Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

2nd Sunday After Denaho (Baptism of Jesus Christ)

Sermon / Homily on John 1:43 - 51

The Nathanael Shift

by John Jewell

Gospel Reading:

John 1:43-51

Today's lesson from the Gospel of John is an absolutely wonderful story about one man's spiritual journey. He went from a flip comment about Jesus being a "nowhere man" from a "nowhere land" to an encounter with Christ that changed his life.

The man's name is Nathanael. His name means "given of God," yet Nathanael didn't have a clue about the real meaning of God for his life. His life had indeed been "given of God," but he had no idea how true that was until he met Jesus. When he met Jesus, he met his own deepest, best self. It is as though Nathanael never saw himself clearly until he saw himself in the mirror of the love of Christ.

There are people we know who somehow draw out the best in us. Just being present with them creates a desire within to be the best we can be. Most of us can remember a teacher who inspired us. We would give our best because this teacher was someone we wanted to do our best for.

I can remember a high school choir director who did that for our all-state high school choir in Vermont. The vocal music this man brought out of a group of 200 high school young people who had been together for a day and a half brought goose bumps to an amazed audience and a front page article of praise in the Burlington Free Press.

As though it were yesterday, I can remember being astonished as one voice in a vast sea of music so beautiful, I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. There is still a vision in my mind of the beaming face and beckoning arms that directed us. In reflective moments, I can yet feel the longing within to sing like I had never sung before. I am sure there were tears in the eyes of many of my friends as we heard ourselves in dress rehearsal.

And so also, Nathanael discovers an essential inner music that can only be called from within by the Master Director.

Mark it down. It is not the United States Army, but the man from Nazareth who has the power to invite us to "be all that you can be!"


On the surface, it would seem as though the life journey of a Jewish man who lived almost 2000 years ago in a world radically different from our own, would have very little relevance for our lives today. We are from different times, different cultures, different lifestyles, different problems and different ideas about life and living.

Yet, the story of Nathanael contains some powerful spiritual concepts that can bring new meaning and renewal to our spiritual lives today. To get a sense for the depth of this story, let's look at two statements Nathanael made:

"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

That's what he had to say about Jesus before he met Jesus.

"Rabbi, you are the Son of God!"

That's what he had to say about Jesus after he met Jesus.

This is what I call, "The Nathanael Shift." The Nathanael Shift is what takes place when one has an authentic encounter with Jesus Christ! Second Corinthians 5:16 has an interesting way of expressing this:

" From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way."

This section of II Corinthians is speaking about the transformation that is a part of knowing Christ as Redeemer and Lord. The meaning of II Cor. 5:16 is that there are two kinds of "knowing" when it comes to Christ. There is knowing "about" Christ. And there is simply "knowing" Christ.

You and I could say that we know "about" George Washington. George Washington was the first President of the United States. You might even know George Washington's home at Mount Vernon is a prime tourist attraction and that his wife's name was Martha. Yet, you can not say you "know" George Washington. As a matter of fact, if you were to say to your friends, ""I know George Washington," they would likely put you on the prayer chain and ask your family if you've been feeling well lately!

And yet, as Christian people, we talk about "knowing" Christ. The Apostle Paul said, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection," [Philippians 3:10] in spite of the fact that Jesus' earthly life had ended before Paul ever met him.

Nathanael met Christ as he walked the trails of Galilee. Paul met Christ as the Risen Lord. Because he is the Risen Christ, he is still available to you and to me in the way he was available to Paul. It is interesting that we hear nothing at all of Nathanael in the whole of the New Testament except for this passage in John and the resurrection account in John 21. Nathanael knew Christ as the One who ministered in Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem -- and he knew him as the Risen One who came to them on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It is as though Nathanael's experience is included in the New Testament to show us that we can know Christ -- not only in an earthly kind of way (as II Cor. says) -- but also in a spiritual way. Because he is risen, we can still know him.

George Washington lived an earthly life and the people who lived during his time would have the possibility of saying they "knew" him. We who live in the year 2000 can not say we "know" George Washington.

This is not the case with Jesus Christ. The people who were alive when he walked this earth -- like Nathanael -- could say they "knew" him. And yet those who have lived since the crucifixion -- like Nathanael -- can also say they "know" him.

While it is possible to know "about" Christ -- to research his life an times -- it is also possible to "know" Christ. And when we open ourselves to the possibility of "knowing" Christ, we may experience "The Nathanael Shift."


There are three dimensions of the Nathanael shift that reach across the centuries and speak to us today, namely:

[1] We are Invited,
[2] We are Known, and
[3] We are Promised.

[1] We are Invited

When Nathanael makes his flip remark to Philip, there is no ensuing debate. Philip does not launch into a defense of Jesus or try to argue Nathanael into the Kingdom of God. He simply makes an invitation, "Come and see."

Interestingly, this is the same invitation Jesus made to the two disciples of John the Baptist who wanted to know where Jesus was dwelling. (Their way of asking where he was doing his teaching.) "Come and see," Jesus said to them.

There is some wisdom here for our own attempts to bring people into the circle of Christian fellowship or to a faith in Christ. We can not compel, argue or shame people into Christian faith. An authentic life with Christ is by invitation only.

Remember these compelling words of Christ? "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." [Matt. 11:28]

In other words, we are all invited.

[2] We are Known

I am always so amazed when I meet those people who never seem to forget a name. Years ago, when I was searching for a seminary to do my pastoral training, I talked with the president of Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. Dr. Gene Bartlett had one of those memories. When I eventually enrolled in Colgate-Rochester and arrived on campus at least a year after we had talked, I passed Dr. Bartlett in the hall and he said, "Hello John… welcome!" [Replace this with your own "great memory" story]

Somehow it is always more impressive when some well known person remembers your name.

Nathanael is first engaged with Jesus when he discovers that Jesus knows him. "Where did you get to know me?" Nathanael asked. When Jesus explains that he knew Nathanael from afar, Nathanael is so amazed, he makes an instant shift. "You are the Son of God!"

What an marvelous thing that we should be known by the Lord God! The Psalmist expressed it this way, "…it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." [Ps. 139:13-14]

God knows us better than anyone on earth knows us… better than we know ourselves. In light of the Psalmist’s words, we can only know the wonder of who we are when we come to know the One who knows us from afar.

[3] We are Promised

When Nathanael expresses his amazement at Jesus’ knowledge of him, Jesus says in effect, "Nathanael… you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!" He will see much more as he joins the band of disciples who will follow Jesus for the next two and a half to three years.

There is an interesting word picture in Jesus' words to Nathanael. "...you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

This picture would be absolutely clear to a Jew who knew the ancient story of Jacob and how he had a dream one night. Genesis 28:12 describes the dream this way, "And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it." Then God makes Jacob the one to whom the promise is made that the land on which he lay would be given to his children and their children -- the land of Israel.

The ladder is the means by which heaven is reached and the angels are the welcoming, celebrating company of God. For Jacob, the heavens open and a promise of a great land to come is made.

Now Jesus reveals to Nathanael that he, Jesus, is the way by which heaven is reached. The welcoming, celebrating angelic band now welcomes the one who responds to Christ in faith. Nathanael will experience more in his life as a follower of Jesus Christ than he would ever have dared to imagine.

The next time we hear of Nathanael, he is with a few other disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee once again. He is a party to the most incredible experience any human being had ever experienced. It is the Easter breakfast encounter with the Christ who had been crucified, but now appeared once again to his followers.


You and I are invited to be a part of the company that follows Christ. We are known by the Lord more fully than we even know ourselves. And the greatest joy of all is that we are promised the eternal presence of God.

John 1:43-51

There are some clues in this text about Jesus' plan for the building of his church. First of all, he picks people who by nature want to share the good news with others. Andrew goes to find his brother Simon (Peter) -- now Philip goes to find his friend Nathanael.

There is some discussion over who Nathanael really is. he is never mentioned in the other three gospels. However, Bartholomew is never mentioned in the gospel of John. The most likely suggestion is that Nathanael and Bartholomew are the same person. Bartholomew means "Son of Tholmoi" and Nathanael could well be his first name -- just as Peter's name was Simon "Bar-Jonah". Wm Barclay suggests this as the most plausible of explanations. [DSB: John 1:43]

The second part of Jesus' plan is that he intentionally avoids those who are noted religious figures or officials who are theologically trained. There are those who come to sympathize with or join his group (Nicodemus, a synagogue leader) - but he goes to the common, ordinary people of his time to find those who will eventually take over the mission and build the church.

This is "new wine" that Jesus is bringing and the followers he chooses are "teachable" even if "unlearned." As time goes on, they will have questions, doubts, struggles and will even jockey for position in the "kingdom" Jesus keeps talking about. But they are teachable! And because they, unlike the religious officials, are teachable -- they will see "greater things..."

There is another wonderful phrase in this text in verse 51. "...you will see heaven opened..." This is true not only for Nathanael, but for all of us. It is in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we see most clearly God's divine intent for our lives. In Christ, heaven is truly opened for us!

See Also:

Come and See for Yourself
by Victor Shepherd

God's Dream Team
by Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Come and See
by Jerry Goebel

Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the 2nd Sunday after Denaha (Baptism of our Lord)

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