Phillip’s closest companion, Nathanael, is listed as Bartholomew in all four lists of the 12. In the gospel of John, he is always called Nathanael. Bartholomew is a Hebrew surname meaning “son of Tolmai.” Nathanael means “God has given.” So, he is Nathanael, son of Tolmai, or Nathanael Bar-Tolmai.
The synoptic Gospels and the book of Acts contain no details about Nathanael’s background, character, or personality. John’s Gospel features Nathanael in just two passages: in John 1, when he is called, and in John 21: 2, where he is named as one of those who returned to Galilee and went fishing with Peter after Jesus’ resurrection and before the ascension.
According to John 21: 2, Nathanael came from the small town of Cana in Galilee, the place where Jesus did his first miracle, changing water into wine (John 2: 11). Cana was very close to Jesus’ own hometown, Nazareth.
Nathanael – Friend of Philip
Nathanael was brought to Jesus by Phillip immediately after Phillip was sought and called by Christ. Phillip and Nathanael were apparently close friends, because in each of the synoptic Gospels’ lists of the 12 apostles, the names of Phillip and Bartholomew are linked. In the earliest church histories and many of the early legends about the apostles, their names are often linked as well. Apparently, they were friends throughout the years of their journey with Christ. Not unlike Peter and Andrew (who were so often named together as brothers) and James and John (who likewise were brothers), we find these two always side-by-side, not as brothers, but as close companions.
Virtually everything we know about Nathanael Bar-Tolmai comes from John’s account of his call to discipleship. The event took place in the wilderness, shortly after Jesus’ baptism, when John the Baptist pointed to Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1: 29). Andrew, John, and Peter (and possibly James as well) were the first to be called (v .35-42). The next day, having proposed to go to Galilee, Jesus sought out Phillip and called him, too (v .43). According to verse 45, “Phillip found Nathanael.”
“Phillip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote’” (John 1: 45). The fact that Philip introduced Jesus this way suggests that Nathanael knew the Old Testament prophecies. Therefore, Nathanael was able to recognize Jesus clearly and instantly because he had a clear understanding of what the scriptures said about him.
Although Phillip was a student of scripture and a searcher for the true knowledge of God; Although he had strong spiritual interests and had been faithful, diligent, and honest in his devotion to the word of God; he was human. He had certain prejudices. Here is his response: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was an uncultured place full of evil, corrupt, and populated with sinful people. Much of the nation of Israel rejected their Messiah because of prejudice. They did not believe that Messiah could come out of Nazareth, either.
Nathanael might have said, “As I read the Old Testament, Micah the prophet says Messiah comes out of Bethlehem (Micah 5: 2), not Nazareth.” (However, Nazareth did not exist in Old Testament times.)
Frankly, Cana wasn’t such a prestigious town either. Cana was off the beaten track, while Nazareth was at least at a crossroads. To travel from the Mediterranean to Galilee, people travelled through Nazareth. One of the main routes going North and South between Jerusalem and Lebanon passed through Nazareth. Nathanael’s remark probably reflects some kind of civic rivalry between Nazareth and Cana.
Even in Jesus’ own hometown, they derided Him as Joseph’s son (Luke 4: 22). He was without honor even in his own country, because he was nothing but a carpenter son (v .24). And the entire synagogue in Nazareth—his own synagogue, where he had grown up—was so filled with prejudice against him that after he preached a single message to them, they tried to take him to a cliff on the edge of town and throw Him off to kill Him (v. 28-29).
Nathanael Lacks Deceit
The most important aspect of Nathanael’s character is expressed from the lips of Jesus. “Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him and said to him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!’” (John 1: 47). This speaks volumes about Nathanael’s character.
His mind was tainted by a degree of prejudice, but his heart was not poisoned by deceit. Why was Jesus referring to him as “an Israelite indeed.” This is not a reference to his physical descent from Abraham. Jesus was not talking about genetics. He was linking Nathanael status as a true Israelite to the fact that he was without deceit. His guilelessness is what defined him as a true Israelite. For the most part, the Israelites of Jesus day were not real, because they were hypocrites. They lived life with a veneer of spirituality, but it was not real, and therefore they were not genuine spiritual children of Abraham. Nathanael, however, was real.
Nathanael Under the Fig Tree
At first, Nathanael was simply amazed that Jesus seemed to know anything about him. “Nathanael said to him,’ How do you know me?’” (John 1: 48). “Jesus answered and said to him ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’” (v .48).
What was the significance of the fig tree? It was most likely the place where Nathanael went to study and meditate on scripture. Houses in that culture were mostly small, one-room affairs. Most of the cooking was done inside, so a fire was kept burning even in the summer. The house could get full of smoke and stuffy. Trees were planted around the house to keep them cool and shaded. One of the best trees to plant near a house was a fig tree, because it bore wonderful fruit and gave good shade. Fig trees grow to a height of only about 15 feet. They have a fairly short, gnarled trunk, and their branches are low and spread as far as 25 to 30 feet. A fig tree near a house provided a large, shady, protected place outdoors. If you wanted to escape the noise and stifling atmosphere of the house, you could go outside and rest under its shade. It was a kind of private outdoor space, perfect for meditation, reflection, and solitude. No doubt that is where Nathanael went to study scripture and pray.
In effect, Jesus was saying, “I know the state of your heart because I saw you under the fig tree. I know what you were doing. That is where you would go to study and pray.” It was not only that Jesus saw his location, but that he saw his heart as well. That was enough for Nathanael. He “answered and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’” (v 49).
This is the very same truth Nathanael’s friend Philip still hadn’t quite grasped years later, when he said to Jesus in the upper room, “Show us the Father” (John 14: 8-9). What Phillip didn’t get until the end, his friend Nathanael understood at the very start.
Most of the disciples struggled just to come to the place where Nathanael stood after his first meeting with Christ, but for Nathanael, the ministry of Christ only affirmed what he already knew to be true. How wonderful to see someone so trustworthy and trusting from the very beginning, so that for him the whole three years with Jesus was just an unfolding panorama of supernatural reality!
“Jesus answered and said to 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, ‘most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’” (John 1: 50-51).
In the Old Testament, Jacob had a dream in which “a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12). Jesus’s words to Nathanael were a reference to this Old Testament account. He was the ladder and Nathanael would see the angels of God ascending and descending upon Him. In other words, Jesus is the ladder that connects heaven and earth.
That’s all we know about Nathanael / Bartholomew from scripture. Early church records suggest that he ministered in Persia and India and took the Gospel as far as Armenia. There is no reliable record of how he died. One tradition says he was tied up in a sack and cast into the sea. Another tradition says he was crucified. By all accounts, he was martyred like all the apostles except John.
If you are interested in some of the other Apostles take a look at:
Andrew – Apostle of Small Things
Apostle Philip – the Numbers Guy
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Twelve Ordinary Men by John MacArthur