These small group studies of John contain outlines, cross-references, commentary, Bible study discussion questions, and applications.  Visit our library of inductive Bible studies for more in depth inductive studies on this and other books of the Bible you can use in your small group.

John 1:43-51 Bible Study Commentary And Questions

Note – The study on the first part of John 1 is planned for completion at a later time. We are sorry for any inconvenience.


I. Calling of Philip and Nathaniel
A. Calling of Philip (43)
B. Philip finds Nathanael (44-45)
C. Nathanael questions if the Messiah can come from Nazareth (46)
D. Jesus praises Nathanael’s character (47)
E. Jesus demonstrates his omnipresence (48)
F. Nathanael proclaims his faith (49)
G. Jesus promises he will see much greater things (50-51)

Discussion Questions

  • What do we know about Philip and Nathanael?
  • What is Philip’s first recorded act after being called by Jesus?
  • What is significant about this?
  • Are there any principles we can gather from this?
  • How does Philip deal with Nathaniel’s question?
  • How effective do you think it would have been if Philip had tried to explain why it was OK that Jesus came from Nazareth or that perhaps he was really from Bethlehem and they didn’t know it?
  • What can we learn from this?
  • Where was Nazareth?
  • What was the general opinion of Nazareth at that time?
  • What does the phrase an “Israelite indeed” mean?
  • What does it mean that Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree? Did Jesus pass by there earlier? What is this meant to show?
  • Is it good or bad that God is everywhere?
  • Compare Nathanael’s response to the response of most Israelites at the time?
  • What does the phrase “no deceit” or “no guile” mean to you?
  • Is it important that Nathanael believed when he didn’t see the greater things and most Israelites didn’t believe even when they did see the greater things? What does this teach us about faith?

Verse by Verse Commentary

1. Nathanael – The name means “God given”. Nathanael’s home was Cana of Galilee (John 21:2). This was the town where Jesus performed his first major miracle, turning the water to wine. Jesus called Nathanael “an Israelite indeed”. This could be because Nathanael is a model Israelite who placed his faith in the Messiah when he came. Many Israelites were only Israelites physically, but Nathanael was also one spiritually.

From verse 47 we can infer that Nathanael must have already been a believer in God. Surely an unbeliever would be filled with deceit, but Nathanael was an honest person. We can also see that Nathanael was well-versed in Scripture. When Philip told him that Jesus was from Nazareth he immediately doubted if Jesus could be the Messiah. It was well known that the Messiah would be from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). The priests and scribes knew this as well and had told it to Herod years before (Matthew 2:5-6).

In contrast, Nazareth was a small and insignificant village. No one expected that the Messiah would come from that region (John 7:41-52). Nathanael has also often been identified with Bartholomew (same person, different name). This is because John never mentions Bartholomew (who was listed with Philip in Matthew 10:3), but mentions Nathaniel (who was a friend of Philip in this passage). It is unknown if they are the same person, but it is possible. Nathanael had a soft heart. He was very open to God and had strong faith. He didn’t need a lot of evidence, but simply believed.

2. Philip – “Lover of horses”. More is known about Philip than any other of the apostles outside of the first group. His hometown was the same as Peter and Andrew, Bethsaida (Likely Philip already knew Andrew and was friends with him. This is why they are mentioned together a couple of times in the gospels. They were also the only two of the twelve to have a Greek name.)

Philip was the first one called by Jesus (John 1:43). It is likely that he also (like Andrew and John and Peter) had already been a disciple of John the Baptist. This was soon after Jesus had changed Peter’s name. Philip was the leader of the second group of disciples (Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:8, Luke 6:14). He is mentioned at the top of the list of the second group in every list. Notice what he does almost immediately after being called by Jesus. His first act is to go and tell his friend about Christ. It wasn’t just by chance and Nathanael didn’t go to him. Philip went out purposely with the intent to tell Nathanael.

3. We are shown more communication between Jesus and Philip than with most of the apostles. Jesus asked Philip where they should buy bread to feed the big crowd (John 6:5-9). This was done in order to test Philip and his faith. Philip answered reasonably and practically according to man’s thinking, but left out the spiritual aspect and didn’t think of Jesus’ miraculous ability. Through this episode he must have gained much more faith in the Messiah.

4. In John 12:20-22 there is another short record about Philip. Some Greeks had come to worship and wanted to know more about Jesus. They first went to Philip. Once again Philip, through Andrew, went to Jesus and probably took them to Jesus as well. Philip didn’t go into a long spiel about who Jesus was and all the miracles he had done. Instead he wants them to meet and see Jesus directly. This is a good example for us. We should not rely on our own knowledge or logic. Our goal should be to introduce people to Jesus and let him do the changing.

5. Philip was a slow learner, however. He had been present and saw Jesus’ miracles. He had heard Jesus’ teachings, but still he asked Jesus to “show [them] the Father” (John 14:8). Philip believed and loved the Lord, but like the other disciples he didn’t understand fully. He knew he had something amazing in Jesus. He believed he was the Messiah. He just didn’t know all the theology and ramifications of it. However, Philip was still there after Jesus arose from the dead and presumably saw Jesus (Acts 1:13). He then went on to boldly proclaim the gospel. Tradition says that he was martyred at Hierapolis in Phrygia.

6. Nazareth – Nazareth was the home of Mary and Joseph and was also where Jesus was brought up (Luke 4:16, Luke 2:39). It was the place where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would have a son who would save the world from their sins (Luke 1:26-33). This was where the family returned to in Israel after they came back from Egypt (where they had gone to escape Herod). Nazareth is identified with the town of en-Nazirah. This small town has 5000-1000 people now and is estimated to have been a little larger at the time of Christ.

The Bible is a historical book. The people were real people and they lived in real places. It is located in South Lebanon and at that time a main road for traffic between Egypt and Asia lay close to it. Nazareth was a small and insignificant village. It was never mentioned by name in the Old Testament and therefore no one thought that that the Messiah would come from there (most didn’t know he actually came from Bethlehem). From Nathaniel’s and the priest’s (John 7:41,52) words it also likely that people from that area were looked down on.

This could be due to moral character (which was obviously lacking since they didn’t believe Jesus despite the signs he did there), status in society or other factors. Jesus began his ministry in the synagogue there (Matthew 13:54). What a blessing for the Son of God to appear in person living and teaching in your own city! The city of Nazareth was truly blessed! But they wasted their great opportunity. They expelled him, once trying to kill him (Luke 4:16,29, Matthew 13:53-58 [if you go there you can still see the hill they tried to throw him off]). They didn’t give him any honor and they had very little faith. As a consequence Jesus went elsewhere and did few miracles there.

7. Election – Notice that Jesus “found” Philip (John 1:43) and that it was Jesus who issued the call to “follow Me” (John 1:43). We know this to be true from John 15:15 where Jesus said that He chooses us, not the other way around. Jesus purposed to go there. He took the initiative in going to Philip’s location. He took the initiative in talking with Philip. He took the initiative in commanding Philip to follow Him. And He had already begun the work in Philip’s heart a long time before that. Some may ask, “What about Nathanael? He went to Jesus, right?” Nathanael went to Jesus because He worked through Philip to bring Nathanael there. Notice that Jesus was already observing Nathanael before Nathanael ever came. This is just one more example that God calls and finds us.

8. Evangelism – Here we see a good example of evangelism (it is similar to Andrew with Peter). Philip didn’t have all the answers. He didn’t have much experience. He had only been following Jesus a very short time. Indeed Philip did make mistakes. He said “Jesus of Nazareth” when He was from Bethlehem, called him the “son of Joseph” when he was only the supposed son, and said that he found Jesus, when Jesus found him. Many people in this situation make a lot of excuses for why they can’t share the gospel. They say that they can’t answer questions. They don’t want to make mistakes. They can’t share everything clearly. 

He could have made all these excuses. He could have found a lot of reasons to “wait for a better time”. However, now is the day of salvation. Philip made use of the time. As soon as he was called he went to tell others! This is how it should work. Philip was enthusiastic and excited in his newfound love for Christ. He shared it simply. He told Nathanael that he had found the Messiah and encouraged Nathanael to “come and see”. Evangelism is not that complicated. It is sharing what we have seen and heard and what God has done for us (1 John 1:1-3). It is introducing others to God. Start introducing your friends to God. Tell them what He has done for you. Give them a Bible and let them look for themselves (with your help; Philip used a word “come” signifying that he was still there to help; they would do it together). Don’t be scared to make mistakes, because remember that it is God who saves and calls, not us!

9. Everywhere – God (the Trinity) is everywhere. The fact that Nathanael believed in Jesus as the Messiah because of Jesus’ statement that He saw Nathanael under the tree shows that it was a miraculous event and Jesus wasn’t there physically. John includes this to show us more about who Jesus is as a person. He is still omnipresent (several times he healed others across a great distance. Jesus did limit many of His divine attributes when He came to earth, but He still knew everything that was going on everywhere and could see it all. He could see right into the heart.

Psalms 139:7-13 reinforces this truth. 

Psalms 139:7-13 – Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

God is everywhere. He created everything. He knows everything about us. We can not escape from His presence. Is this good or bad? The answer is that it depends. If we are following God is great news that He is everywhere. He will be with us and lead us in all situations that we face. No matter how dark or scary the situation is, God is beside us. But if we are wicked and doing sins, it is bad for us that God is everywhere. He will find them out. He will judge us for that. We will not escape. When you are by yourself or think no one else is noticing or looking, remember God is there. He is watching. Judgment is His. When you are facing difficulties and walking through the valley of the shadow of death, remember that God is there. He will lead you and guide you. He will be your light and your strength.

10. Verse 1:50 – The disciples had the privilege of being there firsthand to see all the mighty works that Jesus did. Jesus told Thomas that he was blessed for believing and seeing, but that others who don’t see yet still believe will be more blessed. Also from this we see that the longer we believe the more and more evidence we will see that God is true.

11. Verse 1:51 – The phrase heavens opened appears to be figurative. It is like the unfolding of mysteries and the revealing of whom Jesus was and what God’s plan was. The angels ascending and descending is probably a reference to their ministry of service in Jesus’ earthly ministry. They did serve Him in the wilderness and the garden (Mark 1:13, Luke 22:43). Also at the ascension heaven was opened and the angels came down.

In addition, there were many things that happened that were not written. So it could have been fulfilled at a specific instance where Nathanael saw the angels physically ascending and descending on Jesus. Or it could be fulfilled at the second coming when the heavens open and Jesus comes back to earth (assuming the angels ascending and descending with him). Nathanael may or may not have seen it directly with his own eyes. But it could mean that he would see evidence of it, know it to be true. For example think of the phrase, “see what I mean”. It doesn’t necessarily mean to see with one’s eyes, but can mean “now you have evidence of my meaning.” So we don’t know exactly how this was fulfilled. It could be any of the above.

Main Points –

  1. The Biblical record is historical. It records real people with real personalities. It records real places, which can be visited and compared to the Bible account. It records real events, which are backed up by many eyewitness accounts (if they had written about real places and people, but not real events or the writings would have been struck down).

  2. Jesus calls and finds us, not the other way around. From our vantage point it may appear that we are the ones finding Jesus, but it is Him who comes to us first and allows us to “find” him.

  3. Our goal should be to introduce people to Jesus. We don’t have to have all knowledge. We don’t have to be able to answer all questions. But we do need to have a heart for people and a desire to lead them to Christ. We should do as Philip did and if we don’t know the answers say “come and see” or give them a Bible and say “look and see”.

  4. God is always watching us. He sees us wherever we are. He knows our hearts. We cannot deceive or trick God. Do right because He is watching. Also be honest with Him.

Study John 2:1-11
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