No one really knows who Nathanael is. He appears only in John’s Gospel and only twice there — in the first chapter and the last. Such a cameo appearance is not totally surprising in John’s Gospel. John’s chapters are filled with persons, unknown in the synoptics, who make brief but profound appearances — Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind. These little-known characters serve an important role in the fourth gospel. They are the straight men. They ask questions, which set up a teachable moment for Jesus. The questions, some humorous — some not, continually highlight the difference between the life these people live and the life which Jesus offers. ”How can a man enter his mother’s womb for a second time?” Nicodemus asked. ”How can you give me water, you don’t even have a bucket?” the Samaritan woman protested. And the question of Nathanael, the first straight man in John’s Gospel, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
When Nathanael responds to Philip’s simple invitation to “come and see”
and encounters Jesus, he is immediately convinced that he has indeed
found the messiah of God. This meeting, as is nearly every meeting in
John’s Gospel, serves as a clash of two worlds and exposes both how
little Nathanael (and this world) knows about Jesus (in his earlier
dismissal) and how much Jesus knows about Nathanael. “Behold,” Jesus
said of Nathanael, “An Israelite in whom there is no guile” (John 1:47).
What sort of greeting is this? Perhaps Jesus is announcing,
“Here is the true Israelite.” Throughout the Gospel, Jesus spars with
the Jewish leaders, clears the Temple, breaks the rigid legal codes,
exposes religious hypocrisy, challenges institutional authority, and
ultimately triumphs over the leaders’ jealousy and hatred. John seems
to express in the person of Nathanael that Jesus is not rejecting
Judaism, rather he is rejecting the way it has been institutionalized.
Nathanael is the true Jew, the true Israelite, the uncorrupted Jew, “the
Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
Perhaps because of his pure heart (Matthew 5:8), Nathanael immediately recognizes and
confesses Jesus as not only the Son of God, but also as the King of
Israel, the true leader of the Jews. It is interesting to note, that it
was this same title, King of the Jews, which Pilate hand-wrote and
placed on the cross when Jesus was crucified (John 19:19-22), much to
the dismay of the Jewish leaders. It seems that the kingship and
authority of Jesus served as a threat to both the religious and the
political leaders of his day. Not so with Nathanael. With a pure
heart, he can see God, and he both confesses Jesus as his King and
submits gladly to Jesus’ authority. Jesus welcomes Nathanael into God’s
mighty movement, promising him, “You will see heaven opened, and the
angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (John 1:51)
– the fulfillment of Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28.
What happens to Nathanael? Does he see such things? We do not know. He is
not mentioned again in the Bible except in the list of followers who
went fishing with Peter after Jesus’ resurrection (John 21). Some
scholars make the assumption that Nathanael is the same person as
Bartholomew since he and Philip are mentioned together in several places
in the Bible. If Nathanael is the same person as Bartholomew, tradition
holds that he preached the Gospel in India and was martyred in Armenia.
His Feast Day has been set as August 24.
On the other hand, perhaps Nathanael is someone altogether different. Perhaps this
straight man is greater than any of the other disciples named in the
Gospels. Perhaps he is the archetype of true followers of Christ, one
whose heart is pure and whose lifestyle is simple. It may be that
Nathanael is not even an historical figure in John’s rendering of the
Gospel, but rather a representative of all persons who respond to the
simple invitation to “come and see,” of all followers whom Christ
foreknew (Romans 8:29), of all seekers who come to Christ Jesus with
simple trust, of all disciples whose hearts are purified by Christ’s
presence, of all believers who confess Jesus as Savior and who submit to
his kingly authority.
It is in that spirit, with that hope,
and toward that end, that Nathanael is adopted as the Patron Saint of
Pure and Simple Lifestyle Christianity. May his witness live on in us.