Reading: John 1:40-51
Last week, I told you that John starts and ends with a statement of who Jesus is. Jesus is the best revelation of God, greater than any book — because Jesus is God, in the flesh. This is something we all know as Christians, and John made it pretty clear right at the start of his book. It is fair to say, John wants us to think about this and see this.
Thing is, one thing all the Gospels have in common is that they spend most of the time showing how the disciples got it wrong. It is almost like we are supposed to laugh at Peter and the others, seeing how they can spend so much time with Jesus, and still not get what is right in front of them. We are told the lesson they have to learn, and we watch them continuing not to learn it.
When we read the insights that these early disciples had, before they ever had a chance to really learn from Jesus, it is tempting to read into them, and see what we already learned from the prologue of John. The thing is that we have that special knowledge, but the people Jesus calls as disciples do not have it yet. The hard thing for us is not to read too much into these statements. We see words like “messiah” and “Son of God”, and we expect a full Christian theology to already be developed.
The problem with this is that it ruins the progression of the story. John the Baptist can get who and what Jesus is, because he is a prophet, and this is the end of his story; but the disciples need time to learn. The greatest confession we find in John is yet to come; and if we assume that the first confession from the disciples fully understands who Jesus is, than there is nothing to learn. We start with a confession that is right, but leaves room for confusion; we must have room for confusion, otherwise the stories of Jesus teaching and the disciples not getting it makes no sense.
Now, today we saw several confessions that spoke to the Identity of Jesus: First we have Andrew telling Simon, we we later know as Peter: “We have found the Messiah.” Second, Philip tells Nathaniel: “We have found him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote: Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Third, we have the confession of Nathaniel, who asked if anything good could come of Nazareth: “You are the son of God, you are the King of Israel.”
As I said — when we read this with Christian eyes, we fill in all the details; but, we have to remember that Peter and the others still have a long time before they get it. It is important for us to look at these confessions, and see what those who spoke them might have meant.
The first confession: “We have found the messiah” seems very important. For Christians, the Messiah is a very special title, it is something that we only apply to Jesus. When we think of what messiah must mean, we very apply the qualities of Jesus.
What we forget is that the word Messiah simply means “the anointed.” The Old Testament has several Messiahs, and being the messiah is no guarantee that a person will stay on God’s good side. If you recall, Samuel anointed Saul to be king of Israel. Even after Saul tried to kill David, David refused to raise a hand against God’s anointed. As you might imagine, the word in the Hebrew scriptures is Messiah — Saul was a messiah. Samuel also anointed David. As you know, David was not a perfect king. He failed justice and righteousness is some spectacular ways, but he was still messiah.
One thing that David and Saul had in common is that both were men of war. Both David and Saul fought the Philistines. Both David and Saul enjoyed a lot of success, and were praised and remembered. When people think of a Messiah, most likely this is what they think of. When people said of Jesus, we have found the Messiah, most likely they are getting it wrong and expecting Jesus to take up the sword and run the Romans out of Judea. We know better, and what the disciples testified is true; but not in the way they thought.
The next confession is “we have found him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote.” It is hard to to say what passages Phillip might be talking about — its something too vague to be useful. When Christians talk about which passages in the Old Testament are messianic prophecy, the conversation ranges from none of them to as many as absolutely possible. The only thing this tells me is that the people of Judah under Roman rule were seeking some sort of a deliver — perhaps a second Judah Maccabees to drive away those who occupied the land.
Nathaniel’s confession was: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” Now this looks like a rather huge confession, this is something that makes it appear that Nathaniel saw everything, simply because Jesus saw him when Philip spoke to him under the tree. Jesus saw Nathaniel when Nathaniel asks if anything good could come of Nazareth — which, would be an embarrassing time to be noticed.
Son of God is a phrase that is used in a metaphoric way in the Old Testament. According to the Catholic encyclopedia, this phrase was used to speak of angels, of godly people, and of rulers who were placed in power by God’s hand; much like the phrase ‘son of strength’ might be used to describe a warrior, and ‘son of wickedness’ to describe a wicked person. Both the construction, and the phrase itself were Old Testament metaphors, implying little more than a true sense of divine call. Nathaniel at this point said a whole lot more than I might have seen — but no more than “I believe you have a destiny”.
Nathaniel was told that he was going to meet the Messiah. The two Messiah’s that are the best known were kings of Israel, both of whom successfully fought enemies of Israel, and increased the influence. Most likely, what this meant to Nathaniel is that he was willing to hope against hope that God finally rose up a deliverer against the Romans — and that this man was anointed to restore the Kingdom of Israel.
I know, this is my guess at what is going on, but I feel pretty safe making this guess because it fits the pattern I read in the gospels a whole lot better than Jesus’ disciples figuring out who Jesus is upon first meeting him. The stories I see about the disciples have them looking at Jesus after the resurrection — and asking: “Ok, are we going to attack the Romans now?”
It is fun that we know the story. John just told us what was going on. It’s fun, because Nathaniel’s confession is very right, even though he did not know what it meant. Even though he most likely meant: “God has destined you to rise up and drive the Romans from Judea”; that is, he used Son of God as a metaphor, and meant “King of Israel” literally — us Christians reverse that. We Son of God as the literal truth, and “King of Israel” as the metaphor; for we know that Jesus taught that His kingdom isn’t a Kingdom of this world.