The single occurrence of this title, “The King of Israel”, was spoken by Nathanael as Jesus was selecting the twelve men who would be His disciples. This title occurs as Jesus called Nathanael to follow Him as read in John 1:43-50. This passage is one that seems to hold little significance or meaning. But at the time, the implications and unspoken messages were profound. An understanding of the culture and times of Jesus is critical to understand and appreciate the words of this conversation, especially those of Nathanael.
Jesus was establishing His ministry and gathering the group of men who would be the inner circle. The disciples comprised John, probably his brother James, and Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. Jesus and His group travelled from east of the Jordan River to the west of the Jordan River. Somewhere during this time, Jesus found Philip and called him to follow. Soon after Philip accepted the call, he went to Nathanael to tell him of the Messiah. Scholars are unsure who Nathanael was, but some suggest he, whose name we cannot find in the other Gospels, is Bartholomew. Conversely, we cannot find the name Bartholomew in the Fourth Gospel.
Interestingly, Philip introduced Jesus to Nathanael by referring to the prophecy of Moses and the Prophets. In so doing, Philip focused on the messianic role of Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, which is a common theme of this Gospel. For Philip to speak of Jesus as the son of Joseph was correct in the sense that Joseph was legally his father. We should not take this as a denial of the virgin birth. Rather, Philip, in his description of Jesus to Nathanael, was precise regarding identifying Jesus by the name of His village and His father’s name. This method of reference was sufficient to identify a person. It is interesting that Philip opened his statement to Nathanael talking about the “Messiah” and ended with the word “Nazareth,” two words seemingly with nothing in common to the point of being contradictory, as reflected in Nathanael’s reaction. “Evidently he felt Philip’s declaration the Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth was a distinct anticlimax, for it was inconceivable to him that the profligate caravan town of Nazareth should produce the Messiah.” [i]
His response to Andrew is interesting “and supports the view that Nathanael was a student of the writings of Moses and the Prophets, so much that he could employ them against claims for Jesus.” [ii] His reaction was also indicative of the honor and shame aspect in society at the time of Jesus, a strong sociological pattern permeating much of the culture. Also, there may have been some degree of competition between Nazareth and Cana, the hometown of Nathanael, so his comment may have been a slight to a competing neighboring town. As a devout Jew, he knew his Scripture and was positive that no prophet, much less the Messiah, would come from Nazareth. The reaction is eerily similar to the reaction of Jesus’ critics when they questioned how the Messiah could come from Galilee, although this response, as seen in John 7:41-42, 52, seems more flippant rather than an expression of hostility.
In response, Philip invited his friend to “come and see” Jesus for himself. This response is very similar to that which Jesus gave to John and Andrew when they sought to learn of Him. “It is hard to miss the hint here that Nathanael is meant to be seen as a type of the skeptical but honest Jewish person who requires some evidence and convincing before believing in Jesus. This should make his witness all the more compelling to listeners who may also have had considerable doubts.” [iii] Nathanael heeded the suggestion and came to investigate Jesus for himself. As he approached, Jesus saluted him as a true Israelite. The Fourth Gospel intentionally describes how he, a devout Jew, accepted Jesus as Messiah while other Jews rejected Him. Given “John’s characterization of the Jews, Nathanael is a well-placed protest against any sweeping condemnation of the Jewish people.” [iv] This devout Jew, according to Kenner, represented the fulfillment of the ministry of John the Baptist. This man, a true Israelite in whom there was no deceit, accepted Jesus as the Messiah, thus, John’s purpose was complete. “It was not so much that Jesus had seen him under the fig tree that surprised Nathanael; it was the fact that Jesus had read the thoughts of his innermost heart.” [v] He reacted with surprise at the words of Jesus and asked how He knew him.
It is unclear whether Nathanael was merely asking how Jesus knew or was probing to discern the source of information from which Jesus spoke. Jesus said He saw him under the fig tree before Philip came to him. As Isaiah 36:16, Micah 4:4, and Zechariah 3:10 note, the fig tree was a symbol to the Jews of the home and prosperity, and its shade was a common place for the devout to pray, study, and meditate on God’s Word. To say one was under a fig tree or he spent much time under a fig tree would have been a compliment to a devout Jew. The comment by Jesus was also “a play on words that requires knowledge of Hebrew to understand. In the Old Testament, Israel was another name for Jacob (‘the deceiver’). ‘A true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false,’ might thus be paraphrased, ‘An Israelite in whom there is no Jacob!’” [vi] We do not know whether Jesus implied any or all of the meanings of the Old Testament passages in His comment about seeing him under the fig tree or whether He was simply making a specific statement about his activities using supernatural knowledge. Edersheim notes that “they seem to point to what had passed in his mind just before Philip found him. Alike the expression ‘an Israelite in truth in whom is no guile’—looking back on what changed the name of Jacob into Israel—and the evident reference to the full realization of Jacob’s vision in Bethel, may be an indication that this very vision had engaged his thoughts.” [vii]
The response of Nathanael is somewhat surprising given what Jesus said. Obviously, he knew virtually nothing about Jesus and His messianic claims, except what Philip had told him. Apparently what Jesus said was enough for him to realize that Jesus had a special relationship with God. Jesus revealed Himself to be a true prophet by His description of Nathanael’s actions. Jesus’ words “displayed His omniscience. Christ saw Nathanael, and read his heart before he came to Him.” [viii] In response, the newest disciple addressed Jesus as “Rabbi,” which he did not previously do in his conversation with Philip. Nathanael recognized Jesus as a teacher. He also hailed Jesus as the “Son of God,” which alludes to His divine nature, and lastly as the “King of Israel.” This man “proves himself an Israelite indeed that he so readily owns and submits to the King of Israel.” [ix] As a note, this instance is one of only four times (also John 12:13, Matthew 27:42, Mark 15:32) someone spoke the salutation “King of Israel” to Jesus and the only time it appears in the Gospels with the intent to honor Him.
It could be the term was used about God’s relationship with His Chosen People and that Nathanael was verbalizing his allegiance to the king. Jesus is calling him a true “Israelite” could have also led him to recall the history of his people and recognize Jesus as king. The expression “‘King of Israel’ would be a title similar to ‘Messiah, Anointed One’ because the kings were always God’s anointed.” [x] It is unclear whether he addressed Jesus as a king who would establish an eternal, physical kingdom with its capital in Jerusalem or as king of a spiritual realm which would transcend national identity and borders. Regardless, we can safely assume that by the end of Jesus’ ministry Nathanael understood the true nature of Jesus’ as King of Israel. He exhibited considerable faith in Jesus based only on the supernatural knowledge Jesus revealed to him when they first met. The faith of Nathanael would further develop during his time with Jesus, but the trust he placed in the Messiah was a sufficient starting point to become a disciple.
The response of Jesus to the words of Nathanael is difficult to determine. It was the first time Jesus used the double amen, which usually means, ‘truly, truly’ or ‘verily, verily’ and was meant to emphasize the truthfulness or reliability of the statement. Some translations have Jesus’ response as a statement while a few translations have Jesus asking a question about his belief. It could be that, while he believed based on such a little thing as Jesus seeing he under the fig tree, Jesus rewarded his faith and revealed that he would see much greater things. We should be a little surprised this individual believed simply because Jesus spoke of his being a true Israelite and sitting under a fig tree and he would witness greater things that would cement his belief in the Messiah.
When the delegation came to John the Baptist to investigate his ministry, he rejects the three messianic titles offered him: Messiah, Elijah, and the Prophet. Returning briefly to John the Baptist who announced Jesus to be the Lamb of God, the author allows the Baptizer to begin receding from the scene. In so doing, John the Baptist left his “disciples to their gradual discovery of Jesus, who is shown, successively, to be the Messiah, Elijah, Prophet, and the passage ends with Nathanael’s triumphant acclamation: ‘You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’” [xi] This statement was the culmination of the ministry of John the Baptist, with his disciples able to recognize the true and proper identity of Jesus the Messiah.