For its Bible study, my church is going through John’s Gospel: Wisdom from Ephesus, with Michael Card.
I was a little thrown off by this question in our workbook: “Michael notes that the gospel of John is unique among the four gospels. What is one of your unique characteristics? (If this is a hard question for you to answer, maybe the group can help!)”
My problem was that I didn’t think that anyone was truly unique. Can I truly say that something is true about me, that is not true of at least one other person on the face of the earth? But, as I thought some more, I came to gain an appreciation for how unique each of us really is. I may (to use an example) be interested in theology, and somebody else is interesting in theology. But, even if the two of us read the same books and agree on the same ideas, we’re still unique. My commitment to the ideas is not quite like someone else’s commitment to those same ideas.
Michael Card on the DVD mentioned a couple of other things that caught my interest. Michael Card said that eight other gods besides the God of Israel were worshiped in the city of Nazareth, and that was one reason that Nathaniel in John 1:46 asked if anything good could come out of Nazareth. I have no idea whether that’s true or not. There were rather pagan cities in the land of Israel—-they were called the Decapolis. But Nazareth was not part of the Decapolis. Mark Chancey’s “The Myth of a Gentile Galilee” may be relevant to this topic.
Michael Card was also speculating about what Nathaniel was doing under the fig tree. You may recall that Nathaniel in John 1 was really impressed with Jesus and concluded Jesus was the Messiah after Jesus told him that he (Jesus) saw Nathaniel under the fig tree. Was Nathaniel praying? Studying Scripture? Doing something embarrassing? Michael Card said that Nathaniel was praying for the coming of the Messiah. That interpretation makes sense to me: Nathaniel is praying for the Messiah while he is under the fig tree, he is asked to come and see the Messiah, he is skeptical at first, and then he is impressed that Jesus knows that he was under the fig tree. It’s like Jesus is speaking out of intimate knowledge of Nathaniel’s hope for the Messiah.
But the workbook also offers another possibility: Nathaniel was reading about the stairway to heaven that Jacob dreamed about in Genesis 28. Jesus would allude to that story by saying that Nathaniel would see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Michael Card says this means that Jesus would be the fulfillment of Jacob’s dream—-that Jesus himself would be the way to heaven. I don’t think that this interpretation makes as much sense as the one that says that Nathaniel was praying for the Messiah. Nathaniel was impressed that Jesus knew he was under the fig tree before Jesus alluded to the Jacob story. I do believe, however, that the story of Jacob is relevant to Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel in John 1. For one, there is the angels ascending and descending, which appears to be an allusion to Genesis 28. Second, I appreciate John MacArthur’s point that Jesus might be contrasting the guileless Nathaniel with Jacob, who had his share of guile.
On that note, I’d like to quote MacArthur’s explanation for why Jesus called Nathaniel an Israelite without guile. Remember that Nathaniel had bluntly asked if anything good could come out of Nazareth. MacArthur says: ” Jesus’ point was that Nathanael’s bluntness revealed that he was an Israelite without duplicitous motives who was willing to examine for himself the claims being made about Jesus. The term reveals an honest seeking heart.” Nathaniel’s bluntness was a good thing, according to MacArthur.