For instance, Instead of looking at the statement "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?" and seeing John living until the return of Jesus, we interpret this as a sarcastic rebuff to Peter. Why not simply believe that John will really remain alive until Christ returns?
Instead of looking at Jesus’ pronouncement that "you will drink the cup I drink" and seeing John being martyred as Jesus was, we presume that John died a natural death, completely ignoring the fact that Jesus was prophesying about John’s eventual martyrdom.
Instead of looking at the statement "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom" and seeing some of the disciples living until the end of the age, we reason this must have been the 'transfiguration' instead (which does not fulfill this prophecy in any case). Why not just believe that some of the disciples would live until Jesus’ return?
Instead of looking at the statement "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" as comforting words directed at the disciples to bolster those remaining during their centuries of ministry on earth, we feel the need to re-direct this statement toward some future generation of saints. Why not just believe what Jesus said, and anticipate that some of the disciples would live to the very end of the age. After all, that’s what they believed.
Instead of looking at the statement "this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened" and seeing the longevity of some of the disciples, we again feel the need to point to some other distant generation. Why not simply take this statement at face value and believe that the generation that included the disciples would not completely pass away until those things happened.
When we look at the statement concerning the two witnesses that "they stood on their feet", we should realize that this could very well be the culmination of Christ’s advice to the disciples, when He said "stand up and lift up your heads" in anticipation of redemption.
Finally, when we read Christ’s statement that "you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes", we assume that they wouldn’t finish because they would die first. Instead, why not simply believe that they will still be doing this when Jesus returns?
If we simply taken these scriptures at their primary, literal meanings, without inserting any pre-conceived notions, then we must allow for the possibility that at least two of the disciples would live to the end of this present age. We don’t need to jump through any scriptural hoops to make them bend and fit into other scenarios that lead to very ‘unfulfilling‘ fulfillments. But if this arguments for John in this role has not persuaded you just yet, there is more.
John, The “Lampstand”
History records that the Apostle John returned to Ephesus after his exile on the isle of Patmos, and that he was a bishop in the church at Ephesus until his supposed death. So, in an interesting twist that may refer to John himself, the letter to the Church at Ephesus in the Revelation reads as follows;
“Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (Revelation 2:5)
The opening chapter of the Revelation makes it plain that a ‘lampstand’ is symbolic for a church. What is interesting here is that the letter to Ephesus is the only letter where a lampstand is mentioned. The other churches were not warned that their lampstands would be removed, so why only Ephesus? Well, this makes perfect sense if we consider that the two witnesses were also considered lampstands by the Lord;
“These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.” (Revelation 11:4)
I wonder if the church at Ephesus being told that their witness and lampstand - John - would be removed if they did not repent? Perhaps, particularly since it appears that John was in fact removed from that church, which no longer exists today. But this letter to the church at Ephesus may go even deeper into the imagery of John as one of the witnesses with this final exhortation;
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:7)
It seems ironic to me that the "tree of life" - the symbolic source of our ultimate immortality - is mentioned here to John’s own church at Ephesus. Could it be that this reference was an additional clue about John’s longevity in this age? Perhaps, perhaps not. But if this sounds too far fetched, just remember the words of our Lord and Sustainer as spoken in Matthew 16:28;
“I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28)
Since the Lord said that "some" who were standing there would not taste death until He returned, then there was at least one other…….
When we go down the list of the remaining disciples, we find either a biblical account of their martyrdom or a tradition pertaining to their martyrdom, so it is thought that all of the disciples passed long ago. But let’s remember that these same traditions also record a supposed natural death for John, in direct contradiction to the biblical clues that say he was to be martyred and the physical evidence (or lack of it) that say this hasn't happened yet. Given this, we should approach these traditions with a certain amount of skepticism, and follow the biblical clues instead. When we do this, there is another disciple that Jesus singled out with some rather provocative statements, and his name was Nathanael (“Gift of God”).
It must be noted that the disciple that John calls Nathanael is likely the disciple that is also known as Bartholomew in the other gospel accounts, and this is almost universally agreed upon by scholars. The Gospel of Matthew pairs Philip and Bartholomew together, while the Gospels of Mark and Luke refer to Bartholomew immediately after referring to Philip. However, John refers to Nathanael as being paired with Philip. Therefore, the circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that this disciple was known by both names.
Having two names was not unusual when reading about God’s anointed. For instance, the Lord gave Simon the additional name Peter, Saul was re-named Paul, Abram was re-named Abraham, and Jacob was given the name Israel, just to name a few. The point is that, in each instance, the Lord provided these new names based on a spiritual truth pertaining to the role that they would fulfill. Therefore, while it quite possible that this was merely Nathanael's surname, it’s also quite possible that it was given to him by the Lord for a reason. But more on that in a few moments.
Assuming that Nathanael was indeed Bartholomew, then we have to point out that the traditions surrounding his supposed death are quite varied and speculative throughout the world. For instance, some traditions claim that he preached the gospel in India, where he brought along a copy of Matthew’s Gospel, written in Hebrew. Others state that he preached in Parthia, or modern day Iran. Another tradition has him preaching in Armenia, where their tradition states he was martyred. Still another tradition has him preaching in Asia Minor, or modern day Turkey, where he escaped death at Hierapolis, the place where his partner Philip was supposedly martyred during the same mission. Another tradition states that he was martyred in Alban, which is modern Derbend in the former Soviet Union. This could correspond with the tradition noted in ‘The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew’ that states he was martyred in Armenia, where he was supposedly placed in a sack and cast into the sea. However this contradicts another account in the ’Apostolic History’ of Abdias that claims he was flayed alive and crucified in India, head downward, by Astyages, the brother of the king (who just happened to be a Christian). But in a Roman Catholic summary called the ‘Lives of the Saints’, we find Bartholomew being flayed alive by King Astyages, who now apparently is not the brother of the king after all, but actually the king himself. Finally, another account describes Bartholomew as being flayed alive before being beheaded.
I think you can see the point here; all of this contradictory information suggests that perhaps nobody knows what really happened to Nathanael/Bartholomew. Some of his relics and bones are supposedly contained in areas of Mesopotamia and Rome, however there seems to be no single credible account of his death. The Bible certainly does not indicate his death, and secular history disagrees and contradicts itself on several counts. So perhaps he wasn’t martyred after all. I presume that this is the case, based on the words of Jesus himself, which point to something Nathanael would most likely only be able to see during the end times. So let’s explore what Jesus told him.
"A True Israelite"
When we read the accounts of the calling of the disciples, there are a few things that scripture calls special attention to, and one of these concerns Nathanael/Bartholomew. In John’s account of Nathanael‘s calling, Nathanael had been sitting under a tree when Phillip came to him to say they had found the Messiah, and of course this story is well known so I won't elaborate. The point here is that when they met, Jesus made an interesting observation about Nathanael that was not repeated to any other disciple;
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” (John 1:47)
Wow. The Lord was obviously pleased with Nathanael, and with this statement, Jesus was declaring his fitness for the priesthood. This notion is confirmed by the book of Malachi, where Levi was held up in a similar way as the example for any would-be messengers of the Lord;
“True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin. For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty.” (Malachi 2:6-7)
Notice that only one with “nothing false” in him would qualify to be a “messenger of the LORD Almighty”, or in essence, a priest. Well, isn’t that what the two witnesses will be when they are prophesying for 3½ years during the great tribulation? Of course. They will be messengers of the Lord that will be prophesying to a dying world, and it's during this time that I believe Nathanael/Bartholomew will finally see the fulfillment of a prophecy that Jesus made to him almost two thousand years ago.
"Ascending and Descending"
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:50)
This is what Jesus told Nathanael he would see in the future, and it would be a very strange comment for us to digest if we didn’t have a precedent for it in the Bible. Fortunately we do, in the account of Jacob’s ladder, where we find a perfect picture of what Nathanael was told he would experience in his future.
To set the scene for this comparison, please understand that Jacob was the father of twelve sons that became the twelve tribes of Israel. Therefore, we note throughout the Bible that the nation of Israel is often referred to as ‘Jacob’ interchangeably, since Jacob was renamed ’Israel’ (Gen 32:28) by God.
With that in mind, we note that in the following passage Jacob had just left his land and had fled into the desert to escape the persecution of his brother Esau, who was attempting to kill him. Within this desperation we pick up the following account;
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:10-15)
This is the only other place in the Bible where angels are seen “ascending and descending” on a stairway, so this is clearly the ‘type’ or the precedent that God is pointing us to in this instance. In fact, there is nothing else in the Bible that can help us understand this moment. In this instance, it appears that the angels were there to provide for Jacob during his time of exile in the wilderness, and this is not mere coincidence, since the same thing will happen with Israel during the Great Tribulation (Rev 12:6,14). And rather than speculate about some other moment in time that is not described by the Bible, I‘m inclined to believe that THIS is when Nathanael will see the fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy.
When God said to Jacob “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land”, we have to understand that while the immediate meaning clearly concerned Jacob’s ordeal, it also telescoped far into the future to the time of the great tribulation and Israel‘s exile. It’s no coincidence then that God has referred to the coming great tribulation as "the time of Jacob’s trouble" (Jer 30:7), because Jacob‘s exile in the desert was the MODEL for this future event. And just as Jacob experienced this supernatural care from the Lord while in the desert, so will Israel experience this supernatural care during their future exile;
The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. (Revelation 12:14)
If ‘the woman’ Israel is to be taken care of, then someone must be taking care of her. That’s where the angels on the stairway come into play, as they will serve Israel during their exile in the desert. In this way, Jacob’s vision is the perfect type for Christ’s words to Nathanael. Consider the following parallels;
|Jacob's Ladder 'Type'||Great Tribulation / Nathanael|
|Jacob fled Esau's (Edom's) persecution||Israel will flee Edom's persecution|
|Jacob fled to the desert||Israel will flee to the desert|
|Jacob saw heaven open||Israel wil see heaven open|
|Jacob saw the Lord's ladder||Israel will see the Lord's ladder|
|Jacob saw angels ascending & descending||Israel will see angels ascending & descending|
|Jacob was served by angels||Israel will be served by angels|
|Jacob had God with him||Israel will have God with them|
|Jacob was brought back to his land||Israel will be brought back to their land|
|Jacob would Worship God||Israel will worship God|
The Bible describes no other event in Nathanael’s life that would be a fulfillment of these words from Jesus. Therefore, the only logical time of this fulfillment would seem to be at the end of the age, where Israel is prophesied to experience the precise conditions that Jacob experienced during his exile. Therefore, the only dots we can seemingly connect, based on scripture alone, is that Nathanael is still alive and well on the planet earth, waiting for this appointed time.
The "Two Olive Trees"
If this is not yet convincing, there is an additional clue about Nathanael that is more subtle, but perhaps just as telling. It was noted earlier that the two witnesses were known as lamp stands, but they were also known as the two "olive trees" that would stand before the Lord;
“These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.” (Revelation 11:4)
On only one other occasion in the Old Testament do we have this same imagery of "two olive trees", and we find it in Zechariah 4:11-14, where the two olive trees were Zerubbabel and Joshua. In Old Testament times, the two olive trees stood for the royal and priestly offices, which God intended to be the source of 'light' for Israel, just as olive trees produced the olives that became the oil for the lampstands or menorahs, which provided the light in the temple.
In this instance, Zerubbabel represented royalty since he was from the line of David, and Joshua was the high priest that represented the priestly office. These two men were responsible for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile, and they were God‘s appointed servants for that time. Of course, this arrangement was altered several times during the diaspora, and was finally terminated once the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.
However, the Temple will be rebuilt in the end times, and it would seem that the two witnesses of the Revelation will fill this same role as the Lord’s appointed ’olive trees’. And while we can easily picture the Apostle John representing the priestly line as the ‘high priest’ of Israel during that time, we can also make a case for Nathanael representing the ‘royal’ office.
Son of Talmai
According to research done by William Steuart McBirnie in his book ‘The Search for the Twelve Apostles’, we find that Nathanel may have been from royal blood. Quoting from his book, we find the following passage about his alternate name Bartholomew;
“As we have seen, his name means ‘son of Tolmai‘, or possibly ‘son of Talmai‘. Now in II Samuel 3:3 there is mention of a Talmai who was king of Geshur, this Talmai had a daughter called Maacah; and this Maacah became the mother of Absalom, whom she bore to David. The suggestion is that it was from this Talmai that Bartholomew was descended, and that, therefore, he was of nothing less than royal lineage.”
When we understand that Zerubbabel was from the line of David and therefore represented the ‘royal’ line of the priesthood, we can see how Bartholomew could also represent the royal line of David if he was descended from Talmai through Maacah. Turning to the scripture referred to by McBirnie, we read the following;
Sons were born to David in Hebron: His firstborn was Amnon the son of Ahinoam of Jezreel; his second, Kileab the son of Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel; the third, Absalom the son of Maacah daughter of Talmai king of Geshur; the fourth, Adonijah the son of Haggith; the fifth, Shephatiah the son of Abital; and the sixth, Ithream the son of David’s wife Eglah. These were born to David in Hebron. (2Sa 3:2-5)
This same reference to ‘Talmai’ is also made in chapter 3 of 1 Chronicles under the heading of the ‘Sons of David’, and it’s interesting that both of these accounts highlight that Maacah was the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur. All of the other sons are merely identified by the names of their mothers, but the royalty of Maacah is singled out. And since details like this always have a purpose in the Bible, it leaves us to speculate that perhaps this is singled out in order to identify Bartholomew as the royal lineage within the disciples. This is far from certain, but it's an interesting possibility to consider.
A Son That Suspends the Waters
As mentioned earlier, I have speculated that Nathanael may have been given this new name ’Bartholomew’ by the Lord in order to point toward his future role as one of the two witnesses. While we’ve already seen that this name can mean ‘Son of Talmai’, an alternate meaning of the name Bartholomew reads this way;
“A son that suspends the waters”
I hope this rings a rather large bell for the reader, since this meaning points directly to something that the two witnesses will do during the time of their testimony; they will 'suspend the waters' when they shut up the sky while they are prophesying;
"These men have power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want." (Revelation 11:6)
At the very least we have to ponder the possibility that Jesus gave Nathanael this name as a symbol of this future plague that the two witnesses will bring during the great tribulation.
In the next post we’ll continue to examine the account of the two witnesses