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What Is Nathanael and the Fig Tree About?


Jesus says to Nathanael that he saw him under the fig tree. What is the significance of the fig tree?


Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.”

Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”

Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this” (John 1:47-50).

There are a few interpretations of this passage.

The first is to take it literally: that Nathanael thought that Jesus had some kind of special spiritual ability to have seen him even though he was not there. Jesus also appears taken aback that this minor miracle is so impressive to Nathanael. Perhaps Nathanael’s spiritual routine was to pray and meditate under a fig tree. Imagine if someone you never met told you he saw you doing something he was not present for. It would be shocking and make a great impression upon you.

A second understanding of this passage is that “under the fig tree” was an expression. The fig tree was symbolically connected to the coming messianic era (Mic. 4:4, Zec. 3:10, 1 Kgs. 4:25). Philip had gone to Nathanael to tell him he had found the messiah.  Why did he run to tell Nathanael this? Perhaps it was because Nathanael was eagerly awaiting the messiah. When Jesus says he saw him under the fig tree, he is saying that he knows Nathanael has been waiting for the day he would encounter the messiah. Nathanael realizes that Jesus has seen into his innermost longings and takes this as a divine sign.

A third interpretation is that while Nathanael was in prayer and reflection under a fig tree, he received a revelation that he would live to see the messiah. When Jesus mentions the fig tree, Nathanael realizes that Jesus is the fulfillment of what was revealed to him.

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