The parable of the fig tree in Matthew 24:32-35 has been used many times in our public lectures to indicate approximately when Christ would return. It was especially popular in the late 1980s, as the fortieth anniversary of the re-emer- gence of Israel as a nation approached. In the author’s experience, the use of this parable for this purpose declined as 1988 came and went, and the 40-year generation that had “seen” these things still had not seen the fulfilment of the rest of the Olivet prophecy. But the parable is still there — and it still has sig- nificance. Perhaps it is time to think about it again.
The parable reads as follows: “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. Ver- ily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (Matt. 24:32-34, KJV).
The first order of business is to determine what “all these things” are. They obvi- ously refer to something Jesus has just said, but specifically what? The answer is found in the correct understanding of the disciples’ questions in verse 3.
Their first question — “When shall these things be?” — must refer to the de- struction of Jerusalem because that is the context (“There shall not be left here one stone upon another”: v. 2).
The last two questions, however, ask for signs, first of his coming and then of the end of the world. It is evident from Acts 1:6 that the apostles primarily associated
the return of Christ with the kingdom restored to Israel — not Israel’s destruction by Rome. That was also what Jesus concentrated on in the verses preceding Acts 1:6, where he had spoken to them for 40 days about the kingdom to come. It is reasonable to assume that the kingdom was the subject of the apostles’ last two questions in Matthew 24.
So their questions were:
1. What shall be the sign of thy coming (i.e., to set up the kingdom of God)?
2. What shall be the sign of the end of the world (i.e., the Gentile world)?
Jesus begins his answer at verse 23 where he speaks of his return for the first time. Before he returns, people will start saying that he’s already here and some will even claim to be him! We are not to believe it because he’s already told us of the sign of his coming (“Behold, I have told you before”: v. 25). Verse 27 compares his coming to lightning. It will be sudden and, at least to the saints, unmistakable. But what is the sign?
Carcases and eagles
He tells them (and us) what that sign would be in verse 28. The word “For” is not in the original and the word “eagles” can mean either “eagles” or “vultures”; so what is the sign of his coming?
“Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together” (Matt. 24:28).
The sign of his coming is a carcase surrounded by vultures. This picture is identi- fied in two clear passages:
1. Deuteronomy28:26:“Andthycarcaseshallbemeatuntoallfowlsoftheair, and unto the beasts of the earth, and no man shall fray them away.”
2. Jeremiah19:7:“AndIwillmakevoidthecounselofJudahandJerusalemin this place; and I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hands of them that seek their lives: and their carcases will I give to be meat for the fowls of the heaven, and for the beasts of the earth.”
Both of these passages are about God’s punishment upon the nation of Israel because she has forsaken Him.
So the sign of Jesus’ coming is the reappearance of the nation of Israel in the midst of “vultures” who want to consume her. She reappears as a carcase. This is a very apt description of Israel when she became a nation. Ezekiel 37 is the prophecy of dry bones; the chapter describes Israel as a dead body — a carcase — just before the spirit enters into her. She is there on earth again, but without the spirit of God or life in her. So the carcase is the nation of Israel at the stage when she has not yet put her trust in God and recognized her Messiah.
When does this sign appear? Verse 24 tells us that the sign comes immediately after a time of great tribulation in which ruling political powers of the earth are shaken. This could easily be seen as the first and second world wars — and it is a
fact that out of these troubled times the state of Israel was born. The prophecy is in harmony with history.
What happens next? The sign of the Son of man appears, and the next significant event is the mourning of the tribes of the earth. The Greek word translated “tribes” occurs 23 times in the New Testament. In all but three times it is, without doubt, describing the tribes of Israel. The three exceptions could apply to other peoples, but it would also make perfect sense if they are applied to Israel. Nowhere in the New Testament can it be proven that this word does not refer to the tribes of Israel; in fact, in 23 of 26 instances, it is obvious from the context that it does.
Why does Christ call Israel in the latter days “the tribes of the earth”? Because it fits perfectly with Israel’s situation in those days. The tribes of Israel are scattered over the whole earth as prophecy suggests.
Why do they mourn? The mention of Israel mourning draws us immediately to Zechariah 12. There, in verse 10, the mourning of Israel accompanies their recognition of the one “whom they have pierced”. Zechariah tells in some detail what Israel will go through (possibly from the invasion described in Ezekiel 38 and 39) to reach the stage where they will recognize Jesus.
Gathering of the “elect”
Matthew 24:31 continues with the gathering of the elect from all over the world. The word “elect” can mean either elect or chosen. We have the Greek word trans- lated both ways in the New Testament (16 times as elect and 7 times as chosen). Normally it refers to the saints. If there is any chronological order to the events laid out here, however, this verse cannot refer to the saints because they will have already been raised, judged, and glorified with Christ. The recognition of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel comes after he, along with the saints, rescues Israel from the terrible invasion they are destined to experience.
If it is not the saints here, then who are the “chosen” who must be gathered from all over the world? God’s chosen people are the obvious choice, and that too is a very important prophecy that suits these words of Jesus. This gathering is the “second exodus” of Jeremiah 23:7,8 — when God will bring Abraham’s seed back to their land to begin the kingdom era. Here is the final and full return of which the state of Israel today is just a preliminary and partial fulfillment.
The parable of the fig tree
And finally we come to the parable of the fig tree. So far in Matthew 24 Jesus hasn’t said much about the time of his coming — except that it will be after the sign of his coming. He then responds to the apostles’ last question, “What shall be the sign of the end of the world?” The parable of the fig tree answers both of these questions perfectly, that is, if we know what the fig tree represents. Perhaps that is where we have run into trouble. The standard view has been that the fig tree represents Israel. This reasoning deduces that the fig tree with leaves and no fruit is the secular nation of Israel today, a nation that does not trust in God but
in the arm of flesh. It is the carcase or dead body of Ezekiel 37 before it receives the spirit (wind, word) of God. When we saw a secular Israel re-established as a nation, in the midst of other nations that wanted to devour her, then this was surely the “generation” that will also see Jesus’ coming.
We have used Scripture to define how long a generation is, and generally taken it to signify 40 years — because of the generation that died in the wilderness. Israel was established as a nation in 1948, but of course Christ did not come in 1988. Where have we erred?
Some have said that perhaps, after all, Jesus was just making a comparison. When we see the sign of his coming then we should recognize that his coming is soon, just as the leaves of a fig tree indicate that summer is nigh at hand. And so we have a general reference to timing. Although not as definitive as we might like, this interpretation still provides a powerful boost to our faith. Israel was established 59 years ago. The coming of Christ must be near. Let us make ourselves ready each day — for there are surely not many days left!
But note that Jesus specifically says this is a parable. By definition the details in a parable represent something more than what they are on the surface. And we must not forget that the apostles asked for two signs. So we should not be too quick to mix up the sign of his coming and the sign of the end of the world. If the details in the parable are symbols, then it is reasonable to assume we are not dealing here with a simple lesson from nature. The fig tree must be a symbol of the sign of the end of the world that the apostles were looking for.
It is interesting to note that the Bible never states directly that the fig tree is a symbol for the nation of Israel. Hosea 9:10 perhaps comes closest: “I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your fathers as the firstripe in the fig tree at her first time.” If the fathers of Israel were figs then surely Israel is a fig tree. But Israel is already defined as grapes. Some have taken Joel’s words in 1:7 as a definitive statement on the issue. “He hath laid my vine waste, and barked my fig tree.” These two passages come closest to making a direct connection, but neither compare with the directness of what is said about the vineyard and the olive tree. Isaiah 5:7 says directly that “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.” Hosea 10:1 says that “Israel is an empty vine.” In Romans 11 Paul says that his brethren the Jews are the natural branches of the olive tree. There are no such direct state- ments about the fig tree.
How does Jesus use the fig tree? Jesus talks about fig trees four times, one of which is the parable in Matthew 24. In chronological order these are as follows:
1. First he says that he saw Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree when he was calling the apostles (John 1:48).
2. Next he gives the parable of the figtree in the vineyard that was to be dug about and fertilized the third year before it was cut down (Luke 13:6-9).
3. Next Jesus curses the fig tree during the final week of his mortal life and at the end of his ministry (Matt. 21:19-21; Mark 11:13,20,21).
4. Finally we have the parable of the fig tree, which may have been given on the last day of Jesus’ life (Matt. 24:32; Mark 13:28; Luke 21:29).
Except for the first mention of the fig tree (with Nathaniel) there is an obvious connection between the other uses of the fig tree. In all three cases the fig trees were without fruit. This is stated directly in references 2 and 3 above. In the parable of the fig tree, despite that fact that a natural fig tree produces its fruit before (or at least at the same time as) its leaves, there is no mention of the fruit. So we are justified in thinking that, in all three instances, the fig tree of which Jesus speaks represents the same thing.
The parable of the fig tree in the vineyard points us in the right direction. As already stated, Isaiah 5 makes it very clear that the primary symbol in the plant world for the nation of Israel is the vine. It is very significant that in the parable of Luke 13 the fig tree was growing in the vineyard. Isaiah says that the vineyard is the whole house of Israel. So Jesus is focusing on something that is in Israel and that is singled out to be cursed, to wither, and to be cut down, once his three-year ministry is over. Surely the focus of Jesus’ condemnation is Jerusalem.
The fig tree of Jerusalem?
In Luke’s account of the Olivet prophecy — right before Jesus begins to talk about his second coming — he says: “And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (Luke 21:24).
Compare this with Matthew 23:37,38: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, [thou] that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under [her] wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.”
And in obvious fulfilment of the “fig tree in the vineyard” parable of Luke 13, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem when he finds and curses the fig tree because it has no fruit. He had tried to gather them under his wings to protect them from the evil that is coming, but they will not do so because they do not recognize the time of their visitation.
Is it not possible, then, that the fig tree is a better symbol for Jerusalem than for Israel? The fig tree putting forth leaves is Jerusalem coming out from under her long Gentile oppression — but still not turning to God. The people bear no fruit, despite being given the great blessing of possessing their beloved city once again after nearly 2,000 years.
Now we turn to the other variable in the parable. What is a “generation”? The “40-year” interpretation comes mainly from the “generation” that wandered and died in the wilderness throughout a 40-year period. It also finds some basis in Jesus’ use of the term concerning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in Matthew 23, in the verse that precedes his lamentation. Assuming that he spoke this prophecy in about 33 AD, then 70 AD and the great destruction of the city was approximately 40 years later.
[Editor’s note: But the crucifixion of Jesus was, from other historical accounts and comparisons, probably closer to 27 or 28 AD — since his birth was more likely 4 or 5 BC rather than 1 AD. Meanwhile, the great final war for Jerusalem began in 67 AD, and did not end until 70 AD. Clearly, “approximately” is about as close as we can get to a 40-year period using these historical analogies. For that matter, it may be said that Israel wandered in the wilderness for 38, not 40, years (Deut. 2:14). Any way we look at it, then, using 40 years as a fixed number based on these comparisons is something of a guess!]
Other than these there are no other numbers associated with the use of the term “generation” in the Bible. Most of the time the term refers simply to the people of the particular age being discussed. That is the way Jesus uses it almost exclusively.
But we do not need to remain fixed on an exact number of years. The Greek word can be a general term referring to a group. In this case it is the people who, during their lifetimes, see the fig tree putting forth leaves. In terms of this interpretation, they are the people who see Jerusalem finally delivered out of its “treading-down- by-the-Gentiles” period. So what can we say about the time of fulfilment from the parable of the fig tree?
If we interpret the fig tree to be the unification of Jerusalem after the Six Days’ War, then the starting point of the “generation” prophecy would be 1967. Using the traditional period for a generation of 40 years brings us to 2007. To see the culmination of all things included in the Olivet Prophecy by the end of this year is questionable. But if the generation to which Jesus refers is the group of people who were old enough for this event to register in their memories (let’s say about 12 years old), and assuming a 70-year lifespan (cp. Psa. 90:10), then we arrive at the year 2025 (1967 plus 70 minus 12).
Perhaps we may think, in the most general terms, of 2007 as the lower limit of a time period and 2025 as the upper limit of the time period. But we may conclude the parable of the fig tree is still a valid indicator of a general time period for the things Jesus discusses in Matthew 24.
In all of our expectations, however, we must always remember the warning in the very next verse of Matthew 24: “But of that day and hour knoweth no [man], no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (v. 36).
Jim Robinson (Kitchener-Waterloo, ON)