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John 1:47-51

47. When Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, he saith of him, Behold, one truly an Israelite, in whom there is no deceit. 48. Nathanael saith to him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said to him, Before Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig-tree, I saw thee. 49. Nathanael answered and said to him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God, thou art the King: of Israel. 50. Jesus answered and said to him, Because I said to thee, I saw thee under the fig-tree, thou believest; 4040     “Tu crois, ou, crois-tu?” — “Thou believest, or, believest thou?” thou shalt see greater things than these. 51. Then he said to him, Verily, verily, I say to you, Hereafter you shall see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man.


47. Behold, one truly an Israelite. It is not on Nathanael’s own account that Christ bestows on him this commendation, but under his person he holds out a general doctrine. For, since many who boast of being believers are very far from being actually believers, it is of great importance that some mark should be found for distinguishing the true and genuine from the false. We know how haughtily the Jews gloried in their father Abraham, and how presumptuously they boasted of the holiness of their descent; and yet there was scarcely one in a hundred among them who was not utterly degenerate and alienated from the faith of the Fathers. For this reason, Christ, in order to tear the mask from hypocrites, gives a short definition of a true Israelite, and, at the same time, removes the offense which would afterwards arise from the wicked obstinacy of the nation. 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 of Israelites is assumed there are few who are true Israelites.

Again, as this passage contains a definition of Christianity, we must not pass by it slightly. To sum up the meaning of Christ in a few words, it ought to be observed that deceit is contrasted with uprightness and sincerity; 4141     “Rondeur et syncerite.” so that he calls those persons sly 4242     “Canteleux et frauduleux.” and deceitful who are called in other parts of Scripture double in heart, (Psalm 12:2.) Nor is it only that gross hypocrisy by which those who are conscious of their wickedness pretend to be good men, but likewise another inward hypocrisy, when men are so blinded by their vices that they not only deceive others but themselves. So then it is integrity of heart before God, and uprightness before men, that makes a Christian; but Christ points out chiefly that kind of deceit which is mentioned in Psalm 32:2. In this passage ἀληθῶς (truly) means something more than certainly. The Greek word, no doubt, is often used as a simple affirmation; but as we must here supply a contrast between the fact and the mere name, he is said to be truly, who is in reality what he is supposed to be.

48. Whence knowest thou? Though Christ did not intend to flatter him, yet he wished to be heard by him, in order to draw forth a new question, by the reply to which he would prove himself to be the Son of God. Nor is it without a good reason that Nathanael asks whence Christ knew him; for to meet with a man of such uprightness as to be free from all deceit is an uncommon case, and to know such purity of heart belongs to God alone. The reply of Christ, however, appears to be inappropriate; for though he saw Nathanael under the fig-tree, it does not follow from this that he could penetrate into the deep secrets of the heart. But there is another reason; for as it belongs to God to know men when they are not seen, so also does it belong to Him to see what is not visible to the eyes. As Nathanael knew that Christ did not see him after the manner of men, but by a look truly divine, this might lead him to conclude that Christ did not now speak as a man. The proof, therefore, is taken from things which are of the same class; for not less does it belong to God to see what lies beyond our view than to judge concerning purity of heart. We ought also to gather from this passage a useful doctrine, that when we are not thinking of Christ, we are observed by him; and it is necessary that it should be so, that he may bring us back, when we have wandered from the right path.

49. Thou art the Son of God. That he acknowledges him to be the Son of God from his divine power is not wonderful; but on what ground does he call him King of Israel? for the two things do not appear to be necessarily connected. But Nathanael takes a loftier view. He had already heard that he is the Messiah, and to this doctrine he adds the confirmation which had been given him. He holds also another principle, that the Son of God will not come without exercising the office of King over the people of God. Justly, therefore, does he acknowledge that he who is the Son of God is also King of Israel And, indeed, faith ought not to be fixed on the essence of Christ alone, (so to speak,) but ought to attend to his power and office; for it would be of little advantage to know who Christ is, if this second point were not added, what he wishes to be towards us, and for what purpose the Father sent him. The reason why the Papists have nothing more than a shadow of Christ is, that they have been careful to look at his mere essence, but have disregarded his kingdom, which consists in the power to save.

Again, when Nathanael calls him King of Israel, though his kingdom extends to the remotest bounds of the earth, the confession is limited to the measure of faith. For he had not yet advanced so far as to know that Christ was appointed to be King over the whole world, or rather, that from every quarter would be collected the children of Abraham, so that the whole world would be the Israel of God. We to whom the wide extent of Christ’s kingdom has been revealed ought to go beyond those narrow limits. Yet following the example of Nathanael, let us exercise our faith in hearing the word, and let us strengthen it by all the means that are in our power; and let it not remain buried, but break out into confession.

50. Jesus answered. He does not reprove Nathanael as if he had been too easy of belief, but rather approving of his faith, promises to him and to others that he will confirm it by stronger arguments. Besides, it was peculiar to one man that he was seen under a fig-tree by Christ, when absent and at a distance from him; but now Christ brings forward a proof which would be common to all, and thus — as if he had broken off from what he originally intended — instead of addressing one man, he turns to address all.

51. You shall see heaven opened. They are greatly mistaken, in my opinion, who anxiously inquire into the place where, and the time when, Nathanael and others saw heaven opened; for he rather points out something perpetual which was always to exist in his kingdom. I acknowledge indeed, that the disciples sometimes saw angels, who are not seen in the present day; and I acknowledge also that the manifestation of the heavenly glory, when Christ ascended to heaven, was different from what we now behold. But if we duly consider what took place at that time, it is of perpetual duration; for the kingdom of God, which was formerly closed against us, is actually opened in Christ. A visible instance of this was shown to Stephen, (Acts 7:55,) to the three disciples on the mountain, (Matthew 17:5,) and to the other disciples at Christ’s ascension, (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9.) But all the signs by which God shows himself present with us depend on this opening of heaven, more especially when God communicates himself to us to be our life.

Ascending and descending on the Son of man. This second clause refers to angels. They are said to ascend and descend, so as to be ministers of God’s kindness towards us; and therefore this mode of expression points out the mutual intercourse which exists between God and men. Now we must acknowledge that this benefit was received through Christ, because without him the angels have rather a deadly enmity against us than a friendly care to help us. They are said to ascend and descend on the son of man, not because they minister to him, but because — in reference to him, and for his honor — they include the whole body of the Church in their kindly regard. Nor have I any doubt that he alludes to the ladder which was exhibited to the patriarch Jacob in a dream, (Genesis 28:12;) for what was prefigured by that vision is actually fulfilled in Christ. In short, this passage teaches us, that though the whole human race was banished from the kingdom of God, the gate of heaven is now opened to us, so that we are fellow-citizens of the saints, and companions of the angels, (Ephesians 2:19;) and that they, having been appointed to be guardians of our salvation, descend from the blessed rest of the heavenly glory 4343     “De la gloire celeste.” to relieve our distresses.

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