Nathaniel — who may or may not be the same person as Bartholomew (one of the twelve) — appears only in John 1:35-51. We learn he lives in the small town of Cana. This is significant, for it means he is automatically caught up in the petty rivalry that abounded among the small villages of Galilee. Nazareth was one of those nearby villages. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, he sneers when hearing reports that the Messiah grew up there.
My roots are in Dover, Ohio, a small town. So I know both the fun and the futility of these small-town rivalries. Our next-door rival was New Philadelphia (New Philly, for short). To this day I believe anyone who goes to New Philly High looks uglier and has a lower IQ than anyone from Dover High! When Nathaniel from Cana scoffs at Jesus from Nazareth, I can almost understand what’s going on.
So there’s a problem here. Nathaniel’s natural disdain for Nazareth makes him an unlikely candidate for conversion to Jesus. Here is a difficult case of evangelism — a next-to-impossible challenge. Yet the challenge is met. Nathaniel is won. He’s still in the picture at the end of John’s gospel. And we ask, “How on earth did anybody win Nathaniel to Christ?”
Let’s look at the remarkable series of events that led to Nathaniel’s conversion. I call it Fig Tree Evangelism. You’ll figure out why in a moment.
The drama begins with John the Baptist, who was a wild-eyed, rough-hewn apocalyptic prophet intent on baptizing Jews in the Jordan River, out in the wilderness. When John sees Jesus, he declares Him to be the “Lamb of God,” the Spirit-filled “Son of God.” And straightway John’s disciples begin to defect to Jesus, apparently with John’s permission.
Two of John’s disciples start following Jesus around and Jesus asks them what they are doing. They don’t answer, but instead invite themselves to stay overnight with Jesus. They want to check out this guy from Nazareth, for they, too, are from another nearby rival village called Bethsaida. But by the end of the next day, one of the two — Andrew — is already announcing that Jesus is the Messiah, the longed-for Savior of Israel. If you’re keeping score, note that Andrew emerges as the first believer — unless you count, somehow, John the Baptist.
What does Andrew do with this stunning discovery? Sit on his hands? Deliberate? Go off somewhere to pray? No! The very first thing he does is run right off to grab his brother Simon. As it says in the text, “He brought him to Jesus.” That’s evangelism first-century style. That’s evangelism now. Action-filled. Direct. It’s going to people, where they are. It’s bringing people to Jesus, where He is.
One of the most remarkable persons I know is an eighty-year-old man named Tubby who works with the athletic staff of a small college in Pennsylvania. Having graduated from the college in the 1930’s, Tubby maintained a relationship with his alma mater all through the years. He loves athletics and, even more so, athletes. But above all, he loves the Lord.
Even at his age, Tubby mixes with young football players in the locker room and on the practice field. Some of them he has led to Christ. Tubby goes where the people go. He meets them where they are. That is what Andrew did for Simon Peter. Andrew — the first believer — becomes the first evangelist.
Jesus suddenly decides to head toward Cana, in Galilee. Up to this point we’ve been down in Judea. Now we’re heading north into that small cluster of villages where, buried underneath decades of nasty rivalry, lies a hollow, unfulfilled man named Nathaniel.
Off we go, and along the way Jesus grabs a friend of Andrew and Simon, named Philip. He says to Philip, “Follow me!” And he does. When they arrive at Cana, Philip seems to know his way around and he rushes off to locate Nathaniel.
Notice carefully what Phillip says to Nathaniel, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth!” That’s a heavy, mushy mouthful — hardly something you would use today in evangelistic calling! Why did Philip give this tedious witness, talking about Moses, the law, the prophets? I think I know why. I believe Nathaniel was a scholar, a rabbi, one who would sit for hours under a fig tree studying the scrolls of the law. To witness to a rabbi you had to talk as he would talk. So that’s what Philip did.
To witness to anyone, you must talk that person’s language. Go where he goes, talk as she talks. Make plain the message. To the high, to the low, to the educated or the uneducated. Talk as people talk. How about that neighbor next door? You know how he talks, don’t you? You know your neighbor, don’t you? Go, and talk as people talk!
Philip did that with Nathaniel. And Nathaniel’s reply is shocking. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” What a rebuff. Most people would give up after that, but not Philip. He’s smart and determined. He wants desperately to tell the story. He yearns to tell what he can tell. So he says, simply, “Come and see!”
That’s a smart way to do it. Not often will you walk up to someone and witness effectively, right out of the blue. Maybe you are reluctant to witness because you know that instant evangelism doesn’t often work — it produces snickers and rebuffs, or embarrassed silence. But how about trying Philip’s way? “Come and see!” “Come to our church.” “I invite you to an interesting adult discussion.” “Can I pick you up for our Thanksgiving service?” “How about couple’s club next Saturday?” Invite people to come, then you can begin to tell what you can tell.
An evangelism caller reported back to her pastor about an unusual call. Rapping on the door, she was invited in by a forty-year-old woman. When the caller then indicated her purpose, the woman replied, “It’s good you’re visiting on this street. But you need go no farther.” “Why not,” the caller asked. “Well,” said the woman, “When I moved in here a couple years ago and joined my church, I went around and invited everyone on the street to come with me. And believe it or not, they all came!”
There, I tell you, is the world’s best evangelist. Not a TV sweat-slinger. Not your local pastor doggedly doing his duty. But a genuine lay person acting natural, being friendly, and willing to tell what she can tell. She invited them all. And they came.
Go where people go. Talk as people talk. Tell what you can tell. Invite, invite, invite. And you will surprise yourself. Some morning you’ll wake up and realize that you’ve become a fig tree evangelist, doing the impossible, because you’re doing what comes naturally to you. And doing it for the Lord. Fig Tree Evangelism is meeting people where they are, inviting them to where Jesus is.
Oh yes. What happened to Nathaniel? Would you believe he changed his snide, put-down attitude toward the Nazarene into one of the strongest confessions you will find anywhere in all the New Testament? “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel!” What a confession. What a conversion. How can we explain it?
Like this. Once Jesus actually met Nathaniel, the dynamic confrontation itself — between Jesus and Nathaniel — caused Nathaniel to understand and confess Jesus as the Messiah. If we can only bring people into the presence of the Savior, the Savior Himself will do the rest. We trust Jesus for the saving, as He trusts us for the bringing.
So Nathaniel, this special but resistant man, is won to the Kingdom and its glory. It is the end product of a series of events carried forward by the ordinary followers of Jesus — Andrew, Peter, Philip. Men willing to go where people go, talk as people talk, tell what they can tell, and invite, invite, invite.
Can I do this too? You can. You’ve probably done it already once or twice. Now you are yearning to do it again, and again. You want to start today, to reach out to your neighbor, your friend, or even someone in your immediate family. Bring someone to Jesus.

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