The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael 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.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:43–51)
There are many things which we can say about this passage from John’s Gospel, but one thing which is both instructive and helpful is the model that it gives us for sharing faith. A model for telling people what it is that we believe.
The first thing to notice is that it is Jesus who takes the initiative: Jesus decided to go to Galilee; Jesus found Philip; and Jesus said to him “follow me”. This should be, I hope, some sort of comfort. We very often feel the weight of the sharing of the gospel on our own shoulders. We think that we've got to go out and try and come up with some form of words, some great argument that will convince out neighbours of the truth of Christ, the truth of the gospel and the reality of Christianity. But here we see that it's Jesus taking the initiative and it's Jesus saying follow me.
Later in John’s Gospel we can see the same point laid out. In John 6:44 we read: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”; and six chapters on Jesus says: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). It is Jesus who calls, who draws people to himself. When we are talking to somebody we are simply the means he uses.
The rest of this passage serves to illustrate how this might work in practice. Philip is now a new convert - he has responded to Jesus’ call to “follow me”. Excited, he goes and finds Nathanael and tells him: “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”. This is a bold claim, and unsurprisingly Nathanael is skeptical. He tries to fob Philip off with a dismissive answer: “can anything good come out of Nazareth”? Of course not, is the implied answer. Nazareth! Come on.
So here we have Philip trying to share Christ, and being fobbed off. What does he do? Does he go into some clever argument? No. He simply says: “come and see”. Come and see what I’ve seen, what I’ve experienced. Come and see what a difference it has made to my life. “Come and see”. Philip knows that in the end the only one who can convince Nathanael is Jesus himself, and so he leads him to the messiah. We might do the same when we buy someone a Bible, or invite them to church, or forward them an email. All you have to do is what Philip does - point your friend to Jesus.
So Nathanael makes his way to Jesus, and before he gets to him he’s spotted. Jesus, taking the initiative, says: “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”. Nathanael’s surprised and he responds “How do you know me”? Jesus replies: “before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you”. This demonstration of Jesus’ knowledge of him is enough for Nathanael. He hears the words and responds with the extraordinary words: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
What brings Nathanael to faith, then, is not Philip’s words or any clever arguments. All Philip does is point him to Jesus, and that encounter with Christ is enough. This is often the way, just an experience of Jesus as you read your Bible or bow in prayer is enough to convince you of the reality of all this. The point is that Christianity is not just a philosophical stance, or a set of behaviours. No, it is a relating to God and being reconciled to him. Arguments may not convince, but meeting with God always will.
The meeting of Jesus and Nathanael doesn’t end there, though. We read:
Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Here is a great truth: our initial encounter with God may bring us to faith, but there is much more than that. Nathanael might have believed in Christ there and then, but there is far more to be experienced, to be seen, to be understood. The wells of faith are bottomless indeed!
Later in the Gospel we can see this pattern at work again, in a very different situation. In the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus is talking with a Samaritan woman at a well. As with Nathanael, he impresses her with his knowledge of her, the fact that she has had five husbands “and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4:17). He then goes on to discuss with her the nature of true worship, before revealing the fact that he is the Christ.
Like Philip, the Samaritan woman rushes off to tell other people. She goes into the town and proclaims: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29). Again we find the invitation: come and see. The townspeople indeed go out and then invite Jesus to stay with them. The final two verses of that section are instructive:
And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world.” (John 4:41–42)
“For we have heard for ourselves”. That’s the crucial point. It is our task to point people to Christ and give the indication “come and see”, but in the end it is Jesus who converts people. Oh Christian! Do not despair that you don’t have all the answers, or that you are intimidated by the task of telling others about Christ. The task is in fact a straightforward one. Just say “come and see”. And then leave the rest to Jesus.