The Apostles: Becoming Unified Through Diversity,  Men of Character SeriesThe Apostles: Becoming Unified Through Diversity, Men of Character Series
Gene A. Getz
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Dr. Gene Getz examines the life and role of each apostle—what they shared, how they differed, where they stumbled, and how Christ transformed them into powerful servants of the Lord. You will surely see yourself in their stories and reaffirm Jesus' power to use your personal strenghts and weakness to His glory. They followed, denied, loved and betrayed our Lord twenty centuries ago, yet the faults and faith of Christ's chosen apostles apply to us today.

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Chapter 6

Nathanael Bartholomew:
A Man Who Discovered That
Honesty Is Not Enough

As I probed into Nathanael's attitudes and actions, I couldn't help but think of a good friend named Harry Dent. Harry served as special counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1968 to 1972. He narrowly escaped involvement in the Watergate debacle because he was basically an honest and moral man. Though he was captivated and energized by the sense of power that he felt by working so closely with the president, he maintained his ethical and moral bearings. In fact, his "Boy Scout" image protected him from more direct involvement in the scandalous mess that led to Nixon's shameful downfall and humiliation.

Religious but Lost

Harry Dent was a religious man. He had attended Sunday school most of his life and at age thirteen became a member of the First Baptist Church in his hometown. He even attended a Christian college, and when he graduated, he received the founder's medal-the highest award given to the student who represented the "institution's ideals for young manhood." He had also earned the highest position as a Boy Scout-the rank of eagle.

His religious achievements extended all the way to the United States Capitol. When he served as a chief aide to Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, he established a prayer breakfast for staff members in the United States Senate. When he became a special counsel to the United States president, he formed another similar prayer group.

In his own local church, Harry Dent taught Sunday school, eventually became Sunday school superintendent, a deacon, a church trustee, and chairman of the stewardship committee. To quote Dent himself, he "was becoming more and more self-righteous."' But in the midst of the Watergate scandal, something happened to Harry Dent he had not expected. Like Nathanael, he personally met the man Christ Jesus.

"You Won't Want to Miss This!"

One day when Dent was in his home in South Carolina, he received a telephone call from his former White House assistant, suggesting that he fly to Washington to attend a prayer breakfast the next Wednesday morning. "Harry, you won't believe what happened at the prayer breakfast this morning," Peter continued. "Charles Colson and Democratic Senator Harold Hughes came into the breakfast professing with tears-to be born-again brothers in Jesus Christ!"

Harry Dent couldn't believe his ears. "It was really something, Harry!" his friend continued on the other end of the line. "In fact, it was so good we're having them back next Wednesday morning; so come on up. You won't want to miss this!2

Harry Dent attended the meeting and was so impressed with what he saw and heard that it launched him on his own search for truth. By his own testimony, he came to the meeting as a skeptic and a cynic. But when he saw Colon actually weep as he told about his born-again experience, he left the meeting convinced that something supernatural had happened to this tough-minded man who had the reputation that he would do anything for the president of the United States including walking over his own grandmother.

To make a long, exciting story short, Harry Dent had the same encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ as Chuck Colon had. Though he was honest and moral and a regular churchgoer, he discovered he needed to be born again.

Meet Another Honest Man

When Jesus first met Nathaniel, He quickly identified him as "a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false" (John 1:47). This was a great tribute, but as we'll see, Jesus used this information to penetrate Nathanielís heart with his need to put his faith in Christ for salvation rather than in his own self-righteousness.

God's Gift

Nathaniel had two names. Matthew, Mark, and Luke used the name Bartholomew (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13). However, John used the name Nathanael. (John 1:43-5 1).

We're not told why the Holy Spirit inspired John to use the name Nathanael, which means "God's gift." However, we have a clue. Since John supplies us with our only insight into this man's background and character, the Holy Spirit may be giving us a subtle but powerful message. When we understand more fully what John reported, we're able to see a definite correlation between the meaning of his name and "God's gift of salvation"-a spiritual lesson not only to the "Nathanaels" o this world, but to all of us.

Philip's Declaration

For some unstated reason, Nathanael was in the region where John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness near "Bethany on the other side of the Jordan" (John 1:28). His friend Philip met Christ there and had already decided to become a disciple. In turn, he introduced Nathanael to Jesus. Excitedly, he reported: "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (1:45).

Brilliant but Blind

Why is it possible to have a lot of religious knowledge, yet not understand God's plan of salvation?

There are many men today, just like Harry Dent, who can quote the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Yet they do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They do not understand what it means to be "born again." They have not received the Lord into their hearts (John 1:12). Their experience is only theological and cerebral.

Nathanael had this kind of blind spot. Though subtle, John made it very clear in his Gospel that he was a diligent student of the Old Testament. Yet Nathanael would not believe Jesus Christ was the Messiah-until he had a divine encounter with the Savior.

A Religious Skeptic

When Philip reported to Nathanael that they had found the man whom Moses and the prophets had written about, he also mentioned that Jesus was from "Nazareth" (1:45). Nathanael's response gives us our first clue regarding his Old Testament knowledge. He was puzzled by this report. "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked (1:46).

Some believe that Nathanael was simply being sarcastic, since he was from Cana and most of his peers looked down on people who lived in Nazareth. However, Nathanael's concerns probably ran much deeper than mere pride and prejudice. Nazareth was also a very immoral town. Being a stopping-off place for caravans, brothels were everywhere, which could explain why Nathanael appeared surprised and asked Philip if "anything good" could "come from" Nazareth.

But there may have been another reason Nathanael appeared skeptical. He evidently recalled instantly that Nazareth is never mentioned in the Old Testament-an off the-cuff observation only an astute student of the Scriptures could make. "If Jesus were the promised Messiah," he may have been thinking, "why wasn't He identified at this moment with Bethlehem?" After all, Micah had made a very clear prophetic statement regarding the coming King:

"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be. ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. " (Mic. 5:2)

An Open Mind

Though Nathanael was skeptical regarding Philip's report, he had an open mind. Furthermore, he respected his friend, who responded to Nathanael's skeptical question regarding Nazareth by asking him to check it out for himself-to "come and see" (John 1:46b)-which he did. As Nathanael approached Jesus, the Lord called out, "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false" (1:47). In other words, Jesus identified Nathanael as an honest man before they ever had a face-to-face conversation.

Nathanael was shocked-but for a reason that is even more subtle in John's record. "How do you know me?" Nathanael asked in surprise (1:48a). But Jesus surprised him even more when He responded and said, "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you" (1:48b): Strange as it may seem, this simple statement by Jesus brought an immediate "faith response." In a state of obvious excitement and surprise, Nathanael "declared, `Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel"' (1:49).

To understand what happened, we need to review an Old Testament story. You see, before they ever met, Jesus knew what Nathanael had been thinking while he was meditating under that fig tree. He was reflecting on an Old Testament event, one that correlates very specifically with the rest of Jesus' comments to Nathanael:

"You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that .... I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. " (1:50-51)

An Awesome Experience

Clearly, Nathanael had been sitting under a fig tree reflecting on the story of Jacob when he was running for his life because of his brother Esau's death threats. With the help of his mother, Jacob had deceived his father, Isaac, into thinking he was Esau, and had stolen the blessing that ordinarily went to the eldest son. Esau was so angry that he determined to kill Jacob.

Jacob spent his first night away from home in Bethel, a place nearly fifty miles north of where he lived in Beersheba. Alone in the wilderness, he "stopped for the night" and used a stone for a pillow (Gen. 28:11). While he was sleeping, Jacob had a dream-in actuality, a vision. It was a direct revelation from God.

There were three important features of this dream. First, Jacob saw a ladder or stairway. It was "resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven" (28:12a). We are not sure what kind of "ladder" this was, but it no doubt related to the religious culture of his day. The important thing to note is that this ladder reached from where Jacob was on earth to the very presence of God.

The second feature involved the "angels of God." They were "ascending and descending" on this ladder (28:12b). It's obvious God wanted Jacob to know that He was accessible and that He was initiating direct contact with Jacob. The Lord was reaching out to this man who had been living a sinful life-a man who had just a day or two before been a part of a deceitful plot, bringing the wrath of his brother, Esau, down on his head.

The third feature of this vision involved God Himself. Above the ladder "stood the Lord" (28:13)-definitely the most important aspect of this experience. God, in His loving grace, revealed Himself to Jacob in spite of his dishonest and deceptive heart.

Evidently, Jacob awakened from his dream while it was still night. Shrouded in darkness, he must have been startled when he suddenly opened his eyes and peered into the night sky. Jacob knew instantly that God had revealed Himself. His thoughts were racing! "Surely," he thought to himself, "the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it" (Gen. 28:16).

Realizing what had happened, Jacob "was afraid." Verbalizing his fear, he no doubt spoke in a quivering but audible voice: "How awesome is this place!" (28:17). Overwhelmed with God's holy presence, Jacob whispered, "This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.

At this point in time, Jacob did not understand the aspect of this dream in which God promised to bless all peoples of the earth through him. What he did understand was that he had personally encountered a holy God. Against the backdrop of his own sinful, dishonest, and deceitful behavior, he became aware of his unworthiness to receive a direct revelation from the God of his fathers.3

The Gate of Heaven

When did you first understand that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven?

One of the common thoughts today, even among so-called Christians, is that there are many ways to get to heaven. This is not true. Jesus Christ Himself said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).

Private Thoughts

This brings us full-circle back to what happened when Jesus first met Nathanael. Against this Old Testament backdrop-the story of Jacob-we can now vividly see what happened. Nathanael had been meditating on this very event in Jacob's life. He may have been surprised and puzzled that God would have this kind of mercy on such a dishonest man. Perhaps he had made a new commitment to God never to allow this kind of dishonesty to creep into his own life. Perhaps he was "spiritually proud" that he was not like Jacob. After all, he believed firmly in keeping the commandment to "honor your father and your mother" (Exod. 20:12)-a commandment that Jacob had violated terribly when he deceived his own father. Nathanael also believed in never giving "false testimony against" anyone (Exod. 20:16)-which Jacob had done. He was a liar and a deceiver.

Nathanael was definitely an honest man. But Jesus shocked him by interpreting the very thoughts he had been thinking while sitting under the fig tree meditating on the life of Jacob. Though we're not told specifically what those thoughts were, at that moment Nathanael knew that Jesus Christ had done something supernatural. Consequently, he acknowledged Him not only as "the King of Israel" but as "the Son of God." In essence, he was saying something very similar to Jacob when he opened his eyes that night and proclaimed, "`Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was unaware of it.... This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven"' (Gen. 28:16-17).

Jesus put the finishing touches on his encounter with Nathanael when He added some more details-and definitely let us in on what this conversation was really all about. Rather than simply reading and meditating about Jacob's experience where he saw the angels of God ascending and descending on a ladder from earth to heaven, Nathanael would have the privilege of seeing "the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (John 1:51). With this wonderful statement, Jesus was declaring that He was the "gate of heaven"which He later described more fully when He used the "sheep pen" as a metaphor. "I am the gate," He taught those listening to Him; "whoever enters through me will be saved" (10:9). Becoming more literal, He later said to doubting Thomas, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (14:6).

Personal Lessons

Knowing Jesus as we do, we realize He must have commended Nathanael for his positive response to the "fig tree" experience. Jesus may have told him that he would see many examples of fellow Jews who would reject His teachings, particularly some day when they returned to Jerusalem. Jesus may have also shared that He would eventually confront the unbelieving Jews, telling them they belonged to their father, the devil (John 8:44). Though Nathanael and the others who followed were not yet ready to hear Jesus say, "Before Abraham was born, I am" (8:58), He definitely began sowing the seed of faith in their hearts.

Public Conversations

Nathanael became a disciple of Jesus Christ. Since he was also from Galilee (Cana, John 21:2), he probably joined Andrew and Philip as they returned to Bethsaida. If so, he would have joined in the conversations with Jesus as they traveled together. More than once during this one-hundred-mile journey, Nathanael must have scratched his head in wonderment as he reflected on his initial encounter with the Lord. In His humanness, Jesus must have smiled as He also reflected on the shocked expression He saw on Nathanael's face when He read his mind and told him his thoughts as he sat under a fig tree.

However, there must have been many serious moments as Jesus elaborated and commented on Jacob's experience and how it applied to all Jews who are proud of their self-righteousness. Even an honest man needs a Savior.

When they arrived in Galilee, Nathanael with Philip and Andrew went about their business. Andrew, of course, was already in a partnership with Peter, James, and John. It's possible that Philip and Nathanael were employees in the same business-perhaps as common laborers rather than partners. Though we're not given specific details, it is worth noting that when Peter decided to go fishing following Christ's death and resurrection, Nathanael decided to go too (John 21:2). We can assume he at least knew how to fish.

Becoming God's Man Today

Principles to Live By

Principle 1. No matter how many good things we do, we cannot save ourselves by doing good works.

Nathanael was a God-fearing Jew-and Harry Dent was a devoted member of a Bible-believing church. Though separated by nearly two thousand years, both were honest men. But they both were relying on their own good works and self-righteousness in order to earn eternal life.

Both men were dangerously wrong. However, both Nathanael and Harry discovered that the only way to heaven is to put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. When they took this spiritual step, they experienced the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They were "born again" and passed from death to life (John 3:3).

The apostle Paul explained this truth succinctly but clearly in his letter to the Ephesians:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)

As a God-fearing Jew, Nathanael discovered that even his ancestor Abraham was saved by faith-that he was justified and made righteous when he believed God's promise that he and Sarah would have a son in their old age (Rom. 4:3-5). Harry Dent, a God-fearing Gentile, discovered the same truth.Though all of us today look back to the death and resurrection of Christ, Abraham who looked forward to this great event "is the father of us all" (4:16). Paul made this point wonderfully' clear to the Roman Christians when he wrote:

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring-not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.... Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 4..16 5:1)

Principle 2. Having a true salvation experience begins by recognizing God's holiness and our sinfulness.

Nathanael was impressed with Jacob's experience at Bethel. God revealed His greatness and holiness to this Old Testament scoundrel in a dream; and when he awoke, he could only whisper, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it" (Gen. 28:16). It was an awesome experience.

Personally, I believe this was Jacob's conversion experience. Just as Abraham saw the stars in the heavens and believed God's promise that his offspring would be like the multitude of twinkling lights that were visible to the naked eye, so Jacob awakened to the same phenomenon. At that moment, God reiterated the promise He made to Abraham (Gen. 28:13-16).

When Jacob caught a glimpse of God's greatness and holiness, he recognized his sinful condition. He saw himself as a deceiver and a manipulator. Though it would take another dramatic encounter with the living God nearly fifteen years later before he presented himself to God as a living sacrifice (Gen. 32:22-30), I believe he experienced "justification by faith" that night at Bethel.

And so it is today. God is a holy God, and "without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). Since we cannot earn eternal life by "doing good works"-making ourselves holy-then how can we be saved?

There is a way, and God began to unveil His redemptive plan to the children of Israel on Mount Sinai. It was there He revealed His holiness to this pagan and idolatrous group of people, most of whom had both internalized and externalized all of the pagan beliefs and practices of the Egyptians. In fact, no one even dared touch the holy mountain lest they die (Exod. 19:23). When the "LORD descended" on Sinai "in fire"-otherwise just a normal mountain-"smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace" and "the whole mountain trembled violently" (19:18).

Needless to say, God had the Israelites' attention. It was there He revealed the Ten Commandments-first of all, verbalizing them so all could hear (20:1-17) and then inscribing them on tablets of stone (31:18). These commandments reflected God's holiness and clearly spelled out how the children of Israel could be holy.

However, there was a problem. Everyone decided rather quickly they could not keep these laws perfectly, always falling short of God's standard for righteousness. This is why the Lord instituted a temporary plan to atone for sin-sacrifice and worship in the tabernacle. But all this pointed ahead to the culmination of God's wonderful salvation plan-the coming of the great high priest, Jesus Christ, who appeared as the "Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).

Paul explained the purpose of the law. It was given to make all mankind aware of God's holiness and our sinfulness-and our inability to earn salvation by doing good works. In other words, the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24).

Though Nathanael was an honest man, he discovered he needed a Savior. Even though he was not a deceiver and manipulator like Jacob, he was still among those who "fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). Furthermore, his own self-righteousness could not earn him a place in heaven.

Principle 3. Recognizing and receiving the Lord Jesus Christ as personal Savior from sin is the only way to inherit eternal life.

When God revealed Himself in a dream at Bethel, Jacob saw a "stairway" or "ladder reaching to heaven" and "the angels of God were ascending and descending on it" (Gen. 28:12). And when Jesus shocked Nathanael by reiterating these very thoughts he had been thinking, the Lord was interpreting this Old Testament event in all its glory. Clearly, God was pointing to His Son who is far greater than the angels Jacob saw in his dream. This is why Jesus told Nathanael he would "see heaven open" just like Jacob-but he would see "the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (John 1:51). In other words, Jesus Himself was the "stairway." To quote Jacob, he was describing-even in his ignorance-that Jesus "is the gate of Heaven."

The Bible teaches there is only one way to heaven whether described in the Old Testament through symbolism (the sacrifices in the tabernacle) or revealed through miraculous manifestations (such as appearing in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), or fulfilled in the New Testament through the incarnation. When God became a man, He left no room for speculation. His message to the apostles was crystal clear: He was "the way and the truth and the life." He went on to say that not one individual anywhere on planet Earth would be able to come to the Father except through Him (John 14:6).

After Billy Graham's book entitled Just As I Am was released, he appeared on national television. I watched and listened carefully when he was asked about people who believe there are many roads to God. Billy answered by quoting Jesus' claim to be the only way to heaven. When he was then asked what would happen to all other religious people who don't agree or who don't know about Jesus Christ, Billy responded with wisdom and tact: "God," he said, "is a righteous judge."

The facts are that both Jesus' claim and Billy's reference regarding God's fairness are true. In that day when all people stand before the Lord, no one will be able to accuse God of being unrighteous or unjust in His judgments. But in the meantime, the question we all must face is focused on Christ's divine claim. Have you received the Lord Jesus, the Son of God, as your personal Savior from sin? He is the only way to God!

Personalizing These Principles

Carefully consider the answers to the following questions:

1. Are you trusting in your good works to get you to heaven, or have you put your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to save you from your sins?

2. When you think about God's holiness and righteousness-that He is absolutely perfect and without sin have you done enough good works to make you like Him in every respect? Do you measure up to His glory and perfection every moment of every day? If not, how do you expect to inherit eternal life?

3. Even if you don't believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God, what if Christ's statement is true? Suppose you're right? In the end, what would a person lose if he or she believed it? Suppose you're wrong and Jesus' statement is true-what would you lose? Is it worth the risk?

A Personal Note: When I was experiencing doubts in my own life regarding Christ's claim to be the only way to heaven, I thought about these questions. Though they represent a rather human approach to dealing with skepticism, the answers to these questions penetrated my heart and mind. At that moment in my life, I was able to cope with the questions that were gnawing at my soul. Eventually, my doubts dissipated. The Holy Spirit used Nathanael's experience in a particular way to reassure me that Jesus Christ is the only way to God! In my own experience, God used natural thoughts and questions blended with God's supernatural truth to believe once again firmly the historic Christian message-that the Lord Jesus Christ is indeed the Savior of the world for all those who believe in His death and resurrection.

Set a Goal

As you've reflected on these principles and questions, what has the Holy Spirit impressed on your mind and heart? What one goal do you need to set for your life?





Memorize the Following Scripture

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast.


Growing Together

The following questions are designed for small group discussion:

1. Why is it difficult for people to accept the fact that Jesus Christ is the only way to God?

2. If someone challenged you regarding this belief, how would you answer?

3. Why do so many people believe we can be saved by works?

4. When all is said and done, what is the source of saving faith? (Rom. 10:17; 1 Cor. 12:3; Titus 1:1-3)

5. What can we pray for you specifically?


Excerpted from The Apostles:Becoming Unified Through Diversity. Copyright © 1998 by Gene Getz. Published by Broadman & Holman Publishers. All Rights Reserved