Light under the fig tree

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Series overview: Over the last year or so I have written a lot about Jesus-centeredness in general and Jesus-centred biblical interpretation in particular. In this latest series of posts I am taking a passage of scripture and demonstrating how these concepts work in practice. The text I have selected is from John chapter One.

Jesus has stated to Nathanael that he saw him under the fig tree before Phillip called him and in response the scholar has made a passionate and extreme confession of who Jesus is (John 1:49). On the face of it his response seems unjustified by the context. There must be more here than we can see at first read. I have suggested that perhaps Nathanael was reading a passage from the prophets and that Jesus cryptic comment showed that he knew what the man had been reading and what he had been crying out to God as he read. So, let’s turn to the book of Zechariah Chapter Three.


Imagine for a moment that Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree reading this very portion of scripture. It is a prophetic vision of a time when God would forgive Israel and restore them. It is about the coming of the Messiah and the liberation of the nation. Here is how I think Nathanael might have been reading and praying.

‘Lord, you say that you will remove the sin of this nation in a single day (Ref. verse 9). How can this be Lord? There are not enough sacrifices that can be made in a day to appease your wrath and atone for our sin. How can this then be Lord? … unless you come yourself and do what we cannot do. You say that you will bring your servant, the Branch, and this is surely a reference to the long awaited Messiah… will you come O God to save your people and reign over the nations?’ ‘Lord, the prophet speaks of Joshua and the others as being men symbolic of things to come. Could this possibly be in my time O Lord?  Israel is in deep distress and my heart is breaking for my nation – when will you come O Lord and fulfil this prophecy?’ As Nathanial reached the end of the passage of scripture he was studying he read the final promise that ‘in that day each of you will invite his neighbour to sit under his vine and fig tree’. He might well have smiled ruefully and said; ‘Here I am Lord, sitting under a fig tree, reading the prophet and asking you to fulfil your word.’

Just then Phillip breaks his meditation with the announcement that he has found the one of whom the prophets wrote. The thought flashes through Nathanael’s mind; ‘But I am reading of such a one. Surely God cannot be answering my prayer?!’ Then Phillip provides the name… Jesus. Imagine again how the scholar Nathanael might have processed this information: ‘The prophetic vision concerns Joshua the high priest – The name is a derivative of Yeshau, which means “Jehovah is salvation”…. But the Greek version of the name is Jesus! Surely this cannot be happening… to me!”

The second piece of information Phillip gives is that Jesus is from Nazareth. As with so many place names in the scriptures it is not clear what this word means or how it is derived, but many contemporary scholars believe that Nazareth is a name derived from the Hebrew Netzer,  which means…. a branch. Jesus, Yeshua from the place of the branch: Jehovah is salvation, the promised messiah from the root of Jesse, the prophetic branch of Israel! Then, to seal it all, when he meets this Jesus and asks with trembling voice how the teacher knows him, he hears the last words of the scripture he has just been reading echoing back at him; “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Phillip called you.”

In that moment it must have all become clear to Nathanael as he realised that he was standing in the presence of the Messiah, the branch of Israel, Yeshua, the very Son of God!

But wait, there is more, as they say in the telly-adds… Jesus has something even more profound to say; something that takes us back to another passage of the Old Testament. I will cover this in my next blog post…

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