the one Jesus gave to another volunteer: “As they were walking along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’” (Luke 9:57-58).
If being a disciple literally means following one’s master, then one would stay with that master. Jesus telling this “would be” volunteer that there was nowhere to stay may have been a polite way for our Lord to decline the offer to become His disciple. When Jesus encourages John’s two disciples to come and see where He is staying, He seems to be inviting them to follow Him as His disciples. Thus, some students of Scripture understand that these two men, who encounter Jesus at 4:00 p.m., spend the night at His house.71
Andrew Brings Simon to Jesus
40 Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus. 41 He found first72 his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Christ). 42 Andrew brought Simon to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, the son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
We know from verse 40 that Andrew, Simon’s brother, was one of the two disciples who followed Jesus home. I assume, with many others, that the Apostle John was the other man who left John the Baptist to follow Jesus. Andrew wasted no time finding his brother Simon and telling him, “We have found the Messiah” (verse 41). The term Messiah is a transliteration of the Hebrew term, meaning “anointed.” In each case, this Hebrew term is translated CristoV (“Christos”) in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint). Priests (Exodus 28:41; 40:15; etc.), prophets (1 Kings 19:16) and kings (1 Samuel 9:16; 16:3; 2 Samuel 12:7) were anointed with oil to consecrate them for their office and duties. Among all the “anointed ones” of the Old Testament, one figure stands apart and above the rest: “You love righteousness and hate wickedness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of gladness more than Your companions” (Psalm 45:7; see also 2:2, NKJV).
In the Old Testament, this (“Christos,” “the Christ”) term became one of the names by which the promised Savior (Daniel 9:25-26) was known. Only twice is the term “Messiah” found in the New Testament, and both times it is in the Gospel of John:
He found first his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Christ) (John 1:41).
The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (the one called Christ). Whenever he comes, he will tell us everything” (John 4:25).
Most of the time the expected Messiah (to use the transliteration of the Hebrew term for “the Anointed One”) is called “the Christ.” This expression occurs 56 times in the New Testament, 17 of which are in John’s Gospel.73 John’s purpose in writing this Gospel is to convince his readers that Jesus of Nazareth is “the Christ”: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31, emphasis mine).
Now when Andrew comes to his brother Peter, he informs him that they have found “the Messiah,”
“the Christ.” Andrew is certainly right in what he says, but he is saying far more than he realizes at this point in his life. He is right in concluding that Jesus is “the Messiah.” What he and all the other disciples need to learn is what it means to be “the Messiah.” Their understanding of this is limited, and at times distorted. So it is that when Peter makes his “great confession” that Jesus is “the Christ” (Matthew 16:16), he almost immediately thereafter rebukes “the Christ” for talking about His imminent suffering and death on the cross of Calvary (Matthew 16:21-23).
Peter accompanies Andrew and they make their way to Jesus. When our Lord looks upon Peter, He gives him a new name: Cephas, the Aramaic equivalent to Petros (Peter), meaning “rock.” It is interesting that Jesus does not “call” Peter here, nor does Peter volunteer (though John may simply have chosen to omit such details). Instead, Jesus renames Simon, calling him Peter, “the Rock.” Giving a name to someone implies much in the Bible. Adam named the animals God created, reflecting the fact that God had appointed him to “rule” over His creation. God renamed a number of people, including Abram (to Abraham), Sarai (to Sarah), and Jacob (to Israel). In each case, it reflects God’s sovereignty in that He is going to change the destiny of the one whose name He has changed.74 Simon is far from a “rock” when Jesus first meets him. He begins to evidence some rock-like traits at the “great confession” (Matthew 16:15-19), but not until after the resurrection of our Lord and Pentecost does Peter truly become a “rock.” I do not believe our Lord saw “rock” tendencies or potential in Simon; I believe our Lord purposed to make a rock of Simon, and that He did. There is nothing “rockie” in this “rookie”; it is our Lord who makes a rock of this man. His naming of Simon is therefore prophetic.75
In the Synoptic Gospels, we are never told how or when Simon was given the name Peter. We are only told that his name was Peter. Throughout these Gospels, he is either called Simon, or Peter, or Simon Peter. Our text alone supplies us with the story of how Peter got his name. Once again, we see the unique contribution of the Book of John to the canon of Scripture.
The Calling of Philip
and the Confession of Nathanael
43 On the next day Jesus76 wanted to depart for Galilee. He77 found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida,78 the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”79 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replied, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Look, a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?” Jesus replied, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus said to him, “Because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 He continued, “I tell you the solemn truth: you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”80
When Jesus reaches Galilee, He first encounters Philip and calls him as a disciple.81 It is interesting that our Lord makes this invitation to Philip alone in this Gospel. In the Synoptic Gospels, there are other callings to discipleship, as we have indicated. But in the Gospel of John, only Philip is invited to “follow” Jesus, and that is here in our text. This is most interesting since Philip does not appear to be the kind of person who would be distinguished in this way by our Lord.
In the Synoptic Gospels, Philip is included once in each Gospel, and this is when the twelve men Jesus appoints as His disciples are named. Nothing else is said of him as an individual in the Synoptics. If asked what kind of person Philip was, based upon the Synoptics, we would not know. Philip’s name appears 12 times in the Gospel of John, and several incidents are depicted which tell us something about him:
4 (Now the Jewish feast of the Passover was near.) 5 Then Jesus, when he looked up and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread so that these people may eat?” 6 (Now Jesus said this to test him, for he knew what he was going to do.) 7 Philip replied, “Two hundred silver coins worth of bread would not be enough for them, for each one to get a little” (John 6:4-7).
20 Now some Greeks were among those who had gone up to worship at the feast. 21 So these approached Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and requested, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew, and they both went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:20-23).
6 Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you have known me, you will know my Father too. And from now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be content.” 9 Jesus replied, “Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you, I do not speak from my own authority, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me; but if you do not believe me, believe because of the miraculous deeds themselves” (John 14:6-11).
I find myself chuckling when I read Leon Morris’s tongue-in-cheek comment that in these texts Philip seems “a little out of his depth.”82 Philip does not appear to be the one who would have been voted “most likely to succeed” by his graduating class. He may have lacked the confidence and initiative to assert himself in following Christ without invitation. The calling of Philip may well be an illustration of a principle often demonstrated in the Bible, but spelled out most clearly by the Apostle Paul:
26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were members of the upper class. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
When all is said and done, let us remember that Philip is a man who became, at our Lord’s invitation, one of the privileged few to follow Jesus as one of the twelve. He is also a man who, regardless of his limitations, brought others to the Savior, as we are about to see for ourselves.
Next is Nathanael, who is a most interesting character. His name is found only in the Gospel of John, five times in chapter 1 and once in chapter 21. He is never mentioned in the other Gospels or anywhere else in the New Testament. There are good reasons for supposing that Nathanael is “Bartholomew” in the Synoptic Gospels.83 Nathanael comes across quite differently in John than Philip. If Philip is a man who seems “out of his depth,” Nathanael appears to be a man of great spiritual depth, greater than the others.
Philip is the one who introduces Nathanael to Jesus: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (verse 45). Philip portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of all the prophecies pertaining to Messiah, beginning with Moses and concluding with the prophets. He is, of course, absolutely right. I am reminded of these words at the end of Luke’s Gospel:
25 So he said to them, “You foolish people, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures (Luke 24:25-27).
One thing Nathanael hears bothers him a great deal. It is not that Jesus is “the son of Joseph,” but that He is “Jesus of Nazareth.” We know that, in Jesus’ time as in our own, there is prejudice about certain places. In the United States, there are still feelings between those of the North and those of the South. There are certain attitudes toward people who live in the Ozarks or in Appalachia. There is the assumption that great people come from certain areas, while those in other areas are somehow inferior. This may be subtle, but such “geographical” prejudice exists.
Galilee seems to have been “the Ozarks” of Jesus’ day, so that being called a Galilean appears to be no compliment (see Mark 14:69-70). For our Lord to be known as a Nazarene (one from Nazareth, a city of Galilee) does not seem to be a compliment either. For Nathanael, at least, coming from Nazareth is not in Jesus’ favor, so far as any claim to being Messiah is concerned. The Apostle John has included these words for a very good reason, and that is to show that Nathanael is skeptical about Jesus. From what little he knows of Him, Nathanael is not predisposed to accept Him as the Messiah. Thus, the radical change of mind we see in these few verses is further indication of the compelling weight of the evidence that causes Nathanael to confess Jesus as Messiah. John obviously saves the best for last in that Nathanael’s confession is the most thorough and complete: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!” (verse 49). Let us now consider just what it is that so quickly and thoroughly changes Nathanael’s mind.
To set the scene, we must go all the way back to the Old Testament Book of Genesis and read the following incident in the life of Jacob, whom God renamed “Israel”:
10 Now Jacob went out from Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep. 12 Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And behold, the LORD stood above it and said: “I am the LORD God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. 14 Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” (Genesis 28:10-17, NKJV)
Jacob was a schemer and a deceiver. He managed to take advantage of his older brother and his father, depriving Esau of his birthright (Genesis 25) and Isaac and Esau of a blessing (Genesis 27). He fled from Canaan, and especially from Esau on the (partially true) pretext that he was seeking a wife among his relatives in Paddan-aram. On his way to Paddan-aram, Jacob spent the night under the stars. During the night, he had a dream in which he saw a ladder extending from the earth into heaven. On this ladder, angels were ascending and descending. God then spoke to Jacob, reiterating the covenant He had made with Jacob’s forefathers, Abraham and Isaac. God promised to make a great nation of Jacob and also to bring him safely back to this land which he was leaving.
In the morning when Jacob awoke, he vividly recalled the dream he had during the night. His response is most interesting in terms of what elements of the dream he perceived to be important and impressive. Jacob’s mind fixed upon the place where this dream was given (Genesis 28:16-17). He was awe struck that God was in that place, and yet he did not know it (until after his dream). He fixed upon that place as the place of God’s presence and dwelling, as the place where heaven and earth, God and man meet. In Jacob’s words, it was the gateway to heaven.
This dream had a very direct bearing on Jacob because it was a reiteration of the Abrahamic Covenant, only this time it was Jacob through whom these blessings would be bestowed. Perhaps of more importance to Jacob (at that point in time), it provided a very real incentive for Jacob to return to Israel. How easy it would have been for Jacob to flee to Paddan-aram and never return to the promised land. Jacob now realized not only that God had promised to bless him, but that ultimately He would bless him in this place. The land of Israel was, in some sense, the gateway to heaven, a special place where God and men could meet, where heaven and earth met as well. He may leave this holy place for a time, but he must return. So it was that Jacob vowed that if God protected and prospered him, he would return, and he would give God a tithe.
What does all of this have to do with our text in John, and with Nathanael trusting in Jesus as the promised Messiah? It has a great deal to do with it! I base this upon the words our Lord speaks to Nathanael in verses 47-51, especially in verse 51: “I tell you the solemn truth: you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” These words can be nothing other than an allusion to the story we have just read in Genesis 28. Let me suggest how things may have happened. Although they may very well not have happened exactly this way, they may have happened in a similar fashion.
We do know for certain that when (or just before) Philip found Nathanael, he was “under the fig tree” (verse 48). Some suppose this was the place where Nathanael, like other Israelites, went to meditate and pray:
The fig tree was almost a symbol of home (cf. Isa. 36:16; Mic. 4:4; Zech. 3:10). Its shade was certainly at a later time used as a place for prayer and meditation and study, and there is no reason for thinking that the practice does not go back as far as this. It seems probable that Nathanael had had some outstanding experience of communion with God in the privacy of his own home, and that it is this to which Jesus refers. Whatever it was, Nathanael was able to recognize the allusion.84
I am inclined to think that Nathanael had been reading and meditating about Jacob, and this text in Genesis in particular, under the fig tree (not unlike the way the Ethiopian eunuch had been reading in Isaiah, just before Philip drew near to him—Acts 8:26-40). Jacob was a man in whom there was much deceit. Most of his life he schemed and manipulated to get ahead at the expense of others. Jacob was also the first “Israelite,” in that God would soon rename him “Israel” (Genesis 32:28). He was the first “Israelite, in whom there was much guile.”
After Philip finds Nathanael and tells him they have found the Messiah, the One who was promised in the Law of Moses and the Prophets, Nathanael makes his way to see this Jesus. As Nathanael approaches, Jesus speaks of him to others, so that he overhears these words: “Look, a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” These words stop Nathanael in his tracks. He has not yet met Jesus, nor even talked with him, and yet Jesus describes his heart and his character accurately. If Jesus had said this of me, I would respond “Who? Me?” But Nathanael accepts our Lord’s words as the truth, and so he responds, “How do You know me?” In other words, “How do you know that I am an Israelite without deceit?”
A couple of things should be said at this point. First, Jesus does not say, “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no sin.” Nathanael is a sinner, like every other man (except our Lord). Second, if our Lord’s words are both true and complimentary with regard to Nathanael, they may not have been complimentary toward the Jews in general. Some races do have certain sinful tendencies (see Titus 1:12-13), and Jesus hints that deceit may be something found too often in Israelites. Third, our Lord’s words somehow accurately appraise the character of Nathanael, as though our Lord could look into his soul and evaluate him without even knowing him personally. This is what seems to impress Nathanael.
There is a fourth factor to be considered here as well. Our Lord’s words not only accurately appraise the character of Nathanael, they also seem to address the very things that Nathanael had been meditating upon under the fig tree, before he even met Jesus. Jesus “saw” Nathanael coming (verse 47), but before this, he “saw” Nathanael under the fig tree when he thought no one could (verse 48). To top it all off, Jesus addresses Nathanael in terms of the very text and subject he has been meditating upon. Was Jacob, the first Israelite, a schemer, a man full of deceit? Nathanael is a true Israelite, without deceit. He is a man who acts in a straightforward manner, without underhanded tactics.
I think John is saying even more here. Nathanael’s first impression of Jesus is wrong. He doubts that anything good can come from Nazareth. Nathanael has questioned Philip’s recommendation of Jesus, solely on the basis of his place of origin. Is it not interesting to note that the “place” was the thing that most impressed Jacob in the dream he had of the ladder? Jacob realized that this “place” was holy, that this was where God met men; it was the gateway to heaven. This, of course, was true, though it was not necessarily all of what God was trying to convey to Jacob.
All it takes to make Nathanael a believer in Jesus is for our Lord to look into his soul, to assess his true character, to tell him He saw him where he knew he had not been seen, and to reveal to him the very subject and text he has been meditating upon. Nathanael enthusiastically responds, “You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” As if this were not enough, Jesus goes on. Is Nathanael impressed by this? This is only the tip of the iceberg, the firstfruits of greater things to come. Nathanael will see much greater things than these.
Jesus introduces His next, climactic statement to Nathanael with the words, “I tell you the solemn truth …” (literally, “truly, truly,” verse 51). These are words of great importance, which need to be heard with care and attention. The term “verily” or “truly” is literally the Greek word that is a transliteration of the Hebrew “amen.” What is fascinating here is that Jesus is going to take this term and give it a unique and specialized meaning. He is going to modify its meaning. Morris says it best:
“Verily” is not a translation of a Greek word, but the transliteration of an Aramaic (or Hebrew) word, namely Amen. It is the participle of a verb meaning ‘to confirm,’ and it was used to give one’s assent. For example, it was (and still is) the response of the congregation to a prayer uttered by him who leads their worship. In this way they make it their own (1 Cor. 14:16). Very occasionally it is the conclusion to one’s own prayer (e.g. Tobit 8:7f.), when it has the nature of a wish. But this use is rare. Characteristically it is one’s assent to words uttered by another. In the Gospels it is used only by Jesus, and always as a prefix to significant statements. Presumably this is to mark them out as solemn and true and important. This use of Amen to introduce one’s own words appears to be Jesus’ own, no real Jewish parallel being adduced.85
Does Nathanael, somewhat like Jacob, have an attachment to a particular place? Does Nathanael think God will only meet with men at a certain place? There is a certain element of truth in this, especially in Israel’s past. But from now on, the issue is not the place, but the person.86 Does Jacob fix his attention on the land upon which the ladder into heaven was placed? That is fine. But Jesus wants Nathanael to know that in time he will see that He is Himself the ladder. It is by means of Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah, that there is access to heaven from earth. It is through Jesus Christ, God’s only Mediator, that men may enter into a relationship with God and find their way to heaven. It is as though our Lord is saying, “Don’t look at the ground, on which the ladder is placed; look at the ladder. I am that ladder. I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father, but by Me.”
Our text teaches us much about the subject of discipleship. When our Lord came to the earth, He came in human flesh. He came to live among men, and in particular to associate Himself closely with a few men. The Marines would like us to say, “He associated Himself with ‘A few good men.’” This is not really the case; although there were a few men, they were not all what we would call good men. They were not all top caliber men, the kind of men who would succeed at anything to which they set their hand. The first four men Jesus calls in the Synoptics are fishermen, and the Apostle John is one of those men. Simon is destined to become “the rock,” but this is not due to any qualities that lie dormant and untapped within him, which association with our Lord quickens and develops. While Peter becomes a “rock,” it is largely in spite of what is in him. It is the result of what God does in and through him.
Philip does not seem to be such a great “catch,” either, from what we see of him in the Book of John. Maybe he was “out of his depth.” Do you not feel out of your depth when you attempt to witness, when you attempt to carry out the commands of Christ, when you endeavor to love your enemy? Our Lord chose the “weak things” of this world to be His disciples, so that it would be very clear that He is the source of their later success (see Acts 4:13; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31). But there is another sense in which He simply chose men sovereignly, in spite of their weaknesses and flaws, in order to bestow His love and mercy upon them.
This text and others that speak of the “calling” of the twelve should challenge our belief that Jesus chose these men to be His disciples because of what they could and would do for His kingdom. I hear this said all too often: “If so and so were to be saved, just think of what he (or she) could do for the cause of Christ?” Among the twelve Jesus chose, three of these men were Peter, James, and John. These men were all included in the “inner circle” of three of our Lord’s disciples. James and John were brothers. They had the same background, the same experiences in following our Lord. And yet James was the first to die, and John was the last. Did Jesus choose James to be one of the twelve and one of the three because of the contribution he would make? It does not seem so.87 Jesus may have chosen James to be one of the inner three solely to grant him the privilege of intimate fellowship with Himself. If Jesus chose the twelve because of what they would do for the kingdom, why is it that we see so little of most of the twelve in the Book of Acts? Why do men like Stephen and Philip (and others not even named; cf. Acts 11:20-21) play such a prominent role in the expansion of the church? God’s choice of the twelve was His sovereign choice, as He has always chosen those to enter into fellowship with Himself. There is no room for boasting here.
I would have predicted that Nathanael would be the one Jesus chose to become “the rock,” instead of Peter. Nathanael seems to be the “most spiritual” of those who followed Jesus in this chapter of John, and yet in the rest of the New Testament we never hear of any significant ministry or contribution from him (or from Bartholomew, who may be the same man). I think we may be forced to rethink some of our pre-conceived ideas about the twelve disciples of our Lord, and perhaps even the inner three (Peter, James, John). From my experience in church leadership, there has always been the popular misconception that leadership is dealt out on the basis of spirituality—the higher one gets in Christian leadership, the more spiritual he must be.88
If one reads through the Gospels, it seems fairly clear that a number of the women associated with Jesus had much greater spiritual insight into our Lord and His ministry than did the men who followed Him. There are certain spiritual qualifications for elders which should be met by any elder, but I would not wish to say that the elders are (as proven by the fact that they are elders) the most spiritual people in the church. To broaden this discussion to an important area in the church today, one of the errors prevalent in the early church (specifically in the church at Corinth) was the misconception that certain spiritual gifts were proof of greater spirituality on the part of those who possessed them. I do not believe it can be shown that the disciples were chosen because they were more spiritual than others.
Instead of thinking of the qualities these disciples possessed, perhaps we should think of their deficiencies. Maybe a factor in their calling was simply mercy. Have you ever watched a litter of pups when you were trying to choose one of them to be your own? Do you recall seeing the “runt” of the litter, smaller, perhaps bullied by the others, timid, maybe even cowering? Did you desire to grab that little pup and bestow special love and affection on it, because of all it lacked? I think there is an element of this in our Lord’s choice of men, not only to be His disciples, but of those whom He chooses to save.
When our Lord chose to draw these men to Himself, there were no surprises. He knew precisely who He was choosing. If I were Simon Peter, I would have been greatly relieved that Jesus chose to disclose the innermost character of Nathanael, rather than mine. He would not have said of me, “Behold, a man in whom there is no guile.” I don’t think I would want to hear what He would say about what was in me. I am certain that I would not want you to hear what He said about my character and qualities. But then, I don’t think you would want me to hear what He had to say about you, either.
Over the years, I have watched many young couples “fall in love” and marry. Some fail to see their “beloved” as they really are. There are also those who seem to know their beloved well. And for some, when they marry all goes well—at least for a while. I don’t know how many times I have witnessed a radical change in the character of one or both marriage partners, so that they appear to have become an entirely different person. Sometimes this is the result of some stress or tragedy, sometimes not. All of a sudden, the one marriage partner begins to feel as though they are married to a stranger, a person they did not know when they first met and decided to marry. It is tragic, and it happens more than we would like to admit.
Jesus is never surprised about those whom He chooses to save and to follow Him. He knew what He was getting in Simon (Peter), because He knew what Simon was, and because He knew what He was going to accomplish in and through Simon. He knew what was in Philip and Nathanael, James and John. He knows what is in us when He saves us. He also knows what He will do in and through us, by His grace and power. God is never surprised, because He knows all. He knows our character and our weaknesses and strengths. Most of all, He knows what He has purposed to achieve in us, and He will achieve it: “For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
How easily we could convince ourselves that the addition of these disciples as Jesus’ followers in our text has little or nothing to do with us. After all, these were the disciples. Eleven of them were to become the apostles of our Lord, the foundation of the church. So they were. But first and foremost, they were chosen to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, then to follow Him and be with Him. Eventually, some of them would do great things for Him. But most of all, they were to simply follow Him.
It is no different for men today. Jesus calls us first to believe in Him as the Son of God, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. But He also calls us to follow Him, to be with Him, to have fellowship and communion with Him. John seems to have most enjoyed this fellowship with our Lord. He seems to be the one “leaning on Jesus breast” at the Last Supper. He seems to be the one who sticks close, even when our Lord is arrested and put on trial, and hung from the cross. This is what our Lord invites each of us to do, to draw near in intimate fellowship with Him. What a privilege is ours to be His disciples! To be His disciple, you must first believe in Him as the Messiah, God’s only means of saving lost sinners. He is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He is the One who died in the sinner’s place on the cross of Calvary, and the One who was raised from the dead. He bore the penalty for our sins, and He provides the righteousness we lack, which God requires for anyone to enter into His heaven. We must believe in Him to become His sons and to enter into His kingdom. It is not only our privilege to trust in Him, but our privilege to follow Him as His disciples, walking daily with Him in intimate fellowship. I pray that you have believed in Him, and that you are now His disciple, walking in fellowship with Him.
66 The “Synoptic Gospels” tend to view the life of Christ from the same perspective. John, on the other hand, takes a very different approach. This we have pointed out in greater detail in the introduction to this series.
71 I see no contradiction between our text in John 1:39 and that found in Luke 9:57-58. Early on in His ministry Jesus did have a place to stay (see John 2:12), but as His ministry grew and became more mobile, He had no permanent place of residence. Incidentally, this also made it more difficult for the enemies of our Lord to arrest or kill Him “before His time,” since they would not know where to find Him from one day to the next. Telling this “would be” disciple of Luke 9 that He had no place to call home was not only true, it was all it took to put this fellow off.
72 Because of a variation of the word rendered “first” here in the Greek manuscripts, there is some discussion as to which word was used and how it should be translated. I refer you to the commentaries to pursue this if you think it worthwhile. Frankly, it does not change the sense of the text much in terms of its meaning.
74 “The giving of a new name when done by men is an assertion of the authority of the giver (e.g. II Kings 23:34; 24:17). When done by God it speaks of a new character in which the man henceforth appears (e.g. Gen. 32:28).” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p.160.
75 This was the case in other instances of renaming in the Bible as well. God did not rename an individual after the changes took place, but before they came about. Abram (meaning “exalted father”) was renamed Abraham (“father of a multitude”) before Isaac was born (Genesis 17:5).
76 Literally “he.” Jesus is supplied for clarity by the NET Bible (see translator’s note). There is some question as to whether this “he” actually refers to Jesus. D. A. Carson (The Gospel According to John, pp. 157-158) argues that the “he” (“Jesus” in the NET Bible) refers not to Jesus, but to Andrew. If his view is accepted, it would be Andrew who is now seeking Nathanael.
78 There is some scholarly discussion as to whether or not there were two Bethsaida’s. I do not think this is a matter worth pursuing in this lesson, though the commentaries do discuss the matter in greater detail. The translator’s note in the NET Bible suggests that the Greek preposition rendered “from” here should be understood to mean “originally from.”
79 I like Carson’s comment here, when he writes, “Philip provides exactly the kind of information that positively identifies a man in the first-century Palestine: the name of his village, and the name of his (reputed) father.” Carson, p. 159. Some are troubled that Philip would speak of Joseph as the father of Jesus. Two major options are possible. First, Philip may have actually assumed that Joseph was the biological father of our Lord. In such case, he would be wrong, not because he denied the virgin birth of our Lord, but because he had not yet even considered it. He, like all of his fellow-apostles, had many misconceptions about Jesus in the beginning. Second, it may be that he is merely identifying Jesus in the normal way of doing so. He would thus be referring to Joseph as Jesus’ father in terms of common perception. This would set Jesus apart from others by the same name, but not with the same (reputed) father.
80 This is probably not the time or place to go into the subject of angels, but let me simply suggest a thought for further consideration. These are days in which “angels” are a very popular topic. We should consider the fact that angels are not only inferior to our Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1), but that their ministry is closely related to and subordinate to our Lord. They ascend and descend upon Jesus. When we begin to think of angels independently of our Lord, we begin to go astray from the picture our Lord has drawn here and what the Bible teaches elsewhere.
81 Carson (p. 154) points out that “follow” usually refers to more than just “trailing along after” someone; it is our Lord’s way of speaking of being His disciple. This is not always the case, but it is usually so. Here, there may be a little of both senses implied. Jesus invites Philip to “come along” and to “join with Him as a disciple.”
83 “Others … suggest that Nathanael is to be identified with Bartholomew, an apostle who is never mentioned in John, just as Nathanael is never mentioned in the Synoptists. Bartholomew is coupled with Philip in all three Synoptists (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14), while another link is that he is mentioned immediately after Thomas in Acts 1:13 and Nathanael is in the same position in John 21:2. Moreover Bartholomew is not really a personal name, but a patronymic meaning ‘son of Tolmai’ (cf. Barjona = ‘son of Jona’). The man who bore it almost certainly had another name. The other disciples mentioned in this chapter all became apostles, and it is suggested that Nathanael is, accordingly, likely to have done so too. If he is to be identified with one of the apostles Bartholomew is probably our man.” Morris, p. 164. I should point out that Morris is not entirely persuaded that this is the case. Carson seems more convinced: “The most likely suggestion is that Nathanael is the personal name of ‘Bartholomew,’ which is then understood to be an Aramaic patronymic (i.e. identifying the person as the son of someone: ‘the son of Tholomaeus’ or the like).” Carson, p. 159.
88 The Pharisees had this same error with regard to wealth. They seemed to think that the richer one was, the more spiritual he must be. Conversely, the poorer one was, the more unspiritual. Jesus’ words about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 challenged this mindset. See also the Beatitudes, where those who are blessed seem to be those who are “cursed.” Psalm 73 also deals with this same issue.
Related Topics: Discipleship