The twelve: Philip and Nathanael

We have discussed about the four of Jesus’ closest disciple before. The next two posts will be discussing about the next group of four of the twelve disciples. Interestingly, these four men are always named after the first four. This post will discuss about Philip and Nathanael, also known as Bartholomew. The source pointing to them inside the bible is very limited. These few sources, however, can actually infer much information about their personalities.

Philip: the master of impossible

Do not mix Philip the apostle with Philip of the seven deacons. Philip is always listed fifth out of the twelve. His name comes from the Greek language, but he was a Jew. It was common at that time in Judah to have a Greek name, but interestingly, his Jewish name was never mentioned. He was always known as Philip, meaning that his life is very closely related with the Greek speaking Jews.

The accounts of Philip came mostly from John’s Gospel. He came from Bethsaida, the same city where Peter, Andrew, James and John came from. He might also come from the same synagogue, and there is some convincing evidence that he, Nathanael and Thomas were fishermen as well. His call happened the day after Peter met Jesus. Interestingly, while the first four found Jesus when they were called to be His disciple, Philip didn’t. Jesus found him on the way, and He called him, saying, “Follow me”. And he did.

This is something that is very remarkable. Philip is the first disciple to be told to follow Jesus, and he obeyed His calling right away. While we might see that it was Jesus who found Philip, for him, it meant that he found Jesus. Similar to Andrew, he directly came to tell his friend, Nathanael about Jesus. When Nathanael was unsure about Jesus, he only said to his friend to “come and see”. Why? Philip did the same and he can see that Jesus is the Messiah directly.

While this account of Philip was remarkable, it was the only time (recorded) that his remarkable faith works. In the other accounts, he showed his lack of faith, and his pessimistic mindset gets the better of him. The first account was when Jesus fed five thousand men. Jesus asked him how to gave food to the five thousand (that is the man only, without counting the wife and the children they bring) food to test Philip. His answer was: “Eight months wage would not be sufficient to feed them a bite of bread”. The Greek version stated it as 200 denarii’s. One denarius is the wage for a day’s work. Apparently, 200 denarii’s is what they have that time. He did a quick calculation and he found it lacking.

It turns out that Philip was in charge of the logistics of the group (well, we know that Judas is the treasurer, so we can safely assume that someone must be in charge of the logistics as well, and he was the most probable out of the twelve). Philip has been traveling with Jesus so far, and he has seen His miracles. It would be logical if he knew that Jesus had the power to feed them, but the first thing that came to his mind was “It is impossible!” Friends, meet Philip, the master of the impossible.

The other account of him we found is when the Gentiles ask him to introduce them to Jesus. As we have discussed before when we talked about Andrew, he hesitates. He is not sure that Jesus will want to see them; he is a follow-the-rule, by-the-book, uptight and pessimistic type of person, so it would be natural for him to feel unsure when all the time he only knows that Jesus only minister among the Jews. It is ironic to see that someone who is so faithful at the start would turn out this way. Well, at least he asked Andrew.

The last account of him was in the Last Supper. In this room of the Last Supper, many of the disciple’s foolish remarks are being made. But Philip’s remark was arguably the most disappointing of all. After Jesus said the famous quote: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him” to answer Thomas, Philip asked Jesus this question: “Lord, show us the Father, and it suffice us.”

“Show us the Father??”

Duh. Jesus just said about it before. Philip was with Jesus for such a long time, witnessing his power and his ministry. If He really knew Jesus, he would have known the Father. He shows great faith in the start, yet he did not really open his eyes all those time. Where was he all that time?

Nathanael: the true Jew

In the list of the twelve, Nathanael’s name was always mentioned as Bartholomew. Nathanael means “God has given” while Bartholomew was his surname, which means “the son of Tolmai”, hence his full name would be Nathanael Bar-Tolmai. Outside of the listing of the twelve disciples, Nathanael’s name is mentioned only twice: when he was called, and when he went fishing after Jesus’ resurrection. He was close to Philip, and he came from Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle. Virtually all we knew about him came from the story of his calling.

Well, the first fact about him is that he loves the Scripture. When Philip told him about Jesus, Philip said to him that he has “found Him of whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote” (It implies the same to Philip’s love for the Scripture). Philip did not tell Nathanael that he met a wonderful man who can change his life, or brings better to his life or whatsoever. Philip told Nathanael that Jesus is the truth. Now, Philip obviously knew Nathanael well to be able to talk like this. This implies that Philip knew that Nathanael is a seeker of truth.

The second trait was not as good as the first one. When Philip told him that Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth is the Messiah he told Philip: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” As a lover of Scripture, it will be logical if he questions Jesus identity as the Messiah with a statement like “But Micah said that the Messiah comes from Bethlehem” or “Messiah will rule over Jerusalem so he would have to be closely related to Jerusalem as well”. But he didn’t use them, instead he told Philip: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Now that was not a rational or biblical objection. It was based on emotion and bigotry.

Nazareth, as it turns out, was a small town near Cana. It was a notorious town such that even the Galileans are looking down to them, while Galileans are being looked down by the Jewish community. In other words, it was the worst out of the worst. Cana on the other hand was a town even smaller than Nazareth. As archeology discovers, they found that Nazareth was at least a crossroad town, while Cana was a remote place. If you go to Jerusalem from Lebanon you will pass through Nazareth, but Cana was not passed by anything! Cana was in all sense a remote place no one even care to pass through. Interestingly, Nazareth was being looked down by a town that is smaller and more remote than Nazareth! It reveals what kind of contempt Nathanael has for this city and its people. This is the second personality of Nathanael we found: prejudice.

Fortunately, his prejudice was short-lived, as it was not as strong as his seeking heart. Philip knew who Nathanael was, and he was convinced that Nathanael will change his mind if he met Jesus. The words that came out of Jesus were a powerful commendation: “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!” Can you imagine a more wonderful thing than to have this kind of approval from Jesus, at the very start? The word ‘an Israelite indeed’ was written as alethos, meaning ‘truly, genuinely’. It does not simply talking about his genetics, but about his heart which have no deceit and hypocrisy, unlike the other Jews of that day. He is a Jew both inwardly and outwardly.

The most important of his characteristics, however, is his eager faith. He asked Jesus: “How do You know me?” He never knew Jesus before, yet Jesus can say such a thing about him. Jesus answered him: “I saw you under the fig tree. I knew what you were doing.” Nathanael was a man who constantly looks for truth. He loves the Scripture, and he is knowledgeable about it. Jews at that time used to read Scripture and do their reflections and meditations outside of their house, and a fig tree (which is common in Israel area) is a nice spot to do it. Jesus knew where he did his routine, and he knew his heart. Just by knowing this, Nathanael said to Jesus: “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” He knew who Jesus is from the start. What Philip didn’t get until the end, he knew it from the beginning. Nathanael follows Jesus faithfully ever since.

The two buddies: the pessimist and the man of prejudice

As we have seen with any other disciples, both Philip and Nathanael were not an exception to sin and negative habit. While Nathanael may seem to be a better guy than most disciple we have discussed so far, we should not forget that all of the disciples argues about who is the greatest among them, and Jesus label them as “foolish and slow of heart to believe”.

We might be able to identify our lack of faith like what Philip shown. We might have identified our foolishness in Philip’s remark on the Last Supper, or his pessimistic view on things. We might also see ourselves in Nathanael’s prejudice to someone that we hate so much that we actually can’t see that we were worse than that person. Those are our imperfections, and we can find them in our life.

But it was also a fact that Jesus would want to choose and use them to spread His Gospel. He chooses these imperfect men, foolish and slow to understand bunch of guys who came from a lowly area of Israel, rather than the scribes and the teacher of laws of Jerusalem. But for such an imperfect men, God’s glory is made known, as what Paul wrote on his epistle: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

We don’t really know how the two of them died, but every account of their life mentioned that they preached the Gospel faithfully and became effective tools of God. They are often mentioned together, showing that they were really close. Some accounts told us that Philip was crucified as well, while others said that he was stoned to death. Philip was one of the first to be martyred, as it was said that his death came only eight years after James, while there was no record on the death of Nathanael.

Two ordinary men used greatly by the extra-ordinary God.



There was a time when I lost my desire to write and to share. There was a time when I didn't see the point of doing a blog to express my thought. I am who I am though, inconsistent as I am in doing this blog, but I do want to share and I do long to write. Today I'm giving it another go. Fingers crossed. But I still wish that "Let there be light" is the message that I convey.
  • January 1st 2012, Kristo