14 January 2018John 1:43-51
“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (v. 51)
Psalm: Psalm 139
Symbolic language is used throughout Scripture, and this is particularly marked in places in John’s Gospel. The image, at the end of today’s passage, of heaven being opened and angels ascending and descending is a particularly striking example. It is necessary to immediately add a caution to contemporary readers which wouldn’t have been required in previous eras of the Christian Church which were less afflicted by the literalism which produced fundamentalism in the modern age. For a start, we should not slip consciously or unconsciously into imagining heaven, the realm of God, as being "up above the bright blue sky" – to use the words of the Victorian children’s hymn. Psalm 139 emphasises again and again that there is nowhere where God is not present.
The metaphor of height has an important significance in Scripture, but the words of the popular song that ‘God is watching us from a distance’ mislead us. God is present in all places and in all things and heaven is, as some commentators have put it, is separated from us by the thinnest of veils. In Jesus we see the veil torn open so that the presence of God shines through. Of course, we need to recognise that this statement substitutes another metaphor in place of John’s!
Perhaps less obvious in this passage is the symbolism of the fig tree, one of the metaphors of Israel in the Old Testament. Nathanael is a true Israelite whom Jesus sees “under the fig tree” (v. 50). Here is significant testimony to the grace of God present in the Old Testament people of God, of whom Nathanael is a representative. Despite multiple occasions of unfaithfulness and unrighteousness in Israel (as in Christianity too), there are also the Nathanaels “in whom there is no deceit” (v. 47). Jesus does not come to put aside the legacy of Israel; the kingdom of God which he proclaims is in continuity with the religion of ‘the law and also the prophets” (v. 45). Jesus’ recognition of Nathanael is testimony to that.
It has to be added that contrary to a previous generation of scholarship which sought to explain John’s Gospel largely as a work of spiritual fiction, subsequent scholarship has recognised the many points at which the Gospel is rooted in historical detail. Both symbolism and history must be appreciated in order to read John’s Gospel properly.
- Where in your imagination are God and heaven?
- Is Jesus, for you, the one in whom you see heaven opened? Why?
- To what extent can you see yourself like Nathanael as a Christian ‘in whom there is no deceit’?