45 Philip found Nathanael, and said to him, "We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." 46 Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" 48 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." 49 Nathanael answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" 50 Jesus answered him, "Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these." 51 And he said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man." (Jn 1:45-51)
This passage is curious. First Jesus makes a funny comment about Nathaniel (“...in whom there is no guile”) which doesn’t make much sense. Then he tells Nathaniel he saw him in a certain place and Nathaniel immediately concludes from this that Jesus is the Son of God. Curious.
Of course, there's much going on here, so let's dig in. First, we hear Nathaniel’s lackluster reply to Philip about Nazareth - Can anything good from Nazareth? Philip implies Jesus is the Messiah, but the Messiah should come from Bethlehem:
3 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Mic 5:2)
As for Nazareth, it’s nowhere mentioned in the OT. At least, not as a town. The root of the name Nazareth is believed by many Christians to be the Hebrew word Netzer, which means root or branch. And that word is found in the OT in a particularly important passage:
1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch [netzer]shall grow out of his roots. 2 And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. (Is 11:1-3)
Isaiah here prophesied the Messiah as a root (netzer) of Jesse, the father of King David. This passage is a clear reference to Jesus, who was Jesse’s descendent, and it gives a reason why Jesus was a Nazarene, to recall this Isaiaian prophecy. It seems Nathaniel did not recognize that.
Jesus calls Nathaniel an Israelite. Just a few verses earlier in v. 31, St. John the Baptist says he came to baptize so that Jesus could be revealed to Israel. It is curious that the Baptist referred to Israel, when in fact Israel and the Israelites had been gone for over 700 years; the nation of the Jews was Judah (Judea). The difference between Israel and Judah is critical in Jewish history and even more so in Christianity. The Messiah was to restore all Israel, that is, all twelve tribes of Israel; this even though only the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi remained, living in Judea - the other tribes having been scattered throughout the world. A Messiah would have to gather all the nations in the world into the covenant to ensure the bloodlines of the lost tribes of Israel were included. (This is, of course, what Jesus ultimately did.) In calling Nathaniel an Israelite, he was recalling this loss of the ancient ten tribes and the Messianic promise to restore them.
Furthermore, Jesus called Nathaniel an Israelite “in whom is no guile.” First, the word guile and guilt are related, so Jesus is making a statement about having no guilt (just save this thought for a moment). Second, this is notoriously understood to be a reference to the man Israel, that is, to Jacob, whose name was changed from Jacob to Israel and who was famous for his guile. It’s a bit of a pun, but it also recalls the story of Jacob/Israel and his twelve sons who originated the twelve tribes of Israel. On the literal level, Jesus telling Nathaniel that he had no guile implied that Jesus knew him well enough to make such a character judgment. And Nathaniel asked Jesus how he knew him. Jesus replied that he saw him sitting under a fig tree.
At this point something important happened, because Nathaniel suddenly recognized Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah. Consider some of the select words used so far: branch (netzer), Israel, fig tree, guile (guilt). There is an OT prophecy that ties these together with the name of Jesus. First, we must understand that Jesus’ name in Hebrew was Yeshua, which is transliterated into English as Jesus and also as Joshua. Jesus and Joshua are one and the same name in Hebrew.
1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. 2 And the LORD said to Satan, "The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?" 3 Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. 4 And the angel said to those who were standing before him, "Remove the filthy garments from him." And to him he said, "Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with rich apparel." 5 And I said, "Let them put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments; and the angel of the LORD was standing by. 6 And the angel of the LORD enjoined Joshua, 7 "Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here. 8 Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men of good omen: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch. 9 For behold, upon the stone which I have set before Joshua, upon a single stone with seven facets, I will engrave its inscription, says the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. 10 In that day, says the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor under his vine and under his fig tree." (Zech 3:1-10)
This prophecy is by Zechariah, who wrote during the Babylonian Captivity of Judah; Israel had been gone some 200 years by then. This passage describes Joshua the high priest in liturgical vestments, but they are dirty, signifying the guilt of Judah. But the Lord replaces the dirty vestments with clean, rich vestments (the turban would be the miter of the high priest); as he says, the Lord will remove the guilt of the land in a single day.
Of particular interest in this passage is the stone with seven facets, i.e., seven eyes. We can see who has seven eyes in the NT Book of Revelation:
6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (Rev 5:6)
The lamb is, of course, Christ. And elsewhere we read:
There are several allusions to Christ as a ‘stone.’ So, the stone with seven eyes in Zechariah in none other than Christ; not that Nathaniel would have seen this allusion which we Christians enjoy.
So what went through Nathaniel’s mind – here was Jesus (Joshua), from Nazareth (Netzer), seeing/visiting Nathaniel under his fig tree, removing his guilt, speaking of old Israel, and Phillip calls Him the Messiah. How does he conclude from such a collection of information, informed by Zechariah’s prophecy, that Jesus was the Son of God and King of Israel? He obviously concluded that Jesus/Joshua was the very high priest from Zechariah’s prophecy. This conclusion, though very good, may seem like a bit of a reach to us; apparently, so it did to Jesus who questioned him on this. Jesus then swore an oath to Nathaniel that he will see the heavens opened and angels ascending & descending on the Son of man. What does this mean?
This is, of course, a reference to the story of Jacob/Israel; after he left his father Isaac to find a wife, Jacob stopped in a certain place and slept on a rock, where he dreamed. He dreamed of a ladder to the heavens with angels ascending and descending, and God Himself repeated His covenant oath which he swore to Abraham. When Jacob awoke, he blessed the rock he had slept on and swore his own oath back to God, accepting His covenant. Jacob named the place Beth-el, which means House of God.
16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place; and I did not know it." 17 And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." 18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone which he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that thou givest me I will give the tenth to thee." (Gn 28:16-22)
It is interesting that Jesus referred to Jacob when he said to Nathaniel, “"Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" In this OT story of Jacobs Ladder, Jacob set up a stone as a testament to the covenant sworn there between he and God; as we know, the number seven is the number of covenant, therefore Zechariah’s prophecy of the stone with seven facets could very well refer to this story of Jacob and his covenantal stone. (Please also note that Jacob anointed the stone with oil; the words Messiah and Christ both mean ‘anointed one’ lending further evidence that the stone in Zechariah’s prophecy refers to Christ.) Then Jesus references this story by telling Nathaniel that he will see that very miracle of Jacob’s Ladder.
In our Christian hindsight, we understand Jacob’s Ladder – that connection between heaven and earth – to be Jesus Himself. The salvation Jesus offers us is that He Himself, the Son of man, is the way to heaven for us. Note angels both ascend and descend on the Son of man, implying Jesus is both in heaven and on the earth; he is God and man, united in one. Likewise, we understand with Christian hindsight the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy: “I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. In that day, says the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor under his vine and under his fig tree." We understand what day is meant here; the great day we call Good Friday, when the Lord died for our sins and removed the guilt of the land.