A distinguishing feature of the Christian faith is that we proclaim the assurance of salvation. Christians aren’t left guessing if God hears their prayers. We aren’t crossing our fingers wishing that our God will be gracious to us. The saints of God aren’t cowering in the corner wondering what sort of mood God is in today. No. Those who are born again are as certain of their standing with God and His love to them as they are that the sun will rise tomorrow.
“The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me. Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see. Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (John 1:43-51).
Summary of the Text
After renaming Simon to Cephas (or Peter)––which means a stone (v.42), we have the unornamented call of Philip (v.43), what his hometown was (v.44), and his first act as a disciple: fetching Nathanael (v.45). Philip goes to find Nathanael, tells him that they’ve found the Messiah which Moses and the prophets foretold: a one Jesus of Nazareth (v.45).
Nathanael is dubious something as good as the Messiah could come out of Nazareth, but at Philip’s insistence, comes anyway (v.46). When Jesus sees Nathanael coming, He makes a (seemingly) odd pronouncement about Nathanael (v.47). The prophetic declaration strikes home, and Nathanael is left dumbfounded at Jesus’ discernment (cf. Is. 11:2-3), and asks, “What gives?!” To which Jesus reveals that He saw what Nathanael was up to before Philip even called him: being a true Israelite (under a fig tree) (v.48, cf. Mic. 4:4).
This is enough to persuade Nathanael of Jesus’ Messiahship (v.49). Jesus affirms his faith, and then reveals that greater things shall be seen by Nathanael (v.50). Jesus then describes those greater things by referencing a story about the patriarch Jacob, and a vision he had once seen (v.51, cf. Gen. 28).
The reference to Jacob’s ladder––the open heaven with angels ascending and descending––is a curious allusion, that is well worth pursuing. To recap that story, remember that the patriarch was leaving the promised land of Canaan not on sweet terms, but in a self-inflicted exile, fleeing from Esau. On his way, he stops for the night, takes a stone for a pillow, and while sleeping, sees a vision (which is what Jesus is alluding to in our text). When Jacob awakens, he declares, “Truly, God is in this place.” He sets up his stone pillow as a pillar, then changes the name of that place from Luz to Bethel––the house of God.
Years later, right before he returns to the Promised Land––as a great host––he wrestles with God at Peniel (Gen. 32), and God declares that his name is going to be changed. A few chapters later––in the closing scenes of Jacob’s story––we see that he has returned to Bethel, and there God renews the Abrahamic covenant with Jacob, and renames him: Israel (Gen. 35:9-15). After God appears to Jacob, He “goes up/ascends” from him.
So, why does John recount this interaction with Nathanael? First, remember the preceding context of this section. Jesus has been changing names: Simon to Peter (a stone). In other words, Jesus sets up a stone, like Jacob had done long ago. Jesus tells Nathanael that he is not a Jacob, but an Israelite (the only time someone is called an Israelite in John’s gospel).
Nathanael declares Jesus to be, “Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel;” but Jesus quickly “renames” himself: “son of man.” As one more layer to the “name-changing” going on in this passage, John is the only Gospel writer to refer to Nathanael; whereas the synoptic gospels refer to him as Bartholomew. In other words, Jesus is a name-changer. But only a father has the right to name someone, and only God has the right to rename someone.
“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it (Rev. 2:17).”
“Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named (Eph 3:15).”
The human race is full of Adamsons. But our family is under the judgement and wrath of God. Our family is in exile from the garden. We forfeited the deed to it back in Eden. We are cut off from heaven, and thus our lot is hell. Who will bring us back to God?
The Great Divorce
But the fact that Jesus is a name-changer is not the only feature in this passage. Name-changing is a divine prerogative, but a far off god is no good for sinners. What John is drawing our attention to is the tension between Christ’s divinity, and His humanity. Henry Law once well-stated: “[The vision of the ladder] shows Jesus, in the miracle of His person—man, without ceasing to be God—God, without scorning to be man.”
Jesus has come to be the one, sent by the Father, to change our names. He has come to adopt us into God’s family. Nathanael is dead on when he sees in Jesus a true Rabbi, a true priest, a true King (v.49). He is a faithful Israelite, who has longed for the promised salvation. But Jesus makes it plain that the way in which He will fulfill those offices is by uniting earth back to heaven.
In Eden there was, what C.S. Lewis called, a great divorce. We were cut off from God and from grace. In order to return, the debt must be repaid, and it must be paid by a son of Adam, a Son of man. While Nathanael was persuaded to believe because of Jesus’ prophetical declaration, Jesus expands the smallness of Nathanael’s vision. Jesus has come to suffer as one of us, but as God to rise from the dead. Or as the Belgic Confession puts it, “true God in order to conquer death by His power, and true man that he might die for us in the weakness of his flesh.”
In Jesus Christ we have a true Son of Man, who is also the Son of God. The great marvel which Nathanael would see is that reunion of heaven and earth in Christ. Our prayers, in the name of Jesus, ascend up to heaven. The blessings of His grace and mercy descend unto us.
Babel tried to build a tower into heaven, and they were denied. Heaven was closed. But in Jacob’s ladder it is God Himself who sets up a tower into an open heaven. Jesus tells us He’s the only way back to God. He says, “I am that ladder.” And that ladder is your assurance of prayers heard and salvation received. For those who look to Jesus, He brings your prayers and tears to God, and He brings down all of God’s grace, goodness, and promises to you. Nathanael, indeed, saw great things.