Nathanael was one of Jesus' twelve disciples. He is only called Nathanael in the Gospel of John and is identified as Bartholomew in the rest of Scripture. Nathanael means "God has given" in Hebrew; Bartholomew describes him as the "son of Tolmai" and was probably his last name. So he was Nathanael son of Tolmai, or Nathanael Bar-Tolmei. He was from Cana in Galilee and a friend of fellow disciple Philip.
One day, while Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree, Philip came to him and said he had found the one the Old Testament Scriptures had pointed to as the Messiah. Nathanael was skeptical at first because this man was from Nazareth and in their culture the people of Nazareth were not well liked. Nonetheless, he followed his friend to go meet Jesus. As he approached, Jesus said, "'Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there in no deceit!' Nathanael said to him, 'How do you know me?' Jesus answered him, 'Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.' Nathanael answered him, 'Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!'" (John 1:47–49).
Based on Nathanael's initial encounter with Jesus we can assume he was a man of truth. At first glance, it might not seem significant that Jesus knew he was sitting under a fig tree. However, Nathanael was amazed because Jesus had known what was in his mind and heart while he was sitting there. Only by knowing his thoughts could Jesus have declared him a man of truth. In addition, this passage reveals that Nathanael was well versed in Jewish Scripture. He quickly identifies Jesus as the Son of God the prophets predicted. This set Nathanael apart from many religious authorities of the day who did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah because of the deceit in their hearts.
In response to Nathanael's demonstration of faith, Jesus promises him that he will see even greater things (John 1:50–51). Jesus references Genesis 28 in which Jacob has a dream of angels ascending and descending a stairway or ladder between heaven and earth with the LORD standing above them. He alludes to the day when He Himself will connect heaven and earth—God reaching out to humanity, providing what is needed for humans to be in relationship with Him (as opposed to humans trying to reach God as in the building of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11). Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this; He is the connection between God and humanity (Hebrews 9:12; 10:10). Only by God's grace through faith in Jesus can a person be saved and made a child of God (John 1:12; 3:16–18; Ephesians 2:8–9; Acts 4:12).
As an apostle, Nathanael would see the life and ministry of Jesus, Jesus' death and resurrection, and Jesus' ascension. Nathanael's death is not recorded in the Bible, but church history supports that he was a martyr. It is possible he was crucified or bound in a sack and drowned at sea.
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