Being Seen, Being Known
Few things matter to us like being seen, and being known. The elemental questions of our heart all echo these desires, as do the elemental fears. Nathanael is a man who knows what this means.
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him,
“Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”
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.”
Nathanael answered him,
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
It’s a spin of a conversation, isn’t it? A very short time ago Nathanael was questioning whether anything good could come from Jesus’ hometown, and now he’s casting himself at Jesus’ feet.
A Fig Tree
A few hundred years before this conversation, the prophet Micah declared in looking forward to Jesus that “in the latter days…the Word of the LORD will go forth from Jerusalem and he will judge between the people…and the people will no longer be afraid… but will sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree.”
Here’s the whole passage:
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and it shall be lifted up above the hills;
and peoples shall flow to it,
and many nations shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall decide for strong nations far away;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,
and no one shall make them afraid,
for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
Similarly, the prophet Zechariah (in a vision about the high priest Joshua, concerning the coming of Jesus) prophesied the following:
“And the angel of the LORD solemnly assured Joshua, “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.
Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch [a prophetic symbol of Jesus]. For behold…I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day. 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.”
Sitting under one’s fig tree, my commentary tells me, means to be at home, at safety, at peace, at rest. One is in her most vulnerable place, where her feet go up and her guard goes down and she is seen and known and loved.
Nathanael was at his most vulnerable beneath his literal or figurative fig tree. He was in his inner court, like we are in the privacy of our home, or the sanctity of our bedroom. One can imagine that he was off-guard and his heart was exposed, like our hearts are when we are away from the eyes of the world.
He was in secret.
And just like the Father who witnesses what is done in secret, Jesus witnessed, saw, and knew.
The Ways We Hide
Drift with this a minute, and let’s talk about figs. What do we hide behind when we don’t want to be seen? Little things – like personality, clothes, attitudes, politics, religion. There are a myriad of masks, and we each have our pets. Genesis has a clever bit of symbolism for us to apply to the hideouts of our lives – do you remember?
Fig leaves. Like this:
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”
I Was Afraid
We want – oh, how badly we want! – to be known. But we hide ourselves, like the Man and the Woman, because we are so desperately afraid. What if we are seen, and known, and rejected? Seen, and known, and misunderstood? Seen, and known, and unwanted? Seen, and known, and judged? What if we are seen, and known…and unloved?
Our shame is too great, our fear too strong, our sin too much. We pluck fig leaves and erect shelters and hide amongst the trees. We enter into our safest place: our inner court, our home, our garden, our heart…and we hide.
But it is to the garden that God came walking in Genesis; it is amongst the trees and behind the fig leaves that he looked for the Woman and Man, it is under the fig tree that he saw Nathanael. In the same way, it is to the inner rooms of our hearts that he comes seeking us.
The Messiah would come, the prophecies said, and because of Who He IS and What He Does we will no longer hide amongst the fig trees, but in our own garden – dare I say, in our own hearts – we will sit beneath our fig trees in peace. So secure will we be in being seen and known and loved that we will even invite others to share our shade.
“I know you.”
“How do you know me?”
“I saw you beneath the fig tree.”
In other words:
“I see you; I know you, I know all about your heart.”
In other words:
You are loved.
Did you miss the first part of Nathanael’s story? Take a few minutes and read why his question echoes the deepest longings of our life.
This is a Wednesday in the Word post, where bit by bit I am writing through the Gospel of John. Thank you for reading! See the whole series here.