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Great Things from Strange Places
A Bible Study from John 1:43-50

by Robert L. Cobb
-Administrator, News For Christians Dot Com

John 1
              45  Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses
                          in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.
               46  And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? 
                            Philip saith unto him, Come and see.
                47  Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, 
                            in whom is no guile!
                48  Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said 
                     unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.
                49  Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the
                                 King of Israel.
                 50  Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig 
                          tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.

One of the first things we want to know about people is from where they come.  When we want to know about a person, we look at his family, his background, and his environment.  History and cultural lore are full of illustrations of influential people from humble beginnings. 

In politics, our minds immediately go to Abraham Lincoln.  In spite of his family's poverty, he rose to the greatest heights as a leader of men.  In Tupelo, Mississippi, the son of a drunkard grew to influence popular music and modern culture like few others.  His name was Elvis Presley.  The seacoast city of Wilmington, NC seemed an unlikely place for a cultural icon to be born.  Michael Jordan had an ordinary childhood until high school when his basketball talents began to blossom.

Those are worldly examples, but the same principle applies in religious circles.  D.L. Moody was an orphan who grew up with none of life's luxuries.  No one thought that his life would amount to anything special.  The great missionary David Livingstone was born near Glasgow, Scotland to a very poor family.  He was forced to work in the local cotton mill at ten years old to help his family.  One of the greatest preachers and hymnwriters in Christian history was John Newton.  His mother died when he was seven, and his father raised him on board the ships he sailed.  At twelve, he was on his own.  As an adult, he was captain of a slave ship.  One could look at Newton's early life and wonder how such a one could ever do anything for God.

Our passage of scripture tells of the call of the disciple Nathanael.  When Philip told him of Christ, he replied, "Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?"  What a question!  I entitle this study, "Great Things from Strange Places."  In it, we will use this passage to examine the attitudes  and prejudices of many people and the grace of God that overcomes them.

I.   A HAPPY DECLARATION  (verse 45)

Notice in verse 45 that Philip found Nathanael.  Philip was the "finding" disciple.  Many times when Philip is mentioned in scripture, it shows him winning souls and witnessing for the Lord. He had met Christ and now wanted to share his experience with Nathanael.

"We have found him,"  Philip told him.  Many young men of Philip's time were searching for "him," that is, the messiah.  Israel was under the dominion of the Roman empire and many looked for the one who would lead their beloved nation to independence and autonomy. 

Subpoints: (1)  A Specific Search   "found Nathanael"
               (2)  A Special Find   "found him"  (Christ)
              (3) A Scriptural Fulfillment  "of whom Moses and the prophets did write"
           (4) A Statement of Identification "Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph"

II.   A HARMFUL ATTITUDE  (verse 46)

If you ever wanted to find an illustration of a pessimist, here it is!  Nathanael's response is so much like our own many times.  We discount people because of external difficulties.  Nazareth was not a desirable place.  It was not known for great minds or great abilities.  Most scholars believe that Nathanael was voicing an honest concern as well as possibly casting an aspersion
on the city of Nazareth. 

There were no major scriptures identifying Nazareth as city of prophecy concerning the messiah.  It would seem that Nathanael was very knowledgeable about spiritual matters.  Philip came to him with the announcement, "we have found him..."  These men had probably spent much time and discussion about who he would be and where he would come from.

The political situation was bleak.  Many Jews flourished financially under the dominion of Rome.  But those Jews who considered Israel God's chosen nation were not satisfied.  The spiritual Jewish believers also yearned for the appearance of the messiah.  These were the two categories of people looking for the messiah, political and religious.  Which category the disciples belonged to is unknown.  It could have been both.

Subpoints: (1)   Doubting the Place        "Nazareth"
                      (2)   Doubting the Possibility  "can any..."
                      (3)   Doubting the Purity       "good thing"
                      (4)   Doubting the Profit          "come out"


In verse 47, Jesus addresses both the political and religious aspects of his coming.  As Nathanael approaches Christ, Jesus calls out to him.  He says, "Behold, an Israelite indeed."  This was a great compliment to Nathanael.  The term "Israelite" was held in high esteem by the Jews, and usually reserved for the political elite.  Jesus was acknowledging Nathanael's patriotism.  He perceived that Nathanael had godly motives concerning his nation. 

Secondly, Jesus said, "...in whom is no guile."    Guile is deception, subtlety, or hypocrisy.  Nathanael was a straightforward, honest man.  These were great compliments coming from the Son of God to a man of flesh and inconsistencies just like you and me. But with all his attributes, Nathanael had yet to receive Christ.  Rest assured that Christ knows us just as fully as he knew Nathanael.  What would his assessment be of us?

Subpoints: (1)   Jesus Probed his Political Beliefs
                      (2)   Jesus Penetrates his Religious Beliefs

IV.   A HINT OF DIVINITY  (verse 48)

Nathanael had no idea who he was speaking to.  He asks how does Jesus know him?  Jesus responds with words that Nathanael can hardly understand.  Not only did Jesus know about his conversation with Philip, but he also had a personal note for him.  "When thou wast under the fig tree" has been a phrase that has caused scholars to guess and wonder for generations about the meaning.  The fig tree typifies both Israel and the fruitful life.   Some have concluded that there could be symbolic meaning in the statement.

"Under the fig tree" in ancient Jewish times was a place of reflection, study, and meditation.  Micah 4:4 says  "But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree."   I believe that Christ is pointing here to a time of Nathanael's meditation on the questions of life or the things of God.  Christ was now answering those silent questions hidden deep in Nathanael's inner self.

Subpoints: (1)   His Omniscience
                      (2)   His Omnipresence
                      (3)   His Omnipotence


To Nathanael's credit, it didn't take very long for him to realize who Christ was.  His exclamation is brief, but telling.  He calls him "rabbi," meaning "great teacher."  He then confesses Christ as his personal redeemer and his national redeemer.  He is both the "Son of God" and "King of Israel."

Subpoints: (1)   A Religious Title     "rabbi"
                     (2)   A Spiritual Title      "Son of God"
                      (3)   A National Title       "King of Israel"


Jesus was pleased that Nathanael had believed so easily.  He promised "greater things."    Jesus always responds positively to faith.    There are great discoveries of God's greatness and power for those who exercise faith.  Nathanael did not realize the journey that he was starting.  He would see Jesus preach great messages, heal the sick, and raise the dead.  Nathanael's confession of faith allowed him to be a part of it.

Subpoints: (1)   Christ Responds to Faith
   (2)   Christ Reveals Greater Things

Truly, great things can come from strange places.  Nathanael had his doubts about this man called Jesus of Nazareth.  At first, he wondered if anything good could come from such a place.  After meeting Christ, he probably wondered how he could witness and even be a part of something as wonderful as the earthly ministry of Christ.

Today, we too, should wonder how a great and mighty God could use us in His service.  We are all unworthy of God's blessings and benefits.  Surely we should never doubt what God can do for and to even the least of us.


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