The No-Deceit Disciple
When we see the symbol for St. Bartholomew, we might scratch our heads in puzzlement. Bartholomew’s symbol is an open Bible with a flaying knife on it. Fishermen keep such knives in their tackle box for flaying the fish they catch. The symbol for St. Bartholomew, though, reminds of his faith, his work, and his martyrdom.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up to our Gospel reading for today. Again we might scratch our heads. After all, we did not hear the name “Bartholomew” in our reading from John 1. Instead, we heard the name “Nathanael.” When the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke list Jesus’ disciples, they pair up “Philip and Bartholomew” (Mt. 10:3). John’s Gospel, though, gives us Philip and this guy named Nathanael. Most likely, “Nathanael” was his first name and “Bartholomew” his last name. So, today we remember and thank God for Nathanael Bartholomew, or, in good Hebrew fashion, Nathanael, son of Tholmai.
We hear how Philip, who was already called to be a disciple by Jesus, invited Nathanael to “Come and see” this Jesus of Nazareth. After all, Philip said, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote.” But Nathanael wasn’t quite sure. He had his doubts, to be sure. But he did not have deceit. Nathanael asked if anything good could come from Nazareth. That’s like asking if anything good can come from East St. Louis or from Festus, Missouri. In Nathanael’s mind Nazareth was “Hicksville.”
And yet our Lord Jesus says these startling words when He sees Nathanael walking toward Him: “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit.” Even though Nathanael Bartholomew had his doubts about Jesus being the Messiah, at least he spoke plainly and called ‘em as he saw ‘em. He would become the Lord’s “no-deceit disciple.” Then, when Jesus told Bartholomew that He saw him sitting under the fig tree before Philip had even invited him to meet Jesus, Bartholomew realized that this Jesus was the “real deal,” truly the Messiah. So Nathanael made a confession of faith: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Is that all it took? Why anyone from a nearby hill could have seen Nathanael snoozing under his fig tree! So Jesus invited Nathanael to see still greater things. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” I doubt Nathanael would of have missed that one. His last name of “Bar-Tolmai,” son of Tolmai, indicates he was a good Hebrew. And all good Hebrews knew the Old Testament story of the patriarch Jacob sleeping one night with a rock for a pillow and having a dream of a stairway that connected heaven and earth (Gen. 28:10-22). Jacob saw angels ascending and descending on that stairway and the Lord God—the Son of God—standing at the top. Now Jesus would apply that ancient dream to Himself. Nathanael Bartholomew would see heaven and earth joined in Him, in the Son of Man, the Son of God, who had come to earth and taken on human flesh.
So Jesus calls Bartholomew to Himself, overcomes his initial doubts, sparks faith in him, and essentially says, “Just you wait, Mr. Nathanael, you’ll see Me reunite heaven and earth, that is, God and sinners.” That’s the real confession of Jesus the Son of God, the King of Israel!
That’s about all the Bible tells us about St. Bartholomew, except for also mentioning him after Jesus’ Resurrection. Perhaps a couple of weeks after Jesus rose from the dead, Nathanael is listed with Peter and the others who were sitting around. Peter decided to go fishing, and we can only assume that Nathanael and the others joined him. That’s when this little band of disciples saw Jesus appear on the shore and then fix a nice little “Easter breakfast” of fish for them. So Nathanael Bartholomew witnessed the risen Christ. He did get to see the Son of Man reunite heaven and earth in His crucifixion and resurrection.
What else did St. Bartholomew do, and what happened to him after Jesus ascended? Church traditions say that he traveled east to proclaim this crucified and risen Jesus. Savior Jesus turned this plainspoken, no-deceit disciple into a brave preacher of His forgiveness, life, and salvation for the world. The story goes that Bartholomew went as far as India preaching Jesus who is the true Israelite in whom there is no deceit. In fact, the Church historian Eusebius says that Bartholomew left a Hebrew copy of the Gospel of Matthew in India, where it was rediscovered only a couple of centuries later by another missionary there. Finally, Bartholomew suffered his martyrdom, his execution for confessing Jesus Christ, in the region of Armenia—north of Iran and Iraq, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Tradition tells us that Bartholomew was probably flayed (skin cut and pealed off) and beheaded. And all that for preaching Jesus Christ crucified and risen and thus converting the king’s brother and his family.
What does this story of St. Bartholomew have to do with us? How does it strengthen our faith in Christ crucified and risen to forgive our sins and restore us to life with God? As we Lutherans confess, “[T]he history of the saints may be set before us so that we may follow the example of their faith and good works, according to our calling” (AC XXI:1). This “no-deceit disciple” named Nathanael Bartholomew may have had his doubts about Jesus at first, but he did end up believing in Him and confessing Him with great boldness. That’s why Bartholomew’s symbol has not only the flaying knife in it, but also the open Scriptures. By God’s grace, he spent all of his days after meeting Jesus confessing the real Israelite in whom there’s no deceit, Jesus the Messiah. When the prophet Isaiah foretold the Savior and his suffering, he said, “they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Is. 53:9). No-deceit Jesus “was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5). No, we are not healed by Bartholomew’s execution. Instead, we, along with Bartholomew, are healed by Jesus’ execution. Our Lord Jesus unites heaven and earth, restores us sinners to life with God and forgives all our doubts and deceits, with His shed blood and His glorious resurrection.
And here’s how St. Bartholomew serves as our example in faith and life. In today’s Collect we asked God: “Grant that Your Church may love what [Bartholomew] believed and preach what he taught.” When we are healed by Jesus’ execution, when we also see the angels of God ascending and descending on the crucified and risen Son of Man, our hearts are free to trust Him. You see, in Him we sinners on earth are reunited with our heavenly Father, with His Son, and with the Holy Spirit. And that makes us “no-deceit disciples” too. With the confession of Jesus, the Son of God, the King of Israel in our mouths, and with His Body and Blood put in our mouths, He removes our deceit and leads us to speak the truth, just as He did for Nathanael Bartholomew.
In our day too many pastors and churches would rather moisten their fingers, stick them in the air, and try to sense which way the breezes of religion are blowing. So we need the example of St. Bartholomew. Jesus’ “no-deceit disciple” teaches us to proclaim our “no-deceit Savior” with great boldness and confidence, even in the face of death. We are free simply to proclaim Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen. So, come to His Table, and receive His Body and Blood to strengthen you in believing and proclaiming what Bartholomew also believed and taught. Amen.