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Now learn this lesson from the fig tree…

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Mar 6, 2015

figs, Jul 2013

Jesus said in Matt 24:32-34, “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

Many have taken the fig tree in this passage to represent Israel, with its leaves coming out representing the re-establishment of the nation in 1948, and “this generation” being the time from then until Jesus returns. But how long is a generation? Maybe 40 years? A lot more years than that have now passed since 1948. Let’s look a little deeper and see if we can get a fuller understanding of what Jesus is saying here.

First of all, the Greek words often translated as “this generation” in Matt 24:34 can also be translated as “those people,” referring to whatever people were just being talked about in the context (for more details see the article “Who Is This Generation” at http://sil.academia.edu/IverLarsen). So what people were being talked about here? Taking it literally, we don’t see any people. He’s just talking about a fig tree. But looking back at the events of that day, we see that this isn’t the first mention of a fig tree. When He said, “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree,” there’s a particular fig tree that would have come to the disciples’ minds – the one which just that morning Jesus had cursed. Let’s back up and examine the things that happened that day, beginning in Matt 21, and see what we can learn.

Here’s an outline of key events from Matthew 21-24, with prominent themes highlighted in color to help point out parallels and patterns. Following this, at the end, are some observations –

Key:
the Jewish people
the unbelieving religious leaders
bearing fruit
the Temple
the fate of the Temple
repentance of the religious leaders
Jesus’ return


Matt 21:1-11

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The crowds receive Him.

Matt 21:12-17
Jesus confronts some of the Temple activities. The religious leaders reject Him.

Matt 21:18-22 (next morning)
(19) Jesus says to the fruitless fig tree “May you never bear fruit again!” and it withers. (20) His disciples are surprised, and (21) Jesus tells them “Not only will this be done to the fig tree. Even this mountain will be thrown into the sea. Have faith and pray against this corrupt religious system, and it will be done.”

Matt 21:23-27
At the Temple that day Jesus teaches the people, but again the religious leaders reject Him.

Matt 21:28-32
Jesus tells a parable about the religious leaders, portraying them as a son who went back on his word by not doing the work his father gave him to do.

Matt 21:33-46
Jesus tells another parable about the religious leaders, portraying them as tenants of a vineyard who refuse to deliver the vineyard’s fruit to the owner’s servants when they come for it. Instead they beat and kill the servants.

Matt 21:43
Jesus speaking plainly now to the religious leaders – “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”

Matt 23:37-39
(37) O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. (38) Look, your house is left to you desolate. (39) For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”

Matt 24:1-31
At the end of this day of teaching the people and confronting the religious leaders, (1) as Jesus and his disciples are just leaving the temple, when the disciples stop to admire the temple building (2) Jesus tells them, “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down“. (3) A little later at the Mount of Olives the disciples ask about this. When this will happen? And when will you come back? So Jesus talks at length about this – about many things that must happen before His return.

Matt 24:32-34
(32) “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree. As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. (33) Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it (my return) is near, right at the door. (34) I tell you the truth, (those people) will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”

Observations

  • The parallel between Matt 21:19, “May you never bear fruit again!” spoken to a fig tree which isn’t producing fruit, and Matt 21:43, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit”, spoken to religious leaders who aren’t producing fruit, suggests that the fig tree represents these religious leaders.
  • The parallel between Matt 21:21, spoken about “this mountain” being thrown down and Matt 24:1-2, spoken about the temple being thrown down, suggests that “this mountain” refers to mount Zion, the mountain on which the Temple stood.
  • As noted previously, the Greek word translated as “this generation” in Matt 24:34 can also be translated “those people,” referring to whatever people were just being talked about in the context. Having now seen evidence that the fig tree Jesus is talking about could represent a class of people, the unbelieving religious leaders, it may be that it is these people, once they’ve laid aside their unbelief, who will not pass away until all these things have been accomplished.
  • In Matt 21:19 it sounded like there was no longer any hope at all for the religious leaders. “May you never bear fruit again!” But then Matt 23:39 introduces a glimmer of hope. “You won’t see me again until…” Until you begin to gladly receive the servants of the owner of the vineyard. Until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. So these verses suggest the possibility of a miracle – a resurrection of the cursed fig tree that we would have thought would never again bear fruit. And then Matt 24:32 makes the miracle explicit. “Learn this lesson from the fig tree that I cursed this morning. The Kingdom of God will indeed be taken away from these religious leaders who refuse to produce fruit. But a time is coming when the Jewish leaders will receive me. The cursed fig tree will live again. Its twigs will get tender, and its leaves will come out. “I tell you the truth, these people – these represented by the resurrected fig tree – will not pass away until every one of the things I’ve just described to you has happened. My return will be in their lifetime.

By this interpretation the lesson from the fig tree fits the context quite well, addressing the initial question asked by the disciples in Matt 24:3 “What will be the sign of your coming?” Jesus has given them a number of things which all must happen before the end. Wars and rumors of wars. Famines. Earthquakes. The preaching of the gospel to all nations. The defiling of the Temple by the antichrist. But the lesson from the fig tree seems to be the sign that summarizes it all, providing a direct answer to the question His disciples had asked. “I can’t tell you the exact day and hour of my coming (Matt 24:36-51), but I can give you this much. When you see this lesson of the fig tree fulfilled, you can be confident that it is near, right at the door.

Well then, what does this mean for our present day? Was this lesson of the fig tree fulfilled in 1948?

I don’t think so. I believe we’re still waiting for its fulfillment. There are now many Jewish believers; those who have come to recognize their Messiah, both within Israel and throughout the world, and this is very encouraging to see. But to give their hearts to Yeshua is not a straightforward, simple matter. The official position of Judaism is still to reject Yeshua as the Messiah of Israel – so to embrace Him often also means to have to endure rejection by at least some segments of society.

What will it take to bring about a complete transformation of Judaism – fully acknowledging the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and recognizing their Messiah? I don’t know. It’s complicated. Yet, from Yeshua’s parable of the fig tree we see that this will happen. We can hope expectantly for it, and pray for it.

Many other passages too tell us that this will happen. Romans 11:26-27 says, “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins…”  This then refers us back to Jeremiah where we can see the full statement of this covenant: Jeremiah 31:33-34 “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Other Old Testament passages also testify that this will happen:

Ezekiel 39:29
“I will no longer hide my face from them, for I will pour out my Spirit on the house of Israel, declares the Sovereign LORD.”

Ezekiel 39:22
“From that day forward the house of Israel will know that I am the LORD their God.”

Zechariah 12:10
“I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.”

Zechariah 13:1
“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

Isaiah 46:13
“I am bringing my righteousness near, it is not far away; and my salvation will not be delayed. I will grant salvation to Zion, my splendor to Israel.”

God’s word to us through Ezekiel states quite emphatically in this next verse that “Yes. This will indeed happen.” –

Ezekiel 39:7-8
“I will make known my holy name among my people Israel. I will no longer let my holy name be profaned, and the nations will know that I the LORD am the Holy One in Israel. It is coming! It will surely take place, declares the Sovereign LORD. This is the day I have spoken of.”

In our prayers then, let’s follow the good example of Daniel. He didn’t know exactly when his people would be delivered from their captivity in Babylon, but he knew that it would happen, because God had promised that it would, and had given a rough idea of the timing to expect. So in response to God’s promise did Daniel say “Oh, good – I’m glad that’s taken care of,” and just go about his business? No, he prayed fervently for the fulfillment of God’s promise:

Daniel 9:1-19
In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom— in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed:

“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.

“Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. O LORD, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the LORD our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you.

“Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you. You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing upon us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the LORD our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth. The LORD did not hesitate to bring the disaster upon us, for the LORD our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.

“Now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong. O Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our fathers have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us.

“Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, O Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, O God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”

So let’s follow Daniel’s good example by praying fervently for the soon fulfillment of all that He has promised to His people.

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1 Comment

  1. […] At this point, with both accounts now solidly focused on the distant future, they both now conclude with the same account of the fig tree, giving them (and more to the point, us) the one most definitive clue to watch for regarding the nearness of His coming and the end of the age. The Matthew account provides the most clarity on this, having described an event in Matt 21:18-19 involving a fig tree which just that morning Yeshua had cursed. In this fuller context, the concluding parable suggests that the fig tree which has withered will live again, and that that will be the most unmistakable sign that His coming truly is near (for more details of this see https://snofriacus.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/now-learn-this-lesson-from-the-fig-tree-2/) […]

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