5. THE FIG TREE
Matthew: “Now learn a parable of the fig tree; when his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (24:32-34).
Mark: “Now learn a parable of the fig tree; when her branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is near: So ye in like manner, when ye shall see these things come to pass, know that it is nigh, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done” (13:28-30).
Luke: “And he spake to them a parable; Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand, verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled” (21:29-32).
The futurist interpretation concerning this passage is that the fig tree symbolizes the nation of Israel. Scofield says that the fig tree passage is “a prophecy that Israel shall again bud.”1 In the year 1948, the present nation called Israel came into existence. Some believe this has been the budding of the fig tree of which Jesus spoke. But was this what Jesus meant?
It has been supposed by some that throughout the Bible we might find references to Israel being symbolized by the fig tree. Looking into the Old Testament, there is little — if any — proof that the fig tree is a symbol of the nation of Israel. In the New Testament, there are two references in which the fig tree is sometimes regarded as symbolizing the nation of Israel. Whether this is corrector not, neither passage pictures the tree as budding or fruitful, but just the opposite!
In the one passage, a parable, the owner of the fig tree came for “three years” seeking fruit on the tree and found none. He then ordered that the tree be cut down. The vinedresser suggested that they let it remain another year, and — if it remained unfruitful — to then cut it down (Lk. 13:6-9). The parable gives no indication that the tree ever became fruitful. If the reference is to the nation of Israel to whom Christ’s personal ministry was directed for three years and over, we know that Israel, as a nation, did not bear fruits of repentance — instead they rejected Christ and his message. Failing to see in him the sacrifice for sins, they were cut off spiritually and a few years later, even their city, temple, and nation were destroyed (as we have seen).
The other New Testament reference to a fig tree that is sometimes applied to the nation of Israel is Matthew 21:19. But here, again, the reference is not to a fruitful tree, but to an unfruitful tree, a tree that Jesus cursed, a tree to which he said, “Let no fruit grow on thee hence forward for ever.”
Looking on through the New Testament, there are no other verses that would indicate that the fig tree is a symbol of Israel. On the other hand, we do find verses that refer to Israel as an OLIVE tree (Rom. 11:17,24).
But returning now to our Lord’s words about the “fig tree”, we need look no further than the text itself to find full proof that Jesus was NOT talking about the nation of Israel! Matthew’s account says: “Now learn a parable of the fig tree; when his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh . . .” But Luke’s account shows that Jesus did not single out only one tree in giving this illustration. “Behold the fig tree, AND ALL THE TREES: when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand.”
If the “fig tree” here represents the nation of Israel, then “all the trees” would have to represent all the nations. With this, the passage would have no point at all! In view of this, Dake (though himself a strong dispensationalist) has well said: “The fig tree . . . is universally interpreted to mean the Jewish nation, BUT THIS COULD NOT POSSIBLY BE THE MEANING.”2
Jesus was merely drawing an illustration from nature. He said that when they saw the fig tree and all the trees put forth leaves, they knew of themselves by common knowledge that summer is near. SO LIKEWISE, when they would see all these things they could also know that certain things were near. In the same sense, we might use a human comparison from nature. We might say that when the sun is in the west, we know that night is at hand; when snow is on the ground, we know it is winter time; when the leaves turn color, we know it is autumn; when we see dark clouds gathering we know it is going to rain. And so Jesus used a simple parable or illustration — something they could know of themselves. It was human knowledge that when trees put forth leaves, men know that summer is at hand; so likewise, when they would see “all these things” come to pass, such would be a sign to them.
Now then, what did Jesus mean when he spoke of “all these things”? He had just spoken of the Second Coming. Was this a continuation of what he had just spoken, or was he here returning to the original line of thought? If we take it to refer to everything that Jesus had just previously mentioned, the passage would have to read something like this: ‘When ye see the sun darkened, the moon not giving her light, the stars falling, the powers of heaven shaken, the sign of the Son of man in heaven, all tribes mourning, the Son of man coming in the clouds, the trumpet sounding, the angels gathering the elect from around the world: when ye see these things you will know that it is near, even at the doors.” What possible sense would there be in saying that when the Lord is seen coming in the clouds, and all these other things, that they would then know that the Second Coming was nigh? This would be an inconsistent statement.
Therefore, when Jesus spoke of seeing “these things”, we believe he was returning to the original line of thought and the reference is to the things they would see leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem: there would be deceivers; famines, pestilences, earthquakes; the gospel would go to the nations; finally the specific sign — Jerusalem compassed about with Gentile armies; and when they would see all these things — then they would know that the destruction of Jerusalem was nigh.
Further proof that it was to “these things” that Jesus had reference is seen in the fact that all these things were to be fulfilled before the generation then living would pass away! All three accounts record our Lord’s words: “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled” (Mt. 24:34; Mk. 13:30; Lk. 21:32).
Jesus had said that one stone would not be left upon another that would not be thrown down — Jerusalem and its temple were marked for destruction. And the disciples asked: “WHEN shall these things be?” (Mt. 24:2, 3). Here then is the answer! These things would happen before the generation then living would pass away. Living on this side of the fulfillment, we know that these things did happen within the time specified. It is an amazing fulfillment of prophecy!
Just before Matthew 24, in chapter 23, Jesus had warned that generation of Jews: “Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers . . . Behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men . . . some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, ALL THESE THINGS shall come upon THIS GENERATION. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Mt. 23:32-38). In commenting on this passage, Scofield very correctly says: “It is the way also of history: judgment falls upon one generation for the sins of centuries. The prediction was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem, A.D. 70.”3
BUT, a few verses later, in Matthew 24 when Jesus said: “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” — a statement which would clearly place the great tribulation back then, instead of in the future! — Scofield tries to make “generation” have a completely different meaning — even though it is exactly the same word in both the English and the Greek! Scofield attempts to make the word “generation” in Matthew 24 mean “race, kind, family, stock, breed” and so “the promise is, therefore, that the generation — nation, or family of Israel — will be preserved unto ‘these things’.”4
But this reasoning will not stand up under investigation. Let us look through the book of Matthew and see how the word generation was used throughout his writings. First of all, there is Matthew 1:17: “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations . . .” Obviously the reference is not to 14 different races, but to fourteen different generations of that race — each generation following the other in logical sequence. Jesus asked: “Whereunto shall I liken this generation?” — a reference to that generation then living. It was “an evil and adulterous generation”, Jesus said, and that the people who lived in the days of Ninevah “shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it” as will the queen of the South who traveled from far to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Jesus then spoke of a man who became demon possessed in such a way that his last state was worse than the first, and added: “Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation” (Mt. 12:38-45). Jesus called that generation “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Mt. 16:3,4) and a “faithless and perverse generation” (Mt. 17:17). Then coming to Matthew 23, Jesus reproved the hypocrisy of that generation and said they were no better than their fathers that had killed the prophets; judgment upon Jerusalem was certain; and their house would be left desolate —“all these things shall come upon this generation” (Mt. 23:36). And finally, Matthew 24:34: “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.”
We feel it is completely arbitrary to take this word in all the other places in Matthew to refer to the generation living at one time, and then in Matthew 24 attempt to make the very same word apply to the whole race of Jews over a period of 2,000 years or more! Surely no one would do this except to uphold a theory.
Strangely enough, those who hold that the word “generation” in Matthew 24 means the Jewish people as a race also hold the belief that the Jewish race will never pass away. But if Jesus meant that the Jewish race will not pass away until these things are fulfilled, and if the Jewish race will never pass away, his words were meaningless and he did NOT answer the question: “WHEN shall these things be?”
But taking the word “generation” in its normal meaning — the generation of people living at one time — then all is clear and the question is answered! ‘When?” According to Jesus, these things were to happen before that generation would pass away! He was expressing a time element — not merely that these things could happen anytime as long as there is a Jewish race somewhere! The question was not about how long the Jewish race would continue, but about the destruction that was to come upon Jerusalem.
Through the centuries, the Christian people have been strengthened in their faith by seeing how the words of Christ were so marvelously fulfilled — not only in their details, but even within the time he specified, before that generation then living passed away! In more recent times (especially with the rise of Dispensationalism), however, this has been set at naught by those who would place all of Matthew 24 in the future — thus greatly minimizing the fulfillment and having to place a meaning on the word “generation” in Matthew 24 that is contrary to its use throughout the rest of the book.
THE END OF THE AGE
Matthew: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (24:35, 36).
Mark: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray, for ye know not when the time is” (Mk. 13:31, 32).
Luke: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. And take heed to yourselves lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkeness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. For as a snare shall it come” (21:33-35).
Up to this point, Jesus spoke about the overthrow of Jerusalem in answer to the questions he was asked, leaving this original line of speech briefly two times to speak of the Second Coming by way of contrast (Mt. 24:27, 30-31), and then returning to the original questions. After telling of the things that would happen in that generation, the whole discourse now shifts from here on out to the question about the Second Coming and the end of the world. Jesus now states that heaven and earth shall pass away — an expression referring to the end of the age — and that the time of “that day” is not revealed. Notice now what will happen when that time comes: “Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (Mt. 24:40-42). The word here translated “taken” is the same word that is used in John 14 in which Jesus said, “I will come again, and receive you unto myself.” Paul explains that believers will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air. Those who are ready will be taken — he will receive them; while sudden destruction shall fall upon those that are left.
Dispensationalists apply these verses to a pre-tribulation, secret rapture. But notice! We are clear down at verse 40. The topic is the end of the age, when heaven and earth shall pass away. And this is when Jesus said one shall be taken and the other left! According to the dispensational outline, to be consistent, these verses should have been way back in the early part of Matthew 24 — before the tribulation, before the abomination of desolation, before the flight into the hills, before all of this. But no hint of any secret rapture is found anywhere in those early verses, not until the end of the age do we read that one will be taken and the other left.
All three of the parallel accounts close by giving illustrations which stress watchfulness.
In summary, we see that Jesus made the statement that one stone would not be left upon another that would not be thrown down. The disciples asked WHEN these things would be and WHAT SIGN would precede this destruction. And Jesus answered. They would see the abomination of desolation — Gentile armies surrounding Jerusalem — then they would know that the destruction of the city was nigh. This answered the disciples’ question about WHAT SIGN would be given. Upon seeing this, they were to flee, for then would be great tribulation upon that land and people. In answer to the question about WHEN these things would come to pass, Jesus said it would be before that generation passed away.
The disciples also asked about the Second Coming — the end of the age. This too was answered. All of these other things would happen first, and then Christ would return. But as to the exact time, no man knows the day or hour when this will be. The Second Coming will be as in the days of Noah — the world will not be expecting judgment. Suddenly Christ will appear — bringing an end to this age. One will be taken and the other left.
Copyrighted material used by permission of the Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association.
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