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John 1c – Of Rabbis and Fig Trees

There were a couple things that I ran across in my research of John 1:35-51 that I wasn’t able to squeeze into the sermon. Here are two of them, one a possible intertextual connection, and another an overview of the names assigned to Jesus in John 1.


Fig Trees

Jesus’ statement to Nathanael – “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (1:48) is quite mysterious. It is apparent that Nathanael knew exactly what Jesus was referring to, but the readers are not let in on that mystery.

Some scholars think there may be a hint in Zechariah 3:10. In Zechariah 3, the prophet receives a vision of the high priest Joshua (not the same Joshua in the book bearing his name) removing his dirty clothes and putting on clean priestly clothing (3:1-5). Joshua is promised that in the future, God will remove the iniquity in the land when God’s servant, “the Branch,” comes (3:8-9). “The Branch” refers to the Messiah.

Then, Zechariah is told in 3:10, “In that day, declares the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree” (ESV). So the angel encourages Zechariah to look forward to a day when the Messiah will take away the iniquity of the land, and it will be a day of prosperity and fellowship and peace, symbolized by the neighborly fig tree invitation.

Zechariah 3:10 itself likely alludes to 1 Kings 4:25: And Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon. 1 Kings 4 depicts an idealistic time of prosperity under the reign of King Solomon. So the Zechariah prophecy likely reuses that imagery to depict the future reign of the Messiah.

It may be that there is a slight allusion to this in John 1 when Jesus speaks of Nathanael sitting under the fig tree (Kostenberger, John, 83). Just as the Messiah shows up, we see a “true Israelite” (1:47) sitting under a fig tree.

Though this connection certainly is quite interesting, at the end of the day I’m not sure that it’s meant to be understood in this passage. The context of John 1 isn’t focused so much on the prosperity brought by the Messiah; rather, the chapter is more focused on the divine and human qualities of the Messiah Himself. That He can speak of what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree evidences His divine knowledge. Nothing else in the chapter seems to indicate that we are to consider the future benefits of the Messiah’s reign (other than 1:51 pointing towards the future glory of the cross).

So ultimately, I chose not to go down this rabbit trail of an improbable allusion, since it would detract from the main focus of the text.


Divine Names

It would be very difficult to preach John 1 all in one sermon. Besides the fact that it is 51 verses long, the first few verses alone pack in enough dense theology to fill several sermons, let alone one. But what suffers when a preacher breaks up a passage into pieces too tiny is the overall picture that the narrator paints.

Commentator Gary M. Burge (of the NIVAC series) points out that one of the cumulative effects of John 1 is the litany of titles people use to refer to Jesus (pg. 81). These include: Messiah/Christ (1:20, 41), the Prophet (1:21), Jesus (1:29), Lamb of God (1:29, 36), one who baptizes with the Spirit (1:33), Son of God (1:34, 49), Rabbi/Teacher (1:38, 49), Son of Joseph (1:45), King of Israel (1:49), Son of Man (1:51). Remarkably, these titles come quite early in the ministry of Jesus, with most of them holding meaning much fuller than the speaker could have possibly known at that time. For instance, when Nathanael calls Jesus, “the Son of God,” he was probably thinking in messianic terms, without yet grasping the fullness of the Trinity and incarnation and deity of Jesus.

We can add to this list the names and descriptions used by the narrator to refer to Jesus: the Word (1:1), Creator (1:3), life (1:4), the true light (1:4, 9), the only Son from the Father (1:14), He who comes after me (1:15), the only God (1:18).

When we step back and take in the fullness of this passage, we are overwhelmed by an incredible picture of Jesus Christ – fully God, fully man, Messiah and Creator, giver of life and light. It certainly is a magisterial way of beginning a Gospel.

One Comment

  1. Thank You Pastor Bryan for Another Great Message!! Thank You for being a Disciple of God for me and Everyone at Bethany and All Around. I Love You My Brother In Christ.

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