It’s the sarcasm that endears us to Nathanael. Upon hearing that the Messiah has arrived – and that he is from Nazareth – Nathanael replies, “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?” That place? he says. Really? It’s not clear whether he’s offering his own opinion of the village or echoing a popular sentiment of the time but it is clear he’s made his mind up.
I love that the gospel records this. Nathanael doesn’t appear to be the kind of person who minces words. He says what’s on his mind. He’s not easily swayed. And when Phillip says, “Come and see…” he gets up from under the fig tree and does exactly that. He wants proof. And when Christ tells us that there is ‘no deceit’ in Nathanael he is telling us that – as well as being truthful – he is a man that says what is on his mind. The King James uses the word ‘guile’, meaning treachery, or deceit. In other words, with Nathanael, what you see is exactly what you get. This is a man who sees, and speaks clearly, plainly and truthfully.
Jesus’ response to Nathanael is two-fold. In the first instance he tells the man that he saw him under the fig tree, before Phillip called him. And with this, all of Nathanael’s disbelief is suspended. Christ offers him proof of his divinity that defies logic, that is so far beyond explanation that nothing except divine power can explain it. I saw you under the fig tree – earlier today, before your brother went and got you.
It makes me wonder what Nathaniel was doing under the fig tree. Perhaps he was at prayer, perhaps he was considering the Messiah, or what the signs would be that the Messiah has come to Israel at last. Or was he, the skeptical Nathanael, questioning God? Was he weeping? Hiding? Angrily absent from his work? I saw you under the fig tree hardly seems enough to prove that one is the divine Son of God. Think about meeting someone for the first time and they say, “Ah yes, I saw you at the grocery store earlier today.” Or, “I saw you at the post office this morning.” This is hardly enough to prove one’s divinity. Either the fig tree had to be a secret place – known only to Phillip and Nathanael – or being in the shade of the fig tree had to have some deeper significance to Nathanael. He was under the fig tree for a reason. A particular fig tree. A particular reason. And whatever that may be, Christ was there with him. This is, without a doubt, something beyond what Nathanael can explain. Clearly, it represents to him a power that comes from beyond this earth, and the one bearing such power could only be divine.
Christ then offers the curious image of angels ascending and descending. He’s echoing the Old Testament story of Jacob’s Ladder. As Jacob travels from Canaan (modern Israel) to Padanaram (Turkey/Syria) to seek a wife he camps out in the open air, using a rock (!) as a pillow. That night he has a dream in which angels are going up and down a heavenly stair case.
At the top of the stairway stood the Lord, and he said, “I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.”
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!” But he was also afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! It is none other than the house of God, the very gateway to heaven!”
The promises of God to Jacob include increase, expansion, protection and blessing. His descendants will increase exponentially, they will be known throughout the earth. The world will be blessed, God says, through your descendants – and I will always be with them. What Jesus is telling Nathanael is that these promises are fulfilled in Him. “Very truly I tell you,” the NIV reads, you] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” The NLT adds “…the one who is the stairway between heaven and earth.”