While we know little about Jesus’ disciple Nathanael, we do know that he had a very unusual first encounter with Jesus. Introduced to Jesus by his friend Philip, Nathanael initially is a questioner, a skeptic. He is a devout Jew and the alleged Messiah’s home town does not line up with his expectations or assumptions. But for some reason, Nathanael is convinced wholesale when Jesus tells him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” After this curious exchange, Nathanael is the first person in the Gospels to declare who Jesus is: the Son of God, the King of Israel.
Why does Nathanael respond in this way? What was so convincing about Jesus’ words? And what in the world was Nathanael doing under a fig tree?
Fig trees are steeped in meaning throughout scripture. One of the oldest known fruit trees, the fig tree is first referenced in the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve used its leaves to cover their nakedness after they sinned. In the Old Testament, figs are a symbol of blessing and security. Moses was told that Canaan would be a land replete with “vines and fig trees” (Deut. 8:7-10). Because figs are difficult to grow and must be nurtured and cultivated over years, when we’re told that the Israelites “lived in safety, everyone under their own fig tree,” this implies stability, rootedness and prosperity (1 Kings 4:25). The fig tree was also understood to refer to Israel itself (Hos. 9:10, Joel 2:21-25).
We know from rabbinic literature and tradition that students would often sit at their rabbi’s feet under a fig tree, enjoying both its shade and fruit as they learned. It was also common to study the Torah – God’s law – and pray under a fig tree. To be under a fig tree was to be in a sacred space.
We don’t know exactly what struck Nathanael about Jesus’ special knowledge that he had been under a fig tree. But we do know, based on Nathanael’s response, that Jesus was able to say exactly the right words to win him over, to bring him from a place of skepticism and doubt to a place of heart knowledge and true belief. Jesus did not argue with Nathanael or debate him or offer a lengthy explanation. Rather, he cut to the chase, going straight to the core of the matter and addressing the question beneath his question. Jesus met him under his fig tree – in his place of deepest longing and prayer.
We can receive much encouragement from Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus. First, we can be heartened in our attempts to introduce our friends to Jesus. While it is our job to say, “Come and see,” it is Jesus who sees inside their hearts; only he can speak the words each person uniquely needs to hear. We can also be encouraged that Jesus sees our own hearts, that we are truly, deeply known. Whatever your questions and longings are this season, Jesus will meet you where you are at and speak the words that you need to hear. During this season of Lent, expect to encounter Jesus under your own fig tree.
Deborah Tepley is Advent’s Executive Director. She is a huge fan of HASfit workouts, YNAB budgeting software, and Luke’s fresh bread. She lives in Petworth with her husband, Luke Jackson; TJ, Bethany and Mary Hayley Fleming; and two cats.