Read the passage at the bottom of this post: John 1:43-51, The Message or John 1:43-51, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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By way of background, it may be helpful to note that this passage is the third that begins with, "The next day." (See John 1:29 and 1:35) The first of these gives John the Baptist's testimony that Jesus is the Lamb of God on whom John saw the Holy Spirit descend like a dove. (Note that there is no reference to Jesus being baptized by John.) In the second, John again says of Jesus, "Behold the Lamb of God." Two of John's disciples then leave him and follow Jesus. One of them, Andrew, then goes and fetches his brother Simon Peter who also goes to meet Jesus.
It cannot be overemphasized to pay attention to the frequency of the verbs "behold / see," and "come / follow." The whole purpose of the Gospel of John is that we should SEE who Jesus really is so that we might truly trust and abide in him and thereby have true life. (See John 20:31) For more information, see my Introduction to John.
The conversation between Nathaniel and Jesus about him sitting under a fig tree is, shall we say, a bit obscure. It could be this is coded language, understood by Jesus, Nathaniel, and the Gospel writer as signifying more than a literal tree. In the other Gospels, the fig tree is part of a parable about the fruitlessness of the present generation. In any case, have I already mentioned the importance of the use of the verbs "come" and "see?"
There is also some playfulness in their use of "Israel." Jesus refers to Nathaniel as a descendant of our ancestor Israel - Israel is the name given to Jacob - "Jacob" means "cheater" or "deceiver." But in Nathaniel's case, Jesus comments, "And he isn't deceitful." That is, there is some honest seeing / presenting happening.
Notice that Nathaniel then ascribes to Jesus the title, "King of Israel." It is the title, "King" (and not the others used so far: "Lamb of God," and "Messiah") that will be the charge on which Jesus is executed.
And note that Nathaniel uses the title, "King of Israel," and NOT, "King of the Jews." See my note, It's "Judeans," Not "Jews" for more on why it is every preacher's sacred duty to correct this tragic mis-translation.
And finally, in Verse 51, Jesus refers to the story of "Jacob's Ladder," a dream that Jacob had when he saw angels going up and coming down a ladder from heaven. (See Genesis 28:10-22) However, whereas the story of Jacob's dream led to the naming of a sacred PLACE, Jesus says this same vision will show Nathaniel a sacred PERSON.
I believe the keys in understanding this passage are, on the one hand, to NOT treat it as simply a story of how Nathaniel met Jesus; nor, on the other hand, to get all mystical and obscure. John wants us to SEE Jesus, to COME to him, and thereby to receive LIFE in its abundance.
Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, see link below, pages 54-64.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce Malina, et. al., Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
John 1:43-51 (NRSV)
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me."
44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.
45 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."
46 Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see."
47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!"
48 Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you."
49 Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"
50 Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these."
51 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.".
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
John 1:43-51 (The Message)
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. When he got there, he ran across Philip and said, "Come, follow me."
44 (Philip's hometown was Bethsaida, the same as Andrew and Peter.)
45 Philip went and found Nathanael and told him, "We've found the One Moses wrote of in the Law, the One preached by the prophets. It's Jesus, Joseph's son, the one from Nazareth!"
46 Nathanael said, "Nazareth? You've got to be kidding." But Philip said, "Come, see for yourself."
47 When Jesus saw him coming he said, "There's a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body."
48 Nathanael said, "Where did you get that idea? You don't know me." Jesus answered, "One day, long before Philip called you here, I saw you under the fig tree."
49 Nathanael exclaimed, "Rabbi! You are the Son of God, the King of Israel!"
50 Jesus said, "You've become a believer simply because I say I saw you one day sitting under the fig tree? You haven't seen anything yet!
51 Before this is over you're going to see heaven open and God's angels descending to the Son of Man and ascending again."
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
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