Introduction: Nathanael was Philip’s closest companion. In all four lists of the apostles he is listed by his surname Bartholomew. Nathanael is only mentioned one time in each of the Synoptic Gospels as well as one time in the books of Acts when the apostles are named in a list, and he is only mentioned twice in the book of John.
records for us that Nathanael came from the small town of Cana in Galilee. Cana is where Jesus did his first miracle (turning the water into wine) and was very close to Jesus’ own hometown of Nazareth.
Pretty much everything we know about Nathanael comes from John’s account of his call to be a disciple.
The call of Nathanael takes place near the wilderness shortly after Jesus was baptized by John. Peter, Andrew, James, and John had all become disciples of Christ and the next day after that Jesus sought out Philip to follow Him. Philip then comes to his close friend and companion, Nathanael, and shares with him that he had found the Messiah.
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
One thing that must have been true about Nathanael is that he loved the Scripture and sought to know the truths that were in it. When Philip came to him he announced that he had found the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote. Philip knew Nathanael and knew that Nathanael would only be intrigued from the standpoint of Old Testament prophecy. Philip did not say, “I have found someone who has a plan for your life,” or, “I have found someone who will fix your problems and make your life better.” Philip knew that Nathanael was only interested in truth. Nathanael was not the kind of person that would dedicate his life to something just because it made him feel good.
Again, we see a disciple who was dedicated to truth. Unlike the religious establishment which was only interested in traditions and power. The disciples, who were clearly appointed to replace the defective establishment, were the real deal.
Philip and Nathanael most likely had studied the Scriptures together and so when Jesus came they were immediately able to recognize him because of the truths that they had immersed themselves in. In Nathanael’s case we will soon see that he is able to recognize Jesus after just a very, very brief conversation with him.
So, Philip presented Jesus to Nathanael on the basis of the Old Testament. He then goes on to say, “[it is] Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Again, knowing Nathanael, Philip led out with the fact that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy because he knew how unbelievable it would sound that Jesus was from Nazareth and was the son of a carpenter.
Nathanael was a faithful and diligent seeker of truth. However, he was still human.
And Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
This statement reveals the human side of Nathanael. He was prejudice. He could have said, “Isn’t the Messiah supposed to be out of Bethlehem?” or “Isn’t the Messiah identified with Jerusalem?” Instead he chooses to say, “ Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Here Nathanael reveals the contempt he feels towards the town of Nazareth. This is ironic considering that he himself is from Cana which itself lacks anything exceptional or attractive. Both Nazareth and Cana was ordinary towns filled with ordinary working people. Nazareth was at least a crossroads between the Mediterranean and Galilee. No one would ever pass through Cana. Cana was out of the way of everything. If you ended up in Cana it is because you went there on purpose. You never just happened upon it. So, this prejudice was not really logical but instead represented a civic rivalry between towns.
And so, again, we see Jesus choosing someone who is unexceptional and in this case obviously flawed to change him into a remarkable witness of the glory of God. Prejudice is an ugly thing that can cause a type of spiritual blindness. Many Jews actually rejected Jesus out of prejudice. Even those from Nazareth did not believe what Jesus taught and actually sough to kill him after he spoke in their synagogue. The religious leaders from Jerusalem can often be seen mocking Jesus and the apostles saying, “Aren’t you from Galilee?” They even used prejudice to try to get Nicodemus back in line by asking him, “Are you also from Galilee?” Prejudice then as well as today has the potential to cut people off from the gospel.
We must realize the reality that all sinful unredeemed people are prejudiced. Fortunately for Philip his prejudice was not as strong as his desire to know the Messiah of whom Moses and the prophets wrote.
When Jesus first met Nathanael the first thing he did was strongly commend his character.
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!”
In a world of hypocrisy, here was one who was genuine. If he were alive today he might be known as the apostle to the millennials. He was genuine, His love for God was genuine, and His desire to see the Messiah was all genuine. It is actually his genuineness that allows him to see Jesus for who He is.
Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And He said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”
Jesus reveals how he knows him by citing Nathanael’s seeking of God under the fig tree. He also promises that Nathanael will be able to see greater things than simply knowing. Nathanael will see the pathway to God - the ladder to heaven (which is Himself).
Conclusion: Really, that’s all we know a about Nathanael from Scripture. Early church history suggests that he took the gospel to India and Persia. There is no reliable record of how he died. One tradition says that he was tied up in a sack and tossed into the sea. Another says that he was crucified. But every account that exists says that he was martyred just like the other ten apostles. What we do know is that Nathanael was faithful to the end. Nathanael was even faithful from the start. Again we see that God can take someone ordinary and equip him to do things that are extraordinary.