“Behold an Israelite indeed…” (John 1:47).
Jesus said this about Nathanael (aka, Bartholomew).
The word “indeed” implies a different understanding of the word Israelite than the one commonly held. What was the common understanding of the word Israelite in the days of Jesus?
Most Jews (since the days when Jacob’s name was changed to Israel) were known as, and identified themselves as Israelites. But this name always had more than mere tribal or geographical connotations to God.
In one sense, there were Israelites long before Jacob’s name was changed. People like Abel and Enoch and Noah were Israelites indeed, just like Nathanael. In fact, there are Israelites still living today that are neither tribally nor geographically connected to the Jews, or Judaism at all.
The placement of trust in the tribal and geographical Israel became a sort of pseudo-religious movement in itself – Israel-ism, if you will – which plagued the nation throughout its history. Both Isaiah and Jesus said that most of Israel was worse than Sodom and Gomorrah (Isa. 1:10; Mat. 10:15).
Numerous times God brought Israel under judgment. Ten of twelve tribes were effectively disinherited in 721 B.C. By A.D. 70, what remained of the tribes, and the land, and the Temple Mount were decimated by the Romans.
Some assume that Israel’s “chosen-ness” means God accepts the physical nation of Israel perpetually. Many Jews and a large number of Protestants ascribe to the idea that God’s choice of Israel was irrevocable. Some make national Israel a test of political allegiance. Some professing Christians make it a test of faith.
God bound himself to Israel because of his promise to Abraham to bless the world through his descendant, Jesus (Galatians 3:16). Abraham’s faith served as a model for all (Romans 4:12; Genesis 12:1-3). God’s acceptance of any national Israelite is based on his or her accepting Jesus, just like anyone else, and no other consideration.
When Jesus said that Nathanael was an Israelite indeed, he was intentionally disposing of the tribal and geographical connotations of the term. It is the same thing he taught Nicodemus (John 3:1-18). He was labeling Nathanael as a true representative of faithful people anywhere, just like Abraham.
Israelite is not just a term of geography or genealogy, but more importantly, a term of spiritual disposition. It is a disposition that was held by other Israelites indeed, like Rahab and Ruth, like Abraham, like numerous Roman soldiers, like many Samaritans, and true Israelites yet today.
There are and always have been (and presumably always will be) Israelites tribally and geographically, but Nathanael was an Israelite spiritually – an Israelite indeed, the only kind that really matters.