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More than a fig tree

by Joey Crandall
Calvary Chapel Carson Valley

“Nathanael said to Him, ‘How do You know me?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are King of Israel!’”

— John 1:48-49 NKJV

Fig tree? Who said anything about a fig tree?

Well, Jesus did!

Here toward the beginning of the Gospel of John, we have this encounter with Nathanael.

Philip, upon accepting Jesus’ invitation to follow Him, tracks down Nathanael and says they’ve found “Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

As Nathanael approaches, Jesus declares “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit.”

Startled, Nathanael asks how Jesus knew him. Jesus responds by saying He saw Nathanael under the fig tree.

Now, maybe Nathanael was under a fig tree when Philip ran up to him – but then, anyone could have seen that. It hardly would have been noteworthy.

Whenever and wherever this fig tree was, it was significant to Nathanael. Maybe it was where he had studied the scriptures to which Philip referred. Or maybe it marked a landmark moment in his life. Whatever the significance of this fig tree, these words from Jesus struck a chord — enough so for Nathanael in that moment to declare Jesus both the Son of God and King of Israel.

The fig tree, referenced 30 times in the Bible, is presented throughout scripture as a type of the nation Israel, or of the law, or tradition, ritualism and the works of man.

We can gather that Nathanael was waiting — searching — for the Messiah based on his knowledge of Old Testament prophecy.

Being under the law, and knowing the words of the prophets as he did, Nathanael realized that his current state was not what God ultimately intended for his life. He knew true salvation from the Messiah was near.

Jesus saw Nathanael, as He does all mankind, under a broken system — under a fig tree.

Whether it was the pharisee or the sadducee, clinging to tradition over truth; the nation Israel seeking a glorious conquering king over a humble, flawless servant, or even Adam and Eve trying to cover the shame of their sin with fig leaves; from the beginning God looked down on His creation and saw us under a fig tree.

He saw the rituals of religion and self-righteousness — the branches that we’d grasp hold of in an attempt to climb our way to Heaven.

And He saw that ultimately, for as impressive as our fig trees might grow, there would come a time where no fruit would be found on them.

There would come a time where our fig trees would wither.

For every broad-spreading tree we could ever plant, none would ever grow high enough to reach heaven.

So God provided a different tree for us to kneel under: A tree flowing with streams of mercy. A tree upon which our Savior would hang. A dead tree from which life and hope eternal would spring.

Jesus saw you under your fig tree. And He came here to die for you, so that you might live.

“Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe?” Jesus said to Nathanael. “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Jesus drew on Nathanael’s knowledge of the scripture, knowing he’d remember the story of Jacob seeing a ladder between heaven and earth in the book of Genesis.

And in this one thought, Jesus showed that the ladder — the tree of righteousness that reaches all the way to heaven — was Himself.

Joey Crandall is the pastor of Calvary Chapel Carson Valley.