Perhaps we need to be thinking more about those in the community that currently have no place of worship and don’t know Jesus.
2. Historical Context
Jesus was out and about seeking followers. And Philip was one who followed instinctively. Some people take a while, having heard about Jesus, to make a decision. Not Philip it seems. Philip was obviously ready … he’d been prepared somehow; it was only necessary for Jesus to seek Philip out, and, in a sense, claim his future, by saying “Follow me”. We, no doubt, see God’s Spirit at work in this; but there is probably more to be seen. We might see some of the ‘back story’ explained in verse 44: Philip was from the same town (Bethsaida) as were the fisherman brothers Andrew and Peter (who had previously become Jesus’ followers). As we go back in John’s Gospel, we see that before Andrew became a disciple of Jesus he had been a follower of John the Baptist; and John the Baptist had been speaking about the One was who coming, greater than he, who would be the Messiah. So it could be that first Andrew, then Simon Peter as well, were talking up Jesus all around Bethsaida. And this word spread to Philip. There could be such a great and immediate response from Philip because the word about Jesus had already been spreading well throughout his home town. First Andrew, then Peter, now Philip – who next?
Let’s talk up Jesus! But, how do we best do this? We have recently spoken of the modern 'Pentecost languages' that effectively cross boundaries. The languages of love, compassion, hope and integrity. Let’s continue with the text.
No sooner had Philip begun to follow Jesus, than he thought of another, no doubt a friend, who should also follow Jesus. This friend was named Nathanael. Clearly the easiest place to start talking up Jesus is with those that we know, and with those who know us. Or, is that always the case? Why wouldn’t it be the case?? What gets in the way sometimes … we might wonder? Well probably this should be the case … sharing Jesus with those closest to us!! The simple statement “Philip found Nathanael” (v.45) suggests to me that Philip instinctively acted on his real care and concern for Nathanael (and wanted to introduce him to Jesus).
Philip starts with where Nathanael was at. Nathanael was obviously a well-taught Jew who knew the expectations held in the Hebrew Scriptures toward the coming of a Messiah. Some commentators suggest that the later reference to Nathanael being seen sitting under a fig tree (v.48), suggests that he was praying or meditating on the scriptures, and thus was a seeker ready for the right invitation. If this is true, then certainly Philip was ‘right on the ball’! How many people I wonder, are just waiting for a credible and sincere invitation?!?
The new revelation for Nathanael was that the Messiah had come, and, perhaps outrageously at first hearing, he was identified as a carpenter’s son from Nazareth. This particular town Nazareth did not have a good reputation, and might’ve been, in most people’s minds, the last place to have been the Messiah’s hometown. So this news was viewed with a little cynicism, maybe also a bit of suspicion. Was he being spun a tale? Sometimes people just can’t get past the ‘conventional wisdom’, and see things differently. Perhaps the great city of Jerusalem would have been more likely. But not only was Jesus born in humble circumstances in Bethlehem, but he had been brought up in the working class of Nazareth.
We encounter cynicism and suspicion at times – fair enough, we shouldn’t be defensive about this. Sometimes we have to clear up other people’s misconceptions about Jesus, whatever they might be. I hasten to say that we would want to do this gently! Our mindset would be to clear up certain misconceptions … to make Jesus more understood and more accessible to people. For example, we don’t have to attain to any level of acceptability to be welcomed by Jesus – just come as we are, and let Jesus do the rest. We can see this in the ‘works in progress’ that Jesus took on as disciples.
Nathanael had assumed certain things about the Messiah, maybe such things had been rammed down his throat for years; which may have made Nathanael less likely to appreciate Jesus. Nathanael may have expected more of a regal king type figure, but then had to get his head around Jesus being a real everyday human being. But this has to be balanced, and later Nathanael would experience the other side of Jesus – an all-seeing, all-knowing Divine God. Ultimately Nathanael would say, “Teacher, you are the Son of God … You are the king of Israel” (v.49)
How did Nathanael get here?? What was the turning point??? Philip gave Nathanael a point-by-point intellectual argument!?! NO HE DIDN’T!!! Philip’s response to Nathanael’s initial confusion was “Come and See” (v.46)! And it was to “come and see” that Nathanael responded positively … in the next verse we see Nathanael heading in the direction of Jesus.
In the case of Philip and Nathanael, this “come and see” was a direct introduction … an introduction from which a relationship could begin to develop. As Philip directed Nathanael toward Jesus, Jesus was already on the march toward Nathanael. And what did Jesus say? Did Jesus say anything about Nathanael’s shortcomings … did Jesus remark on Nathanael’s negativity toward Nazareth?? Jesus actually picked up on the most positive aspect of Nathanael’s life that he could (refer verse 47). Jesus truly encourages Nathanael toward faith. Nathanael was already a truthful and genuine person (“in whom there is no deceit” – v.47) … all he really lacked was a relationship with Jesus. There are so many good people who simply lack a relationship with Jesus to make them fully whole. On the other hand, we know there are many strugglers who need a whole of lot of help, but their greatest need still remains … a relationship with Jesus.
How then can our conversations direct people toward Jesus?
Just as Philip started his witnessing with where Nathanael was at – pointing towards the source of his traditional spiritual hope, Jesus started their relationship by pointing towards Nathanael’s area of strength. So, this suggests to us again about starting where other people are at … engaging with how they are experiencing life and how they are responding to life’s happenings.
We know that bringing people to Jesus is something we can trust – we can trust that Jesus will work with people in exactly the way they need to be. So where we have engaged with others and opportunities present themselves, and there are most likely more opportunities than we at first recognise, our response can be like Philip’s … “Come and see”. But, in these days where Jesus is not physically present, we have to ask, ‘Come where’ and ‘See what’?? We’ll return to this.
3. Contemporary Context
This passage, through the ministry of Philip and Jesus, and the response of Nathanael, gives us some indicators concerning our public witness to the good news of Jesus. Any thoughts on this so far??? What would be important to remember?
(a) Desiring – wanting to tell. Do we want to share about Jesus? When opportunities arise for us to speak, this would largely be about what Jesus has done for us … in a real and personal sense, more so than just doctrine. Are there people who we really want to introduce to Jesus? If we find this difficult, might it be because we are not at the moment open for Jesus doing new things in our lives … thus we haven’t much of great worth to share about!?! Effective sharing comes through the stories of what God is doing for us right now!
Philip having experienced Jesus as the Messiah immediately wanted to tell Nathanael about this. The “we have found him … [speaking of Jesus]” in verse 45 suggests to me that Philip was excited, full of faith, and confident in his discovery; which led him to an almost instinctive or spontaneous desire to share with others. This might have come over as the greatest discovery Philip had ever made, which of course it was!
NB. We should practice telling our stories of God’s various blessings with each other, which strengthens and reassures us in the desire to tell these to others.
(b) Discerning – knowing what to say. Are we listening well enough to both God and our friends, that we know what to say to them, to effectively lead them towards Jesus? Are we prayerful about this?? To effectively share such good news as Jesus is, we have to listen well and know where we can make the connections in terms of where another person is at. The key discerning question to prayerfully consider is: ‘Where are they at’?
Philip understood Nathanael’s theological mindset and background beliefs, so that he started at exactly the right place (verse 45).
Jesus started his interchange with Nathanael warmly with encouragement, which creatively opened up the possibility for further conversation (verse 47). This links with what I said recently about ‘good news’ needing to be received as ‘good news’ for it to have the desired effect. Judgment, condemnation or superiority will likely have directly the opposite effect. Jesus restricted his condemnation to the ineffective ‘religious elite’, rather than the general populace.
(c) Inviting – this is the “Come and see” thing. But, come where; see what? Any ideas? What have you done that has worked well??
Come where? Anywhere that will take a person forward on a journey of faith. Could be church, or a small group – formal or informal, or an activity. Could be simple hospitality. Could be the local café. Could be down the path of practical help. Could be sharing in another person’s burdens, or advocating for them through a particular trial … ‘standing in the breach’. It could be standing up to be counted – making a difference on a bigger scale … ‘repairing the streets’?
How can people practically make a difference for Jesus, say, in their place of work or recreation?
Could just simply be an invitation into sharing life with us, so that over time the Jesus in us will be revealed.
[We are quite programmed to this “Come and see” idea. We get a new house, a new car, a new guitar, a new puppy, a new baby … “come and see”! So it shouldn’t be too hard to let this flow into our new spiritual discoveries.]
(d) Demonstrating – this is more the “see” bit … see what?
See what? Jesus in us, and in the way we live our lives. Seeing how people care. See how people gather together in Jesus’ name, support one another and achieve together all sorts of good community-building objectives. Ultimately seeing that God is alive and active … living in the hearts of people, and drawing close to all those who are suffering.
When Nathanael came into Jesus’ company he began to experience someone who loved him dearly, knew him well, with the potential of experiencing even more remarkable things. This, for Nathanael, was worth attaching himself to. Hopefully people might see something in us worth investigating!?!
I think the ‘seeing’ will happen gradually over time for most people. This ‘seeing’ is a process – that starts with acceptance and belonging … being welcomed and included; then becoming … gradually becoming the person each person was created to be; and ultimately believing … believing who Jesus is in total, and accepting Jesus as Saviour and Lord. Part of the ‘seeing’ is in the ‘showing’ or ‘demonstrating’, people being reflections of the Jesus that is seen in the Gospels.
The ultimate goal of witnessing (to our faith), is that people, our friends and neighbours, our colleagues and acquaintances, also become disciples of Jesus. These new disciples then become partners with Jesus in the ongoing quest for more disciples.