Jesus gains his first four students.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 March

In which he meets Andrew and Simon, Philip and Nathanael. (James and John later.)

John 1.35-51

Honestly, the gospel of John doesn’t line up with the other gospels, which we call synoptics ’cause they share so many of the same stories. Wasn’t really meant to: The author likely knew one or more of those gospels, and was filling in all their blank spots. The synoptics make it sound like Jesus first met his students in the Galilee. John corrects that: Jesus met ’em in Judea.

John 1.35-39 KWL
35 Next day, John was again standing with two of his students.
36 Watching Jesus walk, he said, “Look: God’s ram.”
37 His two students heard what he was saying, and followed Jesus.
38 Jesus, turning round, watching them follow, told them, “Whom do you seek?”
They told him, “Rabbi,” (i.e. teacher) “where are you staying?” 39 He told them, “Come look.”
So they came, saw where he was staying, and stayed with him that day.
It was the tenth hour after sunrise.

Here we see two of John’s students. The word mathitís/“student” is often translated “disciple,” and people have the incorrect idea that a disciple is somehow different from a student. That it’s a deeper relationship, ’cause the disciple isn’t just trying to learn from the master, but be just like the master; like an apprentice. Or that it’s about lifestyle, not classroom instruction—so in some ways it’s less strenuous.

In fact there are all kinds of student/teacher relationships. Sometimes they’re all about learning data; sometimes they’re about lifestyle; sometimes the student is expected to become the teacher’s successor; however you do it. But saying “A disciple is different from a student” is rubbish. They’re synonyms.

In our culture, grade school students are different from college students, who are different from the people who attend a seminar, tutorial, music lesson, internship, training program, graduate school, or what have you. There are all kinds of students. Jesus’s students, considering he took ’em to synagogue so often, most likely matched the Pharisee system. The rabbis who instructed their young men were expected to train ’em to be Pharisees: To know the Law, love it, follow it, and also follow Pharisee customs and traditions. Jesus likely did the first three things. But he obviously, flagrantly violated the Pharisee customs and traditions, time and again. ’Cause he knew the intentions of the Law infinitely better than the Pharisees—and he had no use for Pharisee loopholes.

Pharisee schools.

As I said in the Pharisees article, the Pharisees established a system of synagogues (Greek synagogí/“meeting”), schools for teaching the Law to the whole community. Any town with 10 adult males could start one. They encouraged local Jews, both men and women, to attend every Friday night, when Sabbath began. One would read the bible, then explain what the rabbis taught about it.

Weekdays, Jewish boys and young men went to synagogue to learn the four R’s: R’s: Reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic, and religion. Pharisees believed in a literate society, which could read the bible, not just know vaguely about it. They wanted people to follow the Law, pass it down to their descendants, and keep the Cycle (the Judges-style pattern of apostasy, revival, rescue, and apostasy again) from happening. Children would learn the basics; young men, ages 13 and older, would study the Law more specifically and intensively under a rabbi.

Like Jesus. The synagogues all belonged to Pharisees, and since they let Jesus teach in synagogue, they obviously considered him one of them. He wasn’t really. Jesus taught his own interpretations of the Law, not theirs. Mk 1.22 But Jesus did way more than merely teach bible and tell parables about the kingdom. He taught his kids peripatetic style, a Greek technique popularized by Plato of Athens: They followed him around and watched him do stuff. They assumed he’d do it the right way (and being Jesus of course he did), so they’d learn by the example of his lifestyle. Any time they had questions, he was there to answer. And any time he had a lesson for them, they were there to listen.

This is how Jesus educated his kids. They were his disciples and students, and he their master and teacher—as John makes clear by translating the Aramaic word rabbí/“my master” as “teacher” in verse 38.

Now, was John the baptist the same kind of teacher? After all, he had students, and they called him rabbi. Jn 3.26 The way John tends to get depicted—some strange, crazy loner who lived in the desert and shouted at sinners—certainly doesn’t sound conducive to education. But it appears John did instruct kids in his spare time.

I call ’em “kids” because that’s what they were: Teenagers. In our culture, they’re kids. Movies and art make ’em look like John and Jesus’s contemporaries, but that’s because artists and filmmakers don’t know squat about history, and don’t care ’cause mature adults look and sound more dramatic. But read the gospels. Read how Jesus’s students behaved. Look at their petty squabbles about who’s greatest, or dense misunderstandings about basic stuff Jesus just said. Kids. Jesus taught kids. He thought a lot of ’em; more than our culture does. Because teenagers are more valuable than we give them credit for.

At age 13, both Jews and Romans gave young people the status of adults. They could now marry. Boys could go to war. Pharisees wanted their young men to study under a rabbi and get themselves a basic education. If they had time and money (as Paul apparently did), they could go to an academy, a organization with a bunch of teachers to learn from, and get a really good education. Back then a good education consisted of geometry (’cause algebra hadn’t made it to the Roman Empire yet, and calculus wouldn’t be invented for another 16 centuries) and rhetoric (’cause public speaking and logical arguments come in handy). Jewish academies also included a ton of bible.

Though Luke called Jesus’s students agrámmatoí/“not scribes” and idiótai/“laymen,” Ac 4.13 they weren’t stupid like the KJV makes it sound (“unlearned and ignorant men”). Jesus’s was really a one-man academy. Any layman who spent a year or two with Jesus was more than equal to any scribe.

So when John singled out Jesus to his students, they realized John meant he’s the rabbi to follow. John may have been the best teacher in all Judea, but if you want the best teacher in the cosmos, follow the Nazarene.

Andrew and Philip.

The gospel makes clear one of these two kids was Andrew, Jn 1.40 and implies the other guy was Philip on account of the next story, about Philip and Nathanael. In it, Jesus spoke to Philip like he already knew him, Jn 1.43 so deducing the other kid is Philip just makes sense.

But since it doesn’t say the other kid is Philip, a lot of commentators figure it’s the apostle, John bar Zavdi, the guy who supposedly wrote this gospel. Makes him an eyewitness to these events; isn’t that handy. But there’s no evidence for it. John could easily have heard these stories from Andrew, Philip, and Jesus.

Both the kids were from the same town in the Galilee. Jn 1.44 Likely they grew up together; possibly they were together ’cause they came to follow John together, or there weren’t a lot of Galileans in John’s group. Possibly John singled them out because they shared Jesus’s homeland. We don’t know.

Unlike the other gospels’ stories, where Jesus told people, “Follow me!” and they did, these kids didn’t need an invitation. That’s the sort of enthusiasm a lot of us Christians lack: We’re too often waiting for God to call us to do something, instead of following him whether he calls us or not.

Jesus recognized their zeal, and when they asked him where he was staying, Middle Eastern hospitality kicked in and Jesus invited them over to stay with him the rest of the day. Jn 1.39 It being the tenth hour (around 4 p.m.) and Jewish days ending at sundown, there was only an hour or two of the day left. But then again it may also mean an overnight stay: It was too late in the day to go home safely.

Their zeal came in handy soon after, ’cause they quickly went to tell others about Jesus. Andrew told Simon, and Philip told Nathanael.

Introducing Simon bar John as Peter.

Matthew has Jesus call him Simon bar Jonah, Mt 16.17 a minor discrepancy. John stuck with Simon bar John. Jn 1.42, 21.15-17 John reveals Jesus is the guy who gave Simon his nickname.

John 1.40-42 KWL
40 Andrew is Simon Peter’s brother.
He was one of the two who heard John, and followed Jesus.
41 First he found his brother Simon and told him, “We’ve found Messiah!” (i.e. anointed king).
42 He brought Simon to Jesus.
Looking at him, Jesus said, “You’re Simon bar John.
You’ll be called Kifa” (i.e. Rock/Peter).

Pétros in Greek; Kífa in Aramaic, the language they spoke in the Galilee. (In Greek letters it becomes Kifás, or as the KJV spells it, Cephas.) Since the apostles translated it Pétros instead of leaving it Kífa or Kifás (well, except Paul 1Co 1.12, 3.22, 9.5, 15.5, Ga 2.9), it means they didn’t think of it as a proper name: They were calling him what the name meant, i.e. Rock.

In ancient Greek pétros, a noun with a masculine ending, means a little rock. The feminine pétra means a great big one. Unfortunately, some Christians claim Jesus was using the difference in these noun endings to make a statement about Simon Peter’s character: He was a pebble, but Jesus would make a mighty rock out of him. But as John reported, Jesus didn’t name him Pétros but Kífa—an Aramaic word which means one of those great big Old Testament rocks you take refuge under. Jb 30.6 Jesus doesn’t trash-talk his followers. He’s kind, remember? We mock. Jesus saved the mockery for evil.

In Matthew it’s pretty clear Simon’s nickname signifies a substantial rock:

Matthew 16.18 KWL
“And I tell you you’re Peter. I’ll build my church on this pétra/‘rock,’
and the afterlife’s doors won’t have the strength to stop it.”

That rock’s gonna knock some doors down.

But this is why it’s important to know historical context as well as grammatical: Even though the gospels were written in Greek, understand Jesus wasn’t speaking Greek. Assume it was all Greek and you’ll assume Jesus changed the meaning of Simon’s nickname. Understand the background, and you’ll realize Jesus gave him the proper nickname to begin with.

Obviously Simon’s nickname was a prophecy. Jesus saw his potential, that Simon would become one of the pillars of his church. Ga 2.9 True, throughout the gospels he was kind of a headstrong kid, and it’s hard to see him living up to that potential, especially after he disowned Jesus: Why on earth did Jesus pick this kid? He’s all talk, but no spine! But in Acts and the letters, after he was filled with the Holy Spirit, we definitely see what God did with and through Simon. The nickname Peter becomes the right one. It’s good to know; he can do the same with us.

Jesus blows Nathanael’s mind.

Andrew wasn’t the only zealous evangelist; Philip quickly went out to find a fellow Galilean, Nathanael of Cana, Jn 21.2 to tell him the good news: They’ve met Messiah!

John 1.43-46 KWL
43 Next day, Jesus wanted to go to the Galilee, found Philip, and told him, “Follow me.”
44 Philip was from Beit Sayid, Andrew and Peter’s town.
45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “The one written of by Moses in the Law, by the Prophets—
we’ve found him! He’s Jesus bar Joseph, from Nazareth.”
46 Nathanael told him, “From Nazareth? Can he be any good?”
Philip told him, “Come see.”

True, Philip didn’t just straight-up call Jesus the Messiah: The title means king, and you could get in trouble for that. Instead Philip just called Jesus the fella prophesied about in the bible.

Nathanael was skeptical. As he rightly should’ve been. Messiah isn’t from Nazareth; he’s from Bethlehem. Mt 2.4-6, Ml 5.2 You got a Messiah, but he’s from the wrong town? Can he be any good?

Some preachers claim Nathanael was being a snob, mocking Nazareth because it was so small and insignificant. They even claim “Can he be any good” was a common slam against Nazareth—“Can it be any good?” or “Can anything good come from there, of all places?” There’s no evidence for such a saying; it’s only found here, in John. I suspect these preachers are projecting themselves, and their own pride, upon Nathanael. Jesus said he was an authentic guy Jn 1.47 instead of rebuking any “haughtiness” we might assume we’ve found in him. Nathanael was looking for the real Messiah, not some antichrist who got everyone’s hopes up, only to dash them.

’Cause there were plenty of antichrists in their day. Pharisees taught all sorts of ridiculous, contradictory End Times things about Messiah and what he’d do. (So did the Essenes and Samaritans. The Sadducees believed there was no such person.) Frankly, if someone comes to you and states, “I think I’ve found the antichrist,” I hope you’d be as skeptical as Nathanael here.

Philip gave him the proper answer: “Come see.” Don’t just take his word for it. Meet the guy.

John 1.47-50 KWL
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said about him, “Look!
An Israeli who’s truly without trickery!” 48 Nathanael told him, “How do you know me?”
In reply Jesus told him, “Before Philip went to call you, I saw you standing under the fig tree.”
49 Nathanael told him, “Rabbi, you’re God’s son. You’re Israel’s king.”
50 In reply Jesus told him, “Since I told you I saw you beneath the fig tree, you believe me?
Oh, you’ll see greater than that.”

Jesus of Nazareth indicated he already knew Nathanael: He saw him under the fig tree. Nathanael’s response: “Okay, this is totally Messiah.” His doubts were gone.

Obviously something’s going on in both their heads, and they didn’t bother to share it with John. “Fig tree” was personally significant to Nathanael, and Jesus knew it. This is what we Pentecostals call a word of knowledge—the Holy Spirit tells us something we can’t know unless it came from God. Whenever the Spirit gives me such knowledge, in my experience it freaks people out, and after a minute or two of shock and surprise—“How can you possibly know that?”—they very quickly believe I heard from God. Same as here, with Jesus and Nathanael.

We don’t have to know what the fig tree was. We only have to know Jesus did the word-of-knowledge thing on Nathanael. Problem is, there are a lot of cessationists who don’t believe miracles happen anymore, who are clueless about words of knowledge, and who instead have come up with a lot of interesting guesses about why Nathanael reacted like he did. Their usual: “Jesus is God, God knows all, so Jesus knew Nathanael.” Sounds reasonable. Except Jesus didn’t know all, Mk 13.32 for he gave up his power, including all-knowingness, when he became man. Pp 2.7 Now, Jesus only knew what the Spirit showed him.

Most likely, something significant happened under a fig tree: Maybe Nathanael first gave his heart to God under one, or it’s where he liked to study bible, or where Philip told him about Jesus. John never spelled it out, so its importance is still just between Nathanael and Jesus. And y’know, that’s fine. Why’s the world need to know their personal business?

The angels have arrived.

Jesus’s promise to Nathanael—and the other three guys who joined his class—was they were gonna see even greater things than words of knowledge. They were gonna see his kingdom. They were gonna see the angelic side of his kingdom.

John 1.51 KWL
Jesus told him, “Amen amen! I promise you all, you’ll see the skies have opened,
and God’s angels are coming and going before the Son of Man.”

Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t a prophecy of the second coming. Yeah, when Jesus returns there’ll be the Son of Man in the clouds, with an army of angels and resurrected Christians coming with him. But this is not that. Jesus used present-tense words. This was happening at that time. The skies had opened; arguably at his baptism. Jesus’s first coming was laying the groundwork for his second, and he was already accompanied by some of his troops.

Now, the students may not have been able to literally see these angels. But, as Jesus promised with two Amens, they were gonna see the effects of these angels. Lives were gonna change. Their lives were gonna change.

And when we follow Jesus, same as them, our lives change. Watch.