Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” John 1:47-50
I came across this passage this morning as I started reading through the book of John. It’s a funny detail that Christ throws out here—under the fig tree. I can’t help but wonder what was so significant about that moment for Nathanael for it to be the hook that caught his heart. So, as it so often does, my imagination got carried away with itself.
I picture him running there in the heat of the day, finding shade under those expansive leaves, lonely and questioning. He sits down, leans back against the trunk, idly digging his nails into the cool dirt as his heart writhes within his chest. Maybe Nathanael was at a low point under that fig tree, praying desperately for answers. Maybe he was depressed, bitter, broken, confused. Maybe he was planning something drastic.
Maybe Nathanael was being tempted there, just like Eve under the fruit of a similar tree. Maybe the enemy was whispering to him: Nobody sees you. You are all alone. Maybe he believed that lie.
Or maybe that had already happened and he was consumed with guilt and was already sewing up those fig leaves with which to hide himself and his secret sin. Maybe he was ready to throw a noose right up into the branches of that fig tree and end it right there. The possibilities are endless.
The Bible doesn’t give an answer to what was weaving its way through Nathanael’s heart and mind. And isn’t it just like that with all of us when the Lord draws us to him? We all have our hiding places, our dark corners of doubt or shame or bitterness that no one else knows about. Ever has it been that we tuck away those details of our low, idle moments, hidden from view. And ever has it been that only the Lord himself knows the true depths of those lows.
“Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” I can’t help but notice the words behind Christ’s words here, so full of understanding.
When you thought you were utterly alone, when you thought nobody saw you, I saw you. When you had no knowledge of me, I knew you at your very worst. When I was the furthest thing from your mind, I was intimately close and attentive to you. Even then. Under that fig tree.
Even beyond the boundaries of brotherly confession, the mysterious depths of his grace in our lives will always be untold on a certain level. It’s like a secret wink from the Father to remind us of how bafflingly he loves us in spite of our sinfulness.
May our response be like Nathanael’s: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Father, you were there in the depths of my lows. In the shade of the fig tree. Now take me away from that. Pull me out into the light of your sun and the heights of your mountaintops. You are the Son of God. The King of Israel.