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Nethanael’s Fig Tree

Updated on September 22, 2019
Leland Johnson profile image

Leland is a student of history, religion, politics, and current events. He wishes to respectfully engage readers on those focus points.

Micah’s Prophecy

Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.

Micah 4:4

Gigantic Fig Tree

The “Fig Tree” Life Meant a Time of Peace and Prosperity

Those citizens of Israel in 30 C.E. (A.D) lived lives that were anything but the serene description prophesied by Micah. The instability of the times, corrupt local government, and the occupation of a Roman army made the vine and fig tree life nearly impossible…nearly.

What if there is a deeper understanding to that phrase, “every man under his own fig tree?” When Americans heard FDR’s slogan during those lean depression years, “a chicken in every pot,” it was understood to mean more than the words contained in the phrase. It was a promise to hang in there because not only will people not starve, but the country will be on a new track to prosperity. Such is the sentiment that accompanies this idiom concerning “every man sitting under his own fig tree.” People in distress do not lounge beneath fig trees.

The Fig Tree Life is a Life Free of Fear

Traditionally believed to be literally under a tree when Jesus saw Nathanael, we now understand the fig tree reference to be a metaphor.
Traditionally believed to be literally under a tree when Jesus saw Nathanael, we now understand the fig tree reference to be a metaphor.

Nethanael, the Little Known Disciple

The first chapter of John introduces us to an interesting figure in the person of Nethanael. We don’t know very much about him, only that he is from the same region as Phillip, most likely Bethsaida, and the two appear to be close friends; close I say because of the message Phillip brings to Nethanael:

“Phillip found Nathanael and told him, “‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote-Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”’ John 1:45

A message of such gravity, such intimacy, would only be shared between confidantes.

Many believe Phillip found Nathanael under a fig tree, but the text doesn’t say that. It says only that “Phillip found Nathanael,” not where Phillip found him. The absence of a location in the text is as interesting as the presence of Jesus’ reference to a “fig tree” because we are advancing the premise that there was, in fact, no literal fig tree. The fig tree in this text is a metaphor representing a time of peace and tranquility. In American culture we might make similar references to “a return to the good old days” or we may speak of our “best years” being yet to come; optimistic slogans intended to create a sense of confidence in the listener. We offer the following texts for consideration in support of those statements.

Micah 4:4 “Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid for the Lord Almighty has spoken.”

Zechariah 3:8-10 “Listen, O high priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch. See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes on that one stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it.’ Says the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day. In that day each of you will invite3 his neighbor to SIT UNDER HIS VINE AND FIG TREE, declares the Lord Almighty.”

Fruit of the Fig Tree

The Meaning of Nathanael’s Fig Tree

I offer the following prayerful and studied interpretation of the real meaning of the text in the first chapter of John describing the meeting of Nathanael and Jesus.

Nethanael had just heard the verses in Micah and Zechariah discussed and he was thinking about them. Perhaps he was praying and said, “Oh God, where is my fig tree life, the one where no one makes me afraid. Our government is corrupt, our religion is corrupt, the Roman occupation of Israel causes Your people to live in constant fear and distress. I live my life in humility, honesty, and obedience to Your commands. Are these not enough to merit an answer from You, my God? Must I go to my fig tree only in my mind? Then there I will go until You provide the real thing.” Moments later, Phillip arrives and says to Nathanael,

“We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote- Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Nethanael pauses and thinks, “What was Phillip so worked up about? Nazareth? Really? It isn’t that it’s a bad place, it’s just that there’s nothing there. How on earth could our Messiah come from Nazareth?”

“Phillip, can anything good come from Nazareth?” he asks.

Phillip says, “Come and see.”

They walk for an hour. Phillip continues to tell Nethanael about this Nazarene, his teachings, rumors about his ability to heal! Nethanael mostly listens commenting now and then, but for the most part he is still thinking about the fig tree life. He says nothing of that to Phillip.
“There! There he is!” Says Phillip excitedly. Nethanael sees the man sitting calmly at a table beneath the shade of awning, speaking with two other men, gesturing with carefully with his hands as he speaks, just as a teacher would.

The teacher stops speaking as Phillip and Nethanael approach. Phillip stops and allows Nethanael to approach the table alone. As he approaches, the eyes of the teacher lock with Nathanael’s. Nevertheless he continues. He reaches the table and stops, bows at the waist to greet this mysterious teacher, but the teacher seems to be listening to something, a voice heard only by him. Now he appears pleasant enough, no longer listening to the voice. Smiling slightly he speaks to Nethanael.

“Behold, a true Israelite in whom there is no guile.”

“What an odd way to greet someone,” Nethanael thinks to himself.

“How do you know me?” he asks.

The teacher doesn’t respond immediately, but pauses a pause long enough to make Nethanael feel uncomfortable. The smile fades from the teacher’s face. He leans forward and says,

“I saw you…while you were still under the fig tree before Phillip called you.”

Nethanael almost laughed. He thought to himself, “A fig tree? I haven’t even seen a fig tree for days. What does this man mean that he saw me ‘under a fig tr….’ wait a second. The only fig tree I was under was the one in my mind, the one I’ve told NO ONE about! This man must be…”

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel!” he exclaims.

Jesus replied, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.”

*Texts are in italics and were quoted from verses in John 1:44-50

In the past I had understood that last statement by the Lord to mean that Nathanael had believed over something that wasn’t really a big deal, sort of like saying it this way- “Hmph, you believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? That’s nothing! I’ll show you better things than that.” But that is not the way Jesus meant it. He meant it this way, as a statement of fact:

“The reason you believe is because I told you something known only by you and God. That’s a good reason to believe, but I’m going to show you even greater things than that.”

The meaning of the content in these texts is extremely important and have been overlooked for a long time. Our attention should be drawn to it for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s the only place in the Bible where Nathanael is mentioned. If not of great importance John would not waste precious verses of his gospel just to show that Jesus saw Nethanael sitting under a fig tree, a fact by the way, that wouldn’t convince anyone of the idea that Jesus was the Messiah. If someone came up to you today and said, “I saw you the other day while you were watering your plants” your response would NOT be “Oh, you must be sent by God!” No, you would say, “Why were you watching me and where were you? That’s a creepy thing to do, why would you be watching me?”

The same would be true of Nethanael’s time. The statement from Jesus “I saw you under the fig tree” would not cause Nethanael to recognize Jesus as the Son of God. It had to be that Jesus touched something in Nethanael that only Nethanael could have known. Nethanael’s response makes no sense otherwise. This is important to you and me for a specific reason. Did you note from Nathanael’s response the utter confidence he had? He didn’t tell Jesus, “Well, let me go talk this over with my rabbi first then I’ll get back to you.” He didn’t need to consult anyone else. In the book of Job we read that “God speaks to men now one way, now another but men fail to perceive it.” Yet Nathanael DID perceive it. He didn’t need anyone to talk him into or out of believing. The Lord wants us to stop looking at figures in the Bible and thinking “it’s amazing what God did in their lives” and start thinking “It’s amazing what God is doing in my life!” God wants to write our stories too, but like Nathanael people must come to Him. People generally become disheartened with God because of an experience they had within the constructs of religion not realizing that religion isn’t out to get us to believe in God, but rather inTHEIR idea of God. But the voice of God and the revelation in our lives that He knows us, that He cares for us, and that He sees us all under our fig tree (whatever it may be) super-cedes religion and denominationalism, but we have to get ourselves into a frame of mind where we are able to hear. People’s ears are stopped up with the nonsense of this world, both religious and worldly stuff, and they have to take a step by cleaning out their ears. When you first heard the voice of the Lord, did you chalk it up to coincidence or did you say, “God spoke to me! I know it was Him!” And you didn’t need anyone to tell you it was Him because He intentionally spoke something to you that only you would know. This is a pattern we see in the Scriptures, and God doesn’t change the way He is apart from the Scriptures. Consider, just three chapters over in the same gospel, Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman the exact same way. He tells her about HER life, details he could not possibly have known. The text goes out of its way to suggest this by letting us know Jesus had never spoken to her and that Jews, in general, did not even deal with Samaritans.

“You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink? (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans). John 4:9

John goes on to tell us details of the conversation, seemingly small talk, but then the Lord reads her mail when he tells her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

And what is the woman’s response? “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.” She said that because Jesus had just told her something about herself that he couldn’t possibly have known in and of himself. Their conversation continues and it becomes evident that she too had been led down a religious path, one Jesus had to correct, as he does with all of us. Once that was done, she ran back to her town, this woman who lived a life of shame and embarrassment, proclaiming to all who would listen, “this man told me everything I ever did.”

Later, the rest of the town came out and found Jesus and asked him to stay with them, which he did for two days. After listening to his teaching, hearing HIS voice, they said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” John 4:42

How apt is a timely word, and a word spoken in due season!

— Proverbs 15:23

A Personal Appeal

Nethanael believed because the Lord revealed something to him personally. The Samaritan woman believed because the Lord revealed something to her personally. The Samaritan people believed because they heard the voice of the Lord personally. Yet now things are somehow different, isn’t that right? Now we have to drag or be dragged to a religious service in order to hear from the Lord, and then we have to have it confirmed for us by a member of clergy, someone who is “qualified.” Nonsense. The requirements of the Lord are “a broken spirit and a contrite heart.”

In the book of Hebrews we are told that “He who would come to the Lord must believe that He is…”

Anyone who would ask of God, anyone who would unplug their ears and turn to Him, anyone willing to listen to Him is “qualified.”

Proverbs 15:23 tells us: “how apt is a timely word and a word spoken in due season.”

That means “how great it is to hear the right thing at the right time.” That’s what Nethanael heard, what the woman at the well heard, and what all hear when they hear the voice of the Lord. What is the timely word the Lord spoke to you just when you needed to hear it, the word no one could talk you into or out of, the word you knew came from Him? What have you done with that word? Have you shared it with others the way the Samaritan woman did, or has it faded possibly to the point of wondering if you ever heard it at all? It is significant for us to remember that the nature of a season is that it comes around again; so too words to us from the Lord if we will listen.



Where is your fig tree?


LJ



This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Leland Johnson

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    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      8 weeks ago from Midland MI

      Ms. Dora - John 1:48, not Jan :)

    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      8 weeks ago from Midland MI

      Hi Ms. Dora. There is no direct reference that says the fig tree in Nathanael’s story was not literal. I am drawing that conclusion from a number of details.

      1. Nethanael’s response and recognition of Jesus as Messiah just because Jesus said “I saw you under the fig tree before Phillip called you” does not sound like a reasonable response. A more reasonable, believable response would have been, “Where were you when you saw me Jesus? I didn’t see you. And why were you watching me in the first place?” Regardless of how the text reads the reader is forced to make an assumption one way or the other. Either the reader must assume that Jesus supernaturally saw Phillip under a literal fig tree from a very long distance, or the more plausible view- that Nethanael had been thinking or praying about the “fig tree” described in Micah 4:4 and Zech 3:10 and that when Jesus mentioned the “fig tree” it came as a revelation to Nethanael because no one knew he’d been thinking about it except God. So for Jesus to make a reference to something Nethanael was thinking to himself, that would be a revelation that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Son of God as Nethanael said. Otherwise, he’s just somebody watching another somebody under a tree. I first came across the phrase, “fig tree life” in Oswald Chambers devotional “My Utmost for His Highest” on the daily reading for September 10. (You can read the text in its entirety if you look up sept 10, My Utmost for His Highest). I’ll quote the excerpt that got me thinking about the possibility that the fig tree wasn’t literal: “A private relationship of worshipping God is the greatest element of spiritual fitness.The time will come, as Nathanael experienced in Jan 1:48, that a private “fig tree life” will no longer be possible.” Oswald Chambers.

      I had always thought that the verses discussing the vine and fig tree life were metaphorical, the way FDR’s slogan of “a chicken in every pot” was a metaphor. He didn’t mean there would literally be a chicken in every pot, rather that people would have enough food. The same is true here in that both prophets, Malachi and Zechariah, were both prophesying of a future time of peace, safety and tranquility. Jesus revelation of himself to Nathanael was showing Nethanael, and I believe all who read the passage, that Jesus IS the fig tree life. He IS our peace, our prosperity, our safe place. This was revealed to a very simple man in a very difficult time some 2,000 years ago. I see it as being the same in our time and hence I ended the article with the question, “Where is your fig tree?” In other words, where are you with Jesus? Do you recognize him as your Messiah? Anyway, thanks so much for the question as well as your interest. Blessings my friend!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      8 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      Leland, I find this very interesting. Is it possible for you to reference the source that informs us that there was no literal fig tree in Nathaniel's story? Thanks. Otherwise, I follow the discussion.

    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      8 weeks ago from Midland MI

      Hi VC- I’m really glad you liked it and thanks for all the kind words. What stood out to me at first, as you said, this is a rarely mentioned, obscure portion of Scripture. That should tune us into the possibility that there’s more to it. Thanks again!

    • Noelle7 profile image

      Vivian Coblentz 

      8 weeks ago

      Leland,

      It's good to see you back here--you have a voice that's needed on Hubpages!

      This is a great article because it focuses on a portion of scripture that is rarely mentioned. You really unpacked it in a way I hadn't thought about, and I really learned something here!

      I can relate to how Nathanael knew Jesus was the real deal because He told him something He could not have perceived otherwise. This is still available to us today, as you mentioned. Not only does God still speak to us today, but He still has prophets in the world. I have a personal friend with a prophetic ministry. When I first met her, I was AMAZED by the things she told me--things she could never have known unless God revealed it to her. Of course, the devil imitates this with "mediums," but they get their info from demons.

    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      8 weeks ago from Midland MI

      Margaret, I actually forgot to include the text referencing the fig tree. It’s Micah 4:4. I edited the article and added it at the beginning.

    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      8 weeks ago from Midland MI

      Oh wow! thank you Margaret, I will sure check it!

    • revmjm profile image

      Margaret Minnicks 

      8 weeks ago from Richmond, VA

      Leland, I love your article with the explanation concerning the ancient text about “every man sitting under his own fig tree.” Good job!

      I am sending you a personal note to arrive in your inbox. Check it out!

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