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You ain’t seen nothing yet!

August 24, 2015

John 1:45-51                                      Monday 24th August 2015

Saint Bartholomew

Saint Bartholomew, whom we celebrate today, is one of the 12 apostles, but you may have noticed in the gospel that the story today is about someone called Nathaniel. There are two reasons why we think Nathanael and Bartholomew are the same person: Firstly, the name Bartholomaios appears in the lists of Apostles following the Apostle Philip in all three gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke; in the same list in John’s gospel Bartholomew is not mentioned at all, but the name Nathanael is listed instead after Philip.

It looks like the first three evangelists are using his surname (Bartholomew, a family name which means ‘son of Talmai’; whereas John uses his first name, Nathaniel, which means ‘gift of God’. Nathaniel Bartholomew.

When Philip tells Nathaniel about Jesus he says he has found someone special, he describes Jesus as ‘the one Moses wrote about in the Law’. Do you know where Moses wrote in the Law about Jesus? Well, Moses made a lot of remarks that could be interpreted as references to the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, but probably the most explicit reference is found in the Book of Deuteronomy (which is indeed where Moses wrote about the Law), when warning his people against pagan religion, saying that insterad, God would ‘send a prophet like me from among your own people, and you are to obey him.’[1] This is probably the clearest reference made by Moses to the coming of the Messiah. And who is ‘the one about whom the prophets wrote’?

There are many prophecies in the Old Testament, here are just a few:

  • The Prophet Nathan told King David that one of his descendants would be a king, saying ‘I will establish his throne for ever. I will be his Father, and he shall be my Son’;[2]
  • King David himself prophesied in many of the psalms he wrote of the coming of the Messiah;[3]
  • Isaiah prophesied the virgin birth[4]; that the Messiah would preach in the region of Galilee[5]; and that He would perform miracles by healing the sick, blind and lame[6]

Daniel, Amos, Zachariah…. I could go on (other prophets are available).

But we certainly know from this gospel that Nathaniel was an observant, devout Jew who knew his scriptures well. He certainly knew that the Messiah was predicted to be born in Bethlehem, as prophesied by the Prophet Micah.[7] That’s why Nathaniel immediately challenges Philip when he hears about Jesus coming from Nazareth: ‘Can anything good come from that place?’ He is not saying Nazareth is a bad place; he is merely noting that the Messiah is not destined to come from Nazareth.

But then, when Nathaniel meets Jesus, there’s an amazing change of heart. All doubt leaves Nathanielh. It happens when Jesus says he had seen Nathaniel ‘under the fig tree’ even before Philip had spoken to him. Nathaniel is astonished, and in an amazing declaration of faith he spontaneously declares, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.’ Thus it is that Nathaniel is the first of the 12 disciples to recognise Jesus for WHO He is and WHAT He is.

It was in using the simple phrase, ‘I saw you under the fig tree’ that Jesus seems to have achieved a miraculous conversion, to have convinced Nathaniel beyond all doubt as to the true identity of Jesus. Why? What’s so special about that phrase?

‘Under the fig tree’ was a figure of speech used by the Jews to mean ‘studying the Torah – meditating on the Law. Perhaps Nathaniel had indeed been under a fig tree, but I think it is much more credible, given his reaction, that Nathaniel had been meditating and praying in private. And if he were a devout Jew, he may have been praying for the coming of the promised Messiah. That is because, given all the prophecies of a messiah in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), it was an article of faith for devout Jews to pray for the messiah to come. That may be why Jesus referred to Nathaniel as an ‘Israelite’ who was incapable of deceit. Perhaps Nathaniel had been devoutly, earnestly praying for the Messiah to come; perhaps in his prayer Nathaniel had pleaded with God to listen to him, using the words, ‘I am incapable of deceit, please hear my genuine prayer, I’m not praying like this just because I have to…. I REALLY mean it.’

Who knows for sure? But the fact is, Nathaniel immediately recognised Jesus as ‘The Son of God, the King of Israel’ – the exact description of the Messiah prophesied to King David one thousand years earlier. Nathaniel knows his scriptures; and he recognises Jesus. The startling transformation might have been because only Nathaniel knew WHAT he had prayed to God, and Jesus knew what he had prayed. In other words, Jesus had knowledge of Nathaniel’s private prayers known only to God. Conclusion – Jesus is someone VERY special indeed!

And Jesus finishes by telling Nathaniel, to use a phrase, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!’ Jesus shares the beatific vision, the vision of heaven described by the Prophet Daniel.[8]

As always, there is a message here for us. We need to pray fervently, honestly, without deceit, without fooling ourselves. God will hear our prayers. And then we have to be ready for unexpected things to happen. We need to be ready to, as they say, to ‘join the dots’. The basis for so much of our faith is in the scriptures. So linking the scriptures with prayer is a powerful combination. Praying the scriptures, interpreting them, being open to inspiration by the Holy Spirit to respond to God’s word, is what we believe as devout Christians. Simply having a completely honest conversation with God in our prayers, letting go and meditating rather than just ‘going through the motions’ is the key to a transformation in our outlook. The problem is that if we think prayer is a private activity, not to be shared with others, we can miss the revelations, the insights, and the wisdom given to us. We must have the courage of our convictions to act on our faith and talk about it amongst ourselves, not to be embarrassed. Just like Philip and Nathaniel, who clearly knew each other and talked about their faith with each other; and just like Jesus, who never hesitates to discern what is needed by other people and then to tell them, in the process gaining followers and changing their lives forever.

[1] Deuteronomy 18:15

[2] 1 Chronicles 17:12-13

[3] e.g. Psalm 2, 8, 16, 17, 19, 20, 22, 31, 41, 45, 48, 49, 55, 65, 67, 68, 72, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 110, 118, 132

[4] Isaiah 7:14

[5] Isaiah 9: 42

[6] Isaiah 35: 5-6

[7] Micah 5:2

[8] Daniel 7:13

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