Jesus said this to Nathanael when He first met him as recorded in the Gospel of John chapter one. There are valuable lessons to be learned from this first encounter between Jesus and Nathanael, but first we have to “take a step back” from the text in order to appreciate what transpired between them.
Think for a moment about Jesus’ mission. He came to His people (John 1:11) who were related to Him by blood (His fellow Jews) and who had entered into the Mosaic covenant with Him as their God, YHWH. He came looking for something. When Jesus went into the temple, He did it purposefully. What was He looking for? We get a hint of what He was looking for from the gospel records as Jesus came in and out of the temple. Mark 11:11 reads:
Jesus entered Jerusalem and came into the temple; and after looking around at everything, He left for Bethany with the twelve, since it was already late. On the next day, when they had left Bethany, He became hungry. Seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again!’ And His disciples were listening. (Mark 11:11-14 NASB)
Jesus came looking for fruit, finds none, then the fig tree withers. Some Bible commentators see this account as a symbolic action on the part of Jesus to illustrate to His disciples the upcoming judgment on the nation of Israel (the destruction of the temple in AD. 70), and to teach them about prayer. Israel is repeatedly pictured symbolically in Scripture as a fig tree (see list of references at the end of this post). Old Testament prophets would often do symbolic actions to illustrate God’s warning of future judgments.
While in the temple, Jesus gave the parable of the vineyard grower, who came looking for produce from the vineyard keepers who, in response, rejected the vineyard grower and killed his son. This parable was directed towards the chief priests, scribes, and elders (Mark 12:1-12). Luke records a parable of a fig tree which bore no fruit which illustrates God’s patience, but also a time of reckoning for the tree which produces no fruit (Luke 13:6-9). Jesus taught in the temple that He was looking for fruit.
So what was the fruit Jesus was looking for? I believe it was faith. The Gospels show our Lord looking for faith in His people. He marvelled at the lack of faith among His fellow Jews at times (Mark 6:4-6), and He marvelled at the faith He found in some Gentiles (Matt. 8:10). What does the faith the Lord was looking for then, and is still looking for now, look like? How is it recognizable? I think we find the answer to that question in Nathanael. The kind of fruit, the kind of faith that the Lord was looking for He found in Nathanael.
According to the gospel of John 1:43-51, Jesus called Philip to follow Him. Philip then found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote–Jesus of Nazareth…” Nathanael replied, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip invites Nathanael, “Come and see”. As Jesus sees Nathanael coming towards Him, he remarks, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit.” Nathanael tells Jesus, “How do you know me?” Jesus answers, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael then said, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God, You are the King of Israel.” Jesus replies, “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree do you believe? You will see greater things than these. Truly, Truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
The first question that comes to my mind is, “Why did Nathanael react the way he did when Jesus told him that he saw him under the fig tree?” Why was he so “blown away” by this statement that he declared Jesus to be the king of Israel and the Son of God? Couldn’t it be very possible and in no way miraculous, that Jesus just happened to see Nathanael under a fig tree and Nathanael not be aware of it? What would be so special about that? The text itself does not tell us the reason for Nathanael’s declaration, but I think we can make some reasonable speculations as to why he reacted this way.
I imagine a scenario that went something like this: Nathanael finds a secluded spot under a fig tree, making sure no one is around to hear what he has on his mind to pray. Then I imagine him crying out to God in a manner similar to the psalmist who openly questions God as to why it seems like He does not hear their prayers for deliverance? Why do they have to suffer the indignity of being ruled by the Gentiles? The Romans pollute the land and have their fort overlooking the Temple of God to keep a watch over them. Where is the Kingdom of God? Where is the Messiah? I imagine Nathanael questioning God as to whether He even hears him or sees him. A devout Jew who had these thoughts pent-up within Him and who had to “get this off his chest” would more than likely make sure no one was around to hear him pray like this. A scenario like this or similar to this would explain why Jesus telling Nathanael that He saw him under the fig tree had such a profound affect on him, and might prompt him to declare Him to be the Son of God.
Jesus’ description of Nathanael is also very telling. “An Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!” The phrase “in whom is no deceit” is the same wording as the last part of Psalm 32:1-2, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Jesus seems to be comparing Nathanael to the blessed man of Psalm 32, who has complete integrity and openness in his relationship to God, and who has been forgiven of all his transgressions. The man or woman who was like Nathanael, was the kind of “fruit” that Jesus was looking for when He came to His people. And notice where Jesus found him: under the fig tree–in exactly the place where you would expect to find fruit.
What can we learn from Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus? First of all, Jesus sees us; He knows our present circumstances and how we feel in them. Second, Nathanael prayed, and if the above scenario is correct, he took his concerns to God. Third, God sometimes answers our prayers in very unexpected ways. And fourth, Nathanael had a walk with God. He had integrity with God. He confessed his sins, he walked blamelessly in the law of God by faith. His view of God was that He was big enough to handle what was on his chest; not shaking his fist at God, but crying out in desperation to Him.
Finally, Jesus gives Nathanael direction. He identifies Himself with Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28:12), in effect telling Nathanael that He is the way to heaven. Some scholars think Nathanael and the apostle Bartholomew (Matt. 10:3) are the same person. Either way, he is a great example for us!
Israel pictured as fig tree: Hosea 9:10,16, Micah 7:12, Jeremiah 8:13