“Are you telling me that something good can come out of Nazareth?”
“Come and see.”
“Rabbi, you’re the son of God! You’re the king of Israel!”
I’ve always loved this exchange, especially the mysterious verses 47-49: Jesus sees Nathaniel coming toward him, and says, “Here he comes. Look at him! He’s a real Israelite. Genuine through and through.” Or as the older translations put it, “in whom is no guile.” (There is a wordplay here that is a clear reference to Jacob from the OT, in whom there was much guile.)
“How did you get to know me?” asked Nathaniel.
He and Jesus never met before.
“Oh,” Jesus replied, “I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip spoke to you.”
“Rabbi,” replied Nathaniel, “you’re the son of God! You’re the king of Israel!”
Why the strong reaction from Nathaniel? Just because Jesus saw him under a fig tree?
Well, much of the time in antiquity, fig trees were used as places for prayer, meditation, and study due to the glorious shade they provided. This is much more than, “Hey, the other day I was walking by and saw you sitting under that tree.” That would not have elicited the strong reaction, conversion, that it did.
What John the author is showing here is that way back, when Nathaniel was all alone in a certain spot, possibly in deep prayer, Jesus knew of it, and knew Nathaniel inside and out even then. The main point is that Nathaniel knew exactly what Jesus was referencing, and that Jesus has knowledge that is preternatural (beyond what is natural or human).
He knows Nathaniel, before Nathaniel knows him.
This is what Nathaniel experienced. Being supernaturally known.
That can convert anyone into becoming a true believer.
How awesome is Philip’s approach to Nathaniel, much like the woman at the well, to come and see Jesus!
How do you invite people to come and see Jesus?
Bonus material from The IVP Bible Background Commentary on verse 50-51:
The opening of the heavens indicated a major revelation (e.g. Ezekiel 1:1). Jesus’ words allude to Genesis 28:12: Jesus is the new way between heaven and earth (Jacob’s ladder) on whom angels ascend and descend; like Jacob of old, this “genuine Israelite” Nathaniel would receive this new revelation.