Let’s back up to John 1:35.
On the following day John was again standing with two of his disciples. He looked straight at Jesus as he walked along, and said, “There is the lamb of God!” The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. Then Jesus turned round and when he saw them following him, spoke to them. “What do you want?” he said. “Master, where are you staying?” they replied. “Come and see,” returned Jesus. So they went and saw where he was staying and remained with him the rest of that day. (It was then about four o’clock in the afternoon.) One of the two men who had heard what John said and had followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He went straight off and found his own brother, Simon, and told him, “We have found the Messiah!” (meaning, of course, Christ).And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked steadily at him and said, “You are Simon, the son of John. From now on your name is Cephas”—(that is, Peter, meaning “a rock”). Phillips
The name John is found 27 times in the Gospel, 26 referring to the Baptist and one to the father of Andrew and Simon. The Apostle John is never mentioned by name. Because John kept himself out of the spotlight, it is reasonable to assume that he was one of the two men who were disciples of John the Baptist. There is no proof, of course, just as there is no proof that the Apostle John wrote the Gospel. I’m not saying there is no evidence that John wrote the Gospel. Many of the early Church Fathers—those writing from the late First Century on—give John credit for the work, along with the authors of the other three Gospels.
The verses above, 35-42, picture three disciples leaving the Baptist and following Jesus. I think it is likely that John, if he was the other one, likewise found his brother James and brought him to Jesus.
That sets up today’s reading. The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. ESV To this point in chapter one, the action takes place around the southern end of the Jordan River. John was baptizing there because there was a good flow of water. Jesus clearly walked there from the north and stayed in the area for a few days. It is possible he went into the desert from there to be tempted and when John the Baptist saw him later, made his comments to his disciples.
As Jesus and his few new disciples walked back north, we meet some more followers.
He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. ESV This gives us four disciples, one still unnamed, or five if James was brought in by John. It is interesting that nothing is said about why Jesus called Philip, but then, John does not ever mention most of the Twelve, probably because the other Gospels had covered that ground.
John does not mention that Bethsaida was also the home of James and John, I think in part to his wanting to stay in the background. Still, this whole section has the feel of an eyewitness.
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” ESV
The other Gospels list Bartholomew but not Nathanael. John probably knew that but chose not to explain. Nathanael is likely to be his personal name and Bartholomew his family name. Or Nathanael could be a nickname.
Now comes the most important part of today’s reading.
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 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.” ESV
Jesus appears to have Genesis 28:10-12 in mind. Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. NIV
In contrast to Nathanael, Jacob was known for his deceit, having stolen the birthright from his older twin. Nathanael’s question was probably our question, How do you know me? John, more than the other Gospels, presents Jesus as a mind reader; someone able to know our deepest thoughts. In this case, Jesus chose to use Nathanael to give us the image that follows.
Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” ESV
Remember that this reading is in chapter 1. Jesus only has five or six disciples, and yet he tells us he is the stairway to heaven. Arguably, the most important bullet point of the whole New Testament; Jesus is on earth to carry us up the stairs to live with God forever.
Be righteous and do good.