In the opening stories of John’s gospel, we have a curious story about how He called two of His disciples, namely Philip and Nathanael. After Jesus called Philip, Philip found his friend Nathanael and told him, basically, “We’ve found Him! We’ve found the Messiah, the one that we’ve waited for so very long!”
Nathanael’s response is less than enthusiastic. When he hears that Jesus is from Nazareth, he says this:
Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
He’s skeptical. Why would the Messiah come from some podunk little nowheresville like Nazareth? Why wouldn’t He be born in Bethlehem, like King David was? Or if that wasn’t in the cards, wouldn’t He show up in Jerusalem? To Nathanael, it seems extremely unlikely that this Jesus guy would be the Messiah.
But Nathanael certainly changes his tune immediately after meeting Jesus. Now there’s no derision anymore. Instead, he’s full of enthusiasm:
Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!
A complete 180º change. So what caused Nathanael to change his tune so drastically?
When Jesus sees Nathanael, He initially has a lot of praise for him. He calls him a “true Israelite,” and says that there is no deceit in him. When Nathanael asks how Jesus knows him, Jesus says this:
I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.
This has to be the turning point for Nathanael. But why?
On the surface, it seems like Jesus is simply performing a magic trick, a bit of seeming clairvoyance. “I saw you in your garden before you got here.” It almost seems like Jesus should add in a “And is this your card?” at some point.
Is that all this is? A divine magic trick? Would that be enough to change Nathanael’s mind about Jesus?
Maybe, but I think there’s something deeper going on here, but to understand what, we have to take a look at a part of the Old Testament.
During the days of King Solomon, the people of Israel experienced a great deal of prosperity. They were strong and independent, thanks to the work of David, Solomon’s dad. Solomon was working to increase the strength of Israel’s economy. By many standards, it was a golden age.
During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees.
Notice the second thing. Every Israelite were under their own fig tree. This picture must have occupied the Jews’ collective imagination. Maybe, when the Messiah finally showed up, they would once again get their own vine and fig tree.
Isn’t it interesting that, just as Nathanael is wondering if Jesus could possibly be the Messiah, Jesus says He saw him under a fig tree? Sounds a bit familiar? Nathanael must have seen the connection as well. No wonder he was excited! Had Jesus come to hand out vines and fig trees?
Not exactly. Jesus has more to say:
Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.
Jesus once again makes a reference to an Old Testament story, that of Jacob’s ladder. In a dream, the patriarch Jacob sees angels ascending and descending on a stairway, a bridge between earth and heaven.
To me, Jesus is saying, “Nathanael, you think I cam to hand out fig trees, to bring back a golden age of prosperity for God’s people? No, think bigger. I’m here to be a new kind of Jacob’s ladder, a bridge between God and human beings. You are going to see things you can’t even imagine.”
All too often, we fall for the same kind of fig tree thinking. We look for God to hand out vines and fig trees when He’s really all about building bridges between Him and us.
And that’s a lot better than some garden plants.