Becoming more like Jesus

Gordon MackleyPosted on Monday, January 20, 2014 by Gordon Mackley

Psalm 96 and John 1:43-50

These are two very different readings, but even in these there are connections going both backward and forward in time.

Psalm 96 is a great psalm of praise written many hundreds of years before Jesus, whilst the John passage is about Jesus choosing some disciples. Especially Nathaniel, who is also called Bartholomew, for reasons we shall see later.

Despite the age of the passages, there is still relevance to us today, which I explore later.

Psalm 96

This is based upon 1 Chronicles 16 and it is well worth reading both passages to see how a part of an historical book translated into a prayer of praise in its own right.

As well as exhorting the praise of God, there is also a comparison of pagan gods (idols) with YHWH, the true Creator God. Also included is a section on why Gentiles as well as Jews should worship the true God.

There is thus within it a theme about Gentiles worshipping God. One of the great statements is in verse three:

“Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvellous deeds among all peoples.”

The concept is repeated in verse 7:

“Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.”

And again in verse 10:

“Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns.’ ”

As well as a statement of God’s intention for His chosen people, the Jews, to be a light to the Gentiles, this can also be regarded as a prophecy to the time when Jesus’ disciples will bring God’s message directly to ‘all peoples’ and all the ‘families of nations’.

An aside about the last part of verse 10 for those who may come across atheistic criticism that this verse proves the Bible is incorrect because the earth does in fact move – this reference in the Hebrew here is not saying that the earth is static, but merely that its place in the order of things e.g. the solar system is fixed. This we know to be true.

If the earth ever deviated from its orbit even slightly, life on the earth would cease.

The very end of the psalm looks very far forward (from then) to the Day of Judgment (again relevant to all peoples, including us Gentiles!):

“Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in his faithfulness.”

John 1:43-50

Placed in time before the end of Psalm 96, is this story in John about the first coming of Jesus and Jesus calling Philip and Nathaniel.

At first sight, this seems to be a relatively boring list of names of some disciples, but before we consider the passage itself, it is worth thinking about the background to it both in respect of geography and history.

Jerusalem with its Temple was the centre of Jewish religious life and was in the Southern Kingdom of Judea. The area where this story takes place is in Galilee around 190km (120 miles) to the north.

After the conquest and exile of the Northern Kingdom, this area became very cosmopolitan with many Gentiles living there with consequent influence upon the culture. This is illustrated by the names, Philip and Andrew (mentioned earlier in the chapter) despite being Jews have Greek names.

Philip means, in Greek, ‘a lover of horses’ whilst Andrew is derived from the Greek, ‘andros’ meaning man (as opposed to woman), thus meaning manly and, as a consequence, strong, courageous, etc. (at least in the very paternalistic Greek thought. (Ladies may disagree!)

Simon is a Greek form of a genuinely Hebrew name, Shim’on which means ‘he has heard’. The area would be regarded by those from Judea as a northern rural backwater and there would have been some prejudice against those Jews who came from there (see Acts 2:7)

Nathaniel, even though he is from the north, cynically remarks in verse 46:

“ ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathaniel asked.”

This in itself is an interesting remark as it shows a certain lack of scriptural knowledge on his part, as Jonah (a very famous Jewish prophet) came from Gath-hepher, which is only about 8km (or 5 miles) from Nazareth (2 Kings 14:25)

What would have been expected of a great Rabbi or teacher at this time, even one who had lived in the north would have been to go to Jerusalem and from the religious educated elite to select ‘the best’ as disciples to learn, and thus, carry forward his teaching.

Jesus does not do this. He selects his disciples from this rural backwater in the north from a much wider cross section of society.

Why was this? Jesus clearly was indicating that his followers (both immediate and future) were not to be just those specially religious or well educated, but were to be of all different types.

Jesus also fulfils scripture (which presumably Nathaniel had also overlooked. This is often quoted at Christmas and is found in Isaiah 9:1.

“But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined…”

(Zebulun and Naphtali are the tribal names for this area). This is quoted as a fulfilment of prophesy by Jesus in Matthew 4:12-17,

“Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ ”

Amongst the very varied disciples is Nathaniel. This is a Hebrew name meaning “Given of God’, but he is also called Bartholomew. This has a more interesting derivation.

‘Bartholomew’ derives from the Aramaic language (a common language used by Jews at this time). Bar is Aramaic for son, thus the meaning is a son (i.e. descendant) of Talmai.

Talmai appears in 2 Samuel 3:3 and was a king of Geshur (to the north east of Lake Galilee) whose daughter Maacah, was married to King David and was mother to Absalom.

In a non-canonical account, David saw Maacah when he went to war and took her as an ‘eshet yefat to’ar’ (a non-Jewish woman taken captive during wartime and whose Israelite captor, wanted to marry her).

Thus Bartholomew (Nathaniel) has a Gentile ancestry, although also a familial connection to King David. He is not ethnically Jewish, but presumably a descendant of a proselyte (someone not ethnically Jewish but who had accepted Judaism). Jesus seems to pick up on this by his careful use of words in verse 47:

“When Jesus saw Nathaniel approaching, he said of him, ‘Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’ ”

The translation ‘Israelite’ correctly translates the Greek and it should be noted that it is not ‘Jew’ or ‘son of Abraham’ as might normally be expected and Bartholomew (Nathaniel) may have picked up on this, as in verse 48 he asks:

“ ‘How do you know me?’ ”

Bartholomew (Nathaniel) is probably of noble birth and if true, this further confirms how wide the difference in background of Jesus’ disciples, when considering people like Simon Peter, by his own admission, a foul mouthed fisherman.

What most impresses Nathaniel is Jesus’ statement,

“Jesus answered, ‘I saw you while you were still under the fig-tree before Philip called you.’ ”

Based on Jesus’ words and his foreknowledge, Nathaniel goes from his cynical ‘nothing good out of Nazareth’ to the amazing declaration in verse 49:

“Then Nathaniel declared, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.’ ”

Jesus’ response is verse 50:

“Jesus said, ‘you believe because I told you I saw you under the fig-tree…” (or alternatively, ‘Do you believe because…’ – both are possible translations of the Greek).

Nathaniel’s statement here is similar to Mark 8 and Matthew 16 where Jesus asks the disciples,

“ ‘Who do people say I am?’ ”

Here Nathaniel, and there Peter, both get the right answer that Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of God.

We need to ask ourselves, ‘Who do I believe Jesus was and is?’ Clearly we cannot meet Jesus personally in the flesh as the original apostles did, but we can meet him in the Bible or via miraculous events or as happens more often in non-western cultures by dreams and visions.

If we do meet him or have met him before, what difference has that made or should that make to me and how I live my life?

If we look at the mixed bag of people in this backwater (Galilee) going about their business who were not necessarily learned or religious, they were inspired to become disciples of Jesus. This means people who followed him, learned from him and took on his values.

They tried to be more like him and became better people and evangelists to both Jews and Gentiles.

So what of us, a mixed bag of people whether in a backwater or great metropolis, going about our business who are not necessarily learned or religious?

Surely we need to be inspired to become true disciples of Jesus? This means people who follow him, learn from him and take on his values.

We need to be more like him and become better people and evangelists to others (Gentile or Jew).

To finish where we started in Psalm 96, we should:

“Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvellous deeds among all peoples.”

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