Commentary: John 1:43-51
The most memorable verses of John 1 occur in the so-called prologue to the gospel, vv. 1-18. As with Genesis 1, these initial verses convey an important theological message about the power of speech and divine word. Hence, it is interesting that, as one moves beyond the prologue, there is yet another resonance between John and Genesis, namely, the repetition of day after day, vv. 29, 35, 43. Clearly, the first chapter of John echoes Genesis chapter one in numerous ways.As one approaches the lesson, it is also helpful to be aware that the behavior of Jesus in these verses is of a piece with that described earlier in the chapter. He is an individual on the move, so vv. 29, 36, and he is an individual who is attracting a following, so v. 35; there are already two disciples. Their physical movement testifies to his importance for them (v. 15). Moreover, their testifying involved talking to other people, e.g., Andrew to Simon Peter. John is clearly identifying certain hallmarks of what it is to be a disciple of this Jesus.
A Journey Involving Disciples
Though we are told where Jesus is going, it is not clear from whence the journey begins (v. 44). Moreover, we do not know at what place Philip was called (though his hometown, Bethsaida, links both him and this episode to the foregoing one since that city is also identified as the hometown of the brothers Andrew and Peter). But this moving Messiah does, at least for Philip, make a direct call for physical movement, which constitutes one mode of discipleship.
The repetition of the verb "found" (in vv. 43 and 45) is surely intended to emphasize the chain reaction character of the response to Jesus. Jesus can find person x, and person x can in turn find person y. Yet, the chain reaction depends upon the response of the individual who is being found.
Philip (someone with a Greek name) "finds" Nathanael (someone with a Semitic name) with a speech. The connotations of the name suggest that the communication borders on a cross-cultural one. In this speech, Philip identifies Jesus as someone about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. What they wrote in specific is not as important as is the general connection between this Jesus and the Hebrew scriptures. Nathanael responds with a proverb-like utterance, though set in the form of a question. In so doing, he expresses doubts about the possibility of Philip's claim. He does not debate Philip's exegetical judgment. Rather, he comments that it would be unlikely that anyone so significant could come from such a small, undistinguished hometown.
Jesus and Nathanael
Philip responds by inviting Nathanael to "come and see" (v. 46). He deems, apparently correctly, that further dialogue would be fruitless and that Nathanael would have to see for himself. To his credit, Nathanael goes. And that Jesus "saw" Nathanael approaching foreshadows the "seeing" that Nathanael is about to experience. Jesus exercises the role of seer here, not by foretelling the future, but by offering insightful words about this individual. As Nathanael's name had indicated, he was an Israelite. Before he speaks, Jesus assesses him as "without deceit," high praise indeed.
Nathanael offers yet another question, which neither affirms nor denies Jesus' judgment (v. 48). Rather, Nathanael cannot imagine how it is that Jesus has perceived anything about his character. Jesus' response picks up the key word "see." He had not only seen Nathanael; he had perceived something about his core personhood. Then Nathanael speaks for the first time without using a question. He affirms Jesus' special status, and moves beyond the generalities of Philip's earlier speech to him. He identifies Jesus as "Rabbi," "Son of God," and "King of Israel." Though the last of these labels seems impersonal, since Jesus has just identified Nathanael as an Israelite, Nathanael's use of that term means that he deems Jesus to be his king. Jesus and Nathanael belong to the same realm.
Jesus then turns the rhetorical tables on Nathanael by asking him a question (v. 50). But Nathanael is not given a chance to answer. Instead, Jesus continues and concludes this brief account by picking up, yet again, the verb "see." Now that Nathanael has seen Jesus, and perceived his true significance, Jesus avers that Nathanael will see even more. He will have a visionary experience like that of an ancient Israelite, namely, Jacob's vision recounted in Gen 28:12-15 (cf. Dan 7:13). Just as Jacob encountered the heavenly beings and the deity, so too Nathanael will encounter angels and the son of Man. It is interesting that Jesus speaks of the son of man and not the son of God, as Nathanael had just done. I suspect that one purpose of this narrative is to suggest that, profound and without deceit as Nathanael was, he still did not perceive fully the significance of this Jesus. For that to happen, he had to await this culminating vision.
It may seem strange to envision the angels treading upon the Son of Man (v. 51). But if one compares this verse to Gen 28:12, it seems that the Son of Man has replaced the ladder as a means by which the world of the divine becomes available to humans.
Nathanael never appears again in the pages of scripture (though cf. John 21:2). Nor does the gospel of John report any such majestic vision (the transfiguration is absent from this gospel). Hence, one does well to think that the writer intends us to focus on the preliminary seeing that had gone on earlier—Jesus' initial seeing of Nathanael and Nathanael's immediate response to Jesus, which provide an initial movement toward discipleship. The narrative turns back in upon itself, posing the question, who will be a disciple of this Jesus and in what ways?
David L. Peterson