Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 1.43-51
2nd Sunday after the Epiphany - Year B
Festival of St. Bartholomew

Other texts: 


NOTE: This text is also assigned for the Festival of St. Bartholomew on August 24, although the name "Batholomew" doesn't appear in the text -- or anywhere in John! In the synoptics and Acts, Bartholomew follows Philip in their lists of the Twelve. In the fourth gospel, Philip is connected with Nathaniel. One hypothesis is that "bar-Tholomew" may have been Nathaniel's last name, (e.g., "Simon bar-Jonah" in Matthew 16:17).

Note also that next week's gospel is Mark's version of Jesus calling the first four disciples. Neither the process of the calling nor the order of the first disciples in Mark are the same as in John. While some may attempt to harmonize the differences, I prefer to intensify the differences and what special emphases each writer may be promoting.

One difference is that the first disciples in the synoptics give up their work as fishermen to follow Jesus, but in the fourth gospel they give up a previous religious commitment as disciples of John. There is a greater sense in John that the battle is between two religious convictions, i.e., "the Jews" and "the Christians" -- than a movement from irreligious Jewish (or Gentile) sinners (e.g., fishermen and tax collectors) to Christian forgiven sinners.


Another difference is that the Gospel of John is a book of "signs" -- namely things and people who point to something else. Such "intermediaries" are generally necessary in this gospel in order to come to faith. Even Jesus is a type of intermediary as the "logos" -- the "Word" or "Revealer" of God. I think that this is the theme and purpose of the entire gospel: "These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (20:31). This gospel itself is a "sign" to point us to the Messiah and new life in his name.

In this Gospel, Jesus' baptism is a "sign" that reveals him to John as the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and the one who is the Son of God (1:33-34). The Baptist serves as a "sign" that points his disciples to "the Lamb of God" (1:36-37). One of those disciples, Andrew, points his brother Peter to the Messiah (1:41). In our text, Philip points (a reluctant) Nathanael to Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth (1:45).

Philip is an exception to this pattern. We aren't told of any "signs" given to Philip before Jesus finds him and says, "Follow me." We might hypothesize that since we are told that he was from the city of Andrew and Peter, they might have said something to him about Jesus, but that's suggesting more than John actually tells us.

Related to this theme, I've been reading Bound and Free: A Theologian's Journey, by Douglas John Hall. He comments about different discoveries he made when he began to write an autobiography:

If the first lesson in my autobiographical attempt was to convince me that I'd enjoyed an undeservedly meaningful existence, the second was even more illuminating: it was that I owe such happiness as I have had to one Source -- namely, the sheer grace of God as it is mediated through the lives of other people. [pp. 29-30, italics in original]

Assuming that his journey of faith is typical, we all can look back and see God's grace being revealed to us and calling us through the lives of other people -- people, as Hall describes them, who

are not public figures but ordinary folk -- old ladies and gentlemen of my youth, people in the various workplaces of my life, members of my one and only congregation, and, of course, my students and colleagues of more then four decades in academic life. Most of these people did not know they were giving me gifts of insight and support, affirmation and critical acumen, but were simply being who they were and doing what they do. [p. 30]

In the next paragraph, he turns the roles around:

Every one of us plays the role of giver, wittingly or unwittingly, in relation to all whom we meet. And if we know this about ourselves, we may be inspired to pay a good deal more attention than otherwise to the way that we are with one another, the things we say to one another, the deeds we do and leave undone. [p. 30]

The Gospel of John, and especially these opening verses are about being such people -- mediators who invite others to Jesus.

Because of our somewhat unique situation with winter visitors, we are conducting our stewardship drive in January. We are borrowing from an ELCA program called Stores to Tell & Gifts to Share. Part of the program is to invite members to tell their stories to point to ways that God has been involved in their lives and to point to ways that God has used the congregation in the journey of faith.

I believe that every believer is a sign or a witness. However, they may be a clear and good sign that points clearly to Christ or not. We can become more intentional about being good and faithful signs. We can become more orthodox and precise in the language that we use in our witnessing.


We are told that Jesus "finds" Philip. The historical present is used -- present tense forms of the verb are used for the aorist indicative. This is used when narrators imagine themselves (and perhaps their hearers) to be present at the events being narrated. We can do the same by translating it in the present tense: This pair of verbs -- "finds" and "says" are used together in vv. 41, 43, & 45

v. 41 Andrew finds Simon and says to him:

We have found the Messiah," (which is translated "Christ").

v. 43 Jesus finds Philip and says to him: "Follow me."

v. 45 Philip finds Nathanael and says to him:

The one whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote,

we have found, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth."

The word heurisko is used five times in these three verses. I'm not sure that "to find" is the best way to translate it. Theologically, I'm not sure we can talk about "finding" God. If God were to hide from us, I don't think that we could find God (see John 7:25-27).

The first two (and most common definitions) given by Lowe and Nida for this word are: (1) "to learn the location of something, either by intentional searching or by unexpected discovery;" and (2) "to learn something previously not known, frequently involving an element of surprise"

It is the aspect of "unexpected discovery" or "surprise" that isn't translated well by our word "to find," which, I think, conveys more of the sense of "intentional searching" that I find theologically questionable when used of "finding God".

According to the legend, the ruler Hiero II asked Archimedes to find a method for determining whether a crown was pure gold or mixed with silver. One day when Archimedes stepped into his bath and noticed that the water rose as he sat down, he ran out of the house naked shouting, "Eureka! Eureka!" (= "I have found [it]" -- forms of the same verb).

If you want a sort of scientific explanation of what he "found," you can read the next paragraph. If you're only interested in the significance of this "bathroom" illustration, you can skip the next paragraph.

The way to determine whether or not a crown was pure gold was to compare its weight to its volume. If one had 1 pound of gold and 1 pound of silver (one would be very rich <g>) and submerged them in water. The silver would make the water rise higher than the gold, because it is less dense and thus has more volume per pound than gold. Or, if one had two crowns, of the same volume -- that is, each made the water rise the same amount. A pure gold one would weigh more than one mixed with silver.

Archimedes did not "find" this truth by searching after it -- although he may have spent days thinking about a solution to the problem. His "find" came as an unexpected surprise. It's almost as if the truth found him more than he finding the truth. It was something that was there all the time. He may have noticed the rising bathtub water hundreds of times before, but its significance didn't "click" in his brain until that "eureka" moment.

I'm not sure that Andrew "finding" Simon or Philip "finding" Nathanael should be understood exactly the same way as them "finding" the Messiah. The latter would be more like Archimedes' discovery; it was an unexpected, non-anticipated surprise of Jesus breaking into their minds .

Note also that in both instances where Jesus is the object, the subject is "we" -- "We have found . . . " Who are the "we"? Does John intend just a historical understanding of "we" or is this also his own (and his community's) confession about Jesus?

We might wonder about Jesus "finding" Philip. Was it the result of Jesus searching for this particular person or a surprise meeting?

Francis J. Moloney, SDB, (The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina), goes a bit further with "find" (from v. 41) than I think necessary:

However wonderful the claim to have found the Messiah might appear to be, it falls short of a correct recognition of Jesus as he has been described in the Prologue (vv. 1-18) and in the witness of the Baptist during the second day of preparation for the gift of the doxo (vv. 28-34). Such a claim has its own truth, but does Andrew understand Jesus' messianic status in a satisfactory fashion? There are hints that all is not well. Andrew has told Simon, "We have found" (heurekamen), and this is not true (v. 41). The Baptist pointed his disciples toward Jesus, and they followed (vv. 36-37). They were invited by Jesus to come and see, and they did what they were told (v. 39). The initiative for the presence with Jesus and their understanding of him does not belong to them. A lie has been told, and this is further reinforced by Jesus' words to Simon. Once Andrew led Simon to Jesus he looked at him and spoke to him. The initiative is entirely with Jesus. He tells Simon who he is, where he comes from (son of John) and who he will be in the future (Cephas). Again the narrator adds a note, indicating a future that the reader of the Gospel may know came true: the man once called Simon son of John will become Cephas, Peter. The words to Simon are an indication to the disciples that there is more to a proper understanding of Jesus than finding in this rabbi the fulfillment of their messianic expectations. [pp. 54-55, emphasis in original]

I'm not willing to suggest that either the characters in the story lied nor the narrator intends to put on a lie on their lips; but I think it is possible, as I tried to show above, that the Greek word heuresko can keep the initiative with the person who is "found". Even for those who talk about "finding" Jesus, the initiative remains with Jesus, who was never lost. He was/is always present. When he breaks into our minds and life, it can be an


There are three meanings to the Greek akoloutheo ("acolyte" comes from this word):

(1) literal meanings:
        (a) to walk behind
        (b) to let another lead (one may be walking behind or by the side of the leader)
(2) more figurative meaning: to be a disciple of

If a more literal meaning was intended (as in 1:37, 38, & 40), Philip fails. He does not follow. He goes and finds Nathanael!

If a more figurative meaning was intended, we might translate the command: "Be my disciple." Then Philip's actions of "being a sign pointing to Jesus" could be an illustration of what "following" Jesus might mean.


There are two parts to Philip's witness:

  1. Jesus is the fulfillment of scriptures

  2. Jesus is the son of Joseph from Nazareth

"Son of Joseph" would be the typical way to name Jesus. The same was done with Simon "son of John" in 1:42. However, we, the readers, have already been told in the prologue about Jesus' true origins: He is God and He comes from God. Where Jesus comes from is a tension that runs throughout this gospel (see 6:42; 7:27-28; 8:14; 9:29-30; 19:9). By "sight" he is the son of Joseph from Nazareth. By "faith" he is the Son who has come from God.

We see this transition in v. 49 where Nathanael confesses: "You are the Son of God." (However, in v. 51 -- possibly a later addition -- we have the phrase "Son of Man.")

I also find Philip's response to Nathanael's negative comments to be instructive. He is an example of good evangelism. Even though Philip is convinced that Jesus fulfills the promises of scripture, he doesn't argue with Nathanael. He simply invites him to "come and see."

Three times in John, the invitation, "Come and see," is given (1:39, 46; 4:29). The essence of our witness is to state what we have seen and believe and then to invite others to come and see. We can't argue people into the kingdom.

I have two fears for the future of the Christian church. (1) We will fail to be witnesses -- people willing to invite others to "come and see". (2) We will fail to provide the proper "stuff" for the invitees to see. Whether it is a loveless and joyless gathering of people; or a worship service that is full of life and energy, but fails to center on and point to Jesus; neither will give the people "what they are seeking" (1:38). How many of our members regularly invite others to worship? Why not?

During my high school days I was involved in Young Life. We had over 200 high school youth meeting in someone's (large) home to sing and hear a message from scriptures. On the day of the meeting, many of us wore a ribbon to school that said, "Young Life." When asked, "What's that?" We'd answer, "Come and see." We (and the ribbons) were signs pointing others to Young Life. Why doesn't this happen more in our congregations?


The second title of Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth also leads to Nathanael's prejudicial attitude about people from Nazareth (v. 46), which might be contrasted with Jesus' positive statement about Nathanael (v. 47).

When Jesus speaks about Nathanael, who is he talking to? He is talking "about" Nathanael, but probably not "to" him. Although Nathanael responds as if he has heard this complement.

Why is there no "deceit" in Nathanael? One answer might be that he is "true" in contrast to being false which is often part of deception. Other answers might relate to the brief picture we have of his character. He speaks his mind. He says what he thinks. It may be wrong, but it is honest for him.

Douglas John Hall (Bound and Free) writes about his introduction to Luther:

Without any previous knowledge of Luther (in my church, Wesley was quoted and sometimes Calvin, but never Luther), the young Luther seemed to me to have anticipated all my doubts, shared them, and found a way of living with them -- and beyond them. He didn't ask me to be a "nice boy." He asked me to be truthful, to be myself, to accept myself despite all that was truly unacceptable about me. To trust! [pp. 33-34]

This seems to me to be an illustration of a person without deceit: being honest (especially about one's self).


His lack of deceit may be related to his time under a fig tree. Micah 4:3-4 and Zechariah 3:10 suggests that "under a fig tree" may be a place of contemplation. It may be that Nathanael was a "thinker". He wouldn't accept anything at face value, but he would question and contemplate everything until he was sure of its truthfulness.

On the other hand, sitting in the shade, eating the free figs, might indicate that he was just a lazy bum. He wasn't fishing or mending nets like Andrew, Peter, James and John. He wasn't working in his office like Matthew.

I think that we need more fig trees -- at least in a figurative sense. They can be quite messy when the unpicked, over-ripe fruit falls to the ground and attracts all kinds of birds and bugs. What I mean is that we need more places and time to be contemplative -- time to be quiet and think. (Of course, as a person with a preference for Introversion on the MBTI, I would think that.)

A friend of mine grew up on a farm in eastern Iowa. There was a grove of trees where she often went to be alone, to get away, and to think. For a while she was living in eastern North Dakota. One of the things that helped her through some difficult times there was that she had been shown a place that had a small grove of trees. She had a thinking spot in the plains of North Dakota.

Another friend, abused as a child, found solace in the middle of a corn field. She was hidden and felt protected from the rest of the world. When I met her, there were no corn fields around where she could hide. She missed them.

The book Discerning Your Congregation's Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach, (by Roy Oswald and Robert Friedrich, Jr.) strongly suggests that each of the sessions in the book include "centering prayer" -- a time of quiet, contemplative reflection about self and about God. We need more "fig trees" in church -- places and times to stop working, to stop doing the business, and to sit and reflect. Perhaps we might become more truly Christians with less deceit in our own lives. At a couple of different continuing education events by the Alban Institute, each day began with five minutes of silence. (The Extraverts were told that they could manage to be silent and still for that period of time.)

We need more "fig trees" in church -- places and times to stop working, to stop doing the business, and to sit and reflect. Perhaps we might become more truly Christians with less deceit in our own lives. One place to start is to make better use of silence in our liturgies.


There are at least two ways we might understand Nathanael's question to Jesus: "Where did you know me?" -- "Where did you get your information about me?" It may be a question because Nathanael agrees with Jesus' assessment about him. "Yes, I try to be a good and honest Israelite. How did you find out about me?" Or, if we consider Nathanael's life under the fig tree as being a lazy bum rather than a reflective thinker, then Nathanael may not agree with Jesus: "You call me a true Israelite without any deceit. Ha! You couldn't be more wrong. Who gave that nonsense about me?"

I find that there are many people with such a negative self-image that they have great difficult in accepting God's positive regard toward them. While this theme might be a little bit of a stretch from these verses, I think that is a legitimate, preachable message.

In contrast to this, O'Day (John, The New Interpreters Bible) says: "The focus of the story is on the fact of Jesus' superhuman knowledge and its effect on Nathanael" [p. 532]. While I can agree that that seems to be John's point, which leads Nathanael to make his good confession; I'm not sure how well that translate into Christian life today.


Nathanael makes a good, orthodox confession: "You are the son of God. You are the King of Israel." However, Jesus questions why he believes. It is not enough just to say the right words or experience something miraculous -- (Jesus' supernatural knowledge). These things are just the beginning of following Jesus. Nathanael (and us?) will see even greater things.

Part of Discerning Your Congregation's Future involves recalling God's faithfulness in the past. Not just to reminisce or wallow in past glories; but as a step in trusting God for even greater things in the future. While I was serving a 100-year-old congregation [ALC], a mission congregation [LCMS] began less than two miles away. Within five years, they had grown larger than us and completed a building program, which they expanded just a few years later. A major difference between the two congregations was that the "mission church" was looking ahead to the greater things God was going to do with their congregation. The "established church" tended to look to the past at the good things God had done for the congregation. Even though when members of century-old congregation were asked

Related to the invitational theme I mentioned earlier, you can't invite someone to be part of the past. You can invite them to be part of the future.


Verse 51 has an allusion to the ladder of Genesis 28:12 upon which "the angels of God were ascending and descending." Jesus, himself, has now become the bridge between heaven and earth, between divine and human, temporal and eternal. The place to meet God is not the ladder of Jacob's dream at Bethel, but Jesus.

Note also that the "you" in this verse is plural, indicating that Jesus is speaking to a wider audience than Nathanael -- i.e., also to the readers.


O'Day (John, New Interpreters Bible) offers this summary of this section:

The christological focus of John 1:19-51 reveals much about the Fourth Evangelist's understanding of discipleship. The decision to be a disciple is inseparable from the decision one makes about Jesus' identity. ... Unlike the synoptic call narratives, where Jesus promises the disciples a change in their own lives (Mt 4:19; Mk 1:17; Lk 5:10), the focus of the call narratives in John is unwaveringly christological. The call narratives begin with the identity of Jesus, and any change for the disciples begins with recognizing and claiming Jesus. [p. 534]


An extended sermon illustration I've used with this text is "The Problem with Square Dancing." Just as Nathanael states: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" I, and probably many others, think that nothing good can come from square dancing. I didn't want to get involved in that dumb activity. However, on internship our couple's club had a hay ride/square dance event. There was exactly enough people for four squares, which meant all of us had to dance every dance that the caller called. Once I "came and saw" and got out on the floor with a bunch of friends and actually did some square dancing -- and going the wrong way a number of times; I found that it is really fun. Often I have seen people's negative attitude about square dancing change once they actually get involved.

The same transformation seems to have happened to Nathanael in our text. His involved conversation with Jesus transformed him from skepticism to confession and the possibility of even greater experiences.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Avenue, Yuma, AZ 85364