The most interesting man who ever lived
In our new series titled "Meeting Jesus", we hope to introduce you to the most interesting man who ever lived. Is that an overstatement? Consider that Jesus Christ is the most influential human being to have ever walked the planet. Modern history takes its reference from the moment He was born in our dating system – 2017 A.D. (“Anno Dominum” means “Year of our Lord”). In 2013, Time Magazine crowned Him the most significant person in all history. According to the Guinness World Records, The book about Him – the Bible – is the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book. And He is so much more.
In the Bible, we’re told in John 1:1, that Jesus is the logos – the Greek word for The Logic, The Reason, and The Truth – in human flesh! The Logos, we are told, “was with God, and was God”. If you find this confusing, don’t worry, Christians do too. This is what we understand in the doctrine of the Trinity – that there are three persons in God, each distinct from one another, but no less God. This eternal Logos, who is Himself Reason, Truth, Meaning, Logic from eternity past, is with God, and is God. (John 1:2).
John 1:14 tells us later that this original Source of all that is meaning “became flesh, dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory”. Without Him, life doesn’t make any sense. This is why Christians make time to meet with and know this man – Jesus – the Logos who became flesh and dwelt among us.
Today, we’ll look at how Jesus meets with Nathanael. Nathanael is a man at home in our 21st century era of fake news and internet hoaxes – he’s a skeptic - and he is full of the doubts and questions that many of us have. Jesus’ interaction with Nathanael teaches us three important things about how to find faith and belief in Jesus.
(A) BELIEF IN JESUS BEGINS WITH A REAL PERSON (JOHN 1:43-44A)
Eyewitness testimony: real places, real people
The story of Jesus here references two places: Galilee and Bethsaida. We learn that, Jesus, God in flesh, makes a conscious choice to Galilee. Philip is from Bethsaida, and he is neighbours with two other men, Andrew and Peter. These places don’t strike us as important, but they are! What are we to do with these places?
What are we reading when we read the Bible? Notice that these references to actual historical places and real historical times set the text not in myth, fantasy or fiction, but in non-fiction reported eyewitness testimony. In his book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, scholar Michael Baukham argues that the New Testament Gospels were first hand eyewitness reports grounded in factuality and truth claims. To reinforce this point, did you know that right now, there is an archaeological dig in Israel for the rest of Bethsaida led by an American team from Nyack College? Even if you want to be sceptical and doubt the truth of the Bible, it’s clear that the claims of the Bible are squarely about real historical claims, not just religious oddities and spiritual realities.
When you read it, you’ll see that the Bible is not about disembodied ghosts, haunting spirits, heavenly realms, dragons, or magic incantations. The Bible story moves from real place to real place, and interacts with actual history and geography. In doing so, it challenges what we think about history and truth. John is telling us here about historical truth: a real Jesus makes a real decision and goes to a real place, and finds real people - Andrew and Peter - who have engaged with Jesus before (John 1:35).
What’s Jesus really like?
But how is Jesus described in these two verses? This style of writing - one part narrative, one part historical, and one part eye-witness is unusual at this time. At this point in time in history, the language of Greek myths contemporaneous to the Bible are completely different from this. Look at this example from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “And Venus' son replied: 'Your bow, Apollo,/May vanquish all, but mine shall vanquish you./As every creature yields to power divine,/So likewise shall your glory yield to mine.” Sentences are long, embellished, and filled with metaphors. But the New Testament style of writing is simple, economical, and plain. And the plain thing of the text is the main thing.
The plain presentation of Jesus is that He speaks simply, in the imperative mood. In other words, the reason Jesus went to Galilee was for Philip, which tells us that Jesus is motivated by people, to find them, and to meet then. He went looking for people, and when He found people, He said two words, “Follow me" (John 1:43). Jesus is decisive, direct, cares about people, knows them, and has come for them. This is a human Jesus! A Jesus who makes decisions, comes after people, and yet speaks with a strange, magnetic, authority.
It’s not just Christians who have been attracted to Jesus. Look at what these famous men (not all Christians) have to say about Him:
- “I know men and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded empires; but what foundation did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded an empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.” (Napoleon Bonaparte)
- “I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. Jesus is too colossal for the pen of phrase-mongers, however artful¡¨. He further added: “No man can read the gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. Theseus and other heroes of his type lack the authentic vitality of Jesus.” (Albert Einstein)
- “A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
Christianity is not a system of ideas or a philosophy. It’s built on this strange and magnetic Person that has captured the attention of the world - Jesus Christ. You don’t have to believe Him, but you can’t ignore Him. Do you know this Jesus? In this series, we hope to go back to the source, to examine Jesus -- his life, work and claims -- as He has revealed Himself to be. Here in John, we see that He is a real person.
(B) BELIEF IN JESUS CONFRONTS OUR ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT FAITH AND REALITY (JOHN 1:45-46)
Why is belief so hard?
Two types of people are represented in John 1:45-46. Philip, who references “Moses and the Law and the Prophets” (John 1:45), embodies the first type, and Nathanael, who questions the claims of his friend, embodies the second. Today, we might think of Philip as a conservative person, and Nathanael as a liberal one. Philip’s judgment of Jesus is based on traditional sources like the Bible and religious hope. Nathanael’s assessment is based on his cultural knowledge and norms (i.e., what everyone knows), reinforced by the facts of his personal experience. Nathanael is a skeptic - very much like a 21st century man! And it’s perfectly reasonable to be skeptical in an age of fake news, to have all our defences up, and say “where’s your proof?”
But something about Nathanael’s reply suggests that he leaned past the line of mere objectivity. He says “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” His comments reveal his biases and his superficial caricature of what everyone from Nazareth is like. Racism and other biases work the same way when we generalise and make sweeping claims, and we would all likely be lying if we did not do the same. Many of us can relate to this. There’s a kind of skepticism that goes beyond healthy doubt into an unhealthy cynicism. Psychologists tell us that cynicism is more of a defence mechanism than anything else. Cynicism is not an epistemological tool to help find the truth. It is a self-defence tool to protect our hearts from disappointment, and because we don’t want our hopes dashed and trust broken. So we put up our walls and say, “it can’t possibly be this way.”
Faith assumptions that cause doubt
So why was Nathanael so cynical? At that point in history, the Jews were under the oppression of the Roman Empire and Philip had told Nathanael that they had found “Him” - the promised Messiah (which means “Chosen One”) who would be the Saviour of the Jews from oppression. Nathanael was cynical because he was doubtful that anything could actually change for the better. This story really is a modern tale of power and oppression, of distrust and disappointment. Nathanael, like many of us, could not believe that things could change for the better. Do you believe that things in our world are beyond hope, and that there couldn’t possibly be a God? Are you like Nathaneal? How then can we develop faith in God if we have such strong doubt?
A key principle is this: you can’t disbelieve something unless you believe something else. Bestselling NY Times author Timothy Keller says that “the only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it. How do you know your belief is true? It would be inconsistent to require more justification for Christian belief than you do for your own, but that is frequently what happens. In fairness you must doubt your doubts.”
It wasn't that Nathanael had no faith in anything. Nathanael’s faith assumption was grounded in his own experience and that gave him so much conviction that he couldn’t believe in hope. This case study is of a person’s assumptions which were so strong, that they made it impossible for him to believe in hope and salvation. He believed that people, God, the Roman Empire, history, and himself were a certain way, and nothing could possibly change as a result. There are assumptions beneath our doubts that often go unquestioned. And these can be major obstacles to faith.
Two modern faith assumptions
Let’s look at 2 modern day assumptions that are obstacles to faith for many of us. Firstly, pluralism, which says that all religions must be equally true. In other words, “No one religion should be more arrogant than another to say that others are wrong, and because we have to all find space to co-exist, all religions must be the same.” But it does not necessary follow that all religions must be equally true! According to pluralism, the only way for this to be true is if we adjust the religions themselves and take out some of their offensive exclusiveness, and make everyone equally true.
However, in so doing, we’re doing the most arrogant thing of all – denying the religions of the world the right to be themselves, and forcing them to conform to our expectations of pluralistic equality. All religions are bound disagree with each other at some level, and what’s key for a religiously harmonious society is not that all of them are equally true, but for us to have respect and show kindness even when we think that other things are untrue. The moment you address pluralism and the false notion that religious harmony means there can’t be one truth, you can start to explore the possibility of a true faith.
Secondly, many hold to relativism, which says that all truth is relative and therefore, there can’t possibly be one absolute truth. Some use the famous analogy of the blind men and the elephant, where the six blind men each grasp a part of the elephant and think they truly know what an elephant is like.
The problem with this analogy is that the only way for one to make such a claim that everyone else holds a part of the truth in blindness is if you yourself are the unblind. You become the all-seeing truth holder, your statement – that “all truth is relative” – has to be an absolute truth. Isn’t this the exact kind of arrogance you wanted to avoid in the first place? The better way is to say this is that we are all in search of absolute truth, and in our search of it, we don’t have to be jerks to one another. Again, this allows us to really go in search of truth, humble and peaceable, not insisting, as the relativist announces ironically, the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth.
Nathaneal’s friend Philip knew that for the truth seeking Nathaneal, there was only one way to help him overcome his doubts. He merely extended an invitation to Nathanael to "Come, and see" (John 1:46). This is the same call the Bible makes to us, for there is no other way to believe than to come and see for yourself.
(C) BELIEF IN JESUS COMES FROM KNOWING AND BEING KNOWN BY HIM (JOHN 1:47-51)
Known by Jesus
Jesus and Nathanael finally meet, and there are two exchanges between them. Nathanael follows Philip, is spotted by Jesus from a distance, and hears Jesus says, “Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47). These words don’t sound like much to us, but whatever they mean, they triggered Nathanael. This is yet another fascinating thing about Jesus. His words are well chosen and most revealing. It’s not that Jesus is a good judge of character in a short amount of time, but that Jesus’ was able to discern Nathanael’s heart deep in his person. Jesus knew something at the core of Nathanael's being. It is this precise experience that draws every Christians to Jesus Christ – that Jesus knows who they are at their core. Christians follow Jesus not because He has good ideas or morals, but primarily because He knows us, knows something about us deep inside us that no one else knows about.
So what did Jesus know about Nathanael? The word “Israel” means “He who struggles with God”, and Jesus knew that Nathanael was a struggler and a skeptic. The phrase, “in whom there is no deceit”, tells us that Nathanael was not someone who just wanted to play the religious game of popularity or fit in with a crowd, but someone who really wanted to know the truth. And Jesus knew that about Him.
The next thing Jesus says is even better.
With the same tone of confidence and magnetic draw in verse 43, Jesus tells Nathanael that he saw him “before Philip called (him), when (he was) under the fig tree” (John 1:50), demonstrating His perfect divine knowledge and omniscience. It is this second statement that breaks Nathanael’s pride and pulls him in – only God could know what Jesus knew about Nathaneal. He responds by calling Jesus “Rabbi, the Son of God!”, which is an extraordinary claim to an extraordinary encounter. What did he see that made him want to know Jesus more? He saw Jesus as the All-Knowing One – God in the flesh – He would know how to fix the world, how to attend to a broken heart, and how to give us all hope.
If you are like Nathanael, struggling and skeptical, looking for serious truth, here’s the secret to faith: Jesus is a Person - not an idea. Meeting Him challenges all our prior assumptions about life and the hopes we have in it. He tells you that He knows you, and wants to be known by you. This is where faith comes from! No other religion in the world shows a God who comes looking for people this way. Nothing else says that truth, meaning, glory, and goodness in Heaven came down in the form of flesh and walked up to your door, saying, “I know you”. Only this Jesus walks all the way to our door, looks into the filth of our hearts, all our cynicism - our brokenness and hurt - and says, I saw you. This is not a blind faith. This is a faith anchored in a relationship, a person.
If you are like this, and if you wanted to be really honest about who you are, the Bible has a word that describes this condition - sin. Sin is where we want to be so in control of my life that we have to be God. And God sees all of that, and still wants to know you, and let you know Him.
In John 1: 50-51, Jesus asks him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these...you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." Jesus is basically telling Nathanael, “Are you impressed by this little display of knowledge? Wait till you see heaven open, and land, and burst forth from me.” And nowhere is this clearer than when He goes to the Cross, and the glory of God bursts through from heaven.
In some ways, this is exactly what skeptics need! The challenge is to come and see. Come as you are, meet Him, and let Him show you that He is heaven in the flesh.
From these verses, we've been reading about the skeptic who met Jesus. Jesus wasn't surprised or upset by his skepticism and cynicism. In fact, He knew about Nathanael's struggle, and still met with Him. Christians believe that this is the same Jesus that they know, and still wants to be known by us today. We can know this Jesus who wants to be known, because He has written about it all in this book, the Bible. This Bible has shown us how Jesus came and sought people out, fully aware of their questions and struggles, and heaven connects to the world through Jesus. Christianity is not a philosophy; Christianity is a relationship with God.
Perhaps you have questions or are struggling with doubts like Nathanael. To use the words of Philip, we'd challenge you to "come and see". Come as you are, because Jesus already knows you. Come and let Jesus show you heaven in the flesh. Come and meet Jesus through the Bible.