John 1: 43-51 – The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’
Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And 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.’
This is a strange and quite difficult passage. It is not clear why seeing Nathanael under a fig-tree might be significant, though the prophets described peace as being able to sit under one’s own fig-tree.
The reference to the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man links back to the famous dream that Jacob had in Genesis 28 but there the angels descend on a ladder, not on the Son of Man; There is already a link to Jacob, in the description of Nathanael by Jesus. Nathanael is described as one without deceit, but Jacob was one who was full of deceit and trickery. Ultimately we do not know quite what the fig-tree means, nor quite what the image of the angels ascending and descending means nor when Nathanael would see it.
In short there are passages where the full meaning is beyond our certainty, but that does not mean there is nothing in them for us.
In this chapter, John describes the call of some of the disciples. Andrew calls Peter to Jesus, and now Philip having followed Jesus, goes to Nathanael and invites him to meet the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. Although he is dubious he goes with Philip, he is astounded by what Jesus seems to know about him and he becomes a believer and follower. From an ordinary place under his fig-tree, he has found the Son of God, the King of Israel, the Son of Man, the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. That is some summary of titles and names for Jesus.
First of all, have we discovered and are we discovering more about this “person”, about God incarnate, or have we become a bit blasé and unconcerned about Jesus; and second, how do we invite others who we know to discover this truth for themselves, and when we do invite do we invite them in words that they can understand and relate to, and do we do so with conviction? Philip persuaded Nathanael, because ultimately Nathanael trusted Philip.
Some further thoughts.
Jesus is approachable, and in many ways very ordinary. He lived with the people around him, and saw people as they sat under trees. His conversations are not sermons from churches but discussions with people, but his conversations are laced with deep and provocative truths.
Belief matters: what we believe matters, and the awful events in America in the last couple of weeks highlight the danger to society when falsehoods are so promoted and encouraged. The danger is not just to the immediate, but to the foundations on which we rely. And in a polarised or polarising world, we will both have to stand firmer for what we believe and be ready to find ways to engage and respect people even when we are convinced their views are erroneous.
There is a richness of imagery and metaphor in John’s gospel which prevents simplistic reduction, but there is a simple strand through the gospel which should give us confidence. In Jesus, the Word became flesh; God so loves the world that he gave his only-begotten Son; Jesus is the Light, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Good Shepherd, and in believing in him we have eternal life. How do we share that news with others in the ordinary places like under a fig-tree or wherever the modern equivalent is?
Rev’d Peter Reiss