By Paul Koch –
The text before us is a rather simple and straightforward retelling of how our Lord begins to call his first disciples. He has already found Peter and Andrew and now he calls Philip and Nathanael. Now we might imagine that the calling of the original disciples of our Lord must have come with some sort of grand gesture or dramatic revelation. Perhaps they were living a life mired in outward and public sin. Perhaps they were drug addicts and prostitutes who mocked God with their immoral lives. And then, one day, they hit rock bottom with no friends or family to come to their aid. So, in a final act of desperation they reach out with empty hands and plead for the mercy of God. And it is here that our Lord finds them. It is here, then, that their life is turned around as our Lord lifts them from their self-destruction and puts them on the path to righteousness.
However, the real story isn’t nearly that extravagant. The calling of the first disciples wouldn’t get much air time on TV or even be featured as a testimonial at your local youth group. No, instead the way it works is like this, Jesus goes to Galilee and finds Philip and says, “follow me.” And Philip does just that. Now, I guess it gets a little more colorful when Philip in turn goes to get Nathaniel, but the big surprise is that Jesus says to Nathaniel, “When you were under the fig tree I saw you.” And boom, he becomes a disciple.
Now it’s tempting to pass by the simplicity of all this. It is easy to want to just move on to what comes next, when Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana. After all, no one wants to dwell on the simple and lowly things, but we want to get on to the big extravagant things. We always want something more. Our appetite for new technology and the latest gadgets and streaming movies and TV shows and social media all point to our inward desire for more, for bigger and better and more extravagant. And yet that isn’t how our Lord seems to do the bulk of his great work. He willingly chooses the foolish, the weak, and the lowly to do his work. When he drives Satan from a child’s heart and claims them as his own possession, it is done through a simple washing of baptism. When he forgives you the sins that weigh upon your hearts and minds, he does so through the words of a man who is no more holy or righteous than the next guy. And through a small wafer that only resembles bread by the strictest of definitions and a little sip of wine, you are given the very body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all your sins.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be so shocked that the calling of the first disciples isn’t marked with fanfare and grand displays of power, but rather it comes to us marked by much more simple and subtle themes. In fact, in the simplicity of this text we are given a chance to see the unfolding of Nathaniel’s subtle and important transformation. For he goes from thinking he had it all figured out to a place where he was receptive to receive the true and lasting knowledge from our Lord. This movement mimics our own experience in the faith. For we too have gone through this. We, too, know what it is to live our lives as if we had it all figured out, as if we possessed the right knowledge of the right things to live the right way. And time and again we have learned from our Lord that that simply isn’t the case. In fact, we are regularly reminded that our knowledge and the power that comes with it is not something we inherently possess but is something we receive by faith in Christ alone.
So, Philip finds Nathaniel and says to him, “We have him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Now that is not a bad confession by Philip. This Jesus of Nazareth is the one that Moses and the prophets spoke about. This is the Anointed One, the Messiah, the hope and consolation of Israel. This Jesus is a big deal. Now, Philip’s confession isn’t perfect. He will still have much to learn. For this is no son of Joseph, but the very son of God. But we’ll go to that in a bit. For now, Nathaniel hears his buddy’s confession and responds from his own understanding of things, his own knowledge of the situation. His assessment isn’t all that positive. He says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
In other words, Nathaniel knows better. He thinks he has things all worked out. He knows how the world goes and his place in it. But in fact, he doesn’t know the right thing and so everything that he does know is built upon a skewed or misplaced understanding of the world. It would be like building a wall where the foundation wasn’t level. Everything built off that foundation, even if it’s perfectly in alignment with the foundation, would be out of level as well. If your premise, your first thing, is incorrect then it will all be incorrect.
Your lives are often marked by going through this very thing. You see, each of you operates with an understanding of how the world works and your place in it. You have your own source of strength and security, you own identity in the world. As you sit under your given fig tree, you act with a certain amount of confidence that you know how things are going to work. This flows into every aspect of your life. From how your parent your children, to your goals for retirement, to political policies. You have your own ideas of how worship ought to function and how church ought to look. And you can become defiant and dig in your heels whenever your knowledge is challenged. But sometimes, sometimes you are not challenged by some competing idea, something else built on the crooked foundation. Sometimes you are met with true knowledge, with the perfectly true and level foundation upon which you are to build.
Philip is about to introduce Nathaniel to just such a foundation. “Come and see” he says, and he brings Nathaniel to the source of life and hope and identity. When Jesus sees him, he says, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Here a true Israelite meets the Messiah. In this meeting it becomes clear that Nathaniel doesn’t have it all figured out. His identity, which was wrapped up in his own knowledge of this is being unraveled, by one who seems to know him better than he knows himself. “How do you know me?” he asks Jesus. Who knows whom? And Jesus simply tells him that before Philip called him, he saw him sitting under a fig tree. It is no longer then about what Nathaniel knows but what Jesus knows, and Jesus knows Nathaniel.
Here Jesus flips the script. He turns everything over for Nathaniel. And he who wondered in his own knowledge if anything good could come from Nazareth finds himself saying, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” He makes a great confession of faith, a confession that is far beyond what his own knowledge could have established.
How is this different from your own experience before your Lord? You come before him, thinking you know things. You know your failures and your victories you know your Lord and how the world works, you know who are the righteous and who are the unrighteous. You know what is good, right and salutary and what is to be rejected. But far greater than even your own knowledge of yourself is the knowledge that God has of you. He knows you. He knows the sins you’ve done and the sin you’ve forgotten about and the sins that you have believed were not even sin. He knows the depth of you, the darkness and the fears. He knows your thoughts, words, and deeds.
And in that knowledge, he redefines who you are. Knowing it all, he sent his son born under the law to redeem each and every one of you. Knowing full well the pride and arrogance of man, God saw you and loved you. In the death of Christ he forgives you all of your sins. Like Nathaniel before you, he promises not because of what you know but because you are known to him, that one day you will see glories of his work. You will see the opening of heaven and the glory of the Son of Man, for you will see that all creation rejoices, not in what it knows but in being known to him.