Resources » Matthew Henry's Commentary » John » Chapter 1 » Verses 43–51

Verses 43–51

We have here the call of Philip and Nathanael.

I. Philip was called immediately by Christ himself, not as Andrew, who was directed to Christ by John, or Peter, who was invited by his brother. God has various methods of bringing his chosen ones home to himself. But, whatever means he uses, he is not tied to any. 1. Philip was called in a preventing was: Jesus findeth Philip. Christ sought us, and found us, before we made any enquiries after him. The name Philip is of Greek origin, and much used among the Gentiles, which some make an instance of the degeneracy of the Jewish church at this time, and their conformity to the nations; yet Christ changed not his name. 2. He was called the day following. See how closely Christ applied himself to his business. When work is to be done for God, we must not lose a day. Yet observe, Christ now called one or two a day; but, after the Spirit was poured out, there were thousands a day effectually called, in which was fulfilled John 14:12. 3. Jesus would go forth into Galilee to call him. Christ will find out all those that are given to him, wherever they are, and none of them shall be lost. 4. Philip was brought to be a disciple by the power of Christ going along with that word, Follow me. See the nature of true Christianity; it is following Christ, devoting ourselves to his converse and conduct, attending his movements, and treading in his steps. See the efficacy of the grace of it is the rod of his strength. 5. We are told that Philip was of Bethsaida, and Andrew and Peter were so too, John 1:44. These eminent disciples received not honour from the place of their nativity, but reflected honour upon it. Bethsaida signifies the house of nets, because inhabited mostly by fishermen; thence Christ chose disciples, who were to be furnished with extraordinary gifts, and therefore needed not the ordinary advantages of learning. Bethsaida was a wicked place (Matt. 11:21), yet even there was a remnant, according to the election of grace.

II. Nathanael was invited to Christ by Philip, and much is said concerning him. In which we may observe,

1. What passed between Philip and Nathanael, in which appears an observable mixture of pious zeal with weakness, such as is usually found in beginners, that are yet but asking the way to Zion. Here is,

(1.) The joyful news that Philip brought to Nathanael, John 1:45. As Andrew before, so Philip here, having got some knowledge of Christ himself, rests not till he has made manifest the savour of that knowledge. Philip, though newly come to an acquaintance with Christ himself, yet steps aside to seek Nathanael. Note, When we have the fairest opportunities of getting good to our own souls, yet ever then we must seek opportunities of doing good to the souls of others, remembering the words of Christ, It is more blessed to give than to receive, Acts 20:35. O, saith Philip, we have found him of whom Moses and the prophets did write, Observe here, [1.] What a transport of joy Philip was in, upon this new acquaintance with Christ: “We have found him whom we have so often talked of, so long wished and waited for; at last, he is come he is come, and we have found him!” [2.] What an advantage it was to him that he was so well acquainted with the scriptures of the Old Testament, which prepared his mind for the reception of evangelical light, and made the entrance of it much the more easy: Him of whom Moses and the prophets did write. What was written entirely and from eternity in the book of the divine counsels was in part, at sundry times and in divers manners, copied out into the book of the divine revelations. Glorious things were written there concerning the Seed of the woman, the Seed of Abraham, Shiloh, the prophet like Moses, the Son of David, Emmanuel, the Man, the Branch, Messiah the Prince. Philip had studied these things, and was full of them, which made him readily welcome Christ. [3.] What mistakes and weaknesses he laboured under: he called Christ Jesus of Nazareth, whereas he was of Bethlehem; and the Son of Joseph, whereas he as but his supposed Son. Young beginners in religion are subject to mistakes, which time and the grace of God will rectify. It was his weakness to say, We have found him, for Christ found them before they found Christ. He did not yet apprehend, as Paul did, how he was apprehended of Christ Jesus, Phil. 3:12.

(2.) The objection which Nathanael made against this, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? John 1:46. Here, [1.] His caution was commendable, that he did not lightly assent to every thing that was said, but took it into examination; our rule is, Prove all things. But, [2.] His objection arose from Ignorance. If he meant that no good thing could come out of Nazareth it was owing to his ignorance of the divine grace, as if that were less affected to one place than another, or tied itself to men’s foolish and ill-natured observations. If he meant that the Messiah, that great good thing, could not come out of Nazareth, so far he was right (Moses, in the law, said that he should come out of Judah, and the prophets had assigned Bethlehem for the place of his nativity); but then he was ignorant of the matter of fact, that this Jesus was born at Bethlehem; so that the blunder Philip made, in calling him Jesus of Nazareth, occasioned this objection. Note, The mistakes of preachers often give rise to the prejudices of hearers.

(3.) The short reply which Philip gave to this objection: Come and see. [1.] It was his weakness that he could not give a satisfactory answer to it; yet it is the common case of young beginners in religion. We may know enough to satisfy ourselves, and yet not be able to say enough to silence the cavils of a subtle adversary. [2.] It was his wisdom and zeal that, when he could not answer the objection himself, he would have him go to one that could: Come and see. Let us not stand arguing here, and raising difficulties to ourselves which we cannot get over; let us go and converse with Christ himself, and these difficulties will all vanish presently. Note, It is folly to spend that time in doubtful disputation which might be better spent, and to much better purpose, in the exercises of piety and devotion. Come and see; not, Go and see, but, “Come, and I will go along with thee;” as Isa. 2:3; Jer. 1:5. From this parley between Philip and Nathanael, we may observe, First, That many people are kept from the ways of religion by the unreasonable prejudices they have conceived against religion, upon the account of some foreign circumstances which do not at all touch the merits of the case. Secondly, The best way to remove the prejudices they have entertained against religion is to prove themselves, and make trial of it. Let us not answer this matter before we hear it.

2. What passed between Nathanael and our Lord Jesus. He came and saw, not in vain.

(1.) Our Lord Jesus bore a very honourable testimony to Nathanael’s integrity: Jesus saw him coming, and met him with favourable encouragement; he said of him to those about him, Nathanael himself being within hearing, Behold an Israelite indeed. Observe,

[1.] That he commended him; not to flatter him, or puff him up with a good conceit of himself, but perhaps because he knew him to be a modest man, if not a melancholy man, one that had hard and mean thoughts of himself, was ready to doubt his own sincerity; and Christ by this testimony put the matter out of doubt. Nathanael had, more than any of the candidates, objected against Christ; but Christ hereby showed that he excused it, and was not extreme to mark what he had said amiss, because he knew his heart was upright. He did not retort upon him, Can any good thing come out of Cana (John 21:2), an obscure town in Galilee? But kindly gives him this character, to encourage us to hope for acceptance with Christ, notwithstanding our weakness, and to teach us to speak honourably of those who without cause have spoken slightly of us, and to give them their due praise.

[2.] That he commended him for his integrity. First, Behold an Israelite indeed. It is Christ’s prerogative to know what men are indeed; we can but hope the best. The whole nation were Israelites in name, but all are not Israel that are of Israel (Rom. 9:6); here, however, was an Israelite indeed. 1. A sincere follower of the good example of Israel, whose character it was that he was a plain man, in opposition to Esau’s character of a cunning man. He was a genuine son of honest Jacob, not only of his seed, but of his spirit. 2. A sincere professor of the faith of Israel; he was true to the religion he professed, and lived up to it: he was really as good as he seemed, and his practice was of a piece with his profession. He is the Jew that is one inwardly (Rom. 2:29), so is he the Christian. Secondly, He is one in whom is no guile—that is the character of an Israelite indeed, a Christian indeed: no guile towards men; a man without trick or design; a man that one may trust; no guile towards God, that is, sincere in his repentance for sin; sincere in his covenanting with God; in whose spirit is no guile, Ps. 32:2. He does not say without guilt, but without guile. Though in many things he is foolish and forgetful, yet in nothing false, nor wickedly departing from God: there is no allowed approved guilt in him; not painted, though he have his spots: “Behold this Israelite indeed.” 1. “Take notice of him, that you may learn his way, and do like him.” 2. “Admire him; behold, and wonder.” The hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees had so leavened the Jewish church and nation, and their religion was so degenerated into formality or state-policy, that an Israelite indeed was a man wondered at, a miracle of divine grace, like Job, John 1:8.

(2.) Nathanael is much surprised at this, upon which Christ gives him a further proof of his omnisciency, and a kind memorial of his former devotion.

[1.] Here is Nathanael’s modesty, in that he was soon put out of countenance at the kind notice Christ was pleased to take of him: “Whence knowest thou me, me that am unworthy of thy cognizance? who am I, O Lord God?” 2 Sam. 7:18. This was an evidence of his sincerity, that he did not catch at the praise he met with, but declined it. Christ knows us better than we know ourselves; we know not what is in a man’s heart by looking in his face, but all things are naked and open before Christ, Heb. 4:12, 13. Doth Christ know us? Let us covet to know him.

[2.] Here is Christ’s further manifestation of himself to him: Before Philip called thee, I saw thee. First, He gives him to understand that he knew him, and so manifests his divinity. It is God’s prerogative infallibly to know all persons and all things; by this Christ proved himself to be God upon many occasions. It was prophesied concerning the Messiah that he should be of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord, that is, in judging the sincerity and degree of the fear of God in others, and that he should not judge after the sight of his eyes, Isa. 11:2, 3. Here he answers that prediction. See 2 Tim. 2:19. Secondly, That before Philip called him he saw him under the fig-tree; this manifests a particular kindness for him. 1. His eye was towards him before Philip called him, which was the first time that ever Nathanael was acquainted with Christ. Christ has knowledge of us before we have any knowledge of him; see Isa. 45:4; Gal. 4:9. 2. His eye was upon him when he as under the fig-tree; this was a private token which nobody understood but Nathanael: “When thou wast retired under the fig-tree in thy garden, and thoughtest that no eye saw thee, I have then my eye upon thee, and saw that which was very acceptable.” It is most probable that Nathanael under the fig-tree was employed, as Isaac in the field, in meditation, and prayer, and communion with God. Perhaps then and there it was that he solemnly joined himself to the Lord in an inviolable covenant. Christ saw in secret, and by this public notice of it did in part reward him openly. Sitting under the fig-tree denotes quietness and composedness of spirit, which much befriend communion with God. See Mic. 4:4; Zech. 3:10. Nathanael here in was an Israelite indeed, that, like Israel, he wrestled with God alone (Gen. 32:24), prayed not like the hypocrites, in the corners of the streets, but under the fig-tree.

(3.) Nathanael hereby obtained a full assurance of faith in Jesus Christ, expressed in that noble acknowledgment (John 1:49): Rabbi, thou art the Son of God, thou art the king of Israel; that is, in short, thou art the true Messiah. Observe here, [1.] How firmly he believed with the heart. Though he had lately laboured under some prejudices concerning Christ, they had now all vanished. Note, The grace of God, in working faith, casts down imaginations. Now he asks no more, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? For he believes Jesus of Nazareth to be the chief good, and embraces him accordingly. [2.] How freely he confessed with the mouth. His confession is made in form of an adoration, directed to our Lord Jesus himself, which is a proper way of confessing our faith. First, He confesses Christ’s prophetical office, in calling him Rabbi, a title which the Jews commonly gave to their teachers. Christ is the great rabbi, at whose feet we must all be brought up. Secondly, He confesses his divine nature and mission, in calling him the Son of God (that Son of God spoken of Ps. 2:7); though he had but a human form and aspect, yet having a divine knowledge, the knowledge of the heart, and of things distant and secret, Nathanael thence concludes him to be the Son of God. Thirdly, He confesses, “Thou art the king of Israel; that king of Israel whom we have been long waiting for.” If he be the Son of God, he is king of the Israel of God. Nathanael hereby proves himself an Israelite indeed that he so readily owns and submits to the king of Israel.

(4.) Christ hereupon raises the hopes and expectations of Nathanael to something further and greater than all this, John 1:50, 51. Christ is very tender of young converts, and will encourage good beginnings, though weak, Matt. 12:20.

[1.] He here signifies his acceptance, and (it should seem) his admiration, of the ready faith of Nathanael: Because I said, I saw thee under the fig-tree, believest thou? He wonders that such a small indication of Christ’s divine knowledge should have such an effect; it was a sign that Nathanael’s heart was prepared beforehand, else the work had not been done so suddenly. Note, It is much for the honour of Christ and his grace, when the heart is surrendered to him at the first summons.

[2.] He promises him much greater helps for the confirmation and increase of his faith than he had had for the first production of it.

First, In general: “Thou shalt see greater things than these, stronger proofs of my being the Messiah;” the miracles of Christ, and his resurrection. Note, 1. To him that hath, and maketh good use of what he hath, more shall be given. 2. Those who truly believe the gospel will find its evidences grow upon them, and will see more and more cause to believe it. 3. Whatever discoveries Christ is pleased to make of himself to his people while they are here in this world, he hath still greater things than these to make known to them; a glory yet further to be revealed.

Secondly, In particular: “Not thou only, but you, all you my disciples, whose faith this is intended for the confirmation of, you shall see heaven opened;” this is more than telling Nathanael of his being under the fig-tree. This is introduced with a solemn preface, Verily, verily I say unto you, which commands both a fixed attention to what is said as very weighty, and a full assent to it as undoubtedly true: “I say it, whose word you may rely upon, amen, amen.” None used this word at the beginning of a sentence but Christ, though the Jews often used it at the close of a prayer, and sometimes doubled it. It is a solemn asseveration. Christ is called the Amen (Rev. 3:14), and so some take it here, I the Amen, the Amen, say unto you. I the faithful witness. Note, The assurances we have of the glory to be revealed are built upon the word of Christ. Now see what it is that Christ assures them of: Hereafter, or within awhile, or ere long, or henceforth, ye shall see heaven opened.

a. It is a mean title that Christ here takes to himself: The Son of man; a title frequently applied to him in the gospel, but always by himself. Nathanael had called him the Son of God and king of Israel: he calls himself Son of man, (a.) To express his humility in the midst of the honours done him. (b.) To teach his humanity, which is to be believed as well as his divinity. (c.) To intimate his present state of humiliation, that Nathanael might not expect this king of Israel to appear in external pomp.

b. Yet they are great things which he here foretels: You shall see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. (a.) Some understand it literally, as pointing at some particular event. Either, [a.] There was some vision of Christ’s glory, in which this was exactly fulfilled, which Nathanael was an eye-witness of, as Peter, and James, and John were of his transfiguration. There were many things which Christ did, and those in the presence of his disciples, which were not written (John 20:30), and why not this? Or, [b.] It was fulfilled in the many ministrations of the angels to our Lord Jesus, especially that at his ascension, when heaven was opened to receive him, and the angels ascended and descended, to attend him and to do him honour, and this in the sight of the disciples. Christ’s ascension was the great proof of his mission, and much confirmed the faith of his disciples, John 6:62. Or, [c.] It may refer to Christ’s second coming, to judge the world, when the heavens shall be open, and every eye shall see him, and the angels of God shall ascend and descend about him, as attendants on him, every one employed; and a busy day it will be. See 2 Thess. 1:10. (b.) Others take it figuratively, as speaking of a state or series of things to commence from henceforth; and so we may understand it, [a.] Of Christ’s miracles. Nathanael believed, because Christ, as the prophets of old, could tell him things secret; but what is this? Christ is now beginning a dispensation of miracles, much more great and strange than this, as if heaven were opened; and such a power shall be exerted by the Son of man as if the angels, which excel in strength, were continually attending his orders. Immediately after this, Christ began to work miracles, John 2:11. Or, [b.] Of his mediation, and that blessed intercourse which he hath settled between heaven and earth, which his disciples should be degrees be let into the mystery of. First, By Christ, as Mediator, they shall see heaven opened, that we may enter into the holiest by his blood (Heb. 10:19, 20); heaven opened, that by faith we may look in, and at length may go in; may now behold the glory of the Lord, and hereafter enter into the joy of our Lord. And, Secondly, They shall see angels ascending and descending upon the Son of man. Through Christ we have communion with and benefit by the holy angels, and things in heaven and things on earth are reconciled and gathered together. Christ is to us as Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28:12), by whom angels continually ascend and descend for the good of the saints.