The Gospel of John 1:35-52 – Jesus’ 12 Apostles and the Symbolism of the Fig Tree. Refer also to the Gospels of Mark 11:11-23; Matthew 21:18,19; and, Matthew 21:20-22
The Gospel reading of John 1:35-52 represents the 2nd day in a sequence of events leading to the gathering of Jesus’ 12 Apostles. The 1st day is marked by John the Baptist providing testimony (John 1:29-35) that Jesus Christ was the Son of God by saying that he personally saw the Holy Spirit descend and remain on Jesus at His Baptism (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22). The Lord’s first 2 Apostles were followers of John the Baptist’s teachings, Andrew (John 1:41) and Simon (also called Peter or Cephas, John 1:41, 42). Philip (John 1:43) was the third Apostle and was found by Jesus in Galilee. When Jesus asked Philip to follow him, it is likely that Andrew and Simon Peter were with Jesus at the time. Andrew and Simon Peter were from Philip’s home town of Bethsaida so Philip may have known them. Philip, in turn, went to his friend Nathanael (also called Bartholomew) and asked him to come and hear Jesus. When Nathanael came to Jesus, Jesus recognized him. Nathanael was surprised about this and asked how Jesus knew him. Jesus answered that He saw Nathanael under a fig tree before Philip called him. Interestingly, in John’s account, it does not mention that Philip found Nathanael under a fig tree, so where does the fig tree come into Jesus’ recollection of seeing Nathanael for the first time? Biblical scholars discuss and debate this passage about the fig tree in John 1:48. Some say that the fig tree was where Philip and Nathanael met to discuss religious topics but there is no scriptural evidence to support this. Since there is obviously some significance in Jesus seeing Nathanael under a Fig tree, let’s explore the fig tree symbolism.
The Fig tree was actually the 3rd tree mentioned in the Garden of Eden, Genesis 3:7. The Tree of Life was the 1st tree and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the 2nd tree (Gen 2:9) It was from the Fig tree that Adam and Eve covered themselves with leaves after the Fall when they became aware of their nakedness (Gen. 3:7). There is an interesting dichotomy here. The sap of fig tree leaves is an irritant to many people causing rashes and illness. Of all the trees that Adam and Eve could have picked from to make covering out of, they choose fig tree leaves. Was this an act of repentance? St. Irenaeus and others believe it was an act of repentance. The Lord, Himself, in His infinite mercy made clothing to cover them when they were sent out of the Garden so they would not wear the fig tree leaves. Later, in the Old Testament, the budding fig tree was a symbol of wealth and posterity (Deuteronomy 8:8-10; 1 Kings 4:25; 2 Kings 18; and, throughout the Book of Jeremiah). It was also a symbol of love and taking care of one’s master (Proverbs 27:18, Song of Solomon 2:13). In Joel 2:21-25, most biblical scholars believe the reference to a fruitful fig tree refers to the establishment of the Church (Romans 11:17-24; John 15:1; Luke 13:6-). In the New Testament, the parable of the budding fig tree is found in Matthew 24:32-36; Mark 13:28-32 and Luke 21:29-33. If one considers these passages, along with the parable of the fig tree that bore no fruit and was cursed by Jesus, Mark 11:12-20, one can easily conclude that a fig tree which only produces leaves rather edible fruit, is nothing more than a tree that can perpetuate illness and suffering – there is no saving grace in the tree if it doesn’t bear fruit – therefore, when Jesus happened upon the barren fig tree (Mark 11:12-20), he cursed it so it withered and died and could not be an irritant to the people. So, how is this all aligned to Jesus seeing Nathanael under a fig tree before Philip called him? Some biblical scholars believe that the fruitful fig tree was symbolically used in John 1:48 to emphasize that Jesus knew the Israelite, Nathanael, would not be an unbeliever like many Israelites were at the time, but would rather be like a fruitful fig tree and bring others to the true faith for their salvation. This is evidenced through Jesus’ own words when He saw Nathanael coming toward him, “….Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! ” 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.”
NOTE: The terms Apostles and Disciples were often used interchangeably to refer to the original 12 who followed Jesus Christ because they were either learning from Him (Disciples) or being sent by Him (Apostles) to preach, heal the sick and cast out demons. The term Apostles means “one who is sent”; the term Disciples means “a person who is learning from a teacher”. The Gospels of Matthew (10:1-4), Mark (3:13-19), and Luke (6:12-16) report the original 12 Apostles to be: Simon (Peter), Andrew, James (Son of Zebedee), John (James Brother), Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew (the tax collector also called Levi in Mark and Luke), James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddaeus (also called Jude son of James), Simon (The Cananean also called Zealot), and Judas Iscariot (called son of Simon Iscariot in John – replaced by Matthias who was chosen using the traditional Jewish method of casting of lots (Proverbs 16:33) by the other Apostles between Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost (Acts 1:15-26). The Gospel of John names Thomas as Didymus (John 11:16, 20, 24; 21:2) and John does not name himself as an Apostle but rather refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”(John 13:23, 20:2). The Gospel of John also does not name Matthew (Levi), James (Son of Alphaeus), or Simon (The Cananean also called Zealot) as Apostles.
References: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vols I, IVa, InterVarsity Press; Lawrence R. Farley, The Gospel of John, Beholding the Glory, Conciliar Press; Paul Nadim Tarazi, The New Testament, Johannine Writings, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, NKJV