Philip and Nathanael

Friends to All

Wed. Jul 14th
Two men whose first instinct was to bring others to Jesus. Sometimes they got it wrong but, in the end, they recognized who Jesus was and followed Him into eternity.
23 min

We noted that usually the best way we bring someone to Christ is by our personal relationship with them. We have friends and acquaintances with whom we can be open about our faith. We have seen that already in Andrew and Peter. We will see it again with Philip and Nathanael.

We also have stated before that as we progress through the list of the apostles, we begin to see less mentioned about them directly in Scripture. Yet we still learn from these great men despite their obscurity in Scripture. Let us begin by looking at the biblical accounts of Philip.

The Biblical Accounts of Philip

Philip is the fifth name on the lists of the apostles. He is mentioned in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts but without any details. Although John does not list the apostles as in the other gospels and Acts, He does give us some details about Philip.

Our first introduction to Philip is in John 1:43 when Jesus calls him. Of note is the expression from this passage that Jesus "found Philip." Some have mentioned that this choice of words communicates that Jesus sought him out. This fits with John's statement in John 15:16 where Jesus stated they did not choose Him, but He chose them and appointed them. Jesus very clearly and directly tells Philip, "Follow me."

John also states that Philip was from Bethsaida (vs. 44), the home of Andrew and Peter, indicating that they likely knew each other, and that Phillip worked as a fisherman. Philip then immediately informs his friend Nathanael about Jesus (we will look more at this later). When Nathanael hesitated in his belief, Philip responds by continuing to encourage him stating, "Come and see" (vs. 46). We do not have the conversation between Jesus and Philip as we do with Nathanael, but thankfully, Philip was persistent in his enthusiasm.

There are other mentions of Philip in Scripture that show his interaction with Jesus.

  • John 6:5-6 - Philip is tested by Jesus during the feeding of the 5,000.
  • John 12:20-26 - Philip brought 2 Greeks to Andrew. These men wanted to meet Jesus.
  • John 14:8 - Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father.

It is not a major point, but some get Philip the apostle and Philip the evangelist mixed up. Philip the apostle was not the Philip in Acts 8. As Acts continues with the narrative of the beginning and growth of the church, we read that persecution of the church had begun. The opening statement in Acts 8 tells us that as the church began to face great persecution, the Christians were scattered, except for the apostles, who remained in Jerusalem. In verse 5, we see that Philip went to Samaria to teach them Christ. Since the Scripture states that Philip the apostle was still in Jerusalem, it must have been the other Philip that we know from Acts 6, one of those chosen to help serve those who had been overlooked.

What We Learn from Philip

Philip teaches us to focus on Jesus and not self.

Like several of the others, Philip had questions and doubts and found it difficult at times to understand even simple concepts but he knew Jesus was the answer to his questions.

All too often we are just like that. We learn that we must be willing to follow Jesus through it all. We might not understand everything, but we know Jesus is the source of our salvation, so we do not give up. Like Philip, we get the answer wrong sometimes, but also like Philip, we continue to learn from Jesus.

Like Andrew, Philip teaches us to bring others to Jesus.

Philip's first action after finding Jesus was to find his friend Nathanael. It was Philip who brought two Greek men to Andrew in order to meet Jesus.

A great lesson for us is that there are times when we do not feel comfortable bringing someone directly to Christ. We learn, however, not to give up or refuse them the opportunity to learn of Jesus. We can bring them to class or worship. We can invite them to a Bible study. We can introduce them to someone who can teach them. The method taught is not nearly as important as the effort of introducing them to Christ.

We have noted that the first thing Phillip did was to go to his friend Nathanael with the good news of his discovery of Jesus. Let us leave Philip for now and look at Nathanael as he encounters his Savior.

There is not much about Nathanael mentioned in Scripture, but he is an important figure in God's plan to teach us several important lessons.

Nathanael

Nathanael is named Bartholomew in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts, but he is called Nathanael in John's gospel. Although some think Nathanael and Bartholomew are different men, given the references and association in the gospels with Phillip and then in John, most scholars think these two are the same man. As such, he is listed as the sixth apostle in the gospels and the seventh in Acts.

John 21:2 states that Nathanael came from Cana in Galilee. He was likely a fisherman since he went with the others to fish after Jesus appears following His resurrection.

Most of what we know of Nathanael is from John 1:43-51 as we read about his calling by Jesus. As we have noted, Philip brought Nathanael to Jesus, but Nathanael was already known by Jesus who previously saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. This is not just a passing mention. It was customary for Jews to plant a fig tree by the front of their house. As the tree matured, they would sit under it and study and pray. This adds importance to what Jesus said when he initially spoke with Nathanael.

Jesus identifies Nathanael with a particularly notable statement in John 1:47:

"Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit."
(Some versions say, "guile").

Rather than say "Jew" or "Hebrew" Jesus said "Israelite." The use of "Israelite" is a religious reference rather than a nationalistic one. It could be interpreted as "Here is a man of God who is honest."

After Nathanael's question about how Jesus knew him, Jesus identifies His knowledge of Nathanael's habit of meditating and praying under the fig tree. Some point to this as the divine power of omniscience (all knowing) of Jesus as part of the Godhead. Nathanael must have thought that because of his response: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"

We recall what Philip said when he told Nathanael of Jesus, that Nathanael questioned if anything of merit could come from such a small town. After meeting Jesus, Nathanael went from someone doubting to fully and enthusiastically embracing Jesus as the Messiah.

What We Learn from Nathanael

Nathanael teaches us to completely embrace Jesus.

Jesus came to save humanity by reestablishing our relationship with God. More importantly, Jesus came to save each of us individually. It is therefore critical for each of us have a personal relationship with Jesus. That is exactly what Nathanael did; "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel."

Like the others, Nathanael teaches us to be a seeker.

As Jesus noted, He saw Nathanael sitting under the fig tree, a place of study, prayer, and meditation.

There are two kinds of seekers, and we see both in Nathanael. From John's record, we see that Nathanael was the first kind of seeker, one who is not sure about the direction of his life and who turns to God, seeking to find that direction. Later, after finding Jesus, he became the second kind of seeker, one who now has discovered direction and meaning through Jesus and seeks to follow His will as a faithful disciple. Nathanael never ceased to be a seeker discovering and following Jesus.

Conclusion

There is a mix of traditions about Philip's activities as the gospel spread. Tradition states that he traveled throughout Greece, Turkey, and Syria and was eventually killed in the city of Hierapolis because he converted the wife of the proconsul there. It states that he was crucified upside-down. Another tradition of his death states he was beheaded in the city.

Tradition also has that Nathanael carried the gospel to India, Ethiopia, northeast Iran, and Turkey. Most traditions hold that he was killed in Turkey by being flayed with a whip and then beheaded. There is another tradition that states he was crucified upside down like Peter. Some modern scholars believe, but there is a lot of disagreement, that he was more likely to have died in India.

Philip and Nathanael do not seem very impressive when we first see them. Certainly, there is not much in the scriptural record regarding them. However, when we consider their life's work was to serve and glorify the Savior, we see that they are examples of what it means to put ourselves aside and follow Jesus.

We see that Philip and Nathanael were faithful servants of Jesus who had questions and concerns, doubts and fears. Despite these thoughts and feelings, however, they continued to be positive instruments in the hands of God. Once again, through their example we can see that we too can use our gifts to become all that Jesus wants us to become.

I think Philip would have liked the song, "Break Thou the Bread of Life." He would have remembered how Jesus taught him with the fishes and loaves. We see Philip breaking the bread of life to others as he brought them to the Master.

Nathanael would have liked our song "Sweet Hour of Prayer". He would recall his first encounter with the Lord He came to love and serve.

We all need a friend like Philip and his fig tree to lead us to a quiet place of meditation and prayer.

Discussion Questions

  1. Summarize what we know of Philip.
  2. How does Philip teach us to focus on Jesus and not self?
  3. Summarize how Nathanael was brought to Jesus?
  4. In what ways do we see Nathanael as a "seeker" and what can we learn from that?