An Israelite indeed speaks his mind

Context in John 1:43-47

Posted Monday, July 24, 2006 by Brian Beers

Context. Context. Context.

What good is context anyway?

According to Merriam-Webster, it is: “1 : the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning”

What is does for most of us is to limit meaning.

Almost any isolated statement may have a fabulous range of meaning. For example a politician taken out of context can sound even wackier. But when we have context even a politician may sound reasonable. With context meaning is constrained, and we have confidence that we understand what a person really meant to say.

In Scripture we usually have context. Occasionally, though, the context is missed and statements are misinterpreted. Jesus’ statement about Nathaniel is one example of this. I had always considered Jesus’ statement concerning Nathaniel’s character to be an example of Jesus’ deity showing. Jesus genuinely knew Nathaniel’s character because he was God. But reading the statement in context, I think that it is a bit more ordinary, more human, and a more humorous conversation.

Jesus is from Nazareth, the other side of the proverbial tracks. In this passage he decides to visit Galilee and invites Phillip to go along. Phillip apparently had heard Jesus preach and had believed him and the message of John the Baptist. Then we have Phillip finding Nathaniel and declaring that the Messiah had arrived in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s right: the Messiah, the powerful liberator of Israel, the future ruler of the nation has arrived. You would think that anyone with a modicum of sense would hold their tongue about the Messiah’s home town. But Nate said, “Can anything good come out of NAZARETH?” He did not conceal his skepticism in order to flatter the Messiah. He was honest.

And Jesus replied, “Behold, an Israelite indeed [true Israelites know Nazareth’s reputation] in whom there is no deceit.”

I used to think that Jesus had made a supernatural evaluation of Nathaniel’s character. The following statement about seeing him under a fig tree is clearly supernatural, but this is in contrast to his first statement. Nathaniel’s question, “How do you know me?” may even be a little sarcastic and self-deprecating. Otherwise he is arrogantly glad someone finally noticed his good character. If he indeed has good character then he is saying that this one statement of his is not enough to judge him so highly. It is after this second, supernatural observation about him sitting under a fig tree that Nathaniel declares, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

Observing the context, I believe that Jesus said that Nathaniel speaks his mind no matter who is listening. This could be considered a sweeping character evaluation, but it is somewhat less than the near sinlessness that I once thought Jesus attributed to Nathaniel.


7/25/2006 10:33:00 AM

Sam wrote: 
This is a good piece...I think we sometimes jump to super-natural conclusions about some of Jesus' statements.  Another such place is when Jesus has forgiven the paralytic lowered through the roof.  The text says that the scribes began accusing him of blasphemy in their hearts.  Then Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were thinking such and rebuked/confounded them by then healing the man.  I was always taught that "perceived in his spirit" meant "had special revelation/exercised his deity to know."  As I've gone through this story lately, I'm not so sure.  It wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out.  If I started claiming to exercise the prerogatives of deity, I could rightly assume similar charges to be made against me...
All this to say that I think you're probably spot-on about the Nathaniel statement.

8/9/2006 12:04:00 PM

Josh wrote: 

Brian, you denier of divinity you,

I appreciate the observation.  I think you are correct to suggest that here, and elsewhere, we would do better to understand language as language before we theologize.

8/10/2006 12:04:00 PM

Brian wrote:  Double-Tall-Lowfat-Decaf

we would do better to understand language as language

That is a mighty tall order there.

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