READ : John 1:49-51
Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
John 1:49-51 rsv
This is a message about personal discovery. We meet today a man who found Jesus and then discovered to his surprise that Jesus had first found him. Later he came to understand how these things happen, how heaven and earth come together. The man’s name is Nathanael. Listen to his story. I’m reading from the Gospel according to John, chapter 1, at verse 45:
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.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
Notice first how this man Nathanael (whose name means “gift of God”) came to find Jesus. There’s quite a sequence of “finding” here. At the outset, we read that Jesus found a man named Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Then Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses and the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth.”
Apparently, Nathanael was already a kind of seeker. Like all the faithful in Israel, he was expecting God’s Messiah, Israel’s long-promised deliverer. A thrill of excitement must have raced through his heart as he heard this announcement from Philip, “We have found him.” But something about the report troubled him. It was that word Nazareth. The Messiah, a man from Nazareth? It seemed incongruous, almost ridiculous. Nathanael knew Nazareth well. He lived in the nearby town of Cana, what seemed to him a much more impressive and promising place. Nazareth was not a community highly regarded by the people of Cana. Nathanael gave voice to the troubling question on his mind, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Such ordinary, unremarkable surroundings seemed to him a stumbling block. Who could believe that the hope of Israel, the salvation of the world, would come from this town, Nazareth?
Philip didn’t argue with Nathanael about it. He didn’t try to answer the question or to defend Jesus’ home town. He simply said, “Come and see.”
Now we learn that Nathanael was an authentic, earnest seeker. He didn’t let his reservations, his preliminary objections, get in his way. He set them aside and went with Philip to meet Jesus. That’s how he found Him, Jesus, through the testimony of another. Someone said, “We have found the Lord; you can find Him, too.” Nathanael had his questions about who Jesus might be, but he decided to find out for himself. He came and he saw.
Now he was in for a surprise. Jesus acted as though He had known Nathanael for a long time. When He saw him coming, Jesus pointed Nathanael out to others as “an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.” That’s quite a remarkable statement, especially coming from Jesus. It was said of Him in this same Gospel according to John, that Jesus “knew what was in man” (2:25). He discerned the human heart, the heart that Jeremiah once described as “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (17:9). But Jesus calls Nathanael a man without deceit. It was Alexander Pope who once said, “An honest man is the noblest work of God.” Jesus saw in the approach of Nathanael one of those noble works, a man of integrity, a man without pretense, falsehood or treachery.
Wouldn’t it be something if Jesus who knows the heart could say that about you and me, that we are transparent people, that the intent to deceive is foreign to us, that we really are what we seem, that anyone could safely say about us, “What you see is what you get”? According to Shakespeare, people like that are a distinct minority. He has one of his characters say, “To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.” That was Nathanael.
Here’s his secret. Jesus calls him “an Israelite indeed.” He is genuinely one of God’s people. He belongs, body and soul, to the covenant community. What he is in name, he is also in conviction and heart. He is your classic covenant-keeper, trusting in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, delighting in His commandments, hoping in His mercy. That’s what frees Nathanael from sham and phoniness. He lives his life before the face of God. People who know God, who recognize that they live under His eye, who feel always accountable to Him, and experience His forgiving grace, they have nothing to hide.
Nathanael is taken aback by these words of Jesus. This is the first time he has ever laid eyes on the man from Nazareth, and yet Jesus is talking about him as though he knows him intimately. “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Jesus seems to be aware of everything that has led up to this moment. He knows exactly who invited Nathanael to come and precisely where he was when Philip found him. Long before Nathanael had any knowledge of Jesus, Jesus knew him. “I saw you with the vision that searches all hearts.”
Do you know what the gospel writers are telling us by this? It’s not simply an historical account about what happened in the town of Cana long ago. It’s a word also about you and me. It’s telling us when we first begin to learn about Jesus of Nazareth that He has already known about us for a long time. In fact, before we ever start out to find Him, He has already found us. We sing about that in one of my favorite hymns,
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of Thee.
I find, I walk, I love; but O the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to Thee!
For Thou wast long beforehand with my soul;
Always Thou lovest me.
That’s perhaps the greatest discovery we make when we find Jesus Christ, that He in His love has long been seeking for us.
Nathanael is overwhelmed by this. All his hesitancies and questions have vanished now. “Rabbi,” he cries, “you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Nathanael is convinced not only that He has found the Messiah but that in meeting Jesus he has found and been found by the living God. There’s no greater confession of Jesus in all the New Testament than this one. And it came from the lips of a man who had just at that moment been awakened.
Jesus tells His enthusiastic follower that this is only the beginning. “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” What things? we wonder. Here’s the word of Jesus about that: “Truly, truly I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
Nathanael, being “an Israelite indeed,” surely recognized in these words a reference to the experience of Jacob the patriarch. Once in a lonely place on the way to Haran, Jacob had a dream. We read about this in Genesis 28:12. He dreamed that there was “a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” What we call “a ladder” was probably more like an inclined ramp, on which traffic could freely move in both directions. The bottom of the ramp was on the earth and the top of it was in heaven. The ladder, the ramp, was a link, making it clear that all kinds of interaction were going on between earth and heaven. God spoke to Jacob that night, making rich and gracious promises to Him. The patriarch who had before been a man of cunning and deceit believed God’s promises and embarked on a new life. He called the place “Bethel,” house of God, because in a mysterious and wonderful way, God had revealed Himself to Jacob there.
Now Jesus is telling Nathanael that He will see a vision like this. A revelation of God will come to Him as well. Again there will be the ladder, the ramp, the connecting link. Again there will be the angels going up and down, again the interchange between heaven and earth. But there will be a startlingly new element in the vision. The ladder, the ramp, the connection between earth and heaven, will be the Son of man, Jesus’ favorite name for Himself. Jesus will be the fulfillment of the vision, the One in whom heaven and earth come together.
The heart of the vision promised to Nathanael is this: “You will see heaven opened.” If one message in the Bible is clear, it is that heaven is beyond our grasp. The story of the tower of Babel in the early chapters of Genesis illustrates the folly of man in his proud ambition, seeking to build a tower reaching to heaven. God forbids this. He puts obstacles in the way. It simply is not possible to attain heaven in our own way, to storm it by our efforts.
Only God, then, can open heaven. And we read three times in the New Testament that He has done so. Remember at the baptism of Jesus when the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form as a dove? Remember also when Stephen was on trial, about to be stoned to death. He said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). The third instance of opened heaven appeared to Peter on the rooftop of his home while he was praying. He saw in a vision that the gospel was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
In each of these instances, the opened heavens were the work of God and the event had to do with His saving purpose in Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself is the One who opens heaven. He’s the one Mediator between heaven and earth. He brings the salvation of God to us and brings us by His saving work into the presence of God. By His death for our sins, He has opened up a new and living way into God’s presence. Through Him we find entrance to the Father’s house and the Father’s heart.
That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). That’s what He meant when He said, “I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9). That’s what the apostle Paul meant when he said, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). That’s what Peter meant when he said, “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (but the name of Jesus)” (Acts 4:12).
Nathanael, as Jesus’ disciple, would come to grasp all of this. He would witness the crucifixion of Jesus, His atoning death for our sins. Nathanael would see the Lord risen from the dead. He would behold Him ascending to the Father’s right hand. He would know and proclaim that in Jesus, heaven is open to all who repent and believe.
Will you receive that today as God’s personal word to you? He has opened heaven, friends, to welcome you in. He has sent His Son Jesus to live among us, sharing our life, to die for us, bearing our sins, to prepare us a place in the many rooms of the Father’s house. If you will say to Him what Nathanael said, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God,” if you will say, “Jesus, You are my Savior and my Lord,” then He will be for you God’s ladder, God’s way, to the life that is life indeed.