Gospel of John: Stairway to Heaven


At some point, perhaps later that evening, or maybe after they had all returned home, John must have told his older brother James about his transformative experience, meeting Messiah. It seems James had remained with their father in his fishing business, perhaps because, as the eldest, he would one day inherit the boats and clients his father had built up over the years.

Nevertheless, both James and John were deeply spiritually minded, and the story John had to tell was just as transformative for James. He, too, would set aside time to hear more of this Jesus.

Now, just to keep John’s timing in view, and because he introduces another time marker at the beginning of chapter 2, here is what has taken place so far in his narrative:

Day One,the delegation of priests and Levites who were also biblical scholars traveled from Jerusalem to Bethany to investigate John the Baptist’s credentials, intentions, and whether his (adopted or anointed) identity had any prophetic significance.

Day Two, Andrew and John, two of the Baptist’s disciples, began to follow Jesus, prompted by the Baptist’s continued proclamation that Jesus is the Lamb of God. (John is unnamed in the text but understood by inference.)

Day Three, the events of today’s passage take place.


The following day, [Jesus] wanted to go out into the Galilee and discovered Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Come with me.”

Jesus, in John 1:43

Why would Jesus want to go to the Galilee Lake area, when so far he had been going daily over to the Baptist’s ministry by the Jordan River?

Well, think about who Jesus had spent a whole afternoon and evening with. Fishermen from Galilee. That’s where these two sets of brothers, Andrew and Peter, and James and John, had their fishing businesses. As a matter of fact, you can see on the map, it was something of a walk!*

Internet Archive Book Image,
flickr, no known copyright restrictions

Once there, Jesus encountered Philip, who, it seems, was also from Andrew and Peter’s hometown of Bethsaida, a small fishing village. My guess is, they all probably knew each other, and all four of these young men had already been talking Philip’s ear off with their astonishing and exciting news. Considering Jesus’ brief invitation, I think Philip had “ask me!” written all over his face.

Because Philip had the same response as Andrew and John, he fell in love with Jesus, and there was nothing for it but that he would now hurry off to find his good friend Nathanael.

In the other gospels Nathanael is referred to as Bartholomew, “Bar” means “son of,” so he was Nathanael, son of Tolmai, and he and Philip were seemingly inseparable friends, always grouped together on later missionary expeditions.

Because Nathanael was a student of the scriptures, Philip told him about finding the one Moses and the prophets had written about. (How would Philip have known to explain Jesus in those terms? Because Philip was clearly also a seasoned studier of the scriptures.)

But!

As soon as Philip said Jesus was from Nazareth, right away Nathanael was skeptical. And here is where we really see how interpretation can sometimes overpower and even replace what the scriptures actually say: Nazareth was considered only a grade above Samaria, full of Gentiles and the worship of pagan deities.

Did you notice how Philip did not argue? I imagine he had already known how that news would land, but he was counting on Nathanael’s curiosity, and his trust in their friendship. With beautiful simplicity, and in a poetic echo of Jesus’ own words to Andrew and John, Philip gently—and provocatively—invited his beloved and learned friend to just “Come and see.” 

To Nathanael’s credit, he did.


Jesus perceived Nathanael coming towards him and said concerning him, “Behold! A true Israelite, in him there is no deceit.”

John 1:47

The word here in Greek, eiden, does not just mean “he saw.” It means something deeper, a kind of seeing that understands a thing, discernment and perception are involved, even to experiencing something with more than one’s eyes. As Nathanael approached Jesus, the Lamb of God looked steadily into Nathanael’s soul, holding Nathanael’s eyes with his own gaze.

What Jesus discerned was Nathanael’s heart and spirit, saying “Here is the genuine article, the real deal, an authentic Israelite.”

That must have been quite humbling for Nathanael, because he had kind of implied Jesus was not genuine, simply because he was from Nazareth.

Then Jesus said, “In him is no deceit,” or “no guile,” also perceiving Nathanael was honest and up front, he had integrity. This must have made Nathanael feel even more uncomfortable! How could Jesus understand him like that? How did Jesus come to learn about his character? Jesus told him,


“Before Philip called out to you, I perceived you beneath the fig tree.”

 Jesus, in John 1:48

There is that word again, “eidon,” “I saw.” But really, I discerned your spirit and character, I experienced who you really are.

What Nathanael said next is remarkable


Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel.”

Nathanael, in John 1:49

From construction worker in Nazareth, to Lamb of God, to Messiah . . . to Son of God, and true King of Israel!

How did such a skeptic turn into a believer, just like that?  What could possibly have happened in Nathanael’s heart?

The fig tree was the common place for prayer, especially for young rabbinic students. And in Nathanael’s day, the rabbis taught that every time one prayed, they were to pray for the coming of the Messiah. So, what was Nathanael doing when Philip came to find him?

Yes, as a rabbinic student, a man who seriously studied the scriptures, who had placed himself beneath a fig tree to pray, had begun to pray for the Messiah when he he heard his beloved friend call out to him, “We have found Messiah!”

Nathanael put two and two together in his mind. Only Messiah would have seen him praying for Messiah.

Nathanael’s response of faith must have pleased Jesus, because he gave further revelation—that’s what happens when you and I respond to God in believing faith, he opens our eyes to even deeper insight,


“Truly, truly I say to you all, you will perceive heaven having been opened and the messengers of God going up and coming down upon the Son of Humanity.”

 Jesus, in John 1:51

This is the first time the term “Son of Humanity[1] comes up and is a phrase rich with substance. You and I will take a closer look at what this phrase means as we get deeper in this gospel.

I do not know how well-read Andrew and Peter, and James and John were. Considering how serious they were about their lives of faith, and how Andrew and John had actually been willing to dedicate themselves as disciples to the Baptist, I think they must have been fairly familiar with the sacred writings. That said, I am confident Nathanael and Philip were tracking right along with Jesus, and knew he was talking about the patriarch Jacob’s dream.

You see, in the distant past Jacob, who had successfully swindled his slightly elder twin out of his birthright and his inheritance, was now fleeing for his life, with only the clothes he had on, running away from his brother. Finally, exhausted, he found a place to shelter, somewhat, chose a rock to lay his head on, and fell asleep alone in the wilderness.

During the night, Jacob had a vivid dream with the same evocative power of a vision, witnessing angels going up and down from earth to God. From this, Jacob knew God would be with him. In his later account, Jacob began with describing a magnificent stairway resting on the earth and reaching into heaven. How many people must have read about Jacob’s dream over the centuries and never even thought about the significance of that staircase?

Because, of course, as exceptional as such a structure might have been (perhaps reminiscent of the Babel tower builders’ failed attempt to create such a thing), the rest of Jacob’s vision seemed far more important.

Now, Jesus was revealing the true importance of the staircase.

The stairway to heaven is Jesus, Son of God and Son of Humanity, connecting God with people.

How passionately do you and I desire ascendancy to God, to share in the heavenlies with our Lord?

How deep are we willing to go with Jesus, to take his revelation and go further in with it, as Nathanael did?

I picture these six men now looking at Jesus with wonder and perhaps a little fear. If what he said were true, then who was he really? How could they, ordinary men all, be standing here with one who connects heaven and earth?


[1] The traditional way to translate this phrase from the Greek “uion tou anthropou” is “Son of Man.” This is because “Man” connoted “humankind” for a few centuries in the English language. Interestingly, in Middle English, the female version of “man” was “wimman” or “wifman,” our modern-day “woman.” The male version of “man” was “werman.” This left the word “man” as truly neutral, referring to male and female alike as humans.

However, at some point the prefix “wer” fell away, so that “man” came to mean both male humans and humans in general.

Today, being more sensitive to the implications of using the male version of human as standing in for all humans, more and more people are making the intentional effort to use more accurate language when translating. In this case, “anthropos” in Greek is the neutral term denoting humankind (like “anthropology,” the study of people). If a male term is desired, the Greek uses “aner/andros.”


*I, too, am puzzled by the distances involved, and John’s telling of the story. I searched for a Bethany closer to Bethsaida, which would make the story make far more sense, and I did not find one. Does not mean there was not one to find!

If you have a solution to the puzzle, I would love to hear from you.

[Jesus with his first disciples | The LUMO Project, http://www.freebibleimages.org]

Published by Joanne Guarnieri Hagemeyer

Speaker and Author Bible Teacher and partner with Ancient Voices, Sacred Stories

2 thoughts on “Gospel of John: Stairway to Heaven

  1. The posts I’ve been receiving on the Book of John have been exciting to read. It’s like watching a live play of history enfold before your eyes when along comes Amos. Isn’t he from the Old Testement? Soon I see his role and why he is important among the people of Israel. When will they ever learn? I begin to realize how we today neglect God in our homes and families. Why is their so much conflict and how come God allows it to happen? These kinds of questions always come up in conversations from those not do much into reading the Bible.
    I loved this post, STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN. It brought back memories of a song I always taught to children. It would help adults to sing also, THE TWELVE DECIPLES. Some were fishermen and weren’t perfect but when Christ called to follow, they didn’t hesitate. These daily posts are written in a way where you feel you are in this live play. There is so much to learn. I print them out and talk about them in conversation. Thank you. for GRACE AND PEACE,JOANNE.

    Liked by 1 person

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