The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter.
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”
Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
Philip said, “Come and see.”
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?”
Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”
Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son. You are the king of Israel.”
Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these! I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.”
There are some really good poetic images here that I want to talk about. First is Nate’s response to Jesus, “You’re G_d’s Son.” When Nate said this, he was not speaking about the second person of the Trinity. Too often, that’s how we read these statements. But that is not what a first century Jew would have thought.
While Jews understood (and still do) that G_d has different manifestations (the Word, Wisdom, etc.), they were monotheistic. G_d is One. That is, G_d is of an undivided nature or essence. This understanding is found in the Shema. The Shema is an affirmation of Judaism and a declaration of faith in the one G_d. Jews are obligated to say the Shema every morning and evening. The first line of the Shema is taken from Deuteronomy 6.4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
So when Nathan said, “You’re G_d’s son,” he meant something else. And the clue to what he meant is in his next sentence, “You’re the king of Israel.” It’s highly known that the G_d’s anointed king, the Messiah, would come from the line of David. That is how the understood “G_d’s son.” It was a royal title, not a theological understanding. G_d’s son would be the Messiah, the true king of Israel.
Certainly, later on, the term phrase “G_d’s son” takes on a different meaning and understanding. But not here. Nathan meant that he believed that Jesus was Israel’s true king, G_d’s anointed, the Messiah.*
Then Jesus does something strange. He takes the meaning of kingship, of Messiah, and spins it on its head with another poetic symbol - Jacob’s ladder.
In that story, Jacob falls asleep and has a dream. In the dream he sees a staircase (or ladder) stretching from earth to heaven and there are angels going up and down the staircase. When Jacob awakes, he’s in awe. He realizes that he’s stumbled upon a thin place. A place that is the entrance into G_d’s Realm. Jacob blesses the place and honors it as a sacred space.
When Jesus tells Nathan, “You’ll see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One,” He’s saying a number of things. First and foremost, is that the idea of Messiah is not going to be the one most of them were thinking about. That is, the Messiah is not going to be a warlord and conqueror of the pagans by winning back Jerusalem with violence. No, the king is going to be the staircase in Jacob’s dream. He will be the tool for connecting our realm with G_d’s Realm.
Second, Jesus would be the entrance, the door or the gate, into G_d’s house. That means that the way Jesus established would be the way one get’s to G_d’s Realm.
Lastly, a staircase isn’t just for ascending. It’s also for descending. Jesus is saying that he would be the means for bringing G_d’s Realm to earth.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
* For more information on this, I highly recommend N. T. Wright’s book, The New Testament and the People of God. And here’s a really good paper on it as well, Jesus and the Identity of God.