Under the Fig Tree
In the first century, Jewish Rabbis would instruct their students to find a place of seclusion under an olive vine or fig tree to study and pray. The first chapter of the Gospel of John tells us the story of a young man named Nathanael who was under a fig tree when he heard the voice of his friend Philip excitedly calling him to come to meet a man named Jesus, who was the Messiah. Nathanael first resisted, but his life was about to be radically changed.
Joh 1:43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote– Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” 48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” 50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” 51 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.” (NIV)
The thing that strikes me about this story is the drastic change in Nathanael’s attitude towards Jesus. He first speaks harshly about anybody who was from Nazareth, then does a 180, saying that Jesus was the Son of God and the King of Israel.
What happened? What caused this complete and total change of heart?
There were two things that Jesus said to Nathanael that the Holy Spirit used.
The first was a comment Jesus made to the other disciples as they watched Nathanael walking up. He overheard Jesus say, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false” NIV. Or the King James says, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile “. When we read this in English we miss something. The Greek word used here that’s translated into the English “guile”, is a word that means to trick, deceive, or bait.
The Hebrew mind, when hearing the words true Israelite and guile together in a sentence, would understand the implied meaning. Jesus was using a clever play on words that pointed to one of the foundational and historic stories of Judaism, the story of Jacob.
The patriarch Jacob is a colorful figure in the Old Testament who had his name changed to Israel by God – so the story of the journey of Jacob to having his name changed to Israel was well known to first-century Jews.
The name Jacob means the supplanter, (One who wrongfully seizes the place of another). Jacob deceived his father and tricked his older brother Esau to get the blessing and the birthright of the firstborn.
After being tricked, his older brother Esau says this,
Ge 27:36 Esau said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? He has deceived me these two times: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!”…
But Jacob’s trickery was unnecessary because God had already promised his mother, in Genesis 25, that his older brother would serve him. So, all he really needed to do was trust God.
The scriptures give us a record of Jacob as a man who tries to manipulate his circumstances rather than wait on and trust the promise of God, but as he begins to understand that God is sovereign and can be trusted to fulfill His promises, God then changes his name to Israel, Prince.
So, going back to Jesus and Nathanael – what did Jesus mean when He said, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false”?
Jesus was saying, here is a true Israelite in whom there is no Jacob left. One who is believing God to bring about His promise, willing to trust and wait upon Him, rather than running ahead trying to achieve the purposes of God through fleshly self-will. One who is waiting in faith in the appearance of the Messiah.
The second thing Jesus said to Nathanael was the catalyst that set off the spiritual bomb of revelation in Nathanael’s heart.
Nathanael asked Jesus a reasonable question, how do you know me?
Jesus’ answer, laid him naked before God.
John 1:48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.
It’s plain from the text that this is the exact point where Nathanael has a cataclysmic experience and revelation of Christ as Messiah.
To understand this, we need to speculate just a bit. Nathanael had been under that fig tree all alone. He told no one his thoughts, but God.
Could it be that under the fig tree Nathanael was studying the scriptures about Jacob becoming Israel?
Could it be that his prayers were filled with a desire to be more like true Israel rather than Jacob?
Could it be that Nathanael was recognizing and lamenting that the first century nation of Israel had so much of Jacob still left in her, and he was asking God to help the nation to become the true ideal of Israel, the Prince of God – and praying, please bring it about by sending Messiah?
Then Philip calls – come see Messiah.
Next, Jesus says to Nathanael, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false”, and, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you”.
A brilliant flash of revelation went off in Nathanael’s heart and he knew that this man Jesus did not just know where he was when he was under the fig tree, he knew what he had been thinking. He was the Son of God, King of Israel, Messiah.
Through this passage, God is saying two things to us.
First, we are to know that there is nothing hidden from God, our hearts are naked before Him all the time.
Heb 4:13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Second, His desire is that those that follow Him surrender completely to His sovereignty and trust that He will accomplish what He has promised.
When we understand these things, we will quit trying to hide our hearts from Him, and we will quit trying to manipulate people and situations, which will result in faith and peace because we can rest in the fact that God will do what He has promised.