Where heaven meets earth (part 1)

So who was this guy Nathanael, anyway? The one whom Philip brought to Jesus? There’s a nice little story about him at the beginning of John’s gospel, but then he’s not mentioned again until the very end of the book. And his name doesn’t appear at all in the other three gospels. Why?

Nobody knows for certain. But there are a couple of plausible suggestions. First, nothing in the story requires that he be one of the Twelve. If he was merely one of Jesus’ larger circle of disciples, that would explain why his name doesn’t show up in lists of Jesus’ closest associates.

Second, if he was one of the Twelve, he may have been the one called Bartholomew, whose name appears next to Philip’s in such lists (Matt 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14). “Bartholomew” probably wasn’t his first name; it means “Son of Talmai.” Jesus, for example, once called Peter “Simon Bar-jonah” (Matt 16:17), or “Simon, son of Jonah.” It’s possible, then, that Nathanael was known to some as “Bar-Talmai” or Bartholomew. (A names that identifies a child by his or her father is called a patronymic — and they’re what makes it so hard to keep track of the names of characters in Russian novels!)

When Philip invited Nathanael to meet “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45, NRSV), Nathanael quipped, “Nazareth? Can anything good come out of that podunk little town?” Nathanael himself was from Cana (John 21:2), another small village, so his remark may have been meant as nothing more than a humorous little barb.

After all, he didn’t act like someone who just enjoyed being difficult. When Jesus showed prophetic knowledge of his identity and character, Nathanael was suitably impressed. Piling up title upon title, he blurted out, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49, NRSV).

He probably meant something similar to what Andrew and Philip had already declared: this man Jesus was the Messiah, the King anointed by God to rescue and restore Israel. But Jesus had just called Nathanael a true-hearted Israelite, one “in whom there is no deceit” (vs. 47), and Nathanael didn’t object. That makes Nathanael’s words a profession of allegiance: Jesus wasn’t just a king, he was his king.

You have to love a guy like that, who can make a snarky joke at the expense of Nazareth and then pledge his loyalty to Jesus.

In response to Nathanael’s heartfelt declaration, Jesus said, “You’re impressed because I said that I saw you before we even met? Well, get ready, friend, because you’re going to see a whole lot more than that.”

Such as…? Jesus then said something that may sound rather cryptic to our ears: “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51, NRSV).

It’s a strange picture. Nathanael, however, being a true Israelite, probably understood the reference: the story of Jacob’s Ladder from Genesis 28:10-17.

But what did Jesus mean by applying it to himself?

More in part 2 of this post.