Encounters with Christ
Message 2 • A Skeptical Encounter - Nathanael
Joshua J. Masters
July 11, 2021
God not only knows your name. He knows everything about you and wants to draw you closer to Him.
That’s what we’ll talk about today as we continue our summer series, Encounters with Christ.
Each week we’re looking at someone in Scripture who had a life-changing encounter with Jesus.
And as J.C. and I worked together to plan this series, our prayer and hope is for each of US to have a fresh, transforming encounter with Jesus as well.
Last week we looked at the story of Zacchaeus and this week we’ll look at Christ’s first encounter with Nathanael, one of the early disciples of Jesus.
Now, Nathanael and Zacchaeus could not be more diametrically opposed in character.
Zacchaeus was a scoundrel (not a cool scoundrel like Han Solo) but a despicable, selfish man who worked for the oppressive Roman Empire.
Nathanael, on the other hand, is a faithful Jewish man of integrity.
His name even means, “God has Given” or “A Gift of God.”
But despite how different they are, both Zacchaeus and Nathanael had life-altering encounters when they met Jesus—encounters that challenged their beliefs and transformed their hearts.
The title of today’s message is “A SKEPTICAL ENCOUNTER,” which describes Nathanael when we first meet him in John, Chapter 1.
So, go ahead and turn or swipe in your Bibles to John 1:43.
It’s on page 852 if you’re using the Bible available here at Brookwood or you can click the Bible tab in our Online Campus.
And as you do that, let me set the scene.
Nathanael is one of the disciples that isn’t discussed very much—so I’m excited for us to get to know him this morning. But only in the book of John is he called Nathanael.
Does anyone know what he’s called in the other gospels? Bartholomew.
Nathanael is likely his given name and Bartholomew means “Son of Tolmai” [Toll-My]
So, Nathanael, Son of Tolmai.
And he’s one of the first disciples called by Jesus.
Earlier in the chapter two of John the Baptist’s followers become disciples of Jesus. One of which is Andrew, who introduces his brother, Simon, to Jesus, who renames him… Peter.
So, we’re at the very beginning of Christ’s public ministry, the first three disciples have joined Jesus and that’s where we pick up in our text.
Let’s read the entire encounter and then we’ll break it down.
Starting in verse 43.
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Come, follow Me.” Philip was from Bethsaida, Andrew and Peter’s hometown.
Philip went to look for Nathanael and told him, “We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
“Nazareth!” exclaimed Nathanael. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
“Come and see for yourself,” Philip replied.
As they approached, Jesus said, “Now here is a genuine son of Israel—a man of complete integrity.”
“How do You know about me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus replied, “I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.” Then Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God—the King of Israel!”
Jesus asked him, “Do you believe this just because I told you I had seen you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.”
Then He said, “I tell you the truth, you will all see heaven open and the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man, the One who is the stairway between heaven and earth.”
John 1:43–51 (NLT)
So, at first Nathanael is skeptical.
And there might be things in your life or in your faith that you’re skeptical about. You might have big questions. But that’s okay.
Because what we’ll discover in the text is this:
A. An encounter with Christ overcomes skepticism.
And an encounter with Christ in your life will overcome your skepticism.
But I want to be clear.
Being skeptical isn’t always the worst place to start. It’s very different than being cynical.
Look at these definitions:
Cynical: adj. Selfishly or callously calculating … Negative or pessimistic
Skepticism: n. A doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind; uncertainty.
- American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.
A questioning attitude is much different than a callous heart.
If you read the Gospels, Jesus responds very differently to the questions of the Pharisees than He does to similar questions by the disciples or those who are hurting? Why?
Because the Pharisees were cynical—asking calculating questions. Jesus put them in their place, but when someone was uncertain—asking sincere questions Jesus usually responded with compassion.
Christianity is not a faith where you have to check your brain at the door.
And if you’re new to Brookwood, I want you to know that you are welcome here and your questions are welcome here.
God has big shoulders. He can handle your questions.
The bigger issue is whether you’re truly open to hear the answers.
So, to overcome our skepticism, WE have a part to play, and CHRIST has a greater part to play.
As we look at the text, we’ll see:
- 2 things we can do to address our questions, and
- 2 things Christ WILL do to draw us closer to Him in our questions.
Let’s look at OUR part first.
Verses 43 and 45:
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Come, follow Me.” … Philip went to look for Nathanael and told him, “We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
John 1:43, 45 (NLT)
These early disciples are running to everyone they know and sharing the encounter they had with Jesus.
Because once you have an encounter with Christ… you can’t keep it to yourself. It transforms you and the change is so overwhelming that you have to share it.
Unfortunately, we sometimes forget that feeling. That’s why, in general, new believers are much better at sharing the Gospel than people who have been sitting in church for 20 or 30 years.
Because we become comfortable in our salvation and comfortable with being around other Christians.
But when you experience that encounter… you have this irresistible urge to see that life-changing moment in the lives of others.
That’s another reason this summer series is so important. If we start to live in fresh encounters with Christ. Our passion and compassion for those who don’t know Him will be rekindled—our purpose in Christ will be renewed.
Philip knows Nathanael is a Jew who loves Scripture… He’s a man seeking the One described in the Tanakh (or what we call the Old Testament) … so he runs to Nathanael and says “we’ve found Him! The One we’ve been waiting for. It’s Jesus of Nazareth.”
And does Nathanael say, “Great. Let’s go.”? No. He’s skeptical at first.
“Nazareth!” exclaimed Nathanael. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
John 1:46a (NLT)
That’s a pretty strong rebuttal.
Why is Nathanael so against Nazareth?
Well, first… most people looked down on Nazareth. It was an unimportant little town.
The Judeans looked down on people like Nathanael from Galilee and they made themselves feel better by looking down on the people of Nazareth—the most insignificant part of Galilee.
Outside of a relationship with God—humanity will always adopt an “us against them” attitude.
It was everywhere in their culture and it’s everywhere in our culture. We’re better than this group or that group.
Another reason Nathanael probably rejected the idea that the Messiah could come from Nazareth is because that town isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Jewish Scriptures.
He’s looking for someone born in Bethlehem or someone who’s come out of Egypt. Of course, he doesn’t know, Jesus fulfilled both those prophesies before moving to Nazareth.
So, Nathanael made an assumption about the Messiah and had a prejudice against the people Nazareth.
The first step I need to play in overcoming my own skepticism, is that I must be willing to:
B. Skepticism is challenged when I...
1. Confront my assumptions and prejudice.
And if you say, “I want to encounter God, but I can skip this step because I’m not prejudice and I’m not making any assumptions.”
Well, that’s an assumption based on prejudice.
See, we have an uncanny ability to recharacterize our assumptions as truth and justify our prejudices as facts. [REPEAT] We can’t see past our own broken lenses.
So, we must become willing to ask God to expose our assumptions and prejudices.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends You, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
Psalm 139:23–24 (NLT)
Lord, point out any assumption or prejudice that offends You.
Listen, we need to stop being so concerned with how people in this world are offending us and start being concerned about the things in US that are offending God.
So, Philip says, “We’ve found the Messiah. He’s from Nazareth.”
Nathanael’s prejudice says, “Yeah… I don’t think so.”
And how does Philip respond to Nathanael’s Skepticism?
Does he get frustrated?
Does he take it personally?
Does he try and convince his buddy, Nate, with a well-constructed argument?
Nope. What does he say?
“Come and see for yourself,” Philip replied.
John 1:46b (NLT)
Come and see.
I wish we could grab hold of that.
To be an expert witness for Jesus Christ, you don’t have to win an argument.
You don’t have to convince anyone of anything.
You simply invite them. Come and see… Check it out for yourself.
Now for Nathanael, this moment is the test. Is he skeptical or cynical?
He’s not cynical. Because he’s willing to test his assumptions and examine his prejudice.
And we know that because he goes with Philip.
Are we willing to test our assumptions about God and evaluate the prejudices we have toward ourselves and others?
We can start that process with the second part we play in overcoming skepticism.
Skepticism is challenged when I...
2. Confirm and investigate God’s word.
Remember what Philip told Nathanael:
“We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
John 1:45b (NLT)
Joseph is, of course, Jesus’ adoptive father and that’s how he would have been identified.
But when Philip is says “the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about,” he’s saying “We’ve found the One—the one that fulfills every prophesy you’ve been studying, Nathanael. All the proof you need is in the Scriptures… Come and see.”
So, Nathanael goes with Philip to see if what he’s being told matches up with Scripture.
Do you know how much more effective the American church would be for the Kingdom if we took hold of that truth?
I don’t mean church leadership; I mean the full body of Christ. If we were willing to truly hold up the things we’re being told, and our assumptions, and our prejudices—if we were willing to hold those things up to the light of Scripture, our churches and our nation would be transformed.
But we’re more interested in posting our opinions on Facebook than seeking the truth.
Look at Proverbs 18:2:
Fools have no interest in understanding; they only want to air their own opinions.
Proverbs 18:2 (NLT)
Many times, people say they want to know the truth when what they really want is to decide the truth.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I need to speak my truth.”?
That’s a very popular phrase used for empowerment… it’s completely unbiblical.
You do get to say how you feel. You get to express how a situation is affecting you… but you don’t get your own truth.
We don’t get to have our own truths… there’s only one truth and we need to be willing to seek it out.
Nathanael didn’t just take Philip’s word for it. He went to investigate if what he was being told was true and if it matched up with Scripture.
That’s exactly what we should be doing—with everything we see on the news, everything we read on the internet, and everything we hear in the church.
Don’t just accept what you’re being told. Make sure what you’re bring taught is true.
Acts 17:11 should be a life verse for every believer:
And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.
Acts 17:11 (NLT)
There are three extremely important things in this verse:
1. First, They listened eagerly… they weren’t cynical, and they weren’t looking for an argument.
2. But then… They searched the Scriptures to be sure what they were being taught was true.
3. They did that in community—not coming up with their own truth but seeking the Word of God for answers together.
Some of the best discussions and growth in my small group has come when someone says, “I’m not sure Perry’s right about that.” And we start digging into the Word to find out.
And as we go through this summer series. Don’t just blindly accept what J.C. and I tell you… go look for yourself. We invite you…. “Come and see.”
And that’s exactly what Nathanael does.
So, the two things we can do to challenge our own skepticisms is:
· Confront our assumptions and prejudice.
· Confirm and investigate the Word of God.
That prepares us for the real transformation that Christ does IN us when we have an encounter with Him.
Here’s the first one…
C. Skepticism is removed when Christ…
1. Responds to my nature.
When you have an encounter with Jesus Christ, He will reveal who you are.
And it will be life-altering because He knows you more fully than you know yourself.
In a single moment, He’ll reveal that He knows everything about you.
That’s precisely what happened to Nathanael.
As they approached, Jesus said, “Now here is a genuine son of Israel—a man of complete integrity.” “How do You know about me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus replied, “I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.”
John 1:47–48 (NLT)
I love that they haven’t even arrived yet. AS they approached, Jesus—the Word of God Himself says, “It’s Nathanael… a genuine son of Israel and a man of complete integrity.”
Now, what Jesus literally said in Greek is “indeed a true Israelite without deceit or guile.” That’s important because Jesus is using a little word play with this phrase.
He’s not only revealing Nathanael’s true character but He’s openly comparing him to Jacob, who was filled with deceit, in the Jewish Scriptures because Jesus knows Jacob intimately too.
So, with one sentence Jesus says, “I see you and I know everything about who you are.”
That’s disarming, right? And Nathanael says… “How do you know that?”
Jesus says, “I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.”
So not only did Jesus witness his interaction with Philip without being there, but He saw what Nathanael was doing alone just before Philip arrived.
Nathanael was literally sitting under a fig tree… but in Jewish culture, the term “sitting beneath the fig tree” is also a euphemism for meditating on Scripture. Which is what most scholars agree Nathanael was doing—meditating on Scripture.
So, imagine this… Nathanael is sitting meditating on the Scriptures when Philip shows up and says “We’ve found the Messiah” the One that fulfills all the Scripture he’s sitting there meditating on (because make no mistake, the entirety of the Old Testament is about Christ).
Then they go to find this Messiah and Jesus tells Nathanael, I saw you sitting there reflecting on Me—and on top of that, I know you.
So, that raises the question: Did Philip and Nathanael find the Messiah or did He find them?
The moment you realize Jesus truly sees you, it changes everything.
One thing you’ll notice throughout this series is that these life-changing encounters aren’t very long.
“Zacchaeus, come down from that tree.” He saw into Zacchaeus and after one meal—his life is changed forever.
“Nathanael, I see you.” One sentence and his life is completely changed.
Once you experience the God of the Universe looking into your soul, everything you see looks different.
In her darkest moment, Hagar had an encounter with God, and it changed how she viewed herself, her circumstances, and it changed how she viewed God.
It’s the theme verse at the top of your outline:
Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me.” [But catch this] She also said, “Have I truly seen the One who sees me?”
Genesis 16:13 (NLT)
And that’s the second thing Christ does in our encounter with Him.
He not only responds to who we are, but He reveals who He is.
Skepticism is removed when Christ…
2. Reveals His nature.
What was Nathanael’s response to realizing the God of the Universe knew him so intimately and completely?
Then Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God—the King of Israel!”
John 1:49 (NLT)
When Christ responded to who Nathanael was, it revealed who He was.
“Rabbi, You are the Son of God—the King of Israel.” And in that statement, Nathanael submits completely to the God who knows him. He says, “You are my teacher, my God, and my King.”
And in response, Jesus MORE fully reveals His nature. He says:
“Do you believe this just because I told you I had seen you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” Then He said, “I tell you the truth, you will all see heaven open and the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man, the One who is the stairway between heaven and earth.”
John 1:50–51 (NLT)
“The thing you think is the greatest miracle you’ve ever seen is nothing compared to what you’ll see when you follow Me. You’re going to see me open up the heavens.”
And in that last sentence that sounds so strange to us, He’s revealing to these men exactly who He is—because He’s telling them that He’s the final fulfillment of a vision Jacob experienced in the Jewish Scripture.
As [Jacob] slept, he dreamed of a stairway [lit. ladder] that reached from the earth up to heaven. And he saw the angels of God going up and down the stairway.
Genesis 28:12 (NLT)
Jesus is saying, I’m the fulfillment of the Scriptures you love, Nathanael. I’m the stairway… I’m the ladder… I’m the only bridge between man and God.
And from that short encounter, Nathanael is changed forever.
His Skepticism is replaced with unyielding, unwavering faith.
We don’t know much (for sure) about Nathanael’s life after Christ’s sacrifice, but 4th and 5th century historians wrote that Nathanael Bartholomew brought the Gospel to India and then Armenia where he was either beheaded or skinned alive for his faith. Most accounts favor the latter.
I know that’s graphic, but it’s important to understand that a single encounter with Jesus transformed Nathanael from a skeptic to someone so sure about the glory of Christ that he was willing to be skinned alive rather than renounce Jesus.
I hope our lives don’t come to that, but how would it change your life if you could be that sure—if your skepticism could be replaced with unwavering faith?
It just takes one encounter with Christ.
Isn’t it worth investigating?
Isn’t it worth seeing if there’s a Messiah who knows you and wants you to know Him?
You can be sure.
Come out from under your fig tree, believers.
Come down from the Sycamore tree if you’re not.
And maybe you still have questions—that’s okay.
Nathanael had questions.
God isn’t offended by your questions.
And we’ll walk through them with you together.
After we pray, we’ll have pastors and care volunteers down front and in the Care Connection Room to talk with you and pray with you.
Maybe you feel alone, like no one sees you.
It’s not true.
Christ sees you.
And He wants to show you who He is.
Come and see.