Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | February 2, 2008

What is significant about Jesus’ statement to Nathanael? (Lesson 5: Question 7 Answer)

7.  What is significant about Jesus’ statement to Nathanael?

After considering how our Lord was able to accomplish what is stated in our text we will now shift the focus on the significance of His statement.  In order to do this we will continue examining the following verses of our text:

47Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”

Our Lord specifically chose Phillip whom he somehow must have known was going to call Nathanael.  He knows what is in our hearts, He is the Word of God who pierces bone and marrow, thus nothing is hidden from Him (Hebrews 4:12). Here we see that our Lord’s statement to Nathanael reveals that He was able to penetrate into his heart to make a judgment about him.  Nathanael is marveled by the ability of our Lord to possess such an intimate knowledge of him after meeting him for the first time.  Then our Lord proceeds to make it clear to Nathanael that He had the ability to perceive the secret thoughts and actions of men.

An interesting observation should be made about the translation of verse 47 of our text.  Both the ESV and NASB do not render the word ἀληθῶς in an ordinary fashion.  It appears that the adjective ἀληθῶς, possessing the same gender, number and case as the noun Ισραηλίτης (Israelite), is in the attributive position.  Thus, it is interesting that both translations do not render the phrase “a true (or real) Israelite” rather than “an Israelite indeed”.  Although, a slight variation in translation exists, both renderings essentially convey the same meaning.  However, it seems that our Lord is emphasizing a contrast between what Nathanael is (a true Israelite) versus what he is not (a deceitful Israelite).  This contrast would not be as evident in the ESV or NASB translations.

In examining the word that is used for deceit, δόλος, another interesting observation can be made.  This term carries with it the connotation of taking advantage through craft and underhanded methods possessing glosses such as deceit, cunning, treachery.100 In other authors of the New Testament it is used to describe human depravity as a result of the fallen nature (pagan Gentiles Romans 1:29, Jewish Pharisees Mark 7:22, and a wicked sorcerer  Acts 13:10 ).  It was also used by the Septuagint (LXX) translators for the word ממהר (mirmâh) in Isaiah 53:9 describing that God’s suffering Servant would be without deceit.  This is authenticated by Peter’s use of the same word while citing this passage in his Epistle (1 Peter 2:22).  In a similar fashion it is used in Revelation 14:5 to indicate that the saints in heaven will be without deceit.

Here our Lord is attributing to Nathanael some significant characteristics that place him in the company of our Lord Himself and the saints in heaven.  First, in calling him “a true Israelite” there is a deliberate distinction between others who may not qualify in that category (Romans 9:4-6). Second, in identifying that he was one “in whom there is no deceit” there is an acknowledgment that something has occurred to his Fallen nature that no longer is counted against him.  This distinction is clearly used to categorize people amongst an assembly that possess a righteousness that can stand before the presence of God.  As we continue in this Gospel and hearken back to other accounts it must be acknowledged that these are unusual words coming from our Lord when describing the condition of man.  Calvin picks up on this in his commentary on this verse (and renders ἀληθῶς as “truly an Israelite”): 

For those who wished to be accounted the children of Abraham, and the holy people of God, were shortly afterwards to become the deadly enemies of the Gospel.  That none may be discouraged or alarmed by the impiety which was generally found in almost all ranks, he gives a timely warning, that of those by whom the name Israelites is assumed there are few who are true Israelites. 101

Many in that generation would elude the encouraging words that our Lord gives to Nathanael here in our text. So, what explanation can be given to account for this unique conversation that occurs with this “true Israelite”? We answer that he had saving faith in the promise that messiah would come, which would have been credited to him as righteousness.  This statement may produce a number of questions and concerns to some, so let us unpack how we arrived at this conclusion.

As we already examined Phillip’s statement  in verse 45 it is evident that he believed the Law and the Prophets promised a coming Messiah.  His eagerness to provide this news to Nathanael is indicative of the fact that Nathanael must also of had possessed the same faith.  This is evident in Nathanael’s response to Phillip about the Messiah coming from Nazareth.  Many astute Jews would have expected the Messiah was coming from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) rather than Nazareth. Thus, we could reasonably conclude from the prior texts that Phillip and Nathanael were genuinely faithful Jews who were anticipating the advent of the Messiah believing in the Abrahamic promise (Genesis 12:3).  This assumption is validated by our Lord’s words in this text.

Although, the period of our text is clearly prior to our Lord’s death, burial and resurrection, it supports that it was effective for faithful believers in the promise both before and after this event (Hebrews 9:24-28).   Thus, we would be irresponsible to conclude that the believers of the old covenant were saved differently than the believers in the new covenant.  Their faith in the promised messiah produced the same effects as ours.  Their faith was the instrumental cause of the double imputation that all believers receive, because of Christ’s substitutionary work.  We see that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness (Romans 4:1-4) along with all other old covenant saints (Hebrews 11:1-2 ). It should be clarified, however that faith is not what saves the believer necessarily (Ephesians 2:8).102  It is Christ who saves us by grace through faith in His vicarious atonement. 

This was an intratrinitarian pact (pactum salutus) made amongst the three Persons of the Trinity from the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:18-21).  God the Father selected a people for whom God the Son would redeem and God the Holy Spirit would apply that redeeming work by producing the faith necessary to inherit it (Ephesians 1:1-13 and 1 Peter 1:2).  Our Lord’s task was to undergo probation in another covenant of works as our representative, since our first representative (Adam) failed to earn the reward of eternal life through faithful obedience. 103 As we will find in continuing through this Gospel, our Lord’s task was successful and the reward of eternal life through faithful obedience of the covenant of works was achieved.  His achievement is the basis by which all believers can thus be saved by grace through faith in that promise.  The promise, which we have traced from Genesis 3:15 throughout redemptive history.

Nathanael, just like us, was born in Adam with a fallen nature, who in himself, would have been at enmity with God (Ephesians 2:3).  In Adam or the natural state his heart, like ours, was desperately wicked and full of deceit (Jeremiah 17:9).  Nonetheless, our Lord clearly in verse 47 makes the statement that Nathanael had no deceit in him.  How do we reconcile this statement of our Lord with the clear teaching of other passages? The only biblical solution to this predicament is in what we have stated above.  Yes, Nathanael was born in Adam and by nature possessed the moral corruption caused by sin.  However, as a “true Israelite” Nathanael believed the promise and “it was credited to him as righteousness”.  Thus, Nathanael was no longer in Adam he was in Christ who was the only mediator that would reconcile the broken relationship between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5-6).  This is how our Lord viewed Nathanael and was the basis for the statement he attributed to him, which is in harmony with the rest of Scripture.

Therefore, if this is how our Lord views the true Israelites who trust in Him for their righteousness then we can be assured that through our faith we enjoy the same status as Nathanael.  Although, we are born in Adam corrupted by the affects of his sin, in Christ we are without deceit.  In Christ our sins have been removed having been nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14).  In Christ we have the righteousness that is necessary to appear before the holy God who requires us also to be holy (1 Peter 1:16).  We are not able to stand by our own righteousness, however in Christ we are sanctified once and for all (Hebrews 10:8-10).  Thus, when we are judged on the last day, just like Nathanael, we be able to stand blameless before the tribunal of God based on what Christ has done for us.

100 Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature/ revised and edited by FW Danker (Chicago:  The University Chicago Press) 256

101 John Calvin (1550) Commentary on the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ According to John (Calvin’s Commentaries, 17; Baker, 2005) 78

102 Richard D. Phillips, “By Grace Through Faith or Why Prepositions Matter” (Modern Reformation Volume 16 Number 5 September/October 2007) p 30

103 Meredith Kline (2007) Kingdom Prologue Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Eugene, OR:  Wipf & Stock 2006), 145

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