Bartholomew is mentioned sixth in the lists of apostles provided by the synoptic gospels Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, and Luke 6:14. He is mentioned seventh in the list of apostles provided in Acts 1:13.
Many scholars believe that Bartholomew is identified as Nathanael in the Gospel of John in part because the synoptic gospels never use the name Nathanael referring to an Apostle and because John never uses the name Bartholomew. Bartholomew’s name is coupled with Philip in the synoptic gospels, and John’s gospel alludes to the close relationship between Nathanael and Philip.
One potential reason for the multiple names is that the individual may originally have been named Jesus; then, just as the LORD renamed Peter, he also renamed this individual. It is entirely possible that Jesus gave him the first name Nathanael and the last name Bartholomew (which means, “son of Tolmai).
If we accept that the gospels are all talking about Nathanael Bartholomew, then we know a little bit more about him. Nathanael is linked with the call of Philip (John 1:43-51) and is with the Apostles after the resurrection (John 21:1-14). In that John 21 passage, we learn that Nathaniel is from Cana in Galilee, a neighboring and rival town to Nazareth thus explaining the comic gibe in John 1:46, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
Nathanael encounters Jesus a few verses after teasing the origin of the preacher from Nazareth. The call of Nathaniel by Jesus in the next several verses demonstrates Jesus’ sense of humor. “When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” Jesus has playfully noted Nathanael as a “son of Jacob” without Jacob’s well-deserved reputation for double-dealing. Then, Jesus also astounds Nathanael by telling him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
After the resurrection, Bartholomew is reputed to have been a missionary to Asia Minor, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Persia, India and Egypt. He is most strongly identified with India and Armenia. According to some early tradition, Bartholomew was flayed alive. The knife and skin have been adopted as his symbols.
What do we learn from Nathanael Bartholomew? Two things: Jesus’ sense of humor and how quickly Jesus inspires awe from those who encounter him.
A. Life in Jesus is full of joy.
Last week after our staff meeting, Denny Clapp asked if we thought of Jesus laughing with the disciples. We tend not to think of Jesus having light moments, a good laugh, and playing practical jokes. Yet I am convinced that Jesus had a robust sense of play with the disciples. Scripture gives us inklings of this; the call of Nathanael has all the marks of Jesus’ playfulness at the same time he is having a profound, life-changing impact on Nathanael.
Jesus traveled with these people for three years in ministry. Yes, there were many serious things to be discussed and taught. There also was plenty of opportunity for laughter. Jesus responded to the Pharisees complaints that he was having too good a time, “John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’” (Luke 7:32-33) Elsewhere, Jesus responds to John the Baptist’s disciples’ question, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?” (Matthew 9:14-15).
Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10). The fullness of life is often best experienced in fellowship with others. There are serious conversations, silly conversations, laughter, and tears. Emotions are not to be trusted as the guide for our eternal salvation, but emotions are a gift of an abundant life found in Jesus Christ.
Talk to parents about their children. Even in the hard times, we enjoy remembering the surprising, startling, funny things our children say. It warms our hearts. Our escapades even some of the ones that get us in trouble are fodder for great stories later on.
Jesus’ fulfilled the promises he made. Eternal life in the mansions of heaven the places he has gone ahead to prepare will be joyous beyond our imagination. That joy, I believe, will include an abundance of laughter with the biggest guffaws coming from God. Imagine the stories not included in the Bible that Jesus will tell!
B. Jesus inspires awe in those who encounter him.
Bartholomew’s other gift is the account of his reaction of awe. Sometimes we are so cautious about things we do not understand that the illustration of being astounded provides comfort. Jesus pierced the veneer of skepticism and engaged Nathanael’s heart in such a profound way that the exclamation just came forth.
In legal terms, this is called an “excited utterance.” (For those of you who watch the legal shows on television, an excited utterance is an exception to the hearsay rule.) It is a statement that is made in the midst of a situation so extraordinary that the speaker could not reasonably have spoken anything other than their true, honest reaction.
Bartholomew moves from snarking with his friend, Philip, to proclaiming Jesus is the Messiah in moments.
That’s a remarkable transformation. Throughout our lives, there are times and experiences and moments in which we encounter the living Jesus Christ. We may or may not recognize his presence immediately; sometimes it takes years of living and reflection to identify how we were touched, blessed, and changed.
The point is: when we encounter the living Jesus Christ, awe is the most natural reaction. Bartholomew gives us a great view of the human reaction to Jesus: joy and awe. His conviction was foundational. It inspired a life of faith: the faith of an apostle willing to give up his life for the proclamation of the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.
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