We don’t know a ton about the disciple Nathanael.
Scholars conjecture that the Nathanael in John’s gospel is the Bartholomew mentioned in the other gospels; “Bartholomew” translates as “son of Tolmei,” so it would have simply been another one of Nathanael’s names. Moreover, the Gospels parallel each other in that Bartholomew/Nathanael is introduced to Christ by Philip. But even assuming that Nathanael is Bartholomew, there’s just not a lot about him in the Bible.
The other disciples pop up in all sorts of stories, arguing and debating and avowing Jesus’ lordship and carrying on. But there’s only one really remarkable story about Nathanial, and it is the story of His introduction to Christ. It’s a story worth visiting for a moment.
Philip, you see, is on fire with excitement. He’s convinced that He’s found the Savior, and he runs to Nathanael to share the news: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John: 1:45).
Nathanael’s response is one of my favorite responses to Jesus, ever: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (1:46).
More than anything, his response reminds me of the way my father – a truck driver for a coal company – and his friends tease each other at work. Every so often when I was little Dad would take me on a truck run, and when he introduced me to his friends their response was the same: “You’re his daughter! His daughter, you sure?” They’d side-eye Dad and grin. “You’re awful pretty to be his kid.” Can you hear the good-natured amusement in Nathanael’s voice, too?
Nazareth! Nazareth, you sure?
I think we can wager that Nathanael’s response is good-humored because in spite of his amused reaction, he does go to see Jesus as Philip requests. And the most important thing we learn about Nathanael is in the measure that Jesus immediately takes of him in 1:47:
“Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
What a compliment. What a compliment from the Lord and Savior of the universe. Jesus liked people who were frank and honest, who meant what they said and did what they said they would do. But Nathan is largely nonplussed, wondering instead how Jesus knows him. Jesus replies that he saw Nathan while Nathan was still sitting under the fig tree, before Philip called him.
That’s enough. Nathan is immediately and completely convinced. And, in a testimony to the character that Jesus identified in Him – one that mirrors Thomas’ later confession after touching Christ’s nail-scarred hands – he immediately pledges allegiance: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (1:49).
I can’t help but think that Jesus’ next response came with a wink or a grin.
“You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that. Very truly, I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the son of Man” (1:50).
And that’s it. The text moves on to the miracle at Cana. But I can’t. I can’t because of how simple and beautiful it is. Philip shares. Nathanael jokes. Christ proves. Nathanael believes. Christ offers a glimpse of glory. And isn’t that our experience in a nutshell? We come to a moment of belief; we confess and testify; Christ gives us a glimpse of what’s in store.
The thing is, I – and most believers – would rather be Peters. Because Peter has a story, an epic one spilled out across the entirety of the New Testament. He’s impulsive and faithful and loyal, until he isn’t. He cuts off a guard’s ear. He betrays. He weeps. He’s restored. We’re drawn to the big tales. We love the ups and downs. We want to see ourselves in them. We want to be them.
But we mustn’t miss this moment. We mustn’t miss that in this one small encounter Jesus saw right through to the heart of a disciple. We mustn’t miss that having been seen, that disciple was immediately and forever changed. Assuming that Nathanael was indeed Bartholomew, he witnessed the Ascension. Christian tradition holds that he was martyred. One moment was enough: it changed Nathanael’s entire life.
You don’t have to be a Peter. You don’t have to have a splashy story full of betrayal and impulsivity and ups and downs to matter to Jesus. In all our stories about the disciples Jesus loved and the ones He chose and the ones He had particular messages for, I think we forget that He saw them all. He loved them all. He knew their hearts. He knew their characters. He was able to identify the strengths in them that He could honor and use. He wanted them to see a glimpse of glory.
So don’t forget Nathanael. Don’t forget Simeon who, “righteous and devout,” waited for the consolation of Israel and got to see the Savior before he died. Don’t forget the throng of shepherds who, bewildered, bore witness to the advent of God’s salvation plan on earth. Don’t forget Zaccheus in his tree, or the woman at the well, or the leper who returned with gratitude. The Bible is full of characters who make cameo appearances but are still blessed by a meeting with the Savior and a glimpse of glory.
You are not exempt from God’s penchant to do wild and extraordinary works.
Your appearance in the great story of God’s love means that Jesus sees you and intends to work a great change in you and through you.
One moment is enough to change everything.