29 September 2012

John 1:47-51

"Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." (v. 51)


In the second half of this chapter five people become followers of Jesus, generally through the testimony of others. Nathanael is the last of these. The name is found only here and in John 21:2, and is commonly assumed to be a personal name of Bartholomew (a surname) who is one of the twelve Apostles in the other Gospels (eg Matthew 10:3), each time linked with Philip, his friend in this story.

Nathanael is sceptical when Philip tells him they've met the long-promised Messiah, because Jesus's home-town of Nazareth has little reputation with other Galileans, but is prepared to go and see. Jesus supernaturally perceives the kind of person Nathanael is, and his take on Nathanael's scepticism is to describe him as "an Israelite in whom there is no deceit" (v. 47), a very different character from Jacob (later called Israel) whose story (Genesis 28:10-22 - see below) provides the reference in verse 51.

Nathanael accepts the accuracy of his character profile as one who 'says it as he sees it' and asks Jesus how he knows him. "Under the fig tree" (v. 48) was both a Jewish symbol for "home", and a respected place for people to sit quietly to pray, but Jesus's statement that he saw him there before Philip spoke to him simply sweeps away Nathanael's scepticism as he calls Jesus "rabbi" (or teacher) (v. 49) and accords him two popular messianic titles. "Son of God" does not here refer to Jesus's divinity, as he comes to use it later in this Gospel, but is the honorific title given to Israel's kings of old.

Despite Nathanael's enthusiasm, Jesus knows that faith founded on his supernatural power is deficient (eg John 4:48) and promises Nathanael and all of them (for "you" is plural) that they will see greater things. For the first time Jesus uses the term "Very truly" (literally, "Amen, amen") to underline the statement about seeing angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, the term that Jesus uses for himself in preference to popular messianic titles.

The saying is based on Jacob's dream of a stairway to heaven in Genesis 28:12. Angels are messengers between God and humans. Although Jacob's dream is often interpreted to suggest the angels were "on it" (the stairway), the equally accurate translation 'on him' better serves both the original context of Jacob needing reassurance of God's presence, and more particularly the purpose of Jesus here. Jacob was subsequently named Israel; Jesus is the true Israel; he is the one who is God's true messenger.

To ponder

  • If Jesus were to summarise your character in a sentence what would it be?
  • Would you like Jesus to be able to say of you, 'Here is truly a Christian in whom there is no deceit!'? What do you need to do today to move towards that?
  • Parts of the Church celebrate today as the festival of Michael and all angels. Have you, like Jacob in a dream, or in some other way encountered an angel? What was the context and how did you know it was happening? How did it affect you?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Stephen Mosedale

Stephen Mosedale is a recently retired Methodist minister now living in Devon. He is enjoying the freedom that gives, whenever mood and weather dictsate, to walk on Dartmoor, photograph varied and ever-changing seascapes, or grow vegetables in the garden.