The calling of the apostles is pretty much straightforward. Jesus walks up to fishermen and calls them to follow him and to become “fishers of men.” The meaning is deep, but not very mysterious. The same cannot be said for the calling of Nathaniel. Unlike the usual, “Come follow me,” Nathaniel and Jesus enter into a short dialogue that seems on the surface to be very odd.
The narrative begins with Philip telling Nathaniel that he had found the one prophesied by Moses and the prophets, Jesus of Nazareth. Nathaniel was not impressed and says to Philip, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip invites Nathaniel to “come and see.” While still a ways off, Jesus sees Nathaniel and says to him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.” Nathaniel’s answer is sometimes translated poorly. Nathaniel doesn’t reply, “How do you know me?” like we’d expect him to say. Instead, he says, “Where do you know me?” Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathaniel responds, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (John 1:45-50).
If you’re like me, you probably have the feeling that there is more going on in this passage than meets the eye. For example, why did Nathaniel have a problem with Nazareth? Why did he ask Jesus, “Where do you know me?” instead of, “How do you know me?” And why would Nathaniel assume Jesus is the Messiah King simply because he saw him under a fig tree? Certainly, Nathaniel recognized something that we don’t. But what?
Let’s begin by noting that it all begins with Philip and Nathaniel’s discussion about Nazareth. Philip identifies the Messiah as “Jesus of Nazareth,” and Nathaniel asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Why focus on Nazareth?
Nazareth is a Hebrew name that has for its root the word “netzer,” which means “branch” or “shoot.” The figure of a “branch” or “shoot” is commonly associated with the Messiah King (Isaiah 11:1, Jeremiah 23:5, etc.). As we will see, this will be important.
Next, Nathaniel accepts Philip’s invitation and leaves his fig tree to go see this person from the town of “shoot” or “branch.” When Jesus sees Nathaniel coming to him, he calls him “a true Israelite.” Nathaniel responses, “Where do you know me?” On one level, this is the first time Nathaniel meets Jesus, so it is a logical question. It’s also possible that Nathaniel knew of the messianic prophecy in Zechariah 3:8, 10, which says:
“Listen, O Joshua, high priest! You and your associates who sit before you are men of good omen. Yes, I will bring my servant the Shoot … On that day, says the LORD of hosts, you will invite one another under your vines and fig trees.” (Zechariah 3:8, 11).
Notice that Zechariah calls the Messiah, “the Shoot,” and says that in the days of the Messiah the Israelites will “invite one another under your vines and fig trees” just like Philip invited Nathaniel. Nathaniel, being a true Israelite, accepted the invitation and came out. Perhaps wondering if this was a mere coincidence, he asked Jesus “where” he knew him. Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” It was no coincidence that Nathaniel, a true Israelite, was invited to meet Jesus of Nazareth (the Shoot) from under a fig tree. This is exactly what Zechariah foresaw. Realizing this, Nathaniel proclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” Indeed, not only would Nathaniel see the fulfillment of Zechariah 3:8, 11, but ultimately the fulfillment of all that was written about the Messiah by Moses and the prophets.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.