The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Fathers Nolan’s and Brown’s Commentary on John 1:45-51

Posted by Dim Bulb on August 17, 2012

Text in red are my additions and notes.

45. Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith to him: We have found him of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets did write, Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth.
46. And Nathanael said to him: Can anything- of good come from Nazareth? Philip saith to him: Come and see.

Philip not only obeys the call to become a disciple himself, but brings another
disciple with him to Jesus. Nathanael (= Deus dedid, “Gift of God”) was a native of Cana in Galilee (John 21:2), and is most probably identical with Bartholomew (= “son of Tolmai”) the Apostle, “For Nathanael and Philip are coupled in John 1:45, as Bartholomew and Philip are here (Matt 10:3); Nathanael is named in the very midst of Apostles, John 21:2. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas, who is called Didymus, and Nathanael who was of Cana of Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee. Would anyone but an Apostle be so named? Finally, Matthew, Luke, and Mark do not allude to Nathanael, nor does John to Bartholomew” (M Carthy on Matt 10:3).

The son of Joseph. Doubtless, he means a son conceived and born in the ordinary way. So it was generally thought, and so thought Philip, ignorant of the miraculous conception of Christ, and of His birth at Bethlehem. It is absurd to charge our Evangelist, as De Wette has done, with ignorance of Christ’s miraculous birth of a virgin, because he records the ignorance of Philip.

Nazareth, for ever famous as the scene of the incarnation, was a little town in Lower Galilee, in the tribal territory of Zabulon. It was the dwelling-place of our Lord during His private life. Nazareth, indeed all Galilee, was held in contempt (see John 7:52), and hence Nathanael s doubt, (verse 46), though he was himself a Galilean (John 21:2).

47. Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and he saith of him: Behold an Israelite in deed, in whom there is no guile.

When Nathanael had approached near enough to be able to hear what was said, but before he had spoken anything from which our Lord might have been thought to guess at his character, our Lord said: Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile; that is to say, one who, not merely by descent, but by the simplicity and honesty of his character, is a true son of Jacob. See Gen 25:27; Rom 9:6. Jacob’s name was changed into Israel, after he
wrestled with the angel, Gen 32:28.

48. Nathanael saith to him: Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered, and said to him: Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig-tree, I saw thee.
49. Nathanael answered him, and said: Rabbi, thou art the Son of God, thou art the King of Israel.

Nathanael must have felt convinced that he had been hidden from Christ’s natural view, otherwise he could not draw the inference which, aided by divine grace, he draws. Whether Nathanael yet recognised Jesus to be true God, and professed his belief in Him as such, in the words of verse 49, is disputed. If we are to judge from his words (ο υιος = “the son”), the affirmative opinion seems much more probable. It must be said, however, that Matt 16:16-17 would seem to show that Peter was the first to confess fully Christ’s Divinity. Besides it is hard to see how Nathanael had data for such a faith. Those who think Nathanael is confessing our Lord’s divinity here read way to much into the use of the definite article: ο υιος του θεου = “The son of God.” The emphasis can be explained in light of first century messianic expectation which held the idea off the davidic kings being adopted sons of God (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7). Jesus’ response indicates that there is definitely something lacking to Nathanael’s faith confession: Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, thou believest: greater things than these shalt thou see.

50. Jesus answered and said to him: Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig-tree, thou believest: greater things than these shalt thou see.

Jesus promises Nathanael stronger arguments in support of his belief. In the words: Greater things than these shalt thou see, the plural these seems to point to the class and not merely the special incident.

51. And he saith to him: Amen, amen, I say to you, you shall see the heaven opened, and the Angels of God ascending and descending
upon the son of man.

Amen, amen, is peculiar to John. The other Evangelists use “Amen” only once in such asseverations. “Amen means verily (truly) (at the end of a prayer it means so be it); and when doubled, strengthens the asseveration, and points to the solemnity of the declaration about to follow” (MacEvilly).

The Son of man. This strange title occurs in the Gospels more than eighty times, and always as used by Christ of Himself; even in John 12:34 it is merely taken up by the crowd from Him, In all the rest of N.T. it occurs only once (Acts 7:55). Hence the N.T. writers must have deliberately avoided using it. It does not occur in O.T. Dan 7:13 speaks only “one like to a son of man”; and apparently Christ’s contemporaries did not regard it as a Messianic title. What precisely He meant by it is still uncertain.

You shall see. Though Nathanael is addressed (and He saith to him), yet the plural (υμιν) shows that the wondrous sign here promised was to be seen not by him alone, but at least by Philip also, and probably by others. Here is how the text reads: And he saith to him (singular): Amen, amen, I say to you (plural). The words addressed to Nathanael, the “true Israelite in whom there is no guile,” is intended for all. I would suggest-in keeping with what was said earlier about Nathanael’s alleged confession of Jesus’ divinity-that there is a criticism here of a ‘faith” which relies on one’s own perceptions rather than on the fulness of the revelation that Jesus brings. Such a “faith” is guile, not true belief, and it leads to murderous hatred of Jesus, coming ultimately from the devil (see John 8:31-59).

The meaning of the prediction is obscure. Evidently some great sign is promised; but what it is, interpreters are far from agreed. Some take the words metaphorically, others literally.

Of those who understand them metaphorically, some take the sense to be: You shall see numerous miracles, such as are usually attributed to angels (or, in the performance of which angels shall minister to Me) wrought by Me, the Son of Man, during My public life. So Beelen, Maier, &c. We cannot accept this view, for it seems highly improbable that our Lord would speak in language so obscure to the guileless Nathanael and his companions on an occasion like the present, when Nathanael had only just believed. Keep in mind that the concept of “belief” in John’s Gospel has several layers of meaning, not all positive (Jn 8:31-59).

Others understand of the spiritual glories of the whole period from the commencement of Christ’s public mission till the end of the world. Alford, explaining this view (which, by the way, he calmly claims to have been “the interpretation of all commentators of any depth in all times”! says: “It is not the outward visible opening of the material heavens nor ascent or descent of angels in the sight of men, which the Lord here announces, but the series of glories which was about to be unfolded in His Person and work, from that
time forward.” Our difficulty in regard to this view is the same as in regard to the preceding.

St. Augustine is generally supposed to have understood this text in reference to the preachers of the New Testament, “ascending” when they preach the more sublime, “descending,” when they preach the more elementary doctrines of religion. If St. Augustine meant this as a literal interpretation of the passage, as he certainly seems to do in Tract 7 on this Gospel, we cannot accept it. Surely, something stranger and more striking is promised here, after the opening of the heavens, than the sight of preachers!

Others hold that we must interpret this passage entirely in the light of Jacob’s dream, Gen 38:12. Jacob saw a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it. That vision meant in his regard that God would make him the object of His special protection (see Gen 38:13-15). And now Nathanael, who is an Israelite indeed, a true son of Jacob (verse 47), is told that he and others shall see that Divine favour and protection which Jacob’s vision signified, extended in such an extraordinary manner to Christ, during His life, that it will be most manifest He is the Son of God.

This view we regard as probable. The Fathers tell us that Nathanael was particularly well versed in the Scriptures, and our Lord s words might readily recall to his mind Jacob s dream, with all its significance of Divine favour and protection.

Of the opinions that attempt to explain the words literally, some may be dismissed at once. Thus there cannot be reference to the angels who appeared at Christ’s birth, or after His temptations (Matt 4:11), for Christ speaks of an event still to come, whereas His birth and temptations were already past. Nor can there be reference to the transfiguration, even if we suppose angels to have been present; nor to the agony in the garden; nor to the resurrection; for
on none of these occasions did Philip and Nathanael see the angels. Less improbable, perhaps, is the view that there is reference to the ascension, and the two angels that appeared then (Acts 1:10). But this opinion too we reject without hesitation. In the passage of the Acts referred to, St Luke tells us: “And while they were beholding Him going up to heaven, behold two men stood by them in white garments.” Now, it is clear that angels who stood by the apostles and disciples, cannot possibly be those referred to here as “ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Lapide refers the prediction to some miraculous vision seen by the disciples during our Lord’s life, and not recorded in the Gospels. But it seems improbable that the fulfilment of such a prediction would be passed over in silence by all the Evangelists.

Finally, there is the opinion, which is held by Maldonatus that there is reference to the last judgment, when the heavens shall be opened, and Christ shall come riding on the clouds of heaven, accompanied by angels, and all men shall be forced to confess Him God. This seems to us the most probable interpretation. For, first, it is likely that our Lord refers to the clearest and most incontrovertible proof that shall be given of His Divinity; and such will be His coming in majesty to judge the world. Secondly, we know that on another occasion, when he was challenged by the Jewish High Priest to say if he was the Son of God, He appealed to this same proof of His Divinity: “I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us if thou be the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus saith to him: Thou hast said it Nevertheless, I say to you: Hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the power of God, and coming in the clouds of heaven” (Matt 26:63-64). Probably the expression: ascending and
descending is to be understood metaphorically, even in this opinion, and means merely that the angels shall be attendant upon the great Judge, ready to execute His will. The order is remarkable: they are said first to ascend, and then to descend, as was the case also in Jacob’s vision.

In my opinion (for whatever it’s worth) Jesus is being presented here as the focal point and touchstone of revelation. The personal messianic expectations of people like Andrew must be superseded (John 1:40-41). One’s own understanding of Moses and the prophets (i.e., the Law and the Prophets, John 1:45) must be surrendered to Jesus’ interpretation, for only in light of that teaching, and the Paschal Mystery, can they be rightly understood (see Luke 24:25-27; Luke 24:44-47; 2 Cor 3:7-4:6; John 2:22; John 5:39-40; John 12:14-16; John 14:25-26; John 20:6-9). I think there is a connection between our Lord’s words here, and the words of the Father at the Transfiguration when Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the prophets) appeared with Jesus. On that occasion the Father said: This is my beloved Son…hear ye him (see Matt 17:1-8). In the presence of Moses and Elijah the disciples are told to listen to Jesus, implying that he is the focal point that gives meaning to the Law and the Prophets, and not vice versa. The context of the two events is also similar. In Matthew 16 we have St Peter’s confession of who Jesus is (Matt 16:13-16), but it is a rather limited understanding (Matt 16:21-23), mirroring the assumptions of Andrew, Philip and Nathanael in John 1.

For a full discussion of this verse and the interpretations take by various modern scholars one should consult THE JOHANNINE SON OF MAN, pages 23-41, by Father Francis J Moloney.

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