“How Do You Know Me?”
“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!'”
– John 1:47-49
Nathanael’s response to Jesus saying that He saw him “under the fig tree” has always been interesting to me. Why do Jesus’ words cause Nathanael to recognize Christ as the Son of God and King of Israel? Prophets in the Old Testament displayed similar knowledge of people’s actions (1 Sam.9:19-20), so why does Nathanael not say, “you are a prophet,” but instead, “you are the Son of God” and “King of Israel“?
Obviously, we cannot know what exactly was happening in Nathanael’s heart, but we can make a biblically educated guess, and that’s what I want to do quickly in today’s post.
“I Know My Own”
First in v.42 we see that Jesus knows Simon upon first sight well enough to name Him “Cephas/Peter” (Rock). As we get to know Peter throughout the rest of the canon, this name proves itself to have been well chosen. In naming Simon “the Rock,” Jesus was penetrating into the man’s soul, knowing Him, and then drawing out what He had known and labeling Him. The name “Cephas” was a stamp placed on this disciple by the Lord that declared, “I know you.”
This leads me to believe that Christ’s encounter with Nathanael displays a similar knowledge. In fact, Nathanael says as much in v. 48. After Christ declares him to be “an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit,” Nathanael responds, “how do you know me?” Now, Jesus has not used Nathanael’s name, which means that His description of him as a man in whom there is no deceit must have struck deeply enough so that Nathanael felt known. Perhaps Nathanael struggled with lying and so fought hard to be without deceit, or perhaps he was praying for victory over deception; whatever the case, when he heard these words he knew that he was known. But Christ is going to delve even deeper into this man’s heart…
In response to Nathanael’s question, Jesus responds that He saw him under the fig tree. Now, when and where was this “fig tree” incident? It is often assumed that Philip found Nathanael under the tree, but the text doesn’t say that. The situation to which Christ is referring (and to which Nathanael knows He is referring) may have been days, weeks, or even years earlier. Based on Nathanael’s exultant response, it seems to me that “the fig tree” may have been some formative, even crisis moment in Nathanael’s life so that when Jesus mentions it, there is no doubt in Nathanael’s mind that this man before Him is God.
Perhaps the fig tree was a place where Nathanael always went to pray, perhaps it was a place where he wept to God after a tragedy in his life, perhaps it was a place where a life altering decision was made…whatever the case, it was close enough to His heart that, when Christ mentions it, Nathanael is overwhelmed, stripped of his defenses, and caused to believe in Jesus as His Lord and God.
What would the “fig tree” be for me? For you? What is that singular instance, that secret moment or place that – if Jesus where to speak it to us – we would be crippled by awe at His divine knowledge of us? Whatever it might be, He knows it. The God of this universe knows us so intimately that with one word, with one reference, He could flood our entire being with tears of joy at the realization that He has always been with us and – for the Christian – has always loved us. Yes, Christian, He KNOWS His own. He KNOWS His sheep. He has known us since before Creation. He has known us longer than the oceans have existed, He – personally – has known us – personally – since before the stars were kindled.
But we do not have to rely on the guess-work I’ve outlined above to prove this. What I surmise was taking place in John 1:47-49 is only the outworking of what Jesus clearly teaches in John 10:14:
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”
Our True Name
He knows His own. He knows us. We can experience this in part now, but one day it will become gloriously manifest. When we see Christ, He will give us a name known only by Himself and the one to whom He gives it.
“”I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it”
– Revelation 2:17
And when we hear that name, we will shatter in joy-filled wonder that we are so intimately known by one so infinitely great. We have, perhaps, had the experience in this life of someone saying or doing something that shows just how well they know and love us. A gift, a card, a saying, a joke, a nickname….it is wonderful to know that we are known. However, the True Name that Christ has for us will eclipse all of these things. This name will be us….it will be the us we only saw shadows of in this world, such that hearing it will be like seeing our beatified soul in a mirror. However, unlike the mirrors of this world, that name will not fix our minds on self, but on Other. As we know that we are fully known, we will be freed to fully know – which is our great joy.
When we hear our name on the lips of our King, we will know His love for us and ours for Him as never before, and so we will become ourselves as never before….Jesus teaches us that, we truly live only by losing our lives (John 12:25), and in the same way, we are never more ourselves than when we belong wholly to another.
For the Unbeliever
But it also needs to be said that the joy of being known does not belong to the one who refuses Christ as God. For them, God’s intimate knowledge of their hearts should be frightening and, if nothing changes, will be damning. Oh, God knows us all, but it is blessed only to the Christian. So, if you are reading this as one who has not bowed their heart to Jesus Christ, please be terrified that God knows you…..be terrified and let that terror drive you humbly and repentantly and desperately into His arms and you will – He promises – find your terror melting into joy.