The Fig Tree & the Tree of Life

gray trunk green leaf tree beside body of water

In 2 Timothy 1:10, Paul the Apostle tells us that Jesus came to abolish death and bring life and immortality to light through the gospel. I looked at this passage yesterday in a sermon titled “Born That Man No More May Die,” as part of our Advent series, looking at who Jesus was and why he came.

In the sermon I looked at a story that has always intrigued me: Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel in John 1, in which Jesus declares that Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28) was a foreshadowing of Him: Jesus is the bridge between Heaven and Earth, between mortal humanity and immortality.

What Was Nathanael Doing Under the Fig Tree?

In John 1, we read that Nathanael is skeptical when he hears that Jesus is from Nazareth; he cannot believe that the Messiah could ever come from a place like that. In my sermon, I explained that the reason Nazareth was despised was because it was a generally poor, working class town, where most of the people worked for the pagan Greeks in the nearby city of Sepphoris.

Nathanael is then introduced to Jesus, and immediately he lets go of his skepticism and is convinced that Jesus truly is the Messiah. What changed his mind? It was something that Jesus said to him as soon as they met:

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.” (John 1:47-48)

What was Nathanael doing under the fig tree? According to some Jewish rabbis, Jewish people would traditionally read the Scriptures under a fig tree because of the belief that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (the tree Adam and Eve were told not to eat from lest they die), was a fig tree, because after they sinned and their eyes were opened to the fact of their nakedness, Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with fig leaves.

The statement about an Israelite in whom there is no deceit is likely as allusion to the story of Jacob, whose name means: “deceiver”, but after wrestling with God, he was given a new name: Israel, which means something like: “grapples with God”, “subdued by God” or “governed by God.”

These allusions to Jacob “the deceiver” whose identity was changed by his encounter with God, along with the mention of the fig tree lead many to believe that Nathanael must have been reading about Jacob in the Book of Genesis, and the fact that Jesus knew that, convinced Nathanael that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the promised Savior and king.

Cut Off from the Tree of Life?

Speaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, in Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve ate of it, they were cast out of the Garden of Eden, and an angel with a flaming sword was placed to guard the entrance of it, lest they – or anyone else – eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. (Genesis 3:22)

That verse might strike you as a little bit confusing: Doesn’t God WANT us to eat of the Tree of Life and live forever?

The answer is: Yes, but not in this fallen state. In other words, it was an act of God’s mercy that Adam and Eve were cut off from the Tree of Life, lest they eat from it and live forever in their fallen state. Instead, God allowed them to die, so that he might one day redeem them through Jesus, and ultimately resurrect them unto eternal life. For us as well, it is God’s mercy that he allows us to die “the first death” (physical death) and saves us from “the second death” (eternal Spiritual death, see Revelation 21:8).

Further Discussion

Mike and I sat down this week and discussed these and other topics in our weekly Sermon Extra video. Check it out: