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Lectio Divina: “heaven opened”

Lectio Divina: “heaven opened”

Gospel reading: John 1.47-51

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! 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.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’


Contrast the earthiness of the fig tree and the transcendence of heaven. The earthiness of the fig tree near Nathanael’s home in Cana of Galilee, rooted in the earth and producing its fruit in due season, the tree under which Nathanael has sheltered since his youth. The transcendence of the opening of heaven and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. Earth and heaven will intersect, earthiness and transcendence will be as one, in Jesus’ prophecy to Nathanael, in the person of the Son of Man.

For now, the story opens with Nathanael “coming towards” Jesus at Philip’s invitation in the previous paragraph. Nathanael had been sceptical that “anything good [would] come out of Nazareth”, a prosaic place like his own, including “him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote”. But Philip persisted in bringing him to “Come and see”. And Jesus saw him. Jesus knew him through and through, and could see no deceit in him.

How wonderful it would be to have no deceit in me! I have plenty of nooks and crannies, and Jesus sees into these too. But Nathanael is completely transparent, completely open to Jesus and to being seen. And because he is completely open, he is able to receive and see Jesus in return: ‘[Y]ou are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ he exclaims, well before the timing of Peter’s confession of the Christ given in the Synoptic Gospels (see Matthew 16.13-20, Mark 8.27-30, Luke 9.18-20).

Nathanael recognises Jesus as God and King right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, framing or book-ending it together with Thomas’ confession at the resurrection appearance in John 20.19-29. There are interesting similarities and divergences.

Compare Jesus’ words to Nathanael: ‘Do you believe because I saw you?’ with his words to Thomas: ’Have you believed because you have seen me?’ Nathanael believed because Jesus saw him. Thomas believed because he saw Jesus.

Jesus has a slightly stinging follow-up for Thomas: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ but he promises Nathanael: ‘You will see greater things than these.’

Does this mean that Nathanael is one of the blessed? He is certainly promised much… but then he simply disappears from John’s Gospel and only reappears in passing in John 21.2. He doesn’t appear at all in Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts, unless he is the same person as Bartholomew, who in any case only appears in lists.

So when and where might Nathanael have seen these ‘greater things’?

Perhaps whenever he saw a fig tree – Nathanael saw his own fig tree “filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars”, as did the young William Blake on Peckham Rye.

Or during Jesus’ earthly ministry, whenever Jesus performed a sign like turning water into wine during the wedding in Nathanael’s home town of Cana.

Or in the crucifixion and death of Jesus, so that from a distance Nathanael saw angels ascending and descending on the figure of Jesus on the tree of crucifixion.

Or perhaps in the resurrection appearances of Jesus, or perhaps at Nathanael’s own death. At the last, when he was “coming towards him” on his final journey, Jesus fulfilled his promise to Nathanael: “you will see heaven opened”.


Since April 2020, I have been jointly hosting a shared Lectio Divina group on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings. These are my reflections only, during the prayer session and as I wrote them up. Please see my separate commentary and leaflet for more information about shared Lectio.