Jesus—His Life and Message: First Contact

April 14, 2015

by Peter Amsterdam

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

After His temptation in the wilderness, Jesus returned to Galilee and began His ministry of preaching, teaching, and doing miracles. Matthew and Mark both place the beginning of Jesus’ ministry after John the Baptist had been arrested, possibly indicating that Jesus remained in the area where He had been baptized for some time before returning to Galilee.1 At some point prior to the beginning of His ministry, He moved from His hometown of Nazareth to the town of Capernaum.2

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea  From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.3

Prior to His departure back to Galilee, we are told in the Gospel of John about Jesus’ contact with some of the men who would become His first disciples. In the synoptic Gospels, we read of Jesus’ call to these same men occurring at a later time. It’s possible that John is telling of Jesus’ first contact with some of these men, and that some time later He called them to follow Him as disciples. It’s also possible that John incorporated the call of these disciples earlier than the synoptic Gospels did, for literary purposes.

Here’s how John tells the story:

The next day again John [the Baptist] was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, Behold, the Lamb of God! The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, What are you seeking? And they said to him, Rabbi (which means Teacher), where are you staying? He said to them, Come and you will see. So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.

One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peters brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, We have found the Messiah (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas (which means Peter).4

Upon hearing John the Baptist identify Jesus as “the Lamb of God” as He was walking by, Andrew and an unnamed disciple of the Baptist decided to follow after Jesus. As disciples of John who had heard John preach about the one who would come after him and who would be greater than he was, it seems natural that they would have wanted to find out more about this man that John called the Lamb of God. To John’s credit, he informed his disciples of who Jesus was, and made no objection to their now following Him.

Jesus asked them why they were following Him, and in line with the status-conscious culture of the day, they respectfully called Him “Rabbi.” Asking where He was staying opened the door for Jesus to extend hospitality by inviting them to His lodgings or home. Because it was later in the day—the tenth hour, or about four o’clock in the afternoon—it would have been too late for the two men to travel farther before nightfall, so ancient custom would have called for them to be invited to spend the night.

The walk to Jesus’ lodgings and the time spent with Him that evening was most likely spent in conversation that deeply touched these two disciples of John the Baptist. They came away from those conversations convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, as shown by Andrew finding his brother Simon, telling him that they have found the Messiah, and bringing him to Jesus.

Jesus then found Philip, who was from the same original hometown as Andrew and Peter. By this time Peter and his brother no longer lived in Bethsaida, but lived and worked in Capernaum. Philip is a Greek name, which wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary for Jews in Galilee, as the area was quite Hellenized.

Philip in turn found Nathanael, telling him: We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.5 Nazareth, a small insignificant town in Galilee, lay outside the mainstream of Jewish life, which is perhaps what prompted Nathanael’s comment, Can anything good come out of Nazareth? It could be that since Nazareth was close to Cana, which was Nathanael’s hometown,6 there was civic rivalry between the villages, as was common in antiquity.7 Nathanael’s question is similar to that of some who opposed Jesus later on and who asked: Is the Christ to come from Galilee? and said, Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.8 However, as we’ll see, Nathanael quickly realized that Jesus’ hometown didn’t disqualify Him from being the Messiah.

Heeding Philip’s invitation to “come and see,” Nathanael followed Phillip to see Jesus.

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is 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!

Jesus answered 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, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. 9

Jesus had insight into Nathanael’s character, seeing him as an honest man. Nathanael’s response was an affirmation that Jesus accurately understood his character without having ever met him.10 There were also other instances where Jesus showed His ability to supernaturally know things about others:

The woman answered him, I have no husband. Jesus said to her, You are right in saying, I have no husband; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true. The woman said to him, Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.11

Jesus answered them, Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil. He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.12

Besides speaking of Nathanael’s character, Jesus also said that He saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree before Philip called him. While there’s no explanation of what he was doing under the tree, considering Nathanael’s response, Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel, it was apparently of great significance to him that Jesus had seen and was aware of whatever Nathanael was doing before Philip called him.

Nathanael’s spontaneous confession of faith, calling Jesus the Son of God and King of Israel, echoes what God called Jesus at His baptism in the synoptic Gospels: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,13 and what John the Baptist said in the Gospel of John: I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.14 It also proclaims what the people of Israel expected of the Messiah, that He would be king of Israel. This same expectation will be seen again later, when just days before Jesus’ crucifixion the people cried out: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!15

Jesus said that while Nathanael believed because of what was revealed to him, in the future the disciples will see greater things than these. He went on to say: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened,16 and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.17

Jesus was quoting Genesis 28:12, the story of Jacob’s dream:

And he [Jacob] dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!

Jesus was making the point that He is Jacob’s ladder, the connection between heaven and “Israel,” for those who come to believe as Nathanael, the “true Israelite,” did. Jesus is the mediator between God in heaven and people on earth; He is the way between God and the world.18

This gospel tells of these four men’s first encounter with Jesus. Within them we see examples of different ways people come to know the Lord. Andrew came because his interest was piqued by someone else (John the Baptist) stating a truth about Jesus. Peter was brought by a relative, Andrew. Philip was found directly by Jesus, and Nathanael through Philip’s telling him that Jesus was the one foretold in Scripture.

In these men we also see different kinds of people respond to the invitation to know Christ. As the brother of Simon Peter, who was volatile and impetuous, Andrew may have lived his life in Peter’s shadow. Many people’s lives are overshadowed by their parents, family members, or friends. Nevertheless, Andrew made a point of bringing his brother to Jesus, and in doing so did a great service to his brother and to the church.

Simon was a person with an explosive, strong character, a potential leader. Upon meeting him, Jesus renamed him Cephas (Aramaic) or Peter (Greek), meaning rock. Jesus looked past his personality and recognized the potential he had and what he could become.

Philip isn’t seen as being as prominent as some of the other disciples, at least prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the three instances we’re told something about him in the Gospel of John, he is seen as being shy or timid and a bit out of his element: when Jesus asked him how to feed the 5000;19 when some Greeks approached him about seeing Jesus, and he went to Andrew as he didn’t seem to know what to do;20 and when he asked Jesus to show him the Father.21 Yet Jesus sees his value and personally enlists him. Some of us might be timid and remain in the background, but we can bring people to the Lord, as Philip did with Nathanael and others.

Nathanael, the one who is “without guile,” can be seen as one who responds to signs or something dramatic in making a step toward belief.

This introduction to some of the disciples shows how different people with differing personalities are called to follow Jesus, and how they respond. Personality and temperament, along with race, color, and creed, do not matter, for God’s call to salvation and service is for all.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

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1 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God (Mark 1:14).

See also Matthew 4:12.

2 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali (Matthew 4:13).

And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home (Mark 2:1).

3 Matthew 4:12–13, 17. See also Mark 1:14–15.

4 John 1:35–42.

5 John 1:45.

6 John 21:2. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together.

7 Keener, The Gospel of John, 484.

8 John 7:41, 52.

9 John 1:47–51.

10 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 145. Michaels, The Gospel of John, 130.

11 John 4:17–19.

12 John 6:70–71.

13 Matthew 3:17. See also Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22.

14 John 1:34.

15 John 12:13.

16 The “you” in “you will see greater things than these" is plural, meaning that at this point Jesus is speaking to more than just Nathanael.

17 John 1:51.

18 Keener, The Gospel of John, 490.

19 John 6:5–7.

20 John 12:20–22.

21 John 14:8–9.