Getting Ready:


Understanding the Times: The Parable of the Fig Tree

"Now learn the parable from the fig tree …" Luke 21:36

It is perhaps a stereotypical scene. The car is loaded with all the paraphernalia for the vacation, and the entire family is excited as they drive towards grandma and grandpa’s house. It is a long, long drive, but the children can’t wait to get there. Before long a plaintiff cry comes from the back seat. "Are we there yet?" After asking this several times and getting the same answer ("It’s still a long, long way."), the children settle down for the long wait.

We play games with the kids, or read, or nap in order to pass the time. Even so, it seems that we will never arrive, when all of a sudden someone spots a familiar landmark. We are almost there!

One almost gets a picture of the disciples asking Jesus, "Is it time yet? How long are we going to wait?" Jesus’ answer is, in effect, "It is still a long, long way." (Acts 1:6, 7) How are we going to know when it is almost time?

There seems to be a growing expectation that we are quickly approaching the time of His return. Many in the church are declaring that Jesus is coming soon. While this is an exciting prospect, many have declared His coming in the past and have been wrong. Is there some objective measure we can use?

The answer to that question is "Yes." Jesus gave us a specific landmark, a sign post, so that when we see it we would know that the time is near.

The Parable of the Fig Tree

Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. (Matthew 24:32-33)

Figs in Israel of Jesus’ day were considered to be a delicacy, and there were two types of fig trees. The more prized tree, the black and white boccore, or early, fig produced its fruit in the spring before the leaves appeared on the tree. The leaves appeared so late in the spring that they were considered to be the final sign that the hot, dry summer was beginning.

However, there is more to this parable than this. What Jesus said in this passage is not complete, which is why He told us to "learn the parable." Actually what He said here is the conclusion of the parable. It begins in Luke.

And He began telling them this parable: "A certain man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it, and did not find any. And he said to the vineyardkeeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I did around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down’" (Luke 13:6-9)

As Jesus told this parable He was speaking of the nation of Israel. The emphasis here is on the figs, or the fruitfulness of the nation with respect to Himself. He is speaking about the fruit of repentance that John the Baptist had so often called for, and so far the nation had yet to repent of its selfish ways and receive her Messiah.

At the time Jesus spoke this parable it had been more than two years since His baptism by John inaugurated His public ministry. Each year He would go up to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover, and during the course of His three and a half years of ministry He came up for the feast four times. So far He had been to Jerusalem three times, and three times the priests and Pharisees had rejected Him.

Jesus is the one speaking in this parable, and He tells the vineyard man (possibly Michael, the archangel who watches over Israel) to destroy Israel since it is fruitless. The vineyard man in turn pleads with Jesus to give him one more year. He will do what every good gardener does and see if he cannot get it to bear fruit. So Jesus gives him one more year.

But this is not the end of the parable, because there is yet one more year. The next time Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for Passover is His last time. Several days before the feast begins He rides into the city on a donkey, which is a direct fulfillment of prophecy (Zechariah 9:9). By doing this He is openly declaring to the entire nation that He is their Messiah, and yet they reject Him again.

The very next day Jesus is entering the city early in the morning.2 The previous night was probably spent at the house of Lazarus in Bethany, and thus He would be approaching the city from the east. As he approaches the city he sees a fig tree in full leaf, and He goes to it. Seeing no fruit, He curses it, saying, "No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you." The record is that the fig tree withered and died at once. In the Mark account the disciples remarked that the tree had "withered from the roots up."

This is a strange incident. It would almost seem that Jesus, in a fit of anger totally uncharacteristic of Him, cursed the tree. Jesus had a right to expect to find fruit, and yet He did not. What He did by cursing the tree only makes sense if it is an extension of the parable recorded by Luke. Instead of telling the parable, however, Jesus acted it out.

This method of telling a parable, i.e. by acting rather than speaking, is not unusual in the Bible. For example, the prophet Jeremiah did it on several occasions, as did Hosea. When Jesus approached the fig tree it was not so much that He did not find figs on it as that tree was symbolic that there was still no fruit in Israel. Again, just the previous day, as they had done for the previous three times Jesus had come to Jerusalem for the feast, the leaders rejected Jesus. So, like the vineyardkeeper of the parable in Luke, He had it cut down when He cursed it.

History, of course, proves out what had happened. Within a few years the Temple was destroyed, and Israel died as a nation.

The final part of this parable takes place on the Mount of Olives as Jesus tells us to "learn the parable from the fig tree." It is important to understand that this is the same fig tree; the same one that had no fruit in the parable recorded in Luke, and the one that was cursed by Jesus so that it died. Notice, however, that the fig tree is no longer dead, but is putting forth its leaves.

There are two things to note in this context. The first is that the only way a dead tree can put forth leaves is that it is supernaturally revived. It is not possible in the natural understanding of the way in which things operate to explain how this once dead tree can put forth leaves. Secondly, there is no mention of fruit on the tree. It is as if the fruitfulness of the nation is no longer an issue.

This is the parable of the fig tree. The nation of Israel, who was cursed and died because it rejected the One sent to it as its Messiah, will come to life again. It will, as it were, be resurrected, and although Israel will come to life again in a supernatural way, it will still not recognize its Messiah.

Finally, when we see these things happen we are to know that the time is close. Jesus went on to mention that "this generation will not pass away until all these things take place." (Matthew 24:34)

Israel—the sign post

Many of the prophecies surrounding the return of Jesus and the fulfillment of God’s promises to the Jews do not make sense unless there is a strong, independent nation of Israel. On May 14, 1948 an event unlike any other in the history of the world occurred. By a declaration of an international body of nations a piece of land was declared a nation. Is this nation, which we call Israel, the fig tree that Jesus spoke of?

The Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, abounds with prophecies concerning the restoration of Israel. In addition, most of these prophecies are closely tied to the end times and the appearance of the Messiah. So the first question that must be answered in order to determine whether the present day Israel is the same as the Israel of end time prophecy is, does this nation fulfill prophecy?

The prophet Ezekiel spoke much about the restoration of Israel. Some of these prophetic statements are listed below:

  • God will gather the people from the countries. (28:25-26)
  • God will be like a shepherd to them and supernaturally restore the land. (34:11-31)
  • he land has become desolate and a possession of many nations, a powerful prophecy. (36:4)
  • God will restore it before the nations. (36:9-10, 34)
  • God is not doing this for Israel’s sake, but for His holy name. (36:22)
  • Israel and Judah will become one. (37:15-23)

Isaiah also spoke of the restored nation.

  • A nation will be born in one day. (66:8)
  • The people will be called from the four corners of the world. (Isaiah 43:5-7)

Two things stand out from these scriptures. First, the present nation of Israel satisfies all of these prophecies, and secondly, God only spoke of one restoration, and that in the context of the day of the Lord. One can only conclude that Israel today is the fig tree spoken of by Jesus. It has come to life and put forth its leaves.

Some have tried to use the statement of Jesus that "this generation shall not pass away" to determine the time at which Jesus will return. One wildly popular idea a few years ago was that the time of a generation was 40 years, and, since Israel become a nation in 1948, He would come in 1988. That obviously was incorrect, but that does not diminish from Jesus’ statement. The generation that saw the founding of Israel is still here, but that generation will not last forever. One cannot help coming to the conclusion that Jesus is indeed right at the door.

From the book Getting Ready: Preparing the Church for the Return of Jesus, by Daniel M. Sweger.


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©Copyright 2009 by Dr. Daniel M. Sweger, IHS Ministries.
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