The King of Israel Finds His Subjects
Rev. Kurt Lantz 2 Epiphany B John 1:43-51
January 17, 2021 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear people found by the Lord,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus found Philip. Jesus found Nathanael. Wait. The Gospel Reading says Jesus found Philip, then Philip found Nathanael (John 1:45), then Nathanael came to Jesus (v. 47). We want to make sure we give proper recognition to who is doing the work. It is grammatically clear that Philip is the subject who found Nathanael. And Nathanael came to Jesus, not the other way around. That is what the Bible says.
But slow down and take a look at the effect of the work. Philip found Nathanael and told him about Jesus. Good job, Philip. That is perhaps more than most are willing to do. But the best response Philip could get out of Nathanael was a cynical “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (v. 46). There is no evidence of faith there at all; no faith in Jesus as Saviour, Lord, or even the Christ written of in Moses and the Prophets.
Nathanael came to see Jesus, but he came without faith. He came to see who had bewitched his friend Philip, who is this oddity from Nazareth. He came looking for more fodder for that Nathanael cynicism. But before he could say anything, Jesus jumped in, perhaps with a little sarcasm of His own. “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (v. 47). It was Jesus who initiated the direct exchange with Nathanael and within a few short retorts, Nathanael was confessing by faith with no more hint of cynicism, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (v. 49).
The conversation between Jesus and Nathanael was so brief, and the change in Nathanael’s attitude so drastic, that we search for something more than what is recorded for us in the Gospel of John. Was there more to the conversation? Did it take all afternoon for Jesus to lead Nathanael to faith? Was there some miracle given as evidence? What is behind Jesus’ cryptic statement “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (v. 48)?
Whether you insert much or nothing at all into their conversation, it becomes clear that Jesus was the one driving the action all along. Neither the wit nor the wisdom of Nathanael led him to see Jesus as the Christ of God. But Jesus was able to accomplish it in short order. Philip could not conquer the cynical attitude of his friend, but Jesus was victorious through His almighty Word.
So Jesus found Philip. Jesus also found Nathanael. That is what the Bible actually tells us, for Jesus noted “Before Philip called you... I saw you.” Jesus made the first move before Nathanael had even heard about Him. In matters dealing with our relationship to God, He is always the one driving the action. It is never about what we do in order to reach out to Him, but it is always about what He has done in order to reach out to us.
He sent His Son. Jesus took on our human nature. He was born a baby in Bethlehem. He grew up in Nazareth. He was baptized along with everyone else in the Jordan River by John. In order to reach out to us, God became so much one of us that no one need fear coming to Him. He became so much one of us that divine revelation is necessary to see Jesus for who He is. No one can see who He is under the fig tree or anywhere else before He calls us. Philip could find Nathanael and tell him about Jesus, and Nathanael could decide to come and have a look, but it took God’s own almighty power to open their eyes to see Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the King of Israel.
It was the same as at Jesus’ baptism. This ordinary guy went into the river like everyone else. Then suddenly with awesome majesty, the heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended on Him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven: ‘You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1:10-11). By the same almighty divine power, Nathanael believed and confessed, “You are the Son of God!” (v. 49). And Jesus promised him, “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (v. 51). These are the same divine manifestations that were given at His baptism: heaven opened; the spirits descending upon Him; a voice declaring Him to be the Son of God.
In addition to the baptismal declaration in today’s Gospel is Nathanael’s confession of Jesus to be also the King of Israel. On Epiphany night we meditated on the magi seeking the King of the Jews. They, too, were brought by divine intervention as they followed the miraculous star. They sought a divine King not just to honour, but to worship (Matthew 2:1-12). So, Nathanael’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God and King of Israel embraces both revelations that we have previously heard this Epiphany season. With the magi, Nathanael confessed Jesus to be King of the Jews and along with the voice heard from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, Nathanael confessed Him to be the Son of God.
The long-awaited Christ, which means ‘Anointed,’ was revealed at Jesus’ baptism. As David had been anointed to be Israel’s great king one thousand years before, Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit at His baptism to publicly proclaim Him to be the promised King of Israel who would reign over Jacob forever.
Jacob, whose name means ‘deceiver’, was the one whose name God changed to Israel, and he is also the one who had the dream of a ladder set up between heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending upon it (Genesis 28:10-17). Jesus made a direct reference to this in His conversation with Nathanael, “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!...” who will “see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
The account of Jacob is recorded in the Book of Genesis, the first of the five books of Moses, and so Jesus confirmed to Nathanael what Philip had confessed about Him. “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth” (John 1:45).
This is all much more than neat allusions to the Old Testament. Jesus is seen as the One to fulfill all of the prophesies for a Messianic Saviour, the Christ who will save His people. More so, as Nathanael recognized and confessed Jesus to be the Son of God and King of Israel, He was recognizing and confessing Jesus to be his own Saviour, the Saviour of an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. It is more than a general statement. It is a personal confession of Nathanael that he has found his Saviour, or rather, His Saviour has found Him.
What we have in the account of Jesus finding Philip and Nathanael is an explanation of how Jesus has found you. The Law and Prophets, the Bible, God’s Word, has pointed out Jesus to you. He has come in His Word and He has come to you. There may have been parents or friends involved, inviting you to come and see or dragging you along to church, but it has been Jesus all along who sought you out.
As the case was with Nathanael, so also He saw you before anyone called you. The Psalmist confesses: “You formed my inward parts; You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). And then He revealed Himself to you through Baptism and in His Word. He has revealed Himself to be the Son of God, the King of Israel, Your Saviour King.
It is important that we recognize that Jesus saw us before we ever made a move toward Him. He found us before we believed the things we had heard about Him. Like Samuel in our Old Testament Reading, who, in a time of evil priests did not yet know the LORD when the LORD called to him, “Samuel, Samuel” (1 Samuel 3:1-10), so the Lord called out to you before you knew Him.
Our salvation is by the grace of God reaching out to us in Jesus. Our faith is a result of His loving initiative to come to us, to become man for us, to die on the cross for our sins, to rise from the dead to give us victory over sin, death, and the devil, to instill His grace in us through His holy Word and the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Our faith is in His action, not any action of our own, not even in the strength of our belief.
For our strength (even our spiritual strength) falters. It is not strong enough to stand against the hardships and temptations that we face in this life. There are temptations: to respond to God’s Word with nothing but cynicism; temptations to sexual sins as we heard about in today’s Epistle Reading (1 Corinthians 6:12-20); temptations to despair of our current situation, of the mess that we find ourselves in, our unworthy sinful state, our weaknesses, our lack of resolve.
This is why it is a great comfort to see that Nathanael did not find Jesus by the strength of his own character, whether he was an Israelite without deceit or not. It was not Nathanael who found the Christ, but the Christ who found Him. It is the same Christ who has found you. He has come to rescue you from your sins, from the temptations of this world, from your own spiritual weakness. Christ Jesus has found you and revealed Himself to you and given you all the treasures of heaven in Himself.
He is the Son of God and your Saviour King upon whom the angels of God are ascending and descending. He has opened the heavens to you, bridged the gap between you and God, by becoming God in human flesh, and coming to you in His body and blood here today. The gates of heaven stand wide open to you in Jesus. Your prayers ascend to the heavenly Father through Him and God’s grace washes over you in Jesus.
No, you could not find this in a man from Nazareth, but it has been revealed to you by God’s grace. Jesus has found you and called you to be a subject of this King of Israel. He is your King to save you from all your enemies; to do the things that you are too weak to do; to fight alongside you against temptation; and to save you from your sins through His sacrificial death and resurrection. You wouldn’t have figured this out for yourself. He has come to you.
When you tell others about Jesus, your family and friends, don’t worry that you will never be able to convince them or to overcome their cynical outlook. You don’t have to find them for Jesus. You don’t have to bring them to Jesus. Jesus has already seen them. He has already reached out to them, and by His Word He reveals to them what He has revealed to you. All you do is confess along with Nathanael and Philip, that the One of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, has come. He is the Son of God, the King of Israel, Your Saviour.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.