Slip under the shade of a fig tree with me and listen to the unusual way Jesus told one of his future disciples that exciting days were just ahead.
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus told Nathanael in John 1:51, “you will see ‘heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”
Without an awareness of the cultural context of the passage, you might just write it off as one of those things Jesus said from time to time that sounded … well … like Jesus was talking. I mean, who talks like that other than Jesus? It would make more sense to us if Jesus had said, “Hey Nathanael, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
Then again, if you can hear what Nathanael’s Jewish ears heard, the words make perfect sense. Plus, what appears to be a not-so-important conversation turns into a real game-changer if you can get into Nathanael’s world.
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Remember Jacob, the man who was re-named “Israel?” While he was still a young man and running away from his angry twin brother, Jacob had one of the most famous dreams in history. In the dream, Jacob saw a “ladder” on which the angels of God ascended and descended.
Jacob believed the dream signified that the ground where he had been sleeping was a very special place. This, he believed, was a supernatural place where God and man could meet. Deeply moved, Jacob named the site “Bethel,” meaning “House of God.”
It all happened just a few miles north of modern-day Jerusalem. This was the heart of the land God had given Jacob and his descendants and the dream was apparently God’s way of assuring Jacob he would one day return home and live there. But if there really was a supernatural importance to this “holy land,” the dream had implications far beyond Jacob’s lifetime.
Now listen to what Jesus said to Nathanael.
Nathanael, you might recall, had just been caught asking, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” That had to be embarrassing, considering the most famous Nazarene in history called him out for the insult. The cutting remark had come underneath a shady fig tree.
“Rabbi,” said the chagrined disciple, “you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel!”
“You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree,” Jesus answered. “You will soon see greater things than that.”
And then came the promise of something very, very big. “Nathanael,” Jesus said, “the time is coming when you will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” It was the same language the Bible used to describe Jacob’s dream!
Without actually spelling it out, Jesus was telling his Jewish friend, “I am the living embodiment of Jacob’s ladder. I am the connecting point between heaven and earth. I am the bridge between God and man.” It’s pretty bold stuff to claim to be Jacob’s dream-come-true.
But that’s Jesus, and you’d better believe Nathanael heard what he was saying. It would take three years of following before he fully understood the message, but right from the start, Nathanael the Jewish man heard the radical Jewish claim from a very Jewish rabbi.
The question today is this: Can you hear what Jesus was saying?
I’ve been challenging Christian audiences for years to ask this one question of their Bible reading: “What difference does it make that Jesus was Jewish?”
If you’ll ask the question, you’ll spend the rest of your life discovering the answer. More than likely, you’ll devour books and videos on the “Jewish roots” of the New Testament. You might take a trip to see the land of the Bible. You’ll certainly discover the amazing connection between Passover and the “Lord’s Supper.”
And with every page you turn you’ll discover something new about your Bible. Even under Nathanael’s fig tree.
Andy Cook is the founder of Experience Israel Now and a resident of Peach County.