(John 1:43-45 ESV) 43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
Bethsaida is a tiny fishing village near the Sea of Galilee. In that culture, especially in small towns, sons were expected to take up the trade of their fathers. Moreover, sons were expected to marry and raise a family in the same compound as their parents. A newlywed couple would move into a room literally built on the side of the house of the groom’s father.
Life was highly communal and very family centered. Children played with their cousins and siblings outside the rooms of their parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. There were no secrets. After all, the windows had no glass! You could hardly hold a private conversation! Meals were communal. You ate with your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews nearly every meal if you were home.
As a result, families were of far greater importance than in modern America. We are big on family, but it’s routine for our children to leave home and travel thousands of miles for an education or a job. This would be unthinkable for someone raised in Bethsaida — unthinkable unless he’d been called by the Messiah.
The willingness of these men to follow Jesus on such short notice is astounding enough to American ears, but in that world, it would have been beyond shocking. The disciples left their parents. They left family. They left everything they held dear to follow someone who claimed to be the Messiah — and they never returned. Indeed, they died as martyrs hundreds if not thousands of miles away.
The reference to “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote” is plainly to the Messiah. It could have been understood no other way at that time.
(John 1:46 ESV) 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
Nathanael was from Cana, a town of similar size to Nazareth. But the scriptures plainly teach that the Messiah was to be born in Judea, and Nazareth is not even close. Nathanael may not have known that “Nazareth” derives its name from the Hebrew word for “branch.” You see, the families in Nazareth were well aware of being descended from David, and so they hoped to be the place where the “branch of David” would be born.
(Jer 23:5-6 ESV) 5 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.'”
We next read of Jesus’ calling of Nathanael —
(John 1:47-49 ESV) 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Nathanael’s cynicism also reveals a willingness to say what he really feels. That trait could be considered positive or negative, you know, but Jesus prefers to see the good in Nathanael. He may be a skeptic, but he’s an honest skeptic. He speaks the truth!
Jesus reveals knowledge of Nathanael’s location when Philip called him, and Nathanael’s skepticism is destroyed. He immediately comes to faith.
(John 1:50-51 ESV) 50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
And, indeed, Jesus’ words were prophetic regarding Nathanael seeing greater things. But when did angels ascend and descend on Jesus? Did that ever happen?
It seems to be a reference to Genesis 28:10 ff, that is, the vision of Jacob’s ladder. Jesus says that the angels will go up and down on him, that is, Jesus will be the ladder that connects heaven to earth.
Now, if you’ll recall the Creation 2.0 series, especially the material about heaven and earth being joined and brought together by Jesus, we see here Jesus making exactly that claim. He’ll be the means by which heaven and earth are brought closer together! He’ll be the means of going up to heaven and bringing things down from heaven.
Hear this again: “you will see heaven opened.” Not briefly open, but made open (perfect participle). No, the gates of heaven will be thrown open to earth!
It’s a difficult but rich and important metaphor.