Nathanael and the Fig Tree

It’s been a while since I’ve read one of the gospels in my devotional time. I’ve been reading through the prophets for the last few months. Today, I decided to return to an old friend, the Gospel of John. I think I like it so much because it does far more than any other to demonstrate the divinity of Christ. When reading John it doesn’t take long to get me thinking. This morning it wasn’t the discussion of the logos, but Christ’s exchange with Nathanael that got me thinking.

In John 1:44-51, we see Nathanael brought to Jesus. After a brief exchange, he quickly responds to Jesus (John 1:49 ESV), “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” This passage often confuses. I must admit to spending many years wondering just what it was about this exchange that so quickly convinced Nathanael.

Allow me to outline it before delving into it:

  • 1:43, Philip was found by Jesus, who said “Follow me.”
  • 1:44, We learn Philip was from the same town as Andrew and Peter, whom Jesus previously called.
  • 1:45, Philip found Nathanael, telling him they had found the one promised by Moses.
  • 1:46, Nathanael expressed skepticism that the promised one would come from Nazareth.
  • 1:47, Jesus upon seeing Nathanael, described him as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
  • 1:48a, Nathanael asked how Jesus knew him.
  • 1:48b, Jesus claimed to have seen Nathanael:

o   before Philip called him, and

o   while he was under a fig tree.

  • 1:49, Nathanael responded by confessing Jesus as the Son of God and the King of Israel.
  • 1:50, Jesus promised to show Nathanael far greater things.
  • 1:51, Jesus promised to show Nathanael heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

 

So, what was it about Jesus initial statement to Nathanael that was so powerful? Part of the problem is that we imagine Philip finding Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. However, Jesus says he saw him under the tree before Philip found him. Also, if you look back you will realize there is no mention of where Philip found Nathanael. The fig tree is first mentioned by Jesus, after Nathanael has been brought to him. Apparently, Nathanael had some personal experience under a fig tree. We aren’t told when it happened? what happened? how it happened? We are told nothing about it.

However, the exchange is only mildly interesting because of this mysterious reference to a fig tree. It is most interesting because of what Jesus said to Nathanael. When first meeting him, Jesus refers to Nathanael as a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit. He then ends by saying Nathanael would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (Jesus most common self-reference). In other words, you (the true Israelite in whom there is no deceit) will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon me (the Son of Man).

This entire exchange is full of allusions to Genesis 28 and the story of Jacob. Jacob was the son of Isaac and bother of Esau. It was Jacob who deceived his brother and father, then ran away to live with his uncle who deceived him. It was this same Jacob, who after years of serving his uncle returned home with his wives and children. On the way, while expecting to die at his brother’s hand, Jacob wrestled with a mysterious figure (Genesis 32:24) and is said to have wrestled (striven in the ESV) with God (Genesis 32:28). It was during this wrestling match that Jacob was renamed Israel (Genesis 32:28). So hold that story in mind as you consider Jacob’s experience in Genesis 28. While fleeing his brother, Jacob lays down to sleep with a stone for a pillow. During the night he had a dream of a ladder extending to heaven and the angels ascending and descending upon it (Genesis 28:12).

With all that in mind, consider now the words of Jesus. Remember that Jacob, in Hebrew, means Deceiver. Jacob, the deceiver, was renamed Israel. He was no longer the deceiver but was one who had striven with God. Jesus calls Nathanael a true Israelite in whom there is no deception (he used both references to Jacob: Israel and deceiver). He ends by saying Nathanael would see what Jacob saw—except that instead of a ladder, the angels would be ascending and descending upon Jesus. This exchange between Jesus and Nathanael is from beginning to end a reference to the story of Jacob.

In the story of Jacob’s ladder, Jacob concludes that he had discovered the house of God, the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:17). Jesus takes that and applies it to himself. Jesus is telling Nathanael that he is the gate to heaven.

So, what did Nathanael experience under the fig tree? We don’t know. We aren’t told. I’ve heard many teachers speculate, and I don’t want to do that. If God wanted us to know what Nathanael experienced, he would have told us. But we do know that something in the exchange with Jesus, and the reference to seeing Nathanael previously along with the double reference to Jacob was enough to convince Nathanael of Jesus’ authority as the King of Israel and as Messiah (the Son of God).

If we can’t know exactly what happened with Nathanael under the fig tree, if we can’t know all the details, then how do we make an application of this to our lives? Well, there are two primary applications to make. One is for ourselves and our own doubts. The other is for our loved ones we wish to bring to Christ.

For Our Own Doubts

Don’t bury doubt. Doubt is actually a friend of faith. One who has never doubted does not have faith, they have assumptions. Faith involves believing even when what we see seems to contradict. That is why Hebrews 11:1 describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (ESV). When we do not see it, our senses lead us to question it. It is faith that tells us it exists. When we hope for things we do not have, we understand we might never have them. It is faith that assures us that we will have them someday. If you have never doubted, then you have never had faith. But we do not simply sit there wallowing in our doubts. Instead we take them to God and seek assurance. We seek a boost to our faith. We seek an experience of assurance. Ask God to give you faith and to assure you that your faith is not misguided. Just like Nathanael, Jesus can use something in your life to give that assurance. It may make sense only to you; be meaningful only to you. Then, when the next doubt comes, ask for assurance again. Even better, never stop asking for such assurance. Allow him to work in your life such assurance that the doubts are swallowed up in a strong abiding faith. The doubts will still be there. But you can be so filled with the Word and so reminded of the assurances he has given you that the doubts are quickly overcome.

The Doubts of Your Loved Ones

When Philip came to Nathanael, the first response was a snide comment. Nathanael did not accept the word of Philip. Your friends will not simply become Christians because you tell them they should do so. Neither will you convince them. Many people do not witness because they are afraid of not having enough answers, or enough debating skills to convince their skeptical friends. But Philip didn’t argue. Philip didn’t debate. In John 1:46, Philip simply responded, “Come and see.” He simply invited Nathanael to have his own experience with Jesus and trusted Jesus to show himself. We can do the same. When your friends don’t believe, ask Jesus to show himself to them—and to do so convincingly. Then trust that Jesus can and will do it. You may never understand how that person’s experience of Jesus was so powerful. But you don’t see the work the Holy Spirit has already done on that person before you ever approached to witness to them.

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Ken Cluck
Senior Pastor at Resurgent
Ken has served in various cultures and settings, including two Native American reservations, rural communities, Korean churches, and has worked with Asian refugees living in the US.

Ken's passions are Theology, Philosophy (especially Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Logic), History and Politics.

Ken has been married to his wife, Yong, since 1987. She is the center of his world and the greatest joy of his life.