Short Meditations in John 1: 49. Unrestrained Confession
Jn 1:49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
Nathaniel and Peter hold the awards for top proclamations in the New Testament, I think. Peter’s, like Nathaniel’s had been directly to Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:16). In the case of Nathaniel it is all the more remarkable because of where he had come from only a few minutes before: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (v.46) Peter’s declaration was all the more remarkable in the light of what followed; “Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mt 16:23)
So what was it that turned Nathaniel from a sceptic to an outright believer? Well, all we have in the intervening verses were Jesus seeing him, declaring him to be a true Israelite in whom is no guile, and then declaring he saw him under the palm tree. This insight and this knowledge was all it needed to convince Nathaniel. Somehow this interaction between Jesus and Nathaniel, convinced Nathaniel that what Philip has said earlier was true, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote.” (v.45)
Nathaniel starts by calling Jesus, ‘Rabbi’ or teacher for that is how he appears, that is his appearance in the culture of Israel. With the knowledge that he has and the way he imparts it to them, he is clearly a teacher in their society.
But then he declares him “the Son of God”. Now whether he fully understood what he meant by that is unclear but it is a straight forward, simple but powerful declaration of faith and as such is the first one according to John who recognized this so clearly in response to meeting him. John the Baptist may have had similar revelation but it was more instigated through a direct word previously from God. Nathaniel meets Jesus and declares it.
He also declares him “the King of Israel” because that in their understanding was what the Messiah was to be. Psalm 2 has the messiah as both Son (v.7) and King (v.6) one who will rule Israel and then through Israel, the nations, i.e. the whole world. The Wise Men expected him to be a king (Mt 2:2). When Jesus entered Jerusalem, they expected him to be a king (Mt 21:5) for so he was.