John 1:43–51 (NRSV)
Jesus Calls Philip and Nathanael
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
One of the most quoted statement in our contemporary culture is that people love Jesus but hate the church. There is something powerful in that statement that should make each of immediately stop whatever we are doing at that moment, turning our attention to the one making the statement, and engage that individual in conversation. I say this not because we need to proceed to argue with them and attempt to convert their souls with our craft use of the most advanced apologetic techniques, but because that person is saying something very profound about the life of the church. “I love Jesus but Hate the Church.” For probably most of us this statement causes us to cringe, like we had just licked a 9 volt battery on a dare. Our first reaction is to prove them wrong to lash out, but what they are actually pleading for is not an opportunity to engage in debate but to be listened too.
That statement speaks volumes about the church engages our culture. Somehow and somewhere along the course of this individual’s life the witness of the church has separated from the testimony of Christ. Somewhere along the line the gospel of Christ was separated from the assembly of believers. That is a damning statement, one that is painful to even contemplate let alone speak among one such gathering, but a statement that must be considered. How can someone say that they love Jesus yet hate those people that follow the Him?
This is the reality of the situation that the house of Israel was facing during the revelation of Jesus during the first century. Of course they did not know the reality of Christ at that point but they were very familiar with the concept of a people set apart for the glory of the one true God. That is the very reason that John was out in the wilderness baptizing the people of Israel and encouraging them to repent for the kingdom of God is drawing near. That is the reason that it was proper for Jesus to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan to reveal the opening of the floodgates of heaven to a new and more intimate relationship with God. One that was not devoted to the shadows of the temple but the very passion and blood of humanity.
Jesus rose from the waters and the Spirit of God spoke as the water drops fell from the locks of Jesus’ hair, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God made flesh, the divine living among the created, and the holy living with the depraved. John the Baptizer looked out as Jesus walked by, and spoke to those around him, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Imagine for a moment that scene, the confused looks of the followers and disciples of John as their teacher the one that was calling them to turn around and live for God in a different and more real way stood in awe of this retreating man. As Jesus walked away these men watched this bold preacher dramatically turn into a meek and submissive servant, gladly submitting to this man. The confusion, and the utter awe of the situation. A couple drop what they have and they follow this man. Among them was a man with the name Philip. If you were to look at the history and origin of this name you would find that it is not a name originating from Semitic roots but is a name of Greek origin meaning lover of horses. The meaning does not really give any real enlightenment but the origin loudly proclaims where the faith of the parent is rooted. Though Philip was Jewish his parents gave him a Greek name. That very fact gives us a vast understanding at the state of first century Israel. They were occupied they were blended and influenced by outside cultures. John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness because the faithful of Israel were not completely separated and devoted only to God but were as much a part of the world as we are to ours. There were people walking in the dust of the Holy land saying similar things as many are saying today. We love the idea of God, but we hate the Temple. John himself by baptizing in the Jordan was saying that there was a separation, or a disunity between the actions of the nation and the reality of their spiritual existence. They needed to repent to turn back to God.
Philip is there near the banks of the Jordan listening to John, yet feeling like an outsider do the heritage given to him by his parents. He did not run after this man whom John said was the lamb of God, he held himself back possibly feeling removed and excluded from the hope of Israel. He waited while the others Andrew and Peter, followed but the very next day Jesus found Philip and said to him, “Follow Me.” A Greek Jew was nearly as bad a straight up uncircumcised Gentile in the eyes of the zealots. He would have been rejected by the majority of rabbis simply because his parents were not devout enough, his heritage may have even been questioned yet Jesus come to him, looks him in the eye, and offers him the greatest opportunity every human truly want the opportunity to know and be known.
This man could have lived his entire life rejected, constantly having his faith questioned by the very people that should have been encouraging him, finding acceptance only from a crazy preacher out in the wilderness, and then the teacher he respected looks to another in holy reverence and that man comes to Philip accepting him and giving him a chance to be involved in something more. Philip immediately understands that everything has changed. Something different has emerged, he begins to see that the kingdom has opened up and become available to all people. So he runs to speak to his friend, telling him we have found the one spoken of by Moses and the prophets, Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth.
Again it is important to note that Nazareth was not a significant location. It was not a major metropolis, it was not on any major trade route, but it had a reputation. It was most likely a city of labor a city that cut and mined limestone rocks, and like most blue collar cities it probably had a hardened reputation. If we were to compare it to a city today it might resemble the economically challenged areas of Detroit, once having a thriving economy while the stone was being gathered for the great building projects of Herod but now that the construction had fallen off is now just a hardened and impoverished. People that once focused their attention on their careers now unemployed and angry. Nathanial says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” because this area was filled with rouge rebels and bandits looking for a fight that could line their pockets with ill received gains.
Nathanael curious at what could have gotten his friend so excited decides to respond to Philip’s invitation to come and see. As he approaches Jesus, Jesus says, “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” This greeting has always been odd to me, especially when one considers the fact that he was close enough friend to Philip, the Greek Jew, for him to be the first person Philip wanted to find after his encounter with Jesus. True Israelite is not exactly the term that one would say to someone who hung out with an impure outsider. But that was the greeting, “here is a true Israelite.”
This got me thinking, why would Jesus single out Nathanael as a true Israelite? What about him was different from the others Jesus had asked to follow Him at this point? Was he more devout or more righteous? Again we must consider the company that he kept. I keep bringing up the Greek influence of Philip’s name because of the way that the Jewish people treated the people of Samaria the half breeds the ones that did not keep pure lines within the tribe. How could someone be called a true Israelite when they keep the company of on similar to this?
Who is Israel? This goes back to the very beginning of the tribes when Jacob received a new name, Israel, from God. He gained this name because he spent an entire night wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. He would not give up until this Angel, of whom most would say was a manifestation of Jesus prior to his birth, blessed him. So Jacob received the name one who wrestles with God. Nathanael was a true Israelite, or one that is of the follows the line of God wrestlers. He did not simply sit back idle but he wrestled with God. Nathanael was not simply content or fatalistic but he actively pursued an understanding or relationship with God. This greeting alludes to the possibility that Nathanael was not afraid to question the status quo and would struggle to make sense of the emerging culture around him and where God was in it. He struggled, he pursued, and he sought the relationship even if the religious norm around him seemed to go a different way.
Nathanael then ask Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” This is just as odd of a response to an odd greeting. But fitting if we look at the greeting from the perspective I just mentioned. If Nathanael was the wrestler as I described then to be considered a true Israelite in that case Nathanael could have taken the greeting very negatively. Which is the response he gave. Basically he is telling Jesus who are you to judge? Yet Jesus answers that he saw him under the fig tree. There is a traditional saying that rabbis would go into the shade of a fig tree to do their studying. Making this place under the fig tree a very intimate place for one to wrestle with the things of God. So it is clear that though Nathanael may not be one of the religious elite of Israel he was actively pursuing the relational aspects of God, and Jesus met him there in the shade and knew what was being said. Chances are very high that for Nathanial to respond by saying, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” whatever was being wrestled with under that tree was revealed in some manner, and that probably had something to do with his friend Philip.
So back to the all too common statement of, “I love Jesus but Hate the Church.” A statement that is so easily thrown around in our culture today. We have a parallel at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus at that moment was unknown but obviously there was something about him that attracted these men’s attention so early. Something simple yet very profound. Each one was drawn into discipleship through a very simple conversation, come and see or follow me. They were moved by an invitation to a conversation, and invitation to know and be known, and invitation to wrestle with God and be accepted even if the challenge goes against the perceived cultural norm. John the crazy preacher testified about Him, and sent his followers to Jesus. Andrew on of John’s disciples followed Jesus and brought his brother to also see him. Jesus went out to find Philip the Greek Jew and gave him the opportunity enter into a relationship which quite possibly was often neglected do to his heritage, and then Philip brings in Nathanael the one that wrestles. None of these first disciples would have been people the contemporary culture of the day would have considered worthy of the attention of a Rabbi, yet Jesus invited them to come and see, to follow, and to wrestle. Jesus accepted them where they were and he lifted them up to see and experience greater things.
Jesus is still calling and inviting people to come and see, to follow, and to wrestle. This is where the statement “I love Jesus but hate the church” comes from. People are still interested and intrigued by Jesus, but the church has not always been accepting of those that are invited. We have separated Christ from the gospel to such a degree that people no longer see Christ in the Church. You cringe and rightfully so because that is something to cringe about, something to wrestle with and challenge to take on. Each of us who take on the name of Christ are involved in that challenge. They love Jesus, they love the acceptance and the grace of Jesus but they hate us. That is profound. Why? We can puff ourselves up and say that it is because we are righteous and people do not want to be righteous, but why then are there charitable and humanitarian organizations that do the work that Christ calls us to do that have nothing to do with Christ? We can say that it is because they reject God, but that then leads us to ask what God or image of God are they rejecting? They are rejecting our image of God, the image of a judgmental and wrathful God, the God that demands the blood of all that reject him. But that is not the image of God that is revealed through Jesus, the image of God that would lay down His life for the ones that were his enemies.
Philip was most likely rejected by the religious elite, Nathanael was most likely put off by the religious elite, Peter and Andrew were seen as simple uneducated men not worth the time of the religious elite, yet each was actively pursued and asked by God himself to follow him. Each of these men walked along side of Jesus and saw Jesus open the gate of heaven in ways that were never before imagined. As we enter into this time of open worship consider the statement often repeated “I love Jesus but hate the church.” Consider if we as follower of Jesus are adequately reflecting the image of God within us as revealed by Jesus. Are we accepting of the rejected and encouraging to the discouraged, are we inviting those around us to come and see and to walk with us as we follow Christ? Or are we just possibly participating in something totally different and quite possibly devoid of Christ? Jesus taught and showed us a rhythm of live that revolved around worship, prayer, and service. He is calling each of us into that life as well, a life of loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others. To be people devoted to that lifestyle it requires us to entrust every aspect of our life into his hands, it requires us to cling to him and wrestle even when we do not understand what he is doing. It requires us to embrace the unlikely and to encourage them to walk beside us as they respond to their personal invitation from Christ to come and see.