What did Jesus see under the fig tree?

This Sunday the lectionary invites us to discuss the first time Jesus said the words “follow me,” in John’s Gospel. The passage is John 1:43-51.

As I explained in my column titled “Jesus, light of the world,” John’s gospel is very different from the other gospels. It begins with a tapestry in which the motifs are creation, word, light, darkness, grace. John wrote like a theologian.

After his introduction,[1] John tells of people from Jerusalem – priests and Levites, super-law-abiding Pharisees – visiting John Baptist at Bethany.

The Baptist was scolding people, getting them to turn their lives around, and baptizing them. Thousands came to him. He made waves nationally.

The Pharisees asked the Baptist who he was and why he was baptizing.

The Baptist answered in negatives. He said who he wasn’t. He said he wasn’t Elijah, wasn’t the Messiah, or in Greek, the Christ.

He also answered in the positive. He said he was the way-maker[2] whom the Prophet Isaiah had spoken about 700 years earlier.[3]

John then tells us what happened the next day. He repeatedly uses the words “next day.” Why?

Because he wants to evoke the day-by-day account of creation which follows the first words in the Bible, “In the beginning,” in the book of Genesis. John begins with the same words: “In the beginning.” Why? Because he wants to drill into us that Jesus was present at the creation.

The next day, on day two, John saw the Spirit descend and remain on Jesus. This was how he knew Jesus was “the Son of God.”[4]

John tells us not only that the Baptist recognized Jesus as “the Son of God,” but also recognized him as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

He continues[5] to tell of the first disciples of Jesus. In John’s telling, they joined Jesus on day three.

On day three, two of John’s disciples saw the Baptist identify Jesus. In response, they switched camps. They moved in with Jesus. One of them was Andrew. The other isn’t named. We can safely deduce that he was John.

John also tells us that Andrew immediately went and found his brother, Simon Peter; told him “We’ve found the Messiah;” and brought him to Jesus. This is perhaps the most important personal introduction in history.

In John’s account, on the day Jesus met Peter, he gave him the nickname which has defined him through the centuries: Cephas, the Rock.

Also remarkable is that John says the first time he and Andrew spoke to Jesus, they called him “Rabbi,” which means teacher. But later in the day, when Andrew went to call Peter, he referred to Jesus as “the Messiah.”

Next comes day four. This is the day on which the lectionary reading begins, at verse 43. On day four, Jesus adds a fourth disciple. His name is Philip. Jesus “found” Philip and said to him “Follow me.” And he did. And he did more. He went out and “found” Nathanael,[6] and brought him in.

Philip described Jesus to Nathanael as the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. He also said Jesus was “of Nazareth.”

Nathanael’s response was disbelief. Disbelief rooted in biblical literacy. Nathanael doesn’t say it. But we know the scriptures indicated the promised one would be from Bethlehem,[7] not Nazareth!

But Philip was persistent. He said to Nathanael, “come and see.” Nathanael did. As Philip and Nathanael approached Jesus, Jesus said “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”

Nathanael didn’t object to the compliment. He asked, “how do you know me?”

Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”

Scholars suggest that the phrase “under the fig tree” signals that Nathanael was a man of prayer. He was a person who studied the scriptures and longed for God’s intervention, for social change.

And he was unlike the patriarch Jacob; the man full of guile; the man who cheated his brother of his inheritance; the man whose name God changed to Israel after an all-night wrestling match. You can read about it in Genesis 28:22-32.

Nathanael was what Jacob should’ve been, from the beginning. Nathanael was a truth-seeker, a truth-teller.

Nathanael’s response is striking. He no longer doubts Jesus’ identity. He calls Jesus Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel.[8]

After further talk, Jesus says Nathanael will have more grounds to believe in him. He says, “Truly, truly,[9] I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Jesus’ evokes Jacob’s ladder, the stairway to heaven, which Jacob saw in a dream, recorded in Genesis 28. Jesus says that he, himself, is the stairway to heaven. As king, he can and will summon heavenly power to address the problems of the earth.

But wait. Jesus doesn’t call himself king. He calls himself “Son of Man.” Despite the fact that “in the beginning,” his disciples called him Lamb of God, Rabbi, King of Israel, Son of God, Messiah. He doesn’t say he’s none of the above. But he chooses a different designation.

Why? Because the other titles had been tainted by wrong understandings and were dangerous. Remember, Jesus was put to death by the Romans on the charge of claiming to be a king.[10]

As I meditate on the calling of the first disciples, I’m struck by the fact that after John chapter one, the only other time Nathanael is mentioned, is in John’s list of seven disciples for whom the resurrected Jesus grilled fish for breakfast. You can read about it in John 21:1-14.

I mean, Nathanael was quick to see who Jesus was, and to follow him. Jesus spoke so highly of him when he welcomed him. And yet, he doesn’t feature in the rest of the story.[11] What do we make of this?

What did Jesus see under the fig tree? He saw the whole life of Nathanael.

Nathanael, a man who would model faithfulness. A man who looked for and found Jesus, the Promised One, the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, the channel of heavenly power. Nathanael who worked with Him from the new beginning, day by day, to bring forth the kingdom of God.

Is there anyone like that in your church? In your family? In your address book?

Peace be with you.

[1] John 1:1-18.

[2] Isaiah 40:3.

[3] The book of Isaiah is dated about 700 years before the birth of Jesus.

[4] Based on the accounts of the other evangelists, we know Jesus was in the water. We recall the Spirit hovering over the face of the waters at creation, “in the beginning,” in the book of Genesis.

[5] In verses 35-41.

[6] “Nathanael” means “gift of God.”

[7] For more on this, see my column Why didn’t Matthew hide the astrologers?

[8] See verse 49.

[9] John’s use of “Truly, truly” (Amen, Amen) is unique in the Bible. Only John uses this expression: 25 times in the English Standard Version.

[10] Matthew 27:11,29,37.

[11] Many scholars think Nathanael and Bartholomew are the same person.

1 thought on “What did Jesus see under the fig tree?”

  1. Pingback: I will make you fishers of men – Bangsar Lutheran Church

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