Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

20. The Call of the First Disciples (John 1:35-51)*

When John openly designated Jesus as “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world”, his disciples made no attempt to switch allegiance from their erstwhile leader. This is not difficult to understand. Their loyalty to John would be strong. So, the next day, John’s teaching of his disciples was resumed. The word “stood” (v. 35) seems to imply a kind of open-air meeting (7:37).

It is even possible to infer that the theme of John’s discourse was an exposition (and application) of Malachi 3:1,2; for in this part of John 1 so many of the key words are traceable back to that passage: cometh (v.30), sent (v.33), stood (v.35), seek (v.38), abide (v.39), witness (v.32) and four others suggested by the Greek text.

As John proceeded, Jesus was seen not far away. “Behold”, he said, “the one whom I greeted yesterday as the Lamb of God.” Probably he added a yet more pointed directive to his followers. That they should not give their loyalty to Jesus. The friend of the Bridegroom was giving away the Bride. Two who were with him promptly did as he said, although with some reluctance, so that Jesus was well ahead of them when they set out after him. So the last glimpse that John ever had of Jesus was as he walked away that day, with two of John’s own disciples making to overtake him. And they followed him primarily because he was “the Lamb of God that beareth the sin of the world” (Rev. 14:4).

Andrew and John

One of the two was Andrew of Bethsaida, the brother of Simon Peter. The other was almost certainly John, the son of Zebedee. The omission of this identification in the narrative is characteristic, for John never refers directly either to himself or his brother or his parents in the course of this gospel. It is a fact which provides a subtle but effective argument against the modern theory that the author of the Fourth Gospel was not an apostle, but “John the elder”. Since John was the cousin of Jesus (compare Jn. 19:25 with Mt. 27:56), it is readily understandable that he found some difficulty in re-adjusting his attitude to one he already knew well. Only the bidding of his revered leader brought him to consider the possibility that Jesus might be even greater than John. The disparity in age between them (perhaps ten years), together with the big reputation which Jesus had already gained as one with quite abnormal learning in the Scriptures, doubtless led him to think and speak of Jesus in terms of high respect. But the confident declarations of the Baptist went far beyond even the title Rabbi.

The Lord’s First Preaching

So Jesus had to dissipate the uncertainty and diffidence of these two young men by pausing for them to join him: “What (not “Whom?”) seek ye?” Perhaps with some embarrassment, they replied: “Rabbi, where are you abiding?” with the implication added: “that we might come whenever we wish, to learn more about you and from you.”

The simple encouraging reply: “Come and see”, ended their hesitation, and they came to the lodging of Jesus, (or, to Nazareth), and stayed with him throughout the day.

The wedding at Cana was almost certainly on a Wednesday (Cp. British elections always on a Thursday!); so it may be inferred that this day spent with Jesus was a sabbath.

“The tenth hour” mentioned in John’s narrative is a time not free from uncertainty. By Jewish reckoning it would be four o’clock in the afternoon. But if John uses Roman time (the modern system), it was ten o’clock in the morning. The Synoptists use Jewish time, but the same assumption for John’s gospel creates a big problem with chapter 19:14: “it was about the sixth hour” when Pilate condemned Jesus. For this reason it is probably correct to assume that here, and throughout this gospel, Roman times are being used.

The beginning of the preaching work of Jesus, then, was a quiet day in his lodging spent in conversation with Andrew and John - a sharp contrast with the debut suggested to the mind of Jesus in the wilderness: Cast thyself down from a pinnacle of the temple. Perhaps also, in later days, John saw a meaningful contrast with the promise which Christ left them: “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (Jn. 14:23).

Peter and James

It took only a matter of hours for Andrew to be convinced that Jesus was the promised Messiah (though the reader is left uninformed as to what it was in the discourse of Jesus which settled the conclusion in his mind - or was he simply accepting the authoritative lead given him by the Baptist?).

In his as yet very limited experience of Jesus, it would be possible for him to associate half a dozen Old Testament prophecies with his new leader: Is. 11: 1; 42: 1; 53: 6; 40: 1-11; Mal. 3: 1; 4: 5. And what else had he learned during that day with Jesus?

Conviction was speedily turned into action. That same day Andrew, showing a clear indication of sharing his brother’s disposition, went off to find Simon, whilst John similarly went to fetch his brother James. This latter fact is implied very quietly by the phrase: “He (Andrew) first findeth his own brother Simon...”, that is, before John found his brother. Harrington Lees very succinctly sums up the lesson here: “We have in kinship a call to influence.”

”That Jesus “beheld” Simon (s.w. Lk. 22: 61) suggests that this was first acquaintance. He forthwith re-named him Cephas, the Graecized form of which is Peter, a stone. The idea behind this word petros is not that of an enormous block or slab of rock — that is covered by the word petra (Mt. 16: 18) - but rather, a rock hurled by a military siege machine, or a pebble fired from a sling (1 Sam. 17: 49) - but, of course, not the same word in Hebrew), or even a small gem like a diamond. Two words cognate with “Cephas” were used for hoarfrost and hailstones.

Final proof of the meaning of “Peter” is supplied by the words of Jesus in Lk. 22: 31: “Simon, Simon, Satan hath desired to have you that he may sift you as wheat...” There is clear allusion here to Amos 9: 9 where — as the margin shows-the literal reading continues: “yet shall not the least stone fall to the ground.” The figure is that of the sifting of useless dust out of the grain. It is evident that in this passage Jesus thought of Peter as a kernel or corn of wheat — a “stone” in this sense. (Cp. also, Lam. 3: 20 mg: rolled). How remarkable that there is only one known instance of Jesus using this new name given to his disciple (Lk.22: 34).


Was it at the same time that James and John were given their name Boanerges, the sons of thunder (Mk. 3: 17)? All kinds of suggestions have been made to explain this cognomen, but none are very convincing. The modern commentators mostly refer it to their fiery ardent temperament (Lk. 9: 54?; cp. Heb. Ps. 2: 1; Dan. 6: 6). One rather ingenious suggestion compares them with the two scribes who were spokesmen for the high priest in the deliberations of the Council, but the evidence supporting this seems to be decidedly meagre. More probable, though not wholly satisfactory, is the idea which springs from the association of thunder with the voice of God (Jn.12: 29, Ps. 29; Ex. 20: 18; ls. 58; 1). This would identify James and John as the outstanding spokesmen for Jesus among the band of the apostles. Best guess of all, probably, is the meaning: “sons of fellowship” (Ps. 55:14). But the identification is not certain. The true explanation is probably different from all of these.

In this re - naming of disciples Jesus assumed to himself what was hitherto a divine prerogative, for it was God who changed Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Joseph and Saul later became Barnabas and Paul. The disciples would doubtless think of that – later, if not at the time.

Philip and Nathaniel

The next day, before the journey to Cana began, Jesus himself sought out the next addition to the small group of followers, one evidently already known to him. This was Philip, of the fisher-town of Bethsaida, a lakeside suburb of Capernaum (Jn. 6: 17; Mk. 6: 45). Thus, out of the first five disciples, three and probably all five were from this place which later Jesus was to upbraid for its lack of response to his many mighty works done there (Lk. 10: 13).

Philip forthwith added yet another to their little company: “He findeth Nathanael, and (shouting out as he approached) 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” (1: 45; contrast 14: 9). This reads strangely, for it was Jesus who found Philip, and not conversely. No doubt Philip’s words express something of his dawning realisation, as they talked together, of the true Messianic character of this Jesus he had got to know. And no doubt John let the contradiction stand in his record because he saw it as a superb exemplification of a marvellously profound truth—every disciple thinks his own acceptance of the leadership of Christ the result of his own judgement and decision, yet in truth it is the Lord finding him. Here is the resolution of the paradox presented by: “Seek, and ye shall find”, and “the purpose of God according to election.” The word “find” dominates this part of the narrative (v. 41,43,45-5 times). The disciple found by Christ immediately seeks and finds another disciple. Even Philip’s defective understanding of “first principles” (“son of Joseph”!) did not prevent him from being an effective missionary!

Nathanael was not impressed with the uncontrolled enthusiasm of Philip: “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” There is no evidence for the supposition that this was a proverbial sneer current at the time, though indeed Nathanael may have been putting into words the general tendency to despise obscure Nazareth, a small town which gets no mention at all in the Old Testament (except Is. 11: 1 indirectly), or in any ancient inscription that has come to light. Perhaps it was one of the cities of Galilee which Hiram, king of Tyre, had treated with such caustic contempt (1 Kg. 9: 11-13). Nazara is said to be the Aramaic word for “despicable” (Num. 11: 20: same root). More probably, Nathanael simply expressed a strong conviction that the Messiah could not possibly arise from Nazareth. What could Messiah-ben-David have to do with this remote place in the territory of Zebulun? Nathanael’s home-town, Cana, was only a short distance from Nazareth, and yet –significantly – he had never heard of Jesus before this.

The only rejoinder Philip could raise to his friend’s rebuff was: “Come and see for yourself” (Cp. 4: 29). “A noble remedy against preconceived opinions”, adds one commentator of long ago.

Nathanael and Jacob

When Nathanael was first called by Philip he was sitting under a fig tree, probably musing on the life and experiences of Jacob. If, as seems possible, the wedding at Cana (2: 1-11) was Nathanael’s own wedding, it is readily understandable that he might be thinking over the vicissitudes through which Jacob passed when he went north to find a wife-how at Bethel he dreamed of the staircase between heaven and earth, and there received the promise of the Messiah; how he matched guile with guile in the service of Laban; how through his wrestling with the angel he learned the futility and faithlessness of all this; and how he thus came to a new birth and to a new name of high honour in the purpose of God.

Apparently Jesus read his very thoughts: “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.” With an ingenuousness which is wonderful testimony to his character, Nathanael accepted the description of himself, and confessed to his own mystification: “Whence knowest thou me?”, implying: Do you have divine knowledge beyond that of other men?” Jesus replied with an affirmative: “Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee” (cp. Pr. 27: 18).

Nathanael and Zechariah

These words are marvellously like Zechariah 3: 10: “In that day, said the Lord of hosts, shall ye call every man his neighbour under the vine (Cana means ‘vineyard’) and under the fig tree.”. This is the conclusion of a prophecy about Joshua-Jesus who is vindicated as God’s high priest. Nathanael had said: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth (Branch-town).” This prophecy replies: (using a different word): “Behold, my servant whose name is the Branch.” It also appoints that the men who are with this Jesus shall be “men of sign”; there is also “a stone (Peter) set before Jesus.” Evidently, even in the outward resemblances of the call of Nathanael to this remarkable prophecy Jesus saw the tokens of a greater fulfilment when there would come a change to garments “for glory and for beauty”, and an indisputable priesthood on behalf of all the Lord’s chosen.

It may be doubted whether at this time Nathanael grasped all that Jesus was opening up to him. But the mere fact that details of his shelter under the shade of the fig tree could be known, and his meditations about Jacob read as an open book, told him the truth about this unique stranger: “Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel” (Cp. Mt. 16: 16). The last expression shows that his mind was still running on the experiences of Jacob, for that patriarch anointed a holy stone/and later when his name was changed to Israel, a promise was given him of a great king (the Hebrew text uses the intensive plural) who should come out of his loins (Gen. 35: 10,11; the context is important). Or was the comparison with the angel-”son of God”-who wrestled with and humiliated Jacob at Jabbok, showing himself to be Prince over Israel?

Nathanael was promised richer experiences than this demonstration of divine intuition and insight by Jesus. During ensuing days these came in awe-inspiring abundance. But the only one in which Nathanael is said explicitly to share is the encounter with the risen Lord on the shore of Galilee-it cannot have been very far from the place where he first met Jesus. But then the “filthy garments” of mortality had been taken away, (Jn. 20: 5-7), and Jesus was associated with seven men of sign, (21: 2), according to the prophecy (Zech. 3: 9).

Jacob again

Other “greater things” Jesus summed up in yet another eloquent allusion to Jacob: “Hereafter, from now on, ye (the pronoun has to be plural, applying to all the disciples he had now gathered) shall see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man.” The reference to Jacob’s dream at Bethel is inescapable, yet it is very easy to pick up the wrong idea here. By these interpretative words Jesus was not identifying himself with the ladder or staircase between heaven and earth, but with the altar and stone which Jacob raised up at the foot of it (the Greek phrase here requires this meaning). (See “Wrestling Jacob”, H.A.W., p. 36ff).

The allusion was to teach Nathanael to “see” (2 Kg. 6: 17; Mt. 26: 64) that Jesus was greater than angels of God. Through him they would ascend to heaven again, to receive a new and better status as ministers of the Messiah, and through him they would descend again to fulfil a more important commission, caring for the new Israel of God (Eph. 1: 10; Col. 1: 20). “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not” (Gen. 28: 16).

The record of the call of Nathanael is shot through with Biblical allusions of a kind altogether remote from twentieth century methods of interpretation. This, and a great many other examples in the gospels, should teach the student of today that in Scriptures which are familiar enough in a superficial fashion there are still many unfathomed depths of meaning.

Nathanael, Bartholomew

The guess which often identifies Nathanael with Bartholomew the apostle is probably correct, though the evidence is very indirect:

  1. Nathanael was obviously in the inner circle of disciples, yet he is never mentioned in the synoptic gospels, whilst Bartholomew is never mentioned in John.
  2. In John 21: 2 Nathanael is listed with a group of six others, all of whom are apostles.
  3. In John 1 Philip and Nathanael are closely linked. In the synoptics, it is always Philip and Bartholomew.
  4. Bartholomew (= Bar Talmai) is obviously a patronymic, like Bar-Jona, o’r a cognomen, like Cephas.
  5. Bar-Talmai means “son of the hidden, secret thing”-as in Psalm 44: 21: “Shall not God search this out? for he knoweth the secrets of the heart.” This is precisely what Jesus did at his first meeting with Nathanael.
  6. When a successor was being sought for Judas, Nathanael had precisely the qualifications the apostles were looking for (Acts 1: 22,23), yet he was not included in the “short list”-because he was already one of the Twelve?
Notes: John 1:35-51

Every detail in Dt. 33: 12 seems to fit this verse.
His own brother. This emphasis is perhaps called for because of what “brother” came to mean later; 20: 17.

Simon means “hearing”. Does the order of the names (v.44) imply that Simon was the junior? Yet he never seems to fit that role!
Out of Nazareth. Is there also a hint here of the jealousy of neighbouring towns?
No guile. Ps. 32: 2; 1 Pet. 2: 22. The men of Zebulun (Cana: 21: 2) who helped David to be King of Israel were “not of a double heart” (1 Chr. 12: 33).
Son of God’, King of Israel. The titles derive from 2 Sam. 7: 14,16; Ps. 2: 2,6,7 (See also Mt. 27: 40,43). Foreshadowed also in Jacob’s anointing of a holy stone: Gen. 28: 18; 35: 10,11.
Ascending ... descending. Christ as sacrifice and altar is the starting point of all angelic work; Rev. 7: 2; 8: 4; 10: 1. Moses also ascended and descended in Messiah’s service.

Son of man. Ps. 80: 15,17.

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