Read John 1:43–51.
I love archaeology, thanks in no small part to Indiana Jones. I know they’re only movies, but as a kid, it was exhilarating to see the ark of the covenant, something I learned about in Sunday school, melt the faces off a bunch of Nazis. To this day, I geek out over ancient texts and archaeological finds related to the Bible, anything that connects us physically to the world of the Old and New Testaments.
A case in point is the location of the tower of Babel. You might think it’s been lost to history, since the tower appears so early in the Bible—way back in Genesis 11—but in actuality, many historians and archaeologists think the tower of Babel is the ancient Etemenanki ziggurat. Its ruins survive today just a few dozen miles south of Baghdad. You don’t even need Indiana Jones to find it. I bring this up because our passage from the Gospel of John has an important Babel connection, and without understanding Babel, it can be easy to miss the beautiful promise Jesus makes.
It all starts with an insult. When Philip tells Nathanael that Jesus of Nazareth is the one Moses and the Prophets promised, Nathanael hears just one word: Nazareth. Nazareth was a small, unimportant village, and apparently not a very nice place: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). Talk about focusing on the wrong part of the message! Philip tells Nathanael the Messiah has arrived, and all he can think about is how lousy a place Nazareth is.
You know what it’s like. There are certain things you might think to yourself, certain things you might say to a trusted friend, but you would never say those things within earshot of someone whose feelings could be hurt. That’s what Nathanael is doing. He isn’t about to walk up to Jesus and tell Him that Nazareth is a blight on the Galilean countryside. So, imagine his surprise when Jesus seems to know exactly what he has just said and where he said it—under a fig tree.
There was no way, in the natural, that Jesus could have heard him, so Nathanael is instantly convinced that Philip’s report must be true. Just as Nathanael, moments before, rushed to judgment, so now he is quick to believe. He tells Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (v. 49).
Jesus recognizes how readily Nathanael is amazed and says to him, “Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (v. 51). Or, to put it another way, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
A couple of thousand years before Jesus said these words, the patriarch Jacob had a dream in which he saw a stairway to heaven with angels going up and down between heaven and earth, and the Lord Himself standing at the top. When he woke up, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17). So Jacob named the place Bethel, which means “house of God.” (See Genesis 28:10–22 for the full account.)
What Jacob saw was a ziggurat, an artificial mountain ancient people would build in an attempt to connect heaven and earth. It’s what the people were building at Babel. You see, Eden had been a place where heaven and earth were connected. It was a holy temple, the house of God on earth. So Babel was, in one sense, a misguided attempted to get back to Eden without God. That’s one of the reasons God scattered the people; He would be the one to make a way back to Eden, to reconnect heaven and earth.
Back in John, Jesus is telling Nathanael, “I am the stairway Jacob saw, the one who connects heaven and earth. I am the way back home and back to the Father.” Just as Jacob encountered God at Bethel and the experience changed the trajectory of his life, so too would people encounter Jesus and never be the same again.
In Iraq today lay the ruins of Babel, a testament to our helplessness apart from the Lord. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves, nothing we can do to return to God or repair the damage sin has wrought on this earth. That’s why Jesus came: to do what we couldn’t do for ourselves. He came to be the way home.