It seems these days that everyone around you keeps getting more and more thin-skinned: from total strangers being third-party offended by something you posted that they disagree with to family members that don’t like what you think of a particular behavior of theirs to church members, deacons and even pastors that cannot take any criticism of anything they say or do with the same “sweet reasonableness” they preach that others should have (Phil 4:5).
But what about Jesus, how did he handle Himself when people said unkind or insulting things about Him. Now, I’m not referring to the openly insulting statements that He received during His ministry, I’m referring to the little things along the way, the innuendos, the side jabs, the play on words, or simply the things that were not said in public where many would have heard and formed an opinion on. How did Jesus handle those?
One such comment that comes to mind is when Philip went and told Nathaniel that they had found the Messiah. Philip told him that His name of Jesus, the son of Joseph, from Nazareth. Nathaniel, thought to himself and said the first thing that came to his mind and said, “can anything good come out of Nazareth”? When he finally came to Jesus, the Master turned and said to him, “Behold! An Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile”. Not only did Jesus know what Nathaniel had said and not only did He not take offense but rather commended Nathaniel for his sincerity of heart.(John 1:46-51). You see, although Nathaniel had his doubts, his doubts were sincere but he still had enough hunger for the Truth to go and find out for himself. When he finally arrived to where Jesus was and heard Him say that not only was there no guile in him but He was aware of him under the fig tree beforehand, Nathaniel suddenly realized that he was in the presence of God.
Now, a little background may be called for to understand why what Nathaniel blurted out at Philip’s announcement of the Messiah was something that would have or should have caused Jesus to take offense. In the Jewish custom of the time “nothing good could come from Nazareth” was a widespread proverb and this was for two particular reasons that are intertwined and, if Jesus was and considered Himself a prophet, He should’ve known better that His (supposed) Nazarene pedigree would automatically bar Him from being considered a prophet by any self-respecting Jew.
For starters, Nazareth is in Galilee. That’s significant because its border country: Samaria (of the Samaritans) is just southwest of Galilee and, Nazareth being a fairly large commercial center would have lots of gentile influences (Greeks, Samaritans, Phoenicians, and all manner of other pagan cultural influences), seeing that Galilee shared a norther border with Phoenicia (of the Syro-Phoenician woman) with cities such as Tyre and Sidon that, although had long outlived their glory days, were still important regional ports of call.
With such strong gentile influence and, perhaps, complicated allegiances to God, Israel and Rome, Galilee was not the ideal breeding ground for prophets. Temple Jews considered Galilee to be a backwater sort of place, far removed from the Temple cult of Jehovah: the Galileans’ tolerance of outsiders and liberal attitudes towards having them live and commerce among them made them, for the most part in the eyes of the Temple Jews, ritually unclean and by definition unfit for the office of prophet.
Along similar lines, in all the history of the law and the Prophets, not one single prophet had ever come from Nazareth. The great majority of them were of Judean descent and many of them with traceable Davidic and/or royal lineage. Jesus, in their eyes, therefore seemingly lacked both the proper stock as well as the correct birthplace to hold such office, whether it be prophet or Messiah.
Surely Jesus was well-aware of the cultural and religious stigma that came from being a Galilean and surely, although not recorded in the Gospels, many others would have already said or thought such things both before then and afterward. However, Jesus was able to see into Nathaniel’s heart and saw the sincere heart-cry of a Seeker and “credited to him as righteousness”. When Philip came to Nathaniel he made specific references to the Law and the Prophets; assuredly referring to the countless conversations they had together in the past as, perhaps they scoured the Scriptures together looking for a sign. I imagine that many other would-be prophets and Messiahs had come before and many of them and their followers, as history tells us, ended up dispersed, discredited or dead.
It is with all of this in mind that we can take a fresh look at Nathaniel’s question: it was part incredulous and part hopeful. Nathaniel was open to the idea and hopeful that he had misread or misunderstood something in the Scriptures where, although with a sincere heart, he had been sincerely wrong before and the time had come for them to finally find, or be found by, the Messiah.
When Jesus revealed to him the condition of his heart, he was perplexed and asked “how do you know me”? In typical Jesus style, He skips the actual question and says to him, paraphrasing, “not only do I know you, I even saw you under the fig tree”! What Nathaniel responds tells us a lot about the situation that we, at first glance, are not aware of directly. The low-lying fruit here (pun intended) is that the fig tree must have been out of the line of sight of Jesus from wherever it was that He was approaching, either over the hill or around a bend or something of that nature that would have told Nathaniel that the man that stood before him was Master over men’s inner thoughts and the forces (read “laws”) of nature. Jesus had correctly identified his internal personal state as well as his specific geographic location: two things that would have only been known by a close personal confidant like Philip.
Foregoing what else Jesus tells the men there assembled about what else they will see and hear in the times to come, we learn a few things about both Nathaniel and the heart of Jesus. First we learn that Nathaniel’s eagerness and thirst for the Truth is satisfied: his first question is answered with a resounding “yes!”, good things can come out of Nazareth. By association, good things can come from Galilee, like himself and his motley crew of friends that would gone on to change history. His second question is also answered: Jesus knows Nathaniel (read your own name there) like a “wheel within a wheel”. Jesus knows our innermost workings even when we are not aware of Him.
Perhaps the most astounding discovery we can take from this early interactions with His disciples is that Jesus is available for questioning. We will study in upcoming posts the way Jesus responds to other sorts of inquiries but, at this point, we are assured that not only does Jesus does not turn away anyone who is searching with all their heart (Jer 29:13) but He answers the underlying question regardless of presentation. Jesus is not interested in form but in function. Nathaniel’s question may have been or sounded course but it came from a ready heart, from a heart that wanted the Truth, was earnestly seeking the Truth. In exchange for his childlike sincerity, Jesus paid him a truly beautiful compliment, one that we should all aspire to hear from the Master: “an Israelite (read: Christian) indeed, in whom there is no guile”.