The First Disciples
This passage shows us the beginning of the transition from the ministry of John the Baptist to the ministry of Jesus. It begins the day after John pointed out Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. Jesus again came to the place where John was. John again pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God.
Two disciples were with John. One was Andrew and the other is not named. When John pointed out Jesus, these two disciples left John the Baptist and began to follow Jesus.
Notice that John does not protest. That is because this is exactly what should happen. John prepared his disciples to receive Jesus. Then, when he pointed out Jesus to them, they left to follow Jesus, as they should.
By asking Jesus where he was staying, these disciples indicated their desire to follow him. Because disciples at that time stayed with their teacher full time. They slept where he slept and went where he went.
In addition to following, Andrew took on the ministry of evangelism. He went to his brother Simon and told him he had found the Messiah. He brought Simon to Jesus.
When Simon came to Jesus, Jesus gave him a new name: “Cephas”. (42) In Aramaic, this word appears to mean “rock”. John translates that for the Greek readers as “Peter”.
Subsequent events show us that Peter was not a rock in the sense of being resolute in his faith. But, Jesus intended to make Peter into a rock. That process would turn out to involve some painful moments.
People today often say “Jesus loves you just the way you are”. And that is true as far as it goes. But it is not true when the implication is that you do not need to change. Jesus loves you and saves you as you are.
But, Jesus changes you when you believe. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Then, Jesus through the Holy Spirit begins the process of sanctification, the process of making you less like you are and more like he is. That is what he did with Peter as well.
So, who was the second disciple? Who was the one who was not named, but was with Andrew and who followed Jesus. The writer does not tell us, but traditionally it has been thought that disciple was John himself, the writer of this gospel account. That would fit with John’s claim to be an eyewitness to the things he wrote about.
Philip and Nathanael
The next day, Jesus went to Galilee. Galilee, at that time, was the northern part of Israel. Somewhere in Galilee he found Philip, maybe at or near his home town of Bethsaida, which was on the north end of the Sea of Galilee. John tells us that Bethsaida was also the home of Andrew and Peter.
Jesus found Philip and simply told Philip to follow him. (43) Philip did, and like Andrew, went to find another. Philip found Nathanael and told him he had found the Messiah, calling him the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote about. That tells us that Philip and Nathanael knew their Scripture well. Philip also named Jesus as Jesus of Nazareth. The town of Nazareth was also in Galilee, south and west of Bethsaida.
Nathanael famously responded “can anything good come out of Nazareth”. Evidently, Nazareth did not have a very good reputation. It may have been because there was a Roman garrison there and many of the townspeople did business with the Romans. Nathanael was from Cana, according to John 21:2. Cana is a little north of Nazareth, so Nathanael would have been acquainted with the reputation of the place.
Philip was undeterred by Nathanael’s comment and invited Nathanael to come and see for himself. So, Nathanael did.
When Nathanael got to Jesus, the two had an interesting exchange which led Nathanael to confess his belief in Jesus. Jesus greeted Nathanael as an Israelite who had no guile or deceit. (47) This is a compliment, but it also indicates Jesus knew Nathanael. That confused Nathanael, because Jesus had never met him. So, Nathanael asked Jesus how he knew him.
Jesus, replied that he saw Nathanael even before Philip found him. He saw him sitting under a fig tree. (48) This is a display of Jesus’ supernatural knowledge. We do not know when or where Nathanael was under the fig tree, or what he was doing there. It could be that Nathanael was sitting in the shade of the tree praying or meditating on the coming of the Messiah. But, whatever it was, it was significant to Nathanael, and Jesus’ knowledge of it told Nathanael that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Nathanael then addressed Jesus as “Rabbi”, which would be a respectful greeting, compared to his complete lack of a greeting at the beginning of the conversation. He also confessed Jesus as the Son of God and the King of Israel. (49)
As an aside to the story, but significant to how John structures his gospel, is that there are seven who bear witness to Jesus's deity, calling him the Son of God:
- John the Baptist ( John 1:34);
- Nathanael ( John 1:49);
- Peter ( John 6:69);
- Jesus himself ( John 10:36);
- Martha ( John 11:27);
- Thomas ( John 20:28);
- John, the writer of this Gospel ( John 20:31).
Back to the story, Jesus then made a promise to Nathanael. He said “you” would see greater things than Jesus displaying his supernatural knowledge about Nathanael and the fig tree. (50) The “you” in this verse is plural, so it likely refers to all of the disciples, not just Nathanael. The would see the greater things of Jesus’ perfect life, his authoritative teaching, his miracles or signs, his death, resurrection and exaltation.
In fact, they would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. (51) What did Jesus mean by this?
First, we see his reference to Genesis 28:12-22. In that passage, Jacob was fleeing Canaan and going to live with his relative, Laban. He had a dream in which he saw a ladder set up on earth that reached to heaven. Angels were going up and down the ladder. God stood at the top and spoke to Jacob, making a covenant with him. He promised to be with Jacob and to continue with Jacob the covenant he made with Abraham.
Nathanael, and likely all these first disciples, were well versed in the Old Testament and would know the passage Jesus alluded to. Jacob would have seen the vision as a representation of God being with him and taking care of him, as angels took his prayers up to God and God sent angels down to take care of Jacob.
So, Jesus was saying, as with Jacob, you will see that God the Father is with Jesus and Jesus has continual access to the Father. You will see that Jesus is the Messiah, as Nathanael confessed, the one appointed and anointed by God.
While the allusion to the ladder catches our attention, there is another thing here we should notice. Jesus, for the first time, refers to himself as the “Son of Man”. Although Nathanael confessed Jesus as the Son of God, Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man.
“Son of Man” is the title Jesus most frequently used for himself. The meaning of the title has an Old Testament context. The context is a vision given to Daniel as described in Daniel 7:9-14. Daniel described the person he saw in his vision this way:
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man… . And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (vv. 13–14a).
This Jesus, whom these disciples would follow, is the one whom the Father has given dominion, or power, over all the kingdoms and peoples of earth, glory as one who is God, and a kingdom that will last forever. Paul would later write this same truth in Philippians 2:9:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
All followers of Jesus, including us, see these things. They saw them in person. We see them in the Word. And we know that Jesus is Savior and Lord. And we belong to his kingdom and look forward to the day that it will be fully and finally revealed.
Jesus himself alluded to the Daniel passage specifically, applying the it to himself, in Mark 13:24-27, which says:
“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
And we say “amen, come Lord Jesus, Son of God, Son of Man”.