In the name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Nathanael Bartholomew—Bartholomew means son of Tholomew and was likely Nathanael’s family name—had an old timey name from 1000 years before Jesus during the time of King David who married a daughter of Talmai the ruler of town of Geshur (2 Sam 3:3; 13:34) where Bethsaida (which means house of fish) now sat. This son of Talmai—king of the house of fish, father-in-law of David—lived over in Cana where the water into wine wedding miracle was about to happen. We don’t exactly know where old Cana was but the best guesses place it 9km NE of Nazareth where Jesus was from, and some 30km from Bethsaida where Philip was from. Which begs the question: where did Jesus find Philip? Was it in Bethsaida? And where then was Nathanael? For if they were both in their home towns at that moment then Philip went a long way to tell his buddy Nathanael about Jesus. For 30km over rough, hilly territory takes a long time. A minimum of six hours by foot. Moreover, when Nathanael came with Phil to see Jesus did they have to walk all the way back? Which puts context to Jesus’ statement, “Ah, here is a an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” As in, no guile, no lying ways. And we see that from how candid he is when first hears from Philip, “Nazareth, can anything good come from there?” But despite his honest reservation he longs for the Messiah of Israel, the promised saviour, so he accepts Philip’s invitation to “Come and see.”
A fascinating sidebar here is that Matthew the taxcollector, the next disciple to be called (Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:13-14; Luke 5:27-28), says that Jesus being called a Nazarene is a fulfillment of the prophets (Matthew 2:23). People have long debated over what Matthew meant because he doesn’t quote a verse from any particular prophet. And there is no specific verse in the Old Testament that says, “he shall be called a nazarene.” Yet if we would read our history we’d know that Jerome the great Bible translator from the 300s (347-420, who translated the Bible into Latin) tells us that Isaiah’s prophecy, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit,” (Isaiah 11:1) refers to Jesus being a Nazarene. For Nazareth comes from the Hebrew word for branch. That is, a nazarene shall grow from Jesse’s root (Jerome, Letter 47:7). And you combine that with other prophecies from Isaiah (Isaiah 4:2; 53:2), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 23:5; 33:!5), and Zechariah (Zechariah 3:8; 6:12) where Jesus is called “the Branch” and you get the idea. He shall be called the branch/nazarene. And of course of one of the Branch prophecies (Isaiah 53:2-3) says he will be despised and considered insignificant like a man of no account from a no account place, like Nazareth. So good old Nathanael speaks truly of who this Jesus, this man of sorrows is.
For that’s what Jesus says to him. “You will see you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Hearing that Nathanael, the honest Israelite, would immediately have thought of Jacob, the patriarch of Israel, A.K.A. Israel, who while sleeping had a dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven (Genesis 28:10-22) with angels ascending and descending upon it. Jesus just told Nathanael, “I am that ladder. Not a ladder for you to climb up. A ladder for God to come down. A ladder for His presence to be known on earth. For His mercy to come to you.”
When Jacob awoke he declared, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17)
Maybe it clicked right then and there for Nathanael that standing before him was the Branch. The Ladder. For Nathanael had just declared, “You are the Son of God. You are the king of Israel.” He knew he was standing in the presence of God. Jacob did not know it but Nathanael knew it. This was given to him by God.
Much later when Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16-17) Jesus said, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven.” Well, right off the bat, Nathan-el—which means given by God—lives up to his name. For the Father gives him faith to confess the same that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Israel (the Son of David) (John 1:49). And that faith leads to heaven’s presence with you through Jesus in the midst of whatever you may go through here on earth. Heaven comes to earth in Jesus. Jesus comes to you in His water, wine and word. His presence will see you through.
And so we have in Nathanael Bartholomew an honest Israelite. One who trusted in the Lord with all his heart and leaned not on own understanding. In all his ways acknowledged and confessed our Lord (Proverbs 3:5-6). And tradition says he may have confessed Jesus throughout much of the Middle East, and even into India. And likely he died in modern day Azerbaijan, just north of all that news out of Syria these days. He died an awful death (likely flayed alive and then beheaded or crucified—the traditions vary) like so many confessors of Christ in Iraq (under the brutal “Islamic State” regime) are dying even now. For enemies of the Gospel of Christ are many. They always have been and they always will be. Nathanael is a witness to us. A confessor. A member of that great cloud of witnesses who surround God’s throne in heaven (Hebrew 12:1-2) whose voice has come down to us across the ages proclaiming Jesus to be the saviour of the world to the world. We have faith because he like so many confessed that faith, just as you have to your children and grandchildren.
The ultimate lesson for us today is that it doesn’t matter who you are. You are an earthen vessel, a cracked pot (2 Corinthians 4:7). This world may press you till it feels like you are being crushed, yet it is through those very trials brought by the world’s hatred of Christ that the light of Christ will shine (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). In spite of your honest doubts, even through the holes in your faith, when the Father gives you gift to confess Jesus as saviour of the world to our world despite your cracks and failings His glory shines all the brighter through you and me and our sufferings. He redeems them. And through our weakness He shows that His saving power comes from Him and not from us. And that’s good news for you and our world and all its unsolvable wickedness.
In +Jesus’ name, Amen.
—Pastor David Haberstock
Epiphany Lutheran Church
Thunder Bay, ON