46 Nathanael said to him, Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 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 will 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 on the Son of Man.”
JOHN 1: 46-51 ESV
46 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ Ναθαναήλ· Ἐκ Ναζαρὲτ δύναταί τι ἀγαθὸν εἶναι; λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Φίλιππος· Ἔρχου καὶ ἴδε. 47 εἶδεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὸν Ναθαναὴλ ἐρχόμενον πρὸς αὐτὸν καὶ λέγει περὶ αὐτοῦ· Ἴδε ἀληθῶς Ἰσραηλίτης ἐν ᾧ δόλος οὐκ ἔστιν. 48 λέγει αὐτῷ Ναθαναήλ· Πόθεν με γινώσκεις; ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Πρὸ τοῦ σε Φίλιππον φωνῆσαι ὄντα ὑπὸ τὴν συκῆν εἶδόν σε. 49 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ Ναθαναήλ· Ῥαββί, σὺ εἶ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, σὺ βασιλεὺς εἶ τοῦ Ἰσραήλ. 50 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Ὅτι εἶπόν σοι ὅτι εἶδόν σε ὑποκάτω τῆς συκῆς πιστεύεις; μείζω τούτων ὄψῃ. 51 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ· Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὄψεσθε τὸν οὐρανὸν ἀνεῳγότα καὶ τοὺς ἀγγέλους τοῦ θεοῦ ἀναβαίνοντας καὶ καταβαίνοντας ἐπὶ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.
JOHN 1: 46-52 SBLGNT
William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, vol. 1, New Testament Commentary on these verses are excellent and provide an excellent backdrop to understanding the profound theological message hidden in the text.
Nathaniel said to him … The echo of the word Nazareth has not yet died when Nathaniel, in complete candour, exclaims, Out of Nazareth can any good come? Though some believe that this scorn for Nazareth must be interpreted as springing from town-rivalry—a possibility which cannot be denied—yet, given the immediate context here (see also 7:52), it is more probable that Nathaniel meant to say, “Is it possible, indeed, that the Messiah can come out of Nazareth? Were there any Old Testaments prophecies that predicted that any good thing in the Messianic category would come forth from that town?” Philip said … Philip gives the best possible answer—one that closely resembles Christ’s reply to Andrew and John, recorded in 1:39—, Come and see. Only when you are a witness will you believe. Their same anology applies from 1:39 in this context, and the author clarifies it is as to how people saw Jesus.
Jesus saw Nathaniel coming toward him and said of him, Look, truly an Israelite in whom deceit does not exist. Jesus says this with respect to Nathaniel, who, accompanied by Philip, was approaching him. Jesus spoke of deceit (δόλος, bait for fish; hence, a snare; then: deceit, guile). In the light of the entire context (see verse 51), it becomes apparent that throughout this account of his conversation with Nathaniel, Christ is thinking of the patriarch Jacob. Regarding the latter, father Isaac had complained, speaking to his son Esau, “Thy brother came with guile, and has taken away thy blessing” (Gen. 27:35; see also the following verse). The employment of trickery for selfish advantage characterized not only Jacob himself (see also Gen. 30:37–43) but also his descendants (cf. Gen. 34). An honest and sincere Israelite, a Jew without duplicity, had become such an exception that at the approach of Nathaniel, Jesus exclaimed, “Look, truly an Israelite in whom deceit does not exist.”
A man of lesser integrity might have thanked Jesus for the compliment and kept his honest thoughts to himself, but not so Nathaniel. Nathaniel said to him, pleasing candour, How do you know me? He desires to become informed about the source of Christ’s knowledge. Was it Philip who had supplied the information upon which Jesus had based his judgment? The Lord now shows that this possible inference would be incorrect. Jesus answered and said, Before Philip called you, I saw you when you were under the fig tree. To his great astonishment, Nathaniel learns that the penetrating eye of his new Master had entered even the sanctuary of his inner devotions beneath the fig tree (cf. Ps. 139).
Deeply moved, Nathaniel answered him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God, thou art the King of Israel! As has been shown, the context forbids us to tone down the meaning of this confession. It is not claimed that Nathaniel’s consciousness of Christ’s exalted character remained on that high level. However, we maintain that this confession must be read in the light of the revelation of our Lord’s supernatural knowledge, which is recorded in the immediately preceding context. To Nathaniel, at the moment when he uttered this exclamation, Jesus was nothing less than God’s own Son. (See on 1:14.) How, then, would he not be the King of Israel, the long-expected Messiah? (cf. Ps. 2).
Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree you believe. Greater things than these you shall see.” Jesus says nothing in disparagement of Nathaniel’s glorious testimony. It seems best—most fitting in this context—to read verse 50 as a declaration and a promise and not a question. The gist of what the Lord tells his new disciple is that more extraordinary things would be revealed to him as a reward for his faith.
Of what more extraordinary things is Jesus thinking? That becomes evident from verse 51, introduced by the Aramaic double Amen (occurring 25 times in the Fourth Gospel). Most solemnly, it may be freely rendered, and it often introduces a statement that expresses a conclusion to what has preceded it.
The great promise that Jesus now makes is addressed to Nathaniel and all those present: do I say to you. Furthermore, the contents of the promise are this, and you shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.
As in verse 47 and here in verse 51, the reference is to the story of Jacob, but while verse 47 has Gen. 27 as its background, verse 51 is based on Gen. 28. According to the latter chapter Jacob, resting one evening during his flight from his brother Esau, whom he had deceived, had a dream. He saw a ladder standing on the earth, top reaching heaven. Ascending and descending upon it were the angels of God. In connection with this dream, Jacob hears the voice of God pronouncing upon him a glorious blessing, which was climaxed by these words, “And in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” Jacob’s ladder finds its antitype or fulfilment in Christ. That is the meaning of the words of the Lord to Nathaniel, “You shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” The latter is here represented as the link between heaven and earth, the bond of union between God and man, the One who reconciles God to man through his sacrifice. With the eye of faith, the disciples will be able to see him in that light. They will be able to see the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. For Jesus, this mysterious term (Son of man) is as rich in meaning as the Messiah’s concept. The term is based on Dan. 7.
Accordingly, when the question is asked, “What are these greater things which Nathaniel will see?” the answer is as follows:
(1) Has he caught a glimpse of Christ’s penetrating knowledge? This disciple—and the others with him—will see that attribute, and all the other attributes, employed in the service of man’s salvation, to God’s glory.
(2) Has Nathaniel confessed to Jesus as the Son of God? The greater thing he and others will come to see is that the Lord is both the Son of God (see verse 49) and the Son of man (verse 51), reconciling God with man, the true Ladder between heaven and earth.
(3) Has Bartholomew given expression to his discovery by exclaiming, “Thou art King of Israel?” The greater thing, reserved for the future, is that the followers of the Lord will learn to adore him as standing in relation to Israel not only but to mankind in general, for he is the Son of man!
On the fourth day, Jesus, making preparations to depart for Galilee, added another disciple to the little group. He was a man with a Greek name, Philip (meaning lover of horses). We are not surprised that this disciple (together with Andrew, the only other disciple with a Greek name, meaning manly) introduced Greeks to Jesus. However, this happened a long time afterwards (12:20–22). The first two disciples were Andrew and John, and the third and fourth were Peter and James. Philip was, therefore, the fifth disciple. In every list of apostles, he is mentioned as the fifth one (Matt. 10:2 f.; Mark 3:16 f.; Luke 6:14 f.; and Acts 1:13 f.). He came from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter. It is, therefore, probable that these two disciples had already spoken to Philip about their great discovery. Jesus told Philip to follow him, and he obeyed.
Philip, in turn, found Nathaniel, a man from Cana in Galilee. When he was told that the Messiah was the son of Joseph, the one from Nazareth, Nathaniel, at the sound of the name of this place, exclaimed, “Out of Nazareth can any good come?” He had never connected any Messianic promises with this town. Rather than argue with him, Philip says, “Come and see.”
Jesus, seeing Nathaniel approaching, remarked, “Look, truly an Israelite in whom deceit does not exist,” an evident reference to the story of Jacob recorded in Gen. 27. He reveals to this new disciple that his secret devotions under the fig tree had not been concealed from the eyes of the One about whom Moses wrote in the law and about whom the prophets wrote. In the light of this marvellous knowledge, Nathaniel exclaimed, “Rabbi, thou art the Son of God, thou art King of Israel.”
As a reward for this manifestation of faith, Jesus promises that Nathaniel and others with him would see even greater things; namely, “the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man,” a reference to the story of Jacob’s dream about the ladder (Gen. 28). Among these greater things we may mention: the recognition that Jesus is not only the Son of God but also the Son of Man; hence, the Ladder between God and man, and that he would use all his attributes for the purpose of saving the elect from every nation, to the glory of God.1
With profound clarity, the accumulation of Jesus’s narrative provides the prologue to these disciples to the unfolding story that they were to witness. “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”As each of us journey seeking Jesus, He has already seen us, and as we today are witness to the salvation, Jesus has provided the avenue and the path for us. He sees us and awaits us, and until we proclaim, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!…” we will continue to be lost. Jesus has done all, and now it is time for us to act as he awaits us.