Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1–10, 1 Corinthians 6:12–20 & John 1:43–51
This week’s gospel passage, from the Gospel of John, is about the call to discipleship, and revelation.
The passage begins with Jesus deciding to go to Galilee. Prior to this, Jesus had been in Jerusalem, where he had been identified by John the Baptist as the “Lamb of God”, and where Andrew became his disciple after spending time with him where Jesus was staying. In turn, Andrew had told his brother Peter about Jesus, and Peter also became a disciple of Jesus. Next, having arrived in Galilee, Jesus called Philip to become his disciple as well.
John tells us that Philip was from Bethsaida, the same town that Andrew and Peter were from. He also tells us that Philip calls Nathanael to become a disciple of Jesus, but when Philip talks to Nathanael, about Jesus being the person of whom the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures refer to as the Messiah, it is clear that Philip himself doesn’t as yet truly understand who Jesus is. For he describes him simply as “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth”.
Nathanael is not convinced, partly because of where Jesus comes from. Nazareth was what we might describe as a bit of a “backwater” town, a small town not associated with any significant event in the history of Israel. Clearly Nathanael is thinking that the Messiah, who was prophesied about in the Scriptures, would come from a more celebrated background than this Jesus of Nazareth.
It’s at this point that Jesus reveals something about who he is, because when he sees Nathanael coming toward him he says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”. I’m going to come back to this quote again, but for now let’s keep going with the passage as it continues to unfold.
Surprised, Nathanael wants to know how it is that Jesus knows him. Jesus tells Nathanael that he had seen him sitting under a fig tree before Philip called him, even though Jesus himself was obviously not present at the time. On hearing Jesus say this, Nathanael is convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, as he refers to Jesus as both Son of God and King of Israel.
The passage concludes with a foretelling from Jesus concerning the revelation of God that is to come through him. “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”. If these words sound familiar to you, it wouldn’t be surprising, because they are very similar to the words used in Genesis 28:12 to describe the dream that Jacob has, which is often referred to as “Jacob’s Ladder”, when God reaffirms to Jacob the promise He had previously made to Abraham and Isaac, Jacob’s grandfather and father respectively, to give the land of Canaan to him and his descendants.
This is now the perfect time to return to the pronouncement that Jesus made about Nathanael, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”. Jesus was comparing Nathanael with Jacob. You might remember the story of Jacob wrestling with God, after which, God renamed Jacob Israel. Following this story, Jacob is often referred to in the Book of Genesis as Israel.
Now Jacob had some history when it came to being deceitful. He had intentionally deceived his brother Esau into handing over his birthright as the firstborn son of Isaac, and he had also deceived his father into giving him his dying blessing, when he disguised himself as Esau.
Despite his character flaws, God chose Jacob to continue the covenant He had made with Jacob’s ancestors, and now by revealing Himself to humankind through Jesus, God was making a new covenant, this time not just with the people of Israel but with all of humankind. And Nathanael was chosen by God as being worthy to recognise (in Jesus) all that had been prophesied in Scripture.
There is something of a parallel between this and our first reading from 1 Samuel. That passage describes God’s calling of Samuel to be a prophet. What is missing from this story though, and which we would get if we read the eight verses that follow immediately on from today’s passage, is that God has decided to supplant the priestly house of Eli with Samuel and his descendants. Eli’s sons had blasphemed against God, and despite knowing this, Eli had chosen to do nothing about it, so God decided to punish the house of Eli. In a way, Eli’s house stands as a metaphor for the kingdom of Judah and the city of Jerusalem, both of which will eventually be destroyed by the Babylonians.
In the same way that God called individuals such as Samuel to prophesy and bear witness to Him, Jesus also called individuals such as Nathanael and others to testify in his name. And as God revealed Himself to Jacob, God also revealed Himself to all of humankind in and through Jesus.
As disciples of Jesus, we as Christians are called to testify in his name, and to bear witness to God in the world today.