March 2014

Light under the fig tree

Series overview: Over the last year or so I have written a lot about Jesus-centeredness in general and Jesus-centred biblical interpretation in particular. In this latest series of posts I am taking a passage of scripture and demonstrating how these concepts work in practice. The text I have selected is from John chapter One.

Jesus has stated to Nathanael that he saw him under the fig tree before Phillip called him and in response the scholar has made a passionate and extreme confession of who Jesus is (John 1:49). On the face of it his response seems unjustified by the context. There must be more here than we can see at first read. I have suggested that perhaps Nathanael was reading a passage from the prophets and that Jesus cryptic comment showed that he knew what the man had been reading and what he had been crying out to God as he read. So, let’s turn to the book of Zechariah Chapter Three.

Imagine for a moment that Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree reading this very portion of scripture. It is a prophetic vision of a time when God would forgive Israel and restore them. It is about the coming of the Messiah and the liberation of the nation. Here is how I think Nathanael might have been reading and praying.

‘Lord, you say that you will remove the sin of this nation in a single day (Ref. verse 9). How can this be Lord? There are not enough sacrifices that can be made in a day to appease your wrath and atone for our sin. How can this then be Lord? … unless you come yourself and do what we cannot do. You say that you will bring your servant, the Branch, and this is surely a reference to the long awaited Messiah… will you come O God to save your people and reign over the nations?’ ‘Lord, the prophet speaks of Joshua and the others as being men symbolic of things to come. Could this possibly be in my time O Lord?  Israel is in deep distress and my heart is breaking for my nation – when will you come O Lord and fulfil this prophecy?’ As Nathanial reached the end of the passage of scripture he was studying he read the final promise that ‘in that day each of you will invite his neighbour to sit under his vine and fig tree’. He might well have smiled ruefully and said; ‘Here I am Lord, sitting under a fig tree, reading the prophet and asking you to fulfil your word.’

Just then Phillip breaks his meditation with the announcement that he has found the one of whom the prophets wrote. The thought flashes through Nathanael’s mind; ‘But I am reading of such a one. Surely God cannot be answering my prayer?!’ Then Phillip provides the name… Jesus. Imagine again how the scholar Nathanael might have processed this information: ‘The prophetic vision concerns Joshua the high priest – The name is a derivative of Yeshau, which means “Jehovah is salvation”…. But the Greek version of the name is Jesus! Surely this cannot be happening… to me!”

The second piece of information Phillip gives is that Jesus is from Nazareth. As with so many place names in the scriptures it is not clear what this word means or how it is derived, but many contemporary scholars believe that Nazareth is a name derived from the Hebrew Netzer,  which means…. a branch. Jesus, Yeshua from the place of the branch: Jehovah is salvation, the promised messiah from the root of Jesse, the prophetic branch of Israel! Then, to seal it all, when he meets this Jesus and asks with trembling voice how the teacher knows him, he hears the last words of the scripture he has just been reading echoing back at him; “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Phillip called you.”

In that moment it must have all become clear to Nathanael as he realised that he was standing in the presence of the Messiah, the branch of Israel, Yeshua, the very Son of God!

But wait, there is more, as they say in the telly-adds… Jesus has something even more profound to say; something that takes us back to another passage of the Old Testament. I will cover this in my next blog post…


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New series: Jesus-centred biblical interpretation

Series overview: Over the last year or so I have written a lot about Jesus-centeredness in general and Jesus-centred biblical interpretation in particular. In this latest series of posts I am taking a passage of scripture and demonstrating how these concepts work in practice. The text I have selected is from John chapter One.

Biblical interpretation series text John 1
The case of the unlikely response
John Chapter One records how Jesus called disciples to follow him. Verses 43 to 51 tell the remarkable story of how Nathanael became a follower. Remarkable, because on the face of it, his response seems improbable. Phillip brings Nathanael to Jesus; Jesus makes one statement to him; Nathanael immediately declares Jesus to be the Son of God and King of Israel. Now why would the man have reacted like that? Let’s explore this question just a little.

Nathanael was most likely a student of the scriptures because when Phillip approached him he used words that would appeal to a scholar. He could have said, “We have discovered a remarkable miracle worker”, or “We have come across an amazing healer”; but he didn’t. Instead he declared, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” The phrase ‘Law and the Prophets’ was often used as shorthand for the full body of scriptures we now know as the Old Testament. Phillip’s declaration would certainly have attracted the interest of a scholar.

At first Nathanael reacted sceptically with, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”, but then he accepted Phillips invitation to “Come and see”.  As he was approaching Jesus the Lord indicated that he had insight into Nathanael’s character and this prompted the challenge, “How do you know me?” Jesus’ response was short and cryptic but it solicited a surprising reaction. It was surprising, because Jesus did not appear to say anything that should have invited such a passionate declaration from the sceptical scholar.

How would Nathanael have understood the Lord’s response, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Phillip called you.”?  Sitting under a vine or fig tree was prophetic shorthand for living in peace and prosperity. The prophets spoke of a time when Israel would be free of oppressors and every man would be able to sit under his own fig tree to meditate on scripture. Over time this phrase came to be connected with the study of the Law because scholars would, in practice, often sit in the shade of  a spreading fig tree to study or to hold class for their disciples. It is reasonable to surmise that Nathanael might have thought that Jesus was alluding to the fact that he was a scholar –  ‘Phillip must have told him that I am a student of the Torah’. If this is so then why did he respond so unexpectedly?

Jesus was no doubt exercising what we would now call a ‘gift of knowledge’. Nathanael was most likely actually sitting under a fig tree reading a prophetic scroll. But even here his thought process would have been typically intellectual – ‘Phillip knows I sit here every morning at this time to study the scriptures so he probably told Jesus this before he left to call me.’ So why did Nathanial react as he did?

I can think of one reason; what if Jesus, in his cryptic response to Nathanael’s question, had been indirectly referencing the very portion of scripture the man had been reading? What if in so doing Jesus was proving him with an answer to the questions he was asking God as he read?  That would surely have impressed mightily and solicited the passionate response, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

I am going to stop now and ask you to wait for the next blog post for my explanation of what scripture I think Nathanael was studying under the fig tree. It makes it more of a mystery don’t you think. Actually, I am hoping that you will give some thought to the problem and come up with a scenario of your own…


New Revised Edition Available

New series: Jesus-centred biblical interpretation Read More »

About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.