NATHANAEL – A MAN WITHOUT GUILE

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?!”

44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of 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.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip *said to him, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to 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 and said to 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.” 50 Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” (John1:44-50)

After the spiritual experience that led to the writing of my first book five or so years ago, I would read through the Bible, notice things I had failed to pick up on before and interpret many narrative in quite new ways. That may well happen to other Christians in their personal devotions but not usually to the extent that one’s earlier theological perspectives are virtually turned on their head. Yet that was my experience which I spell out in a little more detail in “The Fellowship of the Secret”. Its successor “The Little Book of Providence” is a depersonalized and more systematized theological synopsis. These posts usually focus on passages that I now understand in quite a new way, and more importantly, to my satisfaction at least, enable the various doctrines of Scripture to cohere with each other. They also make better sense of secular and Church history as it has panned out, especially in terms of the religious and cultural formation that has occurred through history and its implications to overall providence.

My observation concerning this passage may seem relatively trivial, but nevertheless has a place in the overall package, summarized recently in the 95 theses post. Reading through the Gospels one is struck by Jesus’ starkly contrasting attitudes towards the people he encountered during His earthly ministry, all of whom were to one degree or another sinful. I am sure it will be surprising to many that in calling his disciples there is little if any reference to their sinfulness. These were, after all, ordinary working men: Simon Peter was conscious of his own unworthiness when he became aware of his Lord’s divinity (Lk5:8), but Jesus’ only recorded comment concerning the moral state of His new recruits was a positive one regarding Nathanael: “Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile”.

You will note from verse 46 that Nathaniel was something of a cynic – referring to Jesus being a Nazarene he enquired of Philip, “Can anything good really come out of Nazareth?” So Nathaniel wasn’t perfect but those who are perfect such as the incarnate Word look for the good in people and love them for it. That even applies to those who fail to rise to the challenge of discipleship, such as the young ruler who endeavoured faithfully to keep the law of Moses but was rather too attached to his material possessions – Jesus looked at him and simply loved him (Mk10:21).

Unlike the firebrand evangelism I encountered as a teenager Jesus never asked His would-be disciples to “acknowledge their lost estate” or to “cease from their own efforts to be righteous  and apprehend God’s mercy in Christ” or, frankly, anything like it.  Jesus simply called His would-be disciples to “Follow Me” which is actually far more of a challenge. Such requires careful evaluation before proceeding, like a person about to build a tower or a king about to enter battle (Lk14:25-33). As I pointed out before, that would hardly be the case if the gospel invitation pertained to “how to get to heaven when you die”. It concerns a still greater prize that was  a challenge even for Paul:

 “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having achieved it as yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil3:13-14).