“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Nathanael was probably one of the lower profile disciples in the Bible, commonly associated with Bartholomew. But whether he is Bartholomew or not, it is perhaps not as important as our character study on Nathanael today will focus on his episode with Jesus as charted in John 1. John tells us about the story of Jesus calling Philip and Nathanael, with the first interactions between the two being curiously interesting. Firstly, Nathanael, upon hearing that Jesus was a Nazarite, questioned the identity of Jesus, and to that Jesus simply remarked that he was a true Israelite. In this study, we will examine the next round of dialogue between them, and the depth of what remains unsaid between them and how what we can learn from both Nathanael and Jesus.
Analysis – What did Jesus know about Nathanael
I would like to indulge myself and debate on the identity of this little known disciple, but let’s not. If we do not take into consideration the link between Bartholomew and Nathanael, then Nathanael is only mentioned here, in the entirety of the Bible. Even if we assume that both are but the same person, then there are not any more episodes of him available in the Bible, just that he was listed, along with Philip, at every point the list of disciples were mentioned everywhere else in the Bible, including John 21:2. Hence, it is relatively safe to base our understanding of Nathanael on the passage of John 1:43-51. Philip again was involved, but in this passage the real focus is on Nathanael and the kind of guy he is. He is straightforward, as straight as an arrow, really, and when he saw Jesus, he couldn’t help himself but to remark – not as an insult but because he is frank and truly puzzled (or so I would like to insist) – “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (v46). When we understand the reason why he blurted that out, it may seem a lot more reasonable. Nazareth is not a very special place, really. It is not Bethlehem, the city of Kings, the city of David, the city where the Jews were taught that the Messiah will come out from. Hence when he sees a Rabbi, he sees someone whom Philip claims to be the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote about, he doubts and questions, because the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote about did not come from Nazareth, but the city of Kings, Bethlehem. And herein is the irony, Jesus came from Nazareth, yes, Philip was right, but he wasn’t born in Nazareth. He was born in Bethlehem, as befits his identity as the son of David, the son of God, the son of Man. Jesus understood his doubt, and remarked, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”
Our Lord is not one to be swayed by tricks and trickeries. He checks our hearts, and sees straight through to our intentions. Nathanael was surprised at how much Jesus knew him, when he had just barely met him. A remark like ‘a true Israelite’ is really rather high praise, and a comment like ‘in whom there is nothing false’, is really rather intimate. How could a man whom he had just met say such things about him? How did Jesus know him?
I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you – There are a lot of significance to this. Firstly, it meant that Nathanael was under the fig tree before Philip called him. Of course he was, he must have been, for if Jesus had been wrong about this, then there would be no meaning and Nathanael wouldn’t have reacted so strongly to this. This is an assumption that we will take in order to progress.
Secondly, what did a fig tree mean? The fig tree is mentioned metaphorically a number of times in the Bible, not least the famous verses in Habakkuk 3:17-18 – Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. But the fig tree mentioned here probably have a different significance. Back in those days, it is customary of teachers, or the rabbi to teach under the tree while students sit under the tree and listened and learnt. We know that Nathanael was under the tree for sure, because Jesus said so and Nathanael did not refute it. What do you think he was sitting there for? He might be listening from a teacher, he might be just pondering, and if he was pondering. Then what do you think he could be thinking about?
If you look at all the disciples, you will see several different types of people. If John might be the more spiritual one, Matthew the more social one, Peter the more courageous, brawny and all-action one – then Nathanael would have been the complete opposite of Peter. They are very similar in their brazenness, in a way, and both were men of great faith, but while Peter perhaps epitomized blind faith, Nathanael epitomized a faith that has been nurtured by his understanding and knowledge of God. Not that Peter did not know God, but Peter probably never had to think too much before he believed. Nathanael was a thinker. And the subject that he was most likely pondering about while under the fig tree was the one subject that Jewish scholars in those days loved most – the coming of the Messiah.
Of course, there is no literal indication of this in the Bible! And this might be mere speculation, so you don’t have to agree with me! But this speculation comes about from Nathanael’s response to Jesus’s answer. When Nathanael asked Jesus, how do you know me? Jesus didn’t answer ‘because I am The Lord or because I am the Son of God!’ which would surely have answered his question. Instead, Jesus gave an answer that would lead Nathanael, a thinking man, into the realization that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. And that answer was to point out that he had already seen Nathanael while Nathanael was under the fig tree. Nathanael himself would know what he was thinking – Nathanael alone will know what he was pondering about, and nobody else. Why would anybody know his thoughts? In a time when he was expecting to be alone, Jesus had seen him, while he was thinking about him. Nathanael was a thinking man, and the realization came quickly enough, leading him to exclaim: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.
God sees us and he sees our heart’s intentions even when we think nobody knows, or nobody is around. Nathanael might have seemed rude to any other Rabbi for downplaying the significance of Nazareth, but Jesus was not one to take offense. Neither did Jesus bother to defend himself before Nathanael. He could have corrected Nathanael immediately by clarifying thAt he was born in Bethlehem, and Nathanael will probably have nothing to say. But no, he saw through Nathanael’s heart, and he saw the desire that Nathanael had for him, the desire that caused Nathanael to ponder about the Messiah under the fig tree.
I have made several assumptions here, and you should have noticed. It may not be the most accurate interpretation, but I think it helps to explain the underlying message in this otherwise strange episode of Jesus calling Nathanael, where their questions and answers and responses, at first glance, do not seem to be linked. God sees our needs and our wants. If we truly desire God, even if we fail in our methods to find him, he will find us.