Epiphany 2: 17 January John 1:43-51
John’s account of the call of the disciples is simple and different from that of the first three gospels – enough to worry people who cannot contemplate differences within their Bible. It is even possible that John freely rewrote what he remembered from them. We can certainly recognise common traditions, such as Peter’s naming, back in 1:42. The other gospels tell us next to nothing about Philip and Nathanael. Nathanael is a very Jewish name; Philip, like Andrew, reflects the long standing influence of Hellenistic fashions in Palestine. We may assume they are Jews; Bethsaida is just over the border from Capernaum in Philip the tetrarch’s territory which included many Gentile cities. Perhaps this is why he is later the go-between when ‘Greeks’ want to see Jesus (12:20-21).
The major focus of the passage falls however on Nathanael. He not only has the Jewish name; he is an image of true Israel. John the Baptist had explained that his ministry was designed to help reveal Jesus to Israel (1:31). Nathanael is now representing Israel. Israel was the name given to Jacob. We find two references to Jacob in the passage: Nathanael has no guile – so he certainly beats Jacob on that score! And Nathanael is to have a vision reminiscent of Jacob’s at Bethel in Gen 28.
He is also something of a snob in relation to Nazareth. Did he know something we do not? Like, that Nazareth housed bandits? Snobbery about Galilee was not uncommon, but this is more specific. Welcome to the ranks of the prejudiced, Nathanael! But at least he was willing to change his mind.
A mini-miracle persuades him. Jesus saw him sitting under the fig tree before Philip called him. Here, too, symbolic overtones abound. The posture recalls the image of the ideal Israelite in utopia, probably sitting studying the Law. Nathanael’s question: ‘Whence do you know me?’ belongs to a regular pattern of questions in John which play on where Jesus is coming from, because that is really the secret of his ministry.
As a model of Israel Nathanael makes the model response: ‘You are the son of God, you are the king of Israel’ (1:49). Notice the association of the two royal messianic terms: ‘son of God and king of Israel.’ ‘King of the Jews’ will be written as mockery over his slumped body on the cross. Like much of John’s narrative and especially the responses to Jesus, Nathanael’s acclamation, too, bristles with ambiguity. Jesus will refuse such acclamation in 6:14-15 after the feeding of the 5000. Soon, too, Nicodemus will acclaim that Jesus must be a teacher come from God because no one can do these miracles which he is doing unless God is with him (3:2). But, for all that, Nicodemus does not really see and must be born anew (3:3), like those who ‘believed in his name’ in 2:23-25, to whom Jesus would not entrust himself.
Doubtless Nathanael’s confession is to be taken positively, but notice the immediate qualification: ‘Because I said I saw you under the fig tree you believe? You shall see greater things than these’ (1:50). Then Jesus explains enigmatically to Nathanael (and to everyone else – ‘you’ is plural): ‘You shall see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man’ (1:51). These greater things are not bigger and better miracles. They are about what is to happen to Jesus, what we will see, especially at his death. Such contrasts are common in John. Jesus will scold Nicodemus for not seeing what he is doing on earth and then asks: ‘How are you going to believe if I tell you heavenly things?’ (3:12). He then goes on to speak of the lifting up of the Son of Man, his ascension (3;13-14). And after the extensive discussion which follows the feeding of the 5000 Jesus makes much the same point. You have problems with what I am claiming to be now: ‘What if you see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’ (6:61-62). Here, as in 3:13, 1:51 and elsewhere, John has Jesus speak of himself as Son of Man when he announces his future exaltation, glorification, ascension, and return to the Father. These all refer to the one single complex event which take place at Jesus’ death.
John consistently has Jesus make the point that people miss the point about him if they do not see him in the light of this great event. Why? Because only then does he achieve atonement by offering himself as a sacrifice? That is not John’s focus. For him life is in the relationship with Jesus and is there even before his death. Rather the great event to come will have the effect of revealing who Jesus is and what he is now about. He comes and goes from the heart of God and he sends and summons from the heart of God. The last discourses, in particular, explain that when he goes he will send the Spirit and he will send the disciples. 14:12 even uses the same kind of language: ‘The works which I am doing you will do and greater things than these will you do because I go to the Father’. These works are not miracles, as though the disciples will even outshine Jesus as wonder workers, but refer to doing what Jesus was sent to do: to make the Father known, to build relationships of love with God and among those who believe.
Nathanael is promised that he will see Jesus one day as the focus of angelic adoration. John leaves aside other details of Jacob’s dream, like the ladder. If anything, Jesus is to be envisaged atop the ladder. John might have made something of Jesus and his ministry as a ladder between heaven and earth, but he does not. His focus is on the great event to come which has at its heart the glorification and exaltation of the Son of Man after his death. When it occurs, then Nathanael will really know who Jesus is (see John 8:28 for the same thought). Then he will really know what Jesus has done and what he wants Nathanael to be and do.
Then messianic acclamations will only make sense if they are transposed into a new key where the tune they play is about the Son who came to make the Father known, to offer light and life and truth and build a community of love. That is the melody which keeps repeating itself in John and is the essence of John’s critical theology of spirituality. Acclamations only mean something when they mean this. The rest may be fervent devotion but it is blind, even if it cites biblical prophecy and speaks the right words. Jesus doesn’t want the big crowds running after him. Or, at least, he wants to lead them, as he led Nathanael, beyond amazement at miracles (which he is quite happy to affirm) to wonder at what they symbolise, the life he offered and now made universally available (so much ‘greater’ in scope) through the witness of the community of faith and its action. That’s where we are! Or are we still where Nathanael was – and Nicodemus and the crowds and ‘the believers’?
Epistle: Epiphany 2: 17 January 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
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