Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Or, “Jesus Demonstrates his Divinity Through a Joke”
I think that the often deadpan reading of Scripture in church kills some of its buzz. Hebrews 4:12 says,
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
If the Bible is living and active, then it should be read with emotion! Instead we treat every word as some sort of serious, monotone, statement. Nobody talks like that. People get the idea that somehow it’s showing respect to the Scripture, but it’s really disrespecting the way the Bible was written. Although Jesus was God, he was also a human; a human who laughed, cried, and performed amazing works. Did you know that the Bible records a joke made by Jesus? It does.
I’ve put off explaining this joke for years because…well, it’s not as funny if I have to explain it. However, the Holy Spirit has pushed me to finally put it into writing (er…typing for you). That said, I will print the joke in its entirety first. If you get it –cool, if not –so be it. You don’t have to read on after that if you don’t want to (since I’ll obviously be spoiling the joke). Ok, let’s do this:
Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (John 1:45-49).
Did you get it?
Alright, let me preface by noting that most Christians totally don’t catch the humor in this passage. Maybe it’s the age of the joke, maybe it’s a translation problem, or maybe it’s the evil and subversive thought that the devil springs on our minds that the Bible can’t be fun. Anyway, most folks see this as some sort of cool prophecy as Jesus seems to know Nathanael’s character and proceeds to speak truth over his life. In doing so, people miss the point. Solomon notes in Ecclesiastes 3:1-4,
There is a time for everything,
And a season for every activity under heaven:
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance…
…It goes on for a while after that. Now is the time to laugh though because Jesus is prophesying, but he’s also giving Nathanael a sarcastic response.
Take a look at the passage again (I’ll wait), and then let’s break it down. First of all, Nathanael is sitting under a tree (as established by Jesus). Philip comes and talks about the Christ (Jesus) who is from Nazareth. Nathanael then proceeds to burn (joking insult) Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. Then, when they first meet, Jesus introduces Nathanael as a man in which there is no falsehood. However, from a factual standpoint, this is an incorrect statement; as it turns out the Messiah did come from Nazareth (which Jesus clearly would know). Looking at this from a monotone reading; Nathanael’s prejudice towards Nazareth has created false notions in his heart; therefore Jesus’ assessment of him is incorrect and if we read this with no emotion we’re basically proving Jesus wasn’t God. So there’s gotta be something more than that. Rather, it seems, Jesus saying there’s no falsehood in Nathanael is a comment on his “straight shooter” character- specifically in relation to his comments about Jesus’ hometown. This is confirmed because Nathanael catches the joke and responds with an appropriate comeback, “Oh, my reputation precedes me!” The scene isn’t some awesome spiritual moment (well, it is because Jesus is there), it’s a good first meeting of two future friends.
But that’s just the first level. After Jesus reveals he saw Nathanael, Nate gives his faith to Jesus. The passage continues, “Jesus said, ‘You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that” (John 1:50). But Nathanael didn’t notice something about what Jesus said. Jesus didn’t just see Nate and Phil; he also heard the whole conversation of Nathanael trashing the Lord’s hometown. This wasn’t some sort of psychic flash; it was the Lord’s total omniscience in action. Nathanael, who acknowledged Jesus’ first joke, didn’t draw the lines even after the Lord painted the scene for him with said joke. You’d think that once Nate realized that Jesus knew his character through his earlier comments, he’d y’know, apologize. Especially since Peter freaked out in Luke 5:8 when he realized Jesus was God: “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’” And Peter hadn’t even said nor done anything dumb yet. One would think that had he really understood how much Jesus knew, Nathanael would have tried to say sorry for looking down on Nazareth. But Jesus decided to keep his total knowledge of Nate between him, God, and us readers. Why? I don’t know, maybe it was part of his early secret ministry that he kept the extra information under wraps.
When you understand the intricacies of the joke, it actually makes the whole scene much more awesome and prophetic. First of all, it shows that Jesus is God; for it is written, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). And Proverbs 5:21 says, “For a man’s ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all his paths.” And David wrote,
O Lord, you have searched me
And you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
You perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
You are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
You know it completely, O Lord (Psalms 139:1-4).
So if Jesus saw and heard everything between Philip and Nathanael, then it’d certainly suggest his divinity. The joke also shows that God has a sense of humor. I hope that as you live your life in faith that you keep your mind open to sense when the Lord tries to tell you a cosmic joke (and he will if you listen) because it’s a great reminder of how personal he is with each and every one of us.
Rock on God!