I couldn’t break these reflections into separate days – since they interweave with each other. Read them together, read them in pieces, however it works for you.
For Thursday and Friday
“I saw you under the fig tree” (A fig tree in Sydney, Australia)
47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Jesus’ conversation with Nathanael is, at best, confusing to us. Like everything in John it is full of layers of meaning and the conversation is condensed like a rich sauce simmered down until the flavors are at their most intense.
‘Seeing’ in John is never just about seeing with the eyes, it is about seeing and perceiving, seeing and understanding, seeing and knowing the truth and meaning of someone or something. So Philip’s invitation to Nathanael is “Come and see.” Come ‘see’ the truth of this Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus ‘sees’ Nathanael, sees and knows him: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” And ultimately Jesus says to Nathanael that he shall “see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
And since these stories are never just about other people in the past, we are part of this narrative. We are invited to “Come and see.” We are promised to “see heaven opened.” And we are fully known.
* * * * * * *
“Angels of God ascending and descending,” takes us to the story of Jacob who saw angels ascending and descending when he laid his head upon a rock and slept while fleeing the brother he cheated and the father he deceived. What Jacob saw in his dream/vision was that he had stumbled upon the sacred place where heaven and earth connected. It was the stairway to the heavens, the holy point of contact where God’s agents came and went to work God’s work on earth.
Nathanael is promised that he will ‘see’ that Jesus is this true point where heaven touches earth, where grace comes to us and we see into the heart of God. Too often we look for a literal fulfillment of the words of Jesus and there is no story in John of angels ascending and descending upon Jesus. But John is never about the literal. We will see heaven touch earth with grace at Cana, with the blind man, with the bread in the wilderness. We will see heaven touch earth when Jesus bends to wash his followers feet. We will see heaven touch earth when Jesus is lifted up on the tree of the cross. If we have eyes to see we will see. If we are without deceit.
* * * * * * *
Jesus sees in Nathanael “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Again this takes us to the story of Jacob who was the deceiver, cheating his brother of his birthright and deceiving his father to steal the blessing. There is in the scripture a narrative stream about faithless Israel, a people continually turning away from God and putting their faith, hope and trust in other gods and kings. A stubborn and rebellious people. A deceitful people.
Nathanael is a true Israelite. A faithful Israelite. What the people of Israel were called to be and so often failed to be. What we are called to be and so often fail to be – but what we can be in Christ.
* * * * * * *
It is by deceit that the chief priests and Pharisees will conspire to put Jesus to death. They have staked their destiny to the temple built by Herod and the priesthood appointed by Rome. This Jesus is a threat to the established social order, and the leadership plots his destruction in secret.
The beginning of John’s Gospel exposes that the world loved darkness, and when the word made flesh came to his own they did not receive him.
But “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
* * * * * * *
When Isaiah 53 speaks of the suffering servant, a text in which Christians see written the work of God in Christ, the prophet declares: “there was no deceit in his mouth.”
“9They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”
His ‘kingdom’ is not like the kingdoms of this world. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
* * * * * * *
Psalm 32 tells us that the honorable are those “in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
In the beatitudes Jesus declares the pure in heart will see God. They share in the spirit of the Christ. They do not scheme and dissemble to protect their privilege.
The honorable, the pure in heart, those in whom there is no deceit, the Nathanael’s of this world will see that Jesus is true. He is the living bread, the water of life, the way and the truth.
* * * * * * *
Jesus: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
Nathanael: “Where did you get to know me?”
Jesus: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Nathanael: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
As we said, this conversation has been distilled to its very essence. Otherwise it seems very strange.
Jesus has revealed the pure heart of Nathanael. Now Nathanael wants to know the basis of Jesus’ statement. Only he doesn’t ask “How do you know me?” – a question that sounds to us like “where did we meet?” because, for us, knowledge of a person comes from meeting and interacting with them.
But in the world of Jesus and Nathanael, knowledge of a person’s character comes by knowing their family and village. So that’s why this strange word ‘where’. Nathanael is asking “From where do you know me to be?” From what village, from what family, do you know me to be?
Nathanael isn’t disputing Jesus’ knowledge of him. He is inquiring about it.
And Jesus doesn’t really answer Nathanael’s question. Rather, Jesus makes a statement: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
On a literal, earth-bound level, it sounds like Jesus saw Nathanael at his home. But, as we have said, nothing is literal and earth-bound in John’s gospel. Seeing is ‘seeing’. Jesus knows Nathanael under the fig tree – which can’t be a literal fig tree. If it were a literal fig tree, Nathanael would be confused like Nicodemus failing to understand what it means to be bore from above. But Nathanael is not confused. He acclaims Jesus with royal and messianic titles.
“Under the fig tree” carries us to the prophet Micah 4:
4In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, 2and many nations shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
3He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
4but they shall all sit under their own vines
and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
5For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.
“Under the fig tree” means dwelling in the fullness of salvation. Dwelling in the peace of the age to come.
Jesus has seen Nathanael dwelling in the realm of the world made new. That is how we get to the acclamation that Jesus is “the Son of God!” and “King of Israel!”
And since the story isn’t only about Nathanael, since the story is also about us, Jesus does more than know us intimately. He sees us redeemed. He sees us freed of every darkness. He sees us made whole. He sees us dwelling beneath our fig tree in the perfect peace of God. He sees not only what we are; he sees what we shall be in him. Whole. Complete. Healed. Pure in heart. Compassionate. Forgiving. True. Free.
And it is this that makes us confess through our tears: you are God’s anointed, our true and holy king.
* * * * * * *
There is more in this text. But this is its heart. We are invited to “Come and see.” We are promised to “see heaven opened.” And we are fully known – known as we are, known as we shall be.