Lectionary Reading: John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.' Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 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.' Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.'

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!' Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?' Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.' Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!' Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.' 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.'

I noticed a short piece of commentary at the beginning of John in my Bible: John is talking to Christians; it is an "in house" document. That's true! You need to be thoroughly familiar with both Christian and Jewish thinking in this week's reading, or it sounds like cheap magic, poorly written.

Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit! is a play on words. In Genesis Chapter 27, Jacob the (younger) twin brother of Esau, tricks Esau into selling his birthright as the older son. He also deceives his father Isaac into giving him the paternal blessing that goes with that birthright. When Isaac discovers this he says (v35) ‘Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.' Esau replies: ‘Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.'

"Jacob" in Hebrew sounds like the noun for "heel," and like the verb for holding or taking by the heel. It could mean "the supplanter." It has nuances of assailing from the rear, by stealth. (You can see this, for example on pp43 How to read the Bible Stephen L McKenzie Oxford University Press US, 2005. Use Google Book search.)

Later in the story, God gives Jacob the name "Israel." The first Israel-ite is deceitful. Nathaneal is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. This is a deep personal compliment. Coming from a stranger, albeit with wry humour, one would be left wondering, "How do you know this about me?"

Jesus said he saw him under the fig tree before Phillip called him. The verb used for "saw" has overtones of a deep insight into Phillip's nature, and under the fig tree is what Bill Loader calls "the image of the ideal Israelite in utopia, probably sitting studying the Law."

and every man ‘neath his vine and fig tree,
shall live in peace and unafraid...

This is an "in house, in code" conversation.
You're impressed by my insights and wisdom? This might speak to those of us who tread lightly around some of the religious claims about Jesus, but are deeply impressed by Jesus' humanity, and who value his wisdom as a way of life that humanises and completes us.
You will see much more than this! Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

This is more insider code. When Jacob flees his brother's wrath, and begins his long, slow repentance, he has a dream (Genesis 28) of angels ascending and descending from heaven on a ladder. God blessed him in the dream and made the promise "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth... " Jacob is told he is part of the sacred story.

Later, as he finally comes to face his brother, he also faces God, who re-names him "Israel." (Genesis 32:22)

What John is telling us, and Nathanael, is that Jesus is that ladder. It is through him that the heavens will be opened to Nathaneal, and us; you will see the heavens opened is in the plural.

The gospel goes on to show that the opening is particularly achieved through Jesus death and resurrection.

I'm one of those who "treads lightly around some of the religious claims about Jesus." It's not about "not believing." Rather, I'm not sure how we translate some of those claims to language that makes sense and has content in the world view of the twenty first century, and how we discern the degree to which the language of John and others should critique that world view. The claims are great: In this beginning of the gospel there are ontological claims made for Jesus. In some respect "he is from the beginning," or as I said somewhere else "the beginning is from Jesus!" Jesus is also not the expected religious answer. He is not from Jerusalem, the religious centre of the world, but Nazareth. Can anything good come from Nazareth?

There is one further "unexpected." His significance is in death and resurrection. If we value Jesus wisdom as a way of life that will humanise us, it appears facing death is part of the deal!

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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