THE TWELVE — NATHANAEL
Prophecy studied correctly brings peace. Specifically, the Prince of Peace as our video clip introduced. Which is point number one this week as we study the life of the apostle Nathanel. Nathanael is listed as Bartholomew in all four lists of the twelve in Scripture. Bartholomew is a Hebrew last name meaning “son of Tolmai.” But in the Gospel of John, he is always called Nathanael which means “God has given.” So this 6 th apostle is Nathanael Bar–Tolmai, or son of Tolmai. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts contain no details about Nathanael’s background, character, or personality. In fact, they each mention him only once—when they list all twelve apostles. John’s Gospel mentions Nathanael in just 2 passages. In John 1 where his call is recorded and in John 21 where he is named as one of those who returned to their previous occupation of fishing with Peter after Jesus’ resurrection.
According to John 21:2, Nathanael came from the small town of Cana in Galilee. The place where Jesus performed his first miracle changing water into wine (John 2:11). Cana was very close to Jesus’ own hometown, Nazareth. Nathanael apparently had one very close friend, as close as a brother, without being actually related. We think this is true because Matthew, Mark and Luke link the names of Philip and Nathanael together in the same way that Peter is linked with Andrew and James is linked with John. In the early church histories, their names are also linked together. Apparently, they stayed friends throughout their journey to Jesus. Which began in the wilderness, shortly after Jesus’ baptism, when John the Baptist pointed to Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Andrew, John, and Peter were the first to be called according John 1:35–42. The next day, verse 43 says Jesus called Philip, and according to John 1:45, then “Philip found Nathanael.”
The rest of John 1:45 says, “Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Which leads us to point number one: Studied correctly, prophecy brings peace. Which is a concept the folks reading the Gospel of John would have really resonated with when they found John 1:45 followed by John 1:50. So let’s read that too. We just read verse 45. So let’s skip down to verse 50 which adds, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.”
We miss the peaceful point of these words because when we think of peaceful we think of lounging on a white sandy shore in Aruba. Or some other tropical place. Sipping a cool beverage through a straw. But for a Jewish reader in Jesus’ day, that’s not what they looked forward to. What the Old Testament prophets longed for, what they prophesied would one day occur, is that all nations would gather on the mountain of the Lord and sit under the shade of an olive or fig tree. Micah 4:4 says, “Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.” Zechariah, another Old Testament prophet, adds these words in Zechariah 3:10 that Nathanael was familiar with. “‘In that day each of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree,’ declares the LORD Almighty.”
So to sit under one’s fig tree meant to be at home and at peace. And anybody reading John 1:45 many years ago would have quickly grasped that. And that’s a good thing because that’s another name for Jesus according to Isaiah 9:6? Right? Isn’t Jesus called the Prince of Peace?
John the Baptist’s father Zechariah said something similar in Luke 1:76-79. Go with me there if you please. Luke 1:76-79 says, “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
So studied correctly, prophecy brings peace. Because it points us to the Prince of Peace. Drawing us closer to Jesus. Check out this picture Daniel Whitehead drew for us this week. It’s got Nathanael sitting under the fig newton tree. Those square things are fig newtons in the tree. Isn’t that hilarious?!! I love fig newtons. Anyway, Nathanael is sitting under that tree peacefully reading the Old Testament. Got his glass of milk there with him. And long before Nathanael meets Jesus and puts the prophetic pieces together, Jesus sees Him there. He promises to reveal Himself to those who are seeking Him. Which we’ll see in a minute.
Point number one illustrated through the life of Nathanel is studied correctly, prophecy brings peace. But point number two, studied incorrectly, it brings prejudice. Listen to Nathanael’s response to Philip’s invitation to follow Jesus. You can hear the prejudice in his voice. John 1:46 (NIV) says, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
Nathanael might have said, “As I read the Old Testament, Micah the prophet says in Micah 5:2 that Messiah comes out of Bethlehem not Nazareth.” He could have said, “But Philip, Messiah is identified with Jerusalem because He’s going to reign in Jerusalem.” But instead of curiosity or confusion, this sincere Bible student uses words dripping with sarcasm and prejudice. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?!”
Which is kind of ironic because Cana, where Nathanael was from, wasn’t all that great either. To this day, it hasn’t got a whole lot of anything in it. There’s a shrine built on the supposed location where Jesus turned water in wine, but archaeologists don’t believe it. They say it probably more of a tourist trap that anything else. Wherever Cana really was, it was way off the beaten path in the middle of nowhere whereas Nazareth was at least located at a crossroad. To travel from the Mediterranean to Galilee, people traveled through Nazareth. One of the main routes going north and south between Jerusalem and Lebanon passed through Nazareth. No one ever passed through Cana. So Nathanael’s critical comment of Nazareth says more about his civic prejudice and rivalry between Nazareth and Cana than anything else. True, Nazareth wasn’t Jerusalem. But Cana wasn’t Nazareth either.
And Nazareth was a rough town. Although it has a nice setting on the slopes of the hills of Galilee, it is not very memorable and the Judaeans looked down on all Galileans. And the Galileans, in turn, looked down on the Nazarenes. Nathanel, though he came from the even lowlier and more remote village of Cana, was simply echoing the ancient accepted contempt for Nazareth. It was inconceivable to Nathanael that the Messiah would come out of a tacky place like Nazareth. But Nathanael wasn’t the only one guilty of prejudice. Much of the nation of Israel rejected Jesus because they did not believe their Messiah could come out of Nazareth either. They mocked the apostles as uneducated Galileans. The Pharisees even taunted one of their own, Nicodemus, in John 7:52 (NIV) by saying, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
And from the religious leaders down to the people sitting in the synagogues, it was to some degree their prejudice that caused them to reject Jesus. So much so that according to Luke 4:24, the Prince of Peace wasn’t even accepted in his home church, in his home synagogue, where He had grown up! Do you remember how Luke 4:28–29 describes how the church members were so full of prejudice and anger that they actually tried to push Him off a cliff on the edge of town and kill Him?
Prejudice in church members did that. Prejudice is church members eventually did crucify him. So let’s not be naive. It’s not just in the world. It’s in the church. Jesus was a Galilean. And worse than that, he was from Nazareth. He wasn’t educated by religious leaders of that day. He shared a message that didn’t fit into their narrow definition of what was orthodox. So they rejected him. John 1:11 says, “He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him.”
Obviously, Nathanael lived in a world full of prejudice. But in reality, is that much different than today? Don’t we live in a similar kind of society today? I remember just a few years ago when Rosa Parks died, she became the first woman to lie in state inside the rotunda of the Capital Building in Washington DC. Her death reminds us of how recently our United States weren’t so united. And this is one lingers on in the church. We still have black and white conferences in the Adventist church. Women can be called to ministry, just not ordained to it.
But fortunately, more and more people are confronting this sort of prejudice. As we studied last time, Philip was one of these kinds of people. Philip confronted Nathanael in response to his prophetic prejudice saying in John 1:46 (NIV) “Come and see.” So Nathanael went. And believed. And grew. Spiritually and every other way. So that when Jesus was done with Him, I’m sure he learned to not only confront prejudice, but to actively combat it.
And that’s we should do too. We must confront gossip in the church. We must confront prejudice in the church. Church will never be a safe place. But we must do what we can to make it safer amen? Why? Because prejudice can prevent people from coming to Christ.
The good news is though, that not even prejudice in the church can prevent Jesus from reaching a seeking heart. Point number one: Studied correctly, prophecy brings peace. Studied incorrectly, it brings prejudice. But point number three, God’s grace and love is more powerful than prejudice. 1 Chronicles 28:9 (NIV) says, “The LORD searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek Him, he will be found by you.” Nathanael is great example of this.
Jesus knew his heart. No wonder His first words upon seeing Nathanael in John 1:47 (NIV) were “‘Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.’” The KJV says “in whom there is no guile” while the NIV says “in whom there is no deceit!” Sure his prejudiced conclusion regarding Nazareth was neither kind nor accurate, but at least he was honest. It’s what he really thought. He wasn’t a hypocrite. He was just wrong. His love for God and His desire to see the Messiah were genuine. He was sincere. And Jesus could work with him. The word in Greek is alethos meaning “truly, genuinely.” Nathanael was an authentic guy. A true Israelite. Perfectly obedient? No. But willing to sincerely serve? Absolutely. And that’s what made him a candidate for apostle. Jesus would later say in John 8:1 (NKJV), “‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.’” The Greek word for indeed there is the same as John 1:47—alethos.
Because his heart was sincere and his faith real, God’s love grew in Him. That’s pretty much all it takes. Next week we’re going to start a 3 week mini sermon series called Things Remembered. There are a few growth principles that are worth remembering. Whether you’re talking about growing the church or growing as a follower of Jesus. And we’re gonna cover one per week for three weeks. So come back for those.
But when we’re willing and sincere and seeking, God reveals Himself to us. His love and grace grows in us. Until that’s what we become known for. 1 Corinthians 13:1-7 says it this way: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Why? Because love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self‑seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
After Jesus explained how He saw Nathanael undoubtedly studying and praying in the cool of the fig tree, he answered Jesus with these words in John 1:49 (NIV). “‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.’” Significantly, words like these describe what his best friend Philip had difficulty believing three and half years later in the upper room when Philip asked Jesus to “Show us the Father” (John 14:8–9). What Philip continued to doubt and never fully understood until after the resurrection, Nathanael understood at the very start. For Nathanael, the next three and half years of observing Jesus’ ministry only affirmed what he already knew. Prophecy studied correctly brings peace. Specifically, the Prince of Peace. Point number one. Prophecy studied incorrectly brings prejudice. Point number two. But God’s grace and love is more powerful than prejudice. Point number three. It roams all over the earth seeking those seeking Him.
And that’s pretty much all we know about Nathanael from Scripture. Early church records suggest that he ministered in Persia and India and took the gospel as far as Armenia—the former Soviet republic located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea bordered by Iran and Turkey. There is no reliable record of how he died. One tradition says he was tied up in a sack and cast into the sea. Another tradition says he was crucified. Another says he was flayed alive and whipped to death. Undoubtedly, he was martyred like all the other apostles except John.
What we do know is that Nathanael was faithful to the very end because he was faithful from the very beginning. Like Brandon, is it your genuine desire to be faithful to Jesus? To sincerely seek and serve Him this week? Are there people here today who have never been baptized but want to be? If so, please let me know. I would love to cheer you on in your sincere commitment to follow Jesus. And now in closing, let’s read together our Scripture theme one more time. It’s found in 2 Corinthians 12:9. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Amen.
For more information see John MacArthur’s Twelve Ordinary Men pages 135-148.