by Doug Ward
When we read John 1:35-51, we sense the excitement of Andrew and Philip as they tell Peter and Nathanael, respectively, that they have met the promised Messiah. "We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph," Philip announces to Nathanael (v. 45).
Nathanael is initially skeptical of Philip's claim and expresses his doubts openly. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" he wonders (v. 46). Still, he is willing to "come and see" for himself. His decision to do so leads to a memorable encounter with the Master, a conversation culminating in a wonderful promise.
Although Nathanael has not met Jesus previously, Jesus seems to know him already. Praising Nathanael's forthrightness, Jesus greets him by saying, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!" (v. 47)
Students of the Torah will recognize in these words a reference to the patriarch Jacob. In his youth, Jacob practiced deceit in obtaining the birthright and blessing that his father Isaac intended for his brother Esau (Gen 25-27). Later, after some hard lessons and a life-changing confrontation with an angel, a more mature Jacob became known as Israel, one who "prevails with God" (Gen 32:28; 35:10). Jesus says that Nathanael is an honest "Israel" rather than a deceitful "Jacob."
There could be an additional biblical allusion in Jesus' greeting. The prophet Zephaniah foresaw the coming of a righteous remnant of Israel that "shall do no injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue." This remnant is associated with the peaceful messianic age, when "none shall make them afraid" (Zeph 3:13). Jesus may be saying that Nathanael is an upright Israelite of the type described by Zephaniah.
Nathanael is surprised by Jesus' words and asks, "How do you know me?" Jesus replies, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you" (v. 48).
Jesus' mention of a fig tree strengthens the case that a reference to Zeph 3:13 is intended in John 1:47. Fig trees are also associated with the messianic kingdom, where "they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:4). The clause "no one shall make them afraid" is shared by Micah 4:4 and Zeph 3:13, linking the two verses together. So in John 1:47-48, Jesus may be implying that he is initiating the messianic kingdom, and that he will build the righteous remnant of Zech 3 with disciples like Nathanael.1
The supernatural knowledge displayed by Jesus convinces Nathanael that Jesus is the Messiah. He declares, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" (v. 49) Jesus then assures Nathanael that he will soon see even greater things. He adds, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (v. 51).
John 1:51 is the first teaching of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John. It is also the first of twenty-five sayings introduced by the words "Truly, truly" (or "Amen, amen"), and the first time in the Fourth Gospel that Jesus refers to himself as "the Son of Man." In this saying Jesus alludes again to the life of Jacob, specifically to Jacob's dream in which a ladder or staircase stretches from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it (Gen 28:12). Jacob receives a revelation from God in his dream, an affirmation of the promises God had made previously to Abraham and Isaac (Gen 28:13-15).
In John 1:51 Jesus states, "You will see heaven opened." The opening of heaven introduces divine revelation (Mark 1:10-11; Acts 7:56; 10:11). Since "you" is plural here, Jesus makes this promise of coming revelation not only to Nathanael, but to other disciples as well. And if the deceptive Jacob received a message from God, how much more might be in store for disciples "in whom there is no deceit"? Will they, like the more mature Israel, "see God face to face"? (Gen 32:30)
Jacob's dream features a ladder connecting earth and heaven. John 1:51 suggests that the Son of Man will play the role of the ladder for his new remnant of Israel.2 Another Son of Man saying in John 3:13 makes a similar statement, identifying the Son of Man as one who has descended from heaven (and so brings heavenly secrets) and is the only one who ascends to heaven (and so has exclusive access to such secrets), Through the Son of Man, heavenly truths will be revealed to his disciples, truths available from no other source.
As we continue reading the Gospel of John, we learn more about these heavenly truths. When Jesus turned water to wine at a wedding in Nathaniel's hometown of Cana (see John 21:2), he "manifested his glory" (John 2:11) and increased the faith and understanding of his disciples (v. 12). In further Son of Man sayings, Jesus reveals that he will be "lifted up" on the cross (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:34). By humbling himself in death, he is glorified (12:23; 13:31). Then after his resurrection, he ascends "to where he was before" (6:62). Elsewhere in the New Testament we read that the Son of Man is at the right hand of God (Mark 14:62). In heaven angels "ascend" toward the divine throne and "descend" from it as they carry out God's will. (This is one way in which the angels are "ascending and descending on the Son of Man.")
Nathanael begins with a rudimentary idea of who the Messiah is (John 1:49). As he walks with the Master, he comes to a deeper knowledge. Eventually he and other disciples meet the risen Christ (John 21). Later the Holy Spirit leads them to a full understanding of what they have experienced (John 2:17; 2:22; 12:16). Overall, we can think of the entire Fourth Gospel as the fulfillment of Jesus' promise in John 1:51.
As mentioned above, Jesus made the promise of John 1:51 not just to Nathanael, but to his disciples in general. Heavenly truths are available to all those who, like Nathanael, are willing to "come and see." To begin exploring those truths, simply reach for the nearest copy of the Gospel of John.
1The connection of Zech 3:13 and Micah 4:4 with John 1:47-48 has been suggested by Dr. Richard Bauckham in chapter 7 of his book Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology, Baker Academic, 2015. Bauckham believes this is an example of gezerah shevah, an ancient technique of Jewish biblical interpretation that links passages sharing words in common.
2Bauckham (Gospel of Glory, Chapter 7) notes a numerological link between Jacob's ladder and the Son of Man. In the system of gematria, where numbers are associated with letters, the Hebrew phrase for "a ladder set up on earth" in Gen 28:12 has a numerical value of 558, identical to the value of the Aramaic phrase for "Son of Man."
translated from TEX by TTH,
On 24 Oct 2015, 23:48.