The impression from the Synoptics is that the first disciples heard a virtually unknown stranger calling them to follow him. By Matthew 16 they have come to the conviction that this Jesus is in fact "the Christ, the Son of the living God". Here in John the story begins much more with the revelation/discovery of Jesus' identity. Andrew specifically names Jesus "the Messiah" (v. 41).
From Nathanael's point of view, there was nothing to commend Nazareth as the place from which the Messiah should come. He was not being derisory of Nazareth itself as a town.
Jesus says of Nathanael, "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false" (v.47). Jacob, by name and action, was the deceiver (Gen. 25.19-34; 27). It was much later on his way back to meet Esau that he received the name Israel, the one who struggles with God. Nathanael was a true Israel in whom there was no Jacob. Even his querying of Jesus' town of origin was a sign of his authenticity.
"I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you" (v. 48). This statement causes Nathanael's affirmation, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel" (v. 49). On the surface we find it difficult to see why Jesus' statement should cause such a dramatic change in Nathanael's attitude. In fact, "under the fig tree" with its drooping habit and covering leaves was a place of solitude ideal for meditation and prayer. Contrast Jesus' observation about the "hypocrites" of that time (Mt. 6.1-2,5-8,16-18).
V. 51 - "I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." Here is an even clearer allusion to Jacob and his experience at the place he named Bethel - "house of God" (Gen. 28.10-17). Jacob the deceiver, fresh from having tricked his blind father into giving him the blessing offered to the favourite son Esau, is met by God in a strange dream which convinced him that God was not just back at home, but was with him, caring for him wherever he went. In his dream "he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it" (v. 12).
And now for you, Nathanael - true Israelite - there will be the knowledge of "heaven open", the Son of Man himself being the very means of approach and communication with God - the true "stairway to heaven".
Interestingly, the term "Son of Man" is used here - in response to Nathanael's "Son of God" - more common in the Synoptics. No matter how we may wrestle with the precise meaning of the term, there is no doubt that the scripturally literate Nathanael would catch the allusions.
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