Philip’s closest companion, Nathanael, is listed as Bartholomew in all four lists of the Twelve. Bartholomew is the Hebrew surname of Nathanael. John’s Gospel features Nathanael in just two passages: in John 1, where his call is recorded, and in John 21:2 where he is named as one of those who returned to Galilee and went fishing with Peter after Jesus’ resurrection and before the ascension.
Philip obviously was close to Nathanael, and he knew Nathanael would be interested in the news that the long-awaited Messiah had finally been identified. In fact, he couldn’t wait to share the news with him. “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote’” (John 1:45). The fact that Philip introduced Jesus this way suggests that Nathanael knew the Old Testament prophecies.
Notice that Philip didn’t tell Nathanael, “I found a man who has a wonderful plan for your life.” He didn’t say, “I found a man who will fix your marriage and your personal problems and give your life meaning.” He didn’t appeal to Nathanael based on how Jesus might make Nathanael’s life better. Philip spoke of Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, because he knew that would pique Nathanael’s interest. Nathanael had been a diligent student of Scripture.
Verse 46 gives us further insight into Nathanael’s character. Although he had strong spiritual interests and had been faithful, diligent, and honest in his devotion to the Word of God, he had certain prejudices. Here is his response: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” God can take a flawed person who is blinded by prejudice, and He can change that person into someone used to transform the world.
Prejudice is ugly. Prejudice cuts a lot of people off from the truth. Men’s ears are closed to the gospel by many kinds of prejudice — racial, social, religious, and intellectual prejudice. Like the rest of us, Nathanael is skeptical when Philip tells him the Messiah is a Nazarene.
Fortunately, his prejudice wasn’t strong enough to keep him from Christ. “Philip said to him, ‘Come and see’” (v.46). That is the right way to deal with prejudice: Confront it with the facts. And Nathanael went.
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit” (John 1: 47). Can you imagine a more wonderful thing than to have words of approval like that come out of the mouth of Jesus? This speaks volumes about Nathanael’s character. Certainly, he was human. His mind was tainted by a degree of prejudice. But his heart was not poisoned by deceit. His love for God and his desire to see the Messiah were genuine.
Because his heart was sincere and his faith was real, Nathanael overcame his prejudice. His response to Jesus and the narrative that follows reveals his true character. “Nathanael said to Him, ‘How do You know me?’” (John 1:48). Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’” (v.48). Jesus wasn’t physically present to see Nathanael under the fig tree; Nathanael knew that. Suddenly he realized he was standing in the presence of Someone who could see into his very heart with an omniscient eye.
What was the significance of the fig tree? It was most likely the place where Nathanael went to study and meditate on Scripture. Houses in that culture were mostly small. Most of the cooking was done inside, so a fire was kept burning even in the summer. The house could get full of smoke. Trees were planted around houses to keep them cool and shaded. A fig tree near a house was a kind of private outdoor place, perfect for meditation, reflection, and solitude. No double that is where Nathanael went to study Scripture and pray. It was not only that Jesus saw his location, but that He saw his heart as well. He knew the sincerity of Nathanael’s character because He saw right into him when he was under the fig tree.
That was enough for Nathanael. He “answered and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’” (v.49). Remember, this is the very same truth Nathanael’s friend Philp still hadn’t quite grasped in the Upper Room two years later (John 14:8-9). What Philip didn’t get until the end, his friend Nathanael understood at the very start.