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John 1:47 says,
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!”
Nathanael is a Hebrew name (Nethanyah or Netanyahu). It is rendered Nethaniah (1 Chron. 25:12) in the KJV and NASB. It is written as Nathanael in the New Testament.
He was “an Israelite indeed” from Cana in Galilee (John 21:2). Cana was situated just a few miles north of Nazareth. No doubt Jesus had visited Cana many times while growing up in Nazareth. The two towns were very different. Cana was influenced by Greek culture, while Nazareth was a hardline Jewish settlement.
When Jesus met Nathanael, no doubt they had much to discuss, since, unknown to them, they had been neighbors. It may be too that Nathanael was the one who invited Jesus to the wedding feast in Cana.
Jesus recognized Nathanael as an Israelite “indeed” (alethos, “truly”). The word alethos means much the same as amen, translated “truly” in the NASB and “verily” in the KJV. Obviously, amen is a Hebrew word, not Greek, but John employs it within the Greek text of his gospel. When the word is doubled, “amen, amen,” it is used to show agreement when taking an oath, as in Num. 5:22 and Neh. 8:6. The word means “of a truth, verily, or truly.” The doubling of this word in John’s gospel occurs 25 times for a total of 50 times that amen is used. That suggests a Jubilee being established by Jesus Christ, the Amen of God (Rev. 3:14).
But in John 1:47 the word that John chose was alethos, which is essentially a synonym of amen. Alethos was used many times in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament, where it is normally translated “true.” Using that as the standard meaning of alethos, we can say that Jesus called Nathanael a true Israelite.
On what grounds did Jesus call him a true Israelite? It was because he had “no deceit.” This takes us back to Jacob, who became an Israelite after wrestling with the angel Peniel. Prior to that time, he was Jacob, the deceiver. To deceive is to beguile. Hence, Jacob had “guile” (KJV) or “deceit” (NASB) as long as he was known by the name Jacob. He had not yet learned the sovereignty of God, even though he was a believer from the beginning.
Jacob knew his calling, but he thought that he had to plot, scheme, and fight to attain the birthright. Only when he wrestled with the angel did he come to see God face to face and to realize that the promise of God did not depend upon his own work. He then ceased struggling and was able to enter God’s rest, knowing that no man on earth had the power to prevent him from fulfilling the call on his life. God is able to do what He has promised and purposed to do with him.
Likewise, Jesus recognized that Nathanael had undergone a similar struggle and had overcome. Hence, he was a true Israelite without guile, a man of faith, an overcomer.
John 1:48 says,
48 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.”
Did Jesus actually see Nathanael under a fig tree? Probably not. No doubt Jesus was referring to a spiritual encounter of some sort, which paralleled Jacob’s encounter with Peniel. In this case Jesus played the role of Peniel, “God’s face,” for this sets us up for a later conversation between Jesus and Philip in John 14:8-10. Philip wanted Jesus to “show us the Father,” but Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” Hence, just as Jacob said, after wrestling with Peniel, “I have seen God face to face” (Gen. 32:30), so also did Jesus represent the Father, and the disciples could see God face to face by beholding Jesus.
This entire encounter lays the foundations for John’s broader purpose in writing his gospel, which was to show how Jesus, God’s Agent, manifested the glory of God in the earth. Even before the eight miracle-signs in this gospel, which “manifested His glory” (John 2:11), the glory of God was manifested to Nathanael through some unknown spiritual encounter that transformed him into “an Israelite indeed.” It was his “Peniel” moment.
Strangely, John tells us nothing more about that encounter. Perhaps it was too personal. But it was enough to lay the groundwork for the truth about how all believers must be transformed from Jacobites to Israelites. Paul adds to our understanding in 2 Cor. 3:18,
18 But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
We are changed by beholding Him as He beholds us. In the context, we see that this is possible only when the Old Covenant veil is removed from our face (2 Cor. 3:14-16). The Old Covenant hides the glory of God in the face of Moses (Exodus 34:34) but turning to the New Covenant removes the veil and reveals His glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
John 1:49 says,
49 Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.”
This is the response of a true Israelite. Nathanael confessed Christ’s sovereignty as “the King of Israel.” In like manner, when Jacob recognized the sovereignty of God, he became an Israelite. Jacob wrestled all night until the angel “touched the socket of his thigh,” dislocating it (Gen. 32:25). That was his moment of truth, for he then realized that he was not really fighting his brother Esau but God Himself.
Jacob was then disabled and could no longer wrestle. By losing, he won. He could only hang on, and he would not let go until the angel blessed him. In ceasing to strive, he was blessed. In understanding the sovereignty of God, he received a new name, Israel, “God rules.” Hebrew names ending in -el (“God”) indicate that God is the one doing the action. Hence, Isra-el should not be viewed as man “ruling with God” per se, as so many think, for the focus is not on man’s rule but God’s rule. Jacob’s new name testified that “God rules.”
What qualifies a man to rule with God is His revelation that God rules. This is the only way a man can truly think of himself as a steward or trustee of the Kingdom. When Jacob learned that God rules, he received the name Israel as a testimony of this revelation and understanding. This was a transformational revelation, for Jacob was changed by beholding God’s face in Peniel.
So also Nathanael had been a New Testament Jacob-turned-Israel. Once Jesus revealed Himself as the One whom Nathanael had wrestled spiritually—perhaps under the fig tree—he immediately confessed, “You are the King of Israel.” Not only was Jesus the King of the nation of Israel, He was also the King of the man Israel, and, by extension, Nathanael himself.
Jesus’ reference to the fig tree is quite obscure, especially since John Himself does not develop that theme in the rest of his gospel. Hence, the fig tree is as mysterious as Nathanael’s encounter itself. Yet when we connect this to the message of John the Baptist and realize that John was called as God’s agent of visitation to investigate fruit from the nation of Judah (i.e., the fig tree), a picture begins to emerge.
The Baptist said in Luke 3:9,
8 Indeed, the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
John came looking for the kind of spiritual fruit that God could enjoy eating. But Judah was a fruitless fig tree. John himself was executed after one year of ministry, and Jesus took over the investigation for the next three years (Luke 13:6-9). At the end of the investigation, Jesus cursed the fruitless fig tree (Matt. 21:19), and it withered, never again to bear fruit, as Jesus said.
The point is that Nathanael had his Peniel moment under a fig tree. Ripe fruit falls down under a tree, so Nathanael as an individual played the role of a ripe fig. The implication is that he was one of the fruit-bearing trees, although the nation as a whole was fruitless. To bear fruit is the sign of “an Israelite indeed” (Isaiah 27:6).
John 1:51 concludes,
51 And He said to him, “Truly, truly [amen, amen] I say to you, you will see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Here Jesus gives a second reference to Jacob, who saw in a dream at Bethel the angels of God “ascending and descending” (Gen. 28:12). When Jacob awoke, he anointed the stone that he had used as his pillow, for he perceived that the angels of God had ascended and descended upon that stone.
That stone became a type of Christ, and Jacob anointed (christened) it, because messiah (or Christ) means “anointed one.” Later, that stone was called “the shepherd, the stone of Israel” (Gen. 49:24), and it was entrusted to Joseph, the birthright holder, whose sons received the name of Israel (Gen. 48:16). The stone remained with the descendants of Joseph until they left Egypt, and Paul tells us that this rock “followed them” (1 Cor. 10:4) and provided water for them.
Jesus told Nathanael that he would see the true meaning of Jacob’s dream at Bethel. Whereas Jacob saw angels ascending and descending on a stone, Nathanael would see them coming upon “the Son of Man.” Nathanael was to see Christ as both the Son of God and the Son of Man.
The Son of Man was a messianic term used in Daniel 7:13,
13 I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven, One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him.
For a “Son of Man” to come down from heaven, He would first have to ascend into heaven as the Son of God (John 3:13). In other words, after His resurrection, at the time of the wave-sheaf offering, Christ would have to be presented to the Father as the Son of God.
In Dan. 7:9, the Son of Man approached “the Ancient of Days” who sat upon the throne. The Son of Man and His Father are treated as distinct individuals. When Jesus was being tried before Caiaphas, He was adjured to speak the whole truth about who He was, and only then did Jesus reveal His identity fully by quoting Dan. 7:13. (See Matt. 26:64.) Not believing His testimony, the high priest condemned Jesus to death on a charge of blasphemy.
Coming on the clouds of heaven was the equivalent of seeing the heavens opened in John 1:51. The significance of angels ascending and descending upon Christ pictures Him as the Commander-in-Chief of angelic hosts.
Daniel 7:14 says that he was given “dominion.” Paul tells us that all things will be put in subjection to Him (1 Cor. 15:27, 28).
Everyone will see this ultimately, but Nathanael saw this from an overcomer’s perspective. It implies that as an Israelite indeed, he was to see it as a disciple and as part of the body of Christ.