Parables (14): Now Learn a Parable of The Fig Tree (Matthew 24:32-36)

The Scribes, Pharisees, and Saducees were the primary targets of earlier parables. Now with the parable of the fig tree our Lord Jesus Christ turns to his disciples and by implication to us. This parable is recited without any explanation or any further embellishment. Perhaps by this point, late in the ministry of our Lord, his disciples were expected to have some degree of spiritual discernment. His disciples had questioned the meaning of far simpler parables, or at least it would seem so from our perspective nearly 2,000 years later, yet at this time they were silent (Matt. 13:10,18). While it is dangerous to argue from the absence of commentary and therefore assume that they didn’t ask for an explanation, nevertheless the written record is silent. Hence future generations of disciples were expected to understand the meaning of the parable of the “fig tree” without any additional ‘inside’ exposition by our Lord.

This parable has some unusual features that set it apart from all the others we have previously discussed. The narrative is aimed, not at the elders of the Jewish people in the first century nor even to the twelve disciples. Its prophetic message and moral lesson are focused on succeeding generations of disciples, and if we listen carefully to the words of Jesus, we can hear him speaking directly to us today. But let us not get ahead of ourselves; let us begin with the beginning!

Jesus the prophet

The setting for this parable begins with the prediction of our Lord Jesus Christ that Jerusalem would be completely destroyed. It was a chilling prophecy and one that perhaps only John among the apostles would live to see. By making this prediction Jesus was fulfilling the sign of a prophet, namely that if he was correct in short-term events, he could be trusted in matters involving the distant future.

In Luke21:20 Jesus said Jerusalem would be surrounded by besieging armies and made desolate. A generation after his death and resurrection the prophecy came to pass with a vengeance. Jerusalem was surrounded by the legions of the Roman general Titus (later emperor) and the city besieged into starvation.

Today in exiting the ruins of the ancient forum in the city of Rome one comes to a triumphant arch built by the emperor Titus to commemorate his destruction of Jerusalem. The arch is reasonably well preserved, and if one looks upward from within its portal, one can see a frieze representing the Roman legions carrying off the candelabra, table of shewbread and ark of the covenant from Herod’s Jerusalem temple. The Romans burnt the temple and leveled it to the ground such that the only remaining structure visible today is one foundation wall dating back to the original temple of Solomon.

When Jerusalem is to be revived

Jerusalem was to be trampled down “until” the times of the Gentiles were fulfilled (Luke 21:24). The destruction of Herod’s temple in 70 A. D. marked an end to Jewish social and political life in Jerusalem and for nearly 1900 years the Gentiles ruled. In the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Jews captured all of Jerusalem and have never relinquished it. They have moved their government from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and for the first time since Titus, the center of Jewish social and political life emanates from the city of David. Since Jesus says this will only happen once, we surely must believe that Gentile times “have been fulfilled.”

Further, Jesus says there will be signs in the sun, moon and stars and distress of the nations with perplexity. The sun, moon and stars refer to the “political heavens,” that is, the rulers who should illuminate their nations with the light of their wisdom, character and strength. Nebuchadnezzar is called a “day” or “morning star” in the words of Isaiah (14:12). The dream of Joseph in Genesis (Gen. 37:9) is yet another use of this metaphor. The “sea and the waves roaring” refers to the great masses of common people making up the nations of the world (Isa. 17:12, 13). This parable speaks of the “perplexity” of the rulers and “fear” in the hearts of men “for seeing those things which are coming on the earth.”

Signs in the political heavens

In the past decade the world has experienced an era of seemingly unprecedented peace and prosperity. The collapse of communism, the fall of the Berlin wall, the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf war, western detente with China and the enormous progress in solving ancient conflicts between Arab and Jew in the Middle East, and recently between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, have lulled mankind into a false sense of permanent well-being. A new generation thinks that the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930’s, or the horrors of WW II and the holocaust are simply curiosities to be viewed on the History channel! Forgotten also are the even more recent threats of nuclear confrontation inCuba between theUS and the Soviets, or even the long gas lines and rationing of fuel during the Mid-East conflicts of the 1970’s.

Events of the last few months have shown how quickly the international situation can turn around. The shaky inter-dependency of the world economy, the proliferation of terrorist activities, the continuing burgeoning world population and the ravages of new virulent diseases which can spread globally literally overnight can cause enormous perplexity and dramatically change tomorrow’s headlines. The powers of heaven will be shaken!

It is in fearful times that the Lord Jesus will come again. There are indications elsewhere that this perplexity comes suddenly and dramatically in what we might regard as a complete reversal of the fortunes of mankind. The apostle Paul says, in referring to the time of the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, “When they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them” (1Thess. 5:3). It is this sudden change in the tide of history that will catch mankind unawares, let it not be so with the household of the faithful.

The fig-tree sign to the faithful

The faithful are given a warning through a “sign.” That sign is the focus of this parable of the fig tree. The fig tree represents the nation of Israel and “all the trees” signifies the blossoming forth of many nations. Surely, the latter is exactly what has occurred in the past half century as the old colonial powers have collapsed and a large number of independent states have sprouted from these colonial roots. The United Nations, originally founded as a means of discourse between the handful of great powers now is the purview of scores of nations.

The metaphor of Israelas a “fig tree” and other nations also as trees can easily be pictured using the Old Testament as our foundation guide. The prophet Joel cites the Lord God calling the nation of Israel “my fig tree” (Joel 1:7, 12) and numerous other references, though less explicit, imply the same figure (Deut. 8:8; Hosea 9:10). Likewise Gentile nations are sometimes pictured in scripture as trees. One well-known example is the references to the Cedars of Lebanon (Judg. 9:15; Psa. 29:5) and another is to Nebuchadnezzar’s great empire as a tree that “reached unto the heaven” (Dan.4:20).

This generation shall not pass

As Jesus had withered the fig tree because of its unfruitfulness (Matt. 21:19) even so, due to the grace of God, we have seen it blossom again in these latter days. Our Lord Jesus says that when the fig tree of Israel is revived and once again blossoms (but notice the Lord does not expect fruit yet) “the kingdom of God is nigh at hand” (Luke21:31).

He further states that the generation that sees the fig tree’s rebirth will “not pass away until all be fulfilled” (v.32). Without fail the scriptures refer to a generation as comprising forty years. Moses was 40 years in Midian and Israel was purged 40 years in the wilderness. The prophet Micah implies that a similar generational period of 40 years would mark the latter days (Micah7:15).

The problem is to identify exactly when this period begins. If it were to start with the founding of the modern nation of Israel in 1948, as some have suggested in the past, then a generation has already expired in 1988 and apparently nothing has been fulfilled! Prophecies are always clear on hindsight, however; God does not give them to persuade the skeptic for that kind of individual scoffs that all things continues as they always have (II Pet.3: 3). Such have no faith in the Lord whatsoever. In the gospel of Matthew the record says: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (Matt. 24:36). If the angels of heaven, and even our Lord Jesus Christ, do not know the exact day and hour of his return how can we?

Nevertheless, the parable has been given to us as a warning for preparedness. Under such circumstances we must be aware of the general signs so that we are not caught sleeping.

Are we ready?

Thus, while we don’t know the day or hour we can in a broad figurative sense know the month or year! The situation is somewhat analogous to realizing that our job may be in jeopardy for whatsoever reasons, we can either wait and do nothing until we are laid off, or, if we are wiser, we can start looking around for other employment long before our actual termination date.

When Jesus came the first time there was a realization among many in Israelthat people were living in an era when the Messiah would come. Simeon looked for the “consolation” of Israel and even some Gentiles, such as the wise men, were looking for a sign heralding his coming. So it could be in our times.

What are the signs that are indicated in this parable? There are principally two: 1) “signs in the sun, and in the moon and in the stars” and the second 2) the blossoming of the fig tree and all the trees. We have already commented on the former with respect to political implications regarding the actions of the leaders of the nations. We should particularly watch their actions with respect to Israel where a dramatic change in the recent benign neglect of the Middle-East on the part of Russia, and the other former Soviet states, may soon be replaced with a more active interest in that area of the world. The vast riches in terms of energy resources of the Middle East could make it a tempting target for the increasingly impoverished nations of the former Soviet block (see for example Ezek. 38:13).

Signs in the literal heavens?

The signs in sun, moon and stars might also have a very literal meaning in terms of these astronomical bodies. We know that when Jesus came the first time, the wise men from the East were guided to his birthplace by the star of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:2). Astronomical records from ancient cultures indicate that such a brilliant phenomenon as a supernova did indeed occur around the time of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. How did the wise men know of this star?

Where does such a prophecy appear in scripture?

Remember that the New Testament record verifies the significance of such a prophecy. Moses had prophesied that “there shall come a Star out of Jacob” (Num. 24:17), but the Jews apparently never regarded this as literal. Likewise Isaiah had foretold, speaking of the Messiah, that “the Gentiles shall come to thy light” (Isa. 60:3). However, this had simply been regarded as a metaphor for light equaling knowledge (as we often cite the same equivalence today). I know of no other Old Testament prophecy that could have suggested to the wise men of a literal star to guide them to the Messiah.

Perhaps Daniel, who had associated with the Chaldeans, astrologers, and wise men of Babylon and later of Media and Persia, had given them such a prophecy, but if he did it is not recorded in our Bible. Another possibility is that Daniel had taken the prophecies of Moses and Isaiah and given them a very literal context that had then been passed on through the generations by the astrologers until acted on by the wise men who came to Bethlehemto worship Christ. Whatever the explanation, the fact remains there was a literal “star” which guided the Gentile wise men and the Gospel record testifies to its authenticity.

The possibility there is to be a literal occurrence of the astronomical signs that are mentioned in Luke 21:22 should thus be given careful consideration. Just as in the first century certain Gentiles were made aware of the Messiah by a literal sign from the heavens so might it be in the last days prior to his second coming. Such a sign would be visible even to those who had very little if any direct Biblical knowledge, but would clearly indicate to all mankind that the Lord God was God indeed. The recent great expansion in scientific facilities for astronomy is an interesting portent of the possibility for observing such heavenly signs. The new giant 400″ Keck instrument in Hawaii and the Hubble space telescope are certainly capable of witnessing any spectacular display that the Lord God would chose to cause in the heavens to announce the eminent return of His son.

Israel the blossoming fig tree

Finally, a further look at the second sign is also warranted. The fig tree of Israel has certainly blossomed once again in the latter half of the twentieth century. The main difficulty for Bible students is trying to identify what is meant by “this generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled” (Luke 21:32). If the beginning of “this generation” does not date from 1948 when the United Nations recognizedIsrael as a sovereign nation, then what does this passage mean? We must not be led into the trap of some who have made predictions only to have them fail and then, to cover their error, have postulated mystical solutions that have no Biblical foundations. There are reasonable Biblical solutions to the problem and what follows is one possible way of interpreting this passage (there are others, but space precludes discussing them).

The fact that some human organization such as the United Nations recognized Israel was a sovereign nation in 1948 does not mean the Lord God accorded them the same recognition! Consider the passages in II Samuel 5:7 and 12. The first passage (v.5) says: “Nevertheless David took the strong hold of Zion: the same is the city of Davidand the latter passage (v.12) states: “And David perceived that the LORD had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for his people Israel’s sake.” Even though Israel had been in the land for centuries under the judges, and Saul had been king prior to David, it wasn’t until David took Zion that he perceived that his kingdom was established. If there is a latter-day parallel to these statements by the prophet Samuel then it wasn’t until 1967 when Israel took all of Jerusalem and particularly Mt.Zion. If this reckoning is correct then the period of the generation spoken of in Luke 21:32 would be the forty-year interval commencing in 1967. Our generation is living in the last decade of that forty-year epoch.

Have we, individually and collectively as a community, taken the moral lesson of this parable to heart: “take heed…[unless] that day come upon you unawares” (Luke 21:34)? Or have our hearts become dissipated with the “cares of this life”? The exhortation is aptly supplied by the words of our Lord Jesus Christ given in the gospel of Matthew. It would be impossible to improve on them: “Watch therefore, for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (Matt. 24:42).

Next, Lord willing, the Hidden Seed.

John C. Bilello