Budding Fig Tree - Restored Israel?

SYNOPSIS - The parable of the budding fig tree points to the fulfillment of the things predicted by Jesus that culminate in the destruction of the Temple - Matthew 24:32-24

Fig Tree - Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash
In his final discourse on the Mount of Olives, Jesus employed the image of a fig tree sprouting foliage for the “when” of the events he had predicted. Did he use the fig tree to symbolize Israel or something else? In his discourse, he answered two questions from his disciples. First, when would the Temple be destroyed? Second, what would be the “sign” of the coming of the Son of Man and the end of the age? - [Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash].
  • (Matthew 24:1-3) – “And Jesus, coming forth from the temple, was taking his departure when his disciples came forward to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he, answering, said unto them — Are ye not beholding all these things? Verily, I say unto you — in no wise shall there be left here, stone upon stone, which shall not be thrown down. And as he was sitting upon the Mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him, privately, saying — Tell us, when these things shall be, — and what the sign of thy presence and the conclusion of the age.”
  • (Matthew 24:32-24) – “Now, from the fig-tree learn ye the parable: — When already her young branch becometh tender and the leaves may be sprouting, ye observe that near is the summer: Thus, ye also, when ye shall see all these things, observe ye that near he is at the doors. Verily, I say unto you — In nowise shall this generation pass away until all these things shall happen” – (The Emphasized Bible).
Some interpretations contend the fig tree is a traditional symbol for Israel and its flourishing foliage points to its restoration; therefore, it is assumed, the “generation” referred to by Jesus is the last one to exist before his return in glory. This interpretation has several problems:
  • It imports ideas into the words of Jesus that he never expressed.
  • It ignores the different symbolic uses of the fig tree in the Bible.
  • It ignores the parallel passage in the gospel of Luke - (Luke 21:29-32).
  • It overlooks the consistent application in the gospel accounts of “this generation” to the generation contemporary with Jesus.
  • It does not apply “this generation” in accord with normal Greek usage.
  • It fails to see the Old Testament background behind the phrase, “this generation.”
  • In the parable, the fig tree was sprouting leaves, NOT fruit - It was fruitless.
  • The budding tree signified the approach of “summer,” not the restoration of Israel.
In Scripture, the fig tree is not used consistently as a symbol for Israel in Scripture, and nowhere in the New Testament is the image of a budding fig tree used to symbolize the nation flourishing once again in the Promised Land, with the possible exception of this saying by Jesus. Moreover, on at least two occasions he used a fruitless fig tree to represent a rebellious nation that merited divine judgment.

Future Temple?

In his ‘Olivet Discourse,’ Jesus did not predict the future restoration of Israel in the Middle East or the construction of another or “third” Temple in the city of Jerusalem. Instead, all four gospel accounts paint a consistent picture of the Jewish religious authorities opposing him and seeking his destruction, which resulted in his judicial pronouncements against the Temple and the Jewish nation.

For example, the parable about the vineyard owner given by Jesus to the religious leaders in Jerusalem. At its end, he concluded:
  • Therefore, say I unto you, the kingdom of God shall be taken away from you, and shall be given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” - (Matthew 21:33-46).
The “chief priests and the Pharisees” understood that the parable was directed at them, therefore, they “sought to lay hold on him.” This confrontation was prompted by his earlier act of driving the moneychangers out of the Temple when he declared:
  • My house shall be called a house of prayer: but ye make it a den of robbers.
Jesus was in frequent conflict with the Temple authorities that conspired to have him executed by the Roman governor. He responded as one would expect from the pattern set by the ancient prophets of Israel - He pronounced judgment on the nation for its rebellion against Yahweh and “his anointed one.” What he did not do was predict the future restoration of the Temple or the nation of Israel.

The Fig Tree in Scripture

Is the fig tree used consistently by Scripture to symbolize Israel? A cursory search demonstrates that the fig tree is not consistently or even frequently employed to symbolize Israel flourishing in the Promised Land.

For example, the Old Testament uses the fig tree to represent impending judgment by Yahweh, sometimes on Israel but also on other nations - (Compare - Hosea 2:11-12, Joel 1:7, Micah 7:1):
  • (Isaiah 34:2-4) – “That Yahweh hath wrath against all the nations, and indignation against all their host — He hath devoted them to destruction He hath delivered them to slaughter…Then shall be dissolved all the host of the heavens, And the heavens shall roll up as a scroll — Yea, all their host shall fade — Like the fading and falling of a leaf from a vine, and Like what fadeth and falleth from a fig-tree.”
  • (Jeremiah 29:17) – “Thus, saith Yahweh of hosts, Behold me! sending upon them sword famine and pestilence — So will I make them like the horrid figs that cannot be eaten for badness.
Nowhere in his ‘Olivet Discourse’ did Jesus state that he was using the fig tree to symbolize the nation of Israel flourishing in Palestine. If there is a tree or plant used by Scripture to symbolize Israel, and frequently so, it is the grapevine, NOT the fig tree - (Psalm 80:15, Isaiah 5:1-7, 27:2, Jeremiah 12:10, Ezekiel 15:1-8, Hosea 10:1, Matthew 20:1-16, 21:33-46, John 15:1-11).

In a few passages, the olive tree symbolizes the people of God, but it does not follow that the fig tree is always a cipher for a restored Israel, let alone in the parable of Jesus (Compare - Zechariah 4:3-12, Romans 11:17-24, Revelation 11:4).

Gospel of Luke

More telling is the version of the parable in the gospel of Luke:
  • (Luke 21:29-30) - “And he spake a parable unto them: See the fig-tree and all the trees — Whensoever they have already budded seeing it, of yourselves, ye observe that already near is the summer: Thus, ye also, whensoever ye shall see these things coming to pass, observe ye that near is the kingdom of God! Verily, I say unto you — In nowise shall this generation pass away until all things shall happen.”
Since Luke does not limit the analogy to just one species of tree, the notion that Jesus intended the fig tree to symbolize Israel does not fit, at least not in this version of his parable. If the fig tree symbolizes Israel, what do “all the other trees” represent? And all of them were “putting forth leaves.”

In Luke’s account, the budding foliage represents the approach of “summer,” which Jesus connects to the nearness of the “kingdom of God,” and to all “these things coming to pass” - The things he had just predicted. The trees do not point to the nation Israel or its restoration, but to the fulfillment of the words of Jesus.

His Use of the Fig Tree

The fig tree is rarely mentioned in the New Testament. In addition to its use in the ‘Olivet Discourse,’ a fig tree was cursed by Jesus for its fruitlessness, a fruitless fig tree was featured in his parable of the Barren Fig Tree, when Jesus saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree, again when James used an analogy from the fact that fig trees do not produce olives, and in the book of Revelation, a fig tree is part of a simile that describes the cosmic upheaval that will occur on the “Day of the Lord” - (Matthew 21:19-21, Mark 11:13-21, Luke 13:6-8, John 1:48-50, James 3:12, Revelation 6:13).

On two occasions Jesus used a fig tree symbolically. The first instance is in his parable of the Barren Fig Tree that compares the nation of Israel to an unfruitful tree. For three years the owner sought fruit from it but found none. Just before he cut it down, the vinedresser asked for one more year to make the tree productive:
  • (Luke 13:6-9) – “And he went on to speak this parable: — A certain man had a fig-tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit therein and found none. And he said unto the vine-dresser — Lo! three years I come seeking fruit in this fig-tree and find none. Cut it down! Why doth it make even the ground useless? And he answering, saith unto him — Sir! let it alone this year also, until such time as I dig about it and throw in manure — and if it may bear fruit for the future; …but, otherwise, certainly, thou shalt cut it down.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
If at the end of the three years no fruit appeared, the tree would be cut down. The reference to “three years” links the parable to the ministry of Jesus. God is the owner of the tree, Jesus is the vinedresser, and Israel is the fruitless fig tree. The parable is a portrayal of Israel’s failure to produce the required fruit and a warning of its impending judgment if the nation did not repent.

On the second occasion, Jesus cursed an unfruitful fig tree. This was an “enacted parable,” a prophetic act symbolizing Divine judgment on the Temple for its failure to produce the required “fruit.”
In the version recorded in Mark, the story is divided into two sections. “Sandwiched” between them is the so-called “cleansing of the Temple,” also a prophetic act that pointed to the coming destruction of the Temple. In this way, both acts are linked. He cursed the fig tree for its fruitlessness, which represented the coming judgment on the Temple for its fruitlessness. - (Matthew 21:19-21, Mark 11:13-23).
Likewise, after expelling the moneychangers from the Temple, Jesus condemned its leaders for having turned Yahweh’s Temple into a “den of thieves.” The Temple authorities understood his words and “began to seek how they might destroy him.” On his return to Bethany, the disciples observed the cursed and now withered fig tree.

Thus, if Jesus used a fig tree to symbolize Israel, it was to signify its impending judgment for barrenness, not its restoration.

Budding Fig Tree

Jesus described how a fig tree sprouts foliage prior to summer. The arrival of new leaves was a sure sign of summer's approach. The lesson he drew was - “When you see these things happening, you know that it is near.”

The budding fig tree represented a series of events - (“these things”) - NOT Israel. Its foliage indicated the imminence of something. When the disciples saw “these things” coming to pass, they would know that “it” was near, whatever “summer” or “it” signifies (the pronoun must be neuter to match the gender of its associated noun, that is, “summer,” which is neuter in Greek).

These things” refers to the events predicted by Jesus – the “birth pains," the persecution of the disciples, apostasy, the proclamation of the gospel throughout the “inhabitable earth,” the appearance of the “abomination that desolates,” a tribulation “such as hath not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever shall be,” and the rise of false prophets - (Matthew 24:4-26).

In short, the “budding of the fig tree” represented the fulfillment of the things Jesus predicted on the Mount of Olives. The analogy had nothing to do with national Israel flourishing in the Middle East or a rebuilt Temple at the end of the age.

These Things

Jesus had predicted the destruction of the Temple that was standing in his day - “Do you not see all these things (tauta)? Truly I say to you, there shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down.” To this, the disciples responded, “When shall these things (tauta) be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

These things” translates the Greek demonstrative pronoun, tauta, meaning, “this, these.” In his discourse, Jesus alternated between two pronouns, tauta and ekeinos - (“that,” “those”). Though somewhat synonymous, in general, tauta refers to things closer to hand, spatially or temporally - (“these things”), while ekeinos to things further removed - (“those things”).

In his discourse, Jesus made two chronological references - “This generation,” and, “No one knows when except God alone.” By predicting the fulfillment of his warnings within a “generation,” he claimed to know the timing of certain events. Seemingly, that claim contradicted his declaration that “God alone knows the day or the hour.” Either he was mistaken, or the two statements do not refer to the same event(s).

Note his use of tauta or “these things” in the following verses from the discourse:
  • (Matthew 24:2) – “See ye not all these things (tauta)? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”
  • (Matthew 24:3) – “And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things (tauta) be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?”
  • (Matthew 24:8) – “All these things (tauta) are the beginning of sorrows.”
  • (Matthew 24:33) – “So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things (tauta), know that it is near, even at the doors.”
  • (Matthew 24:34) – “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things (tauta) be fulfilled.”
Likewise, note his use of ekeinos or “those things”:
  • (Matthew 24:19) – “And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days (ekeinos)!”
  • (Matthew 24:22) – “And except those days (ekeinos) should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days (ekeinos) shall be shortened.”
  • (Matthew 24:29) – “Immediately after the tribulation of those days (ekeinos) shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.”
  • (Matthew 24:36) – “But of that day (ekeinos) and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.”
  • (Matthew 24:43) – “But know that (ekeinos), that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up.”
  • (Matthew 24:46) – “Blessed is that (ekeinos) servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing.”
  • (Matthew 24:48) – “But and if that (ekeinos) evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming.”
  • (Matthew 24:50) – “The lord of that (ekeinos) servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of.”
This use of tauta or “these things” stems from the original prediction of the destruction of the Temple. Jesus applied it to the things his disciples would see leading up to the destruction of the Temple. Ekeinos or “those things” was applied to statements about the “coming of the Son of Man,” with a stress on how God alone knows the timing of that day.

Thus, Jesus responded to two questions and made predictions about two related but distinct events - The destruction of the Temple and the return of the Son of Man. The first would occur within “this generation”; the second, God alone knows.

This Generation

In Matthew, “this generation” is applied repeatedly to the generation of Jews contemporary with Jesus that had rejected him - (Matthew 3:7, 11:16,  12:34, 12:39, 12:41-45, 16:4, 17:17, 24:34).

Most telling is the judicial pronouncement at the end of his denunciation of the “scribes and Pharisees”:
  • (Matthew 23:33-36) – “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?...Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.”
In this context, the phrase “this generation” can only refer to the “generation” represented by the “scribes and pharisees” - (“Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?...Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation”).

The Grammatical Problem

As the preceding examples demonstrate, the normal way to understand “this generation” is as a reference to the generation contemporary with the speaker. This is true whether the clause is in English or Greek.  To claim this clause refers to a future generation contradicts its natural grammatical usage. Additionally, it ignores all the other instances in the gospel accounts where “this generation” refers to the one contemporary with Jesus, the same one that rejected him.

Old Testament Background

This generation” alludes to references in the Hebrew Bible to the generation of Israel that disobeyed Yahweh and was condemned to die off in the Wilderness, the one that NEVER entered the Promised Land. The same consequences were to befall the generation of Jews that rejected Jesus:
  • (Numbers 32:13) – “And the LORD’S anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation, that had done evil in the sight of the LORD, was consumed.”
  • (Deuteronomy 1:35) – “Surely there shall not one of these men of this evil generation see that good land.”
  • (Deuteronomy 2:14) – “And the space in which we came from Kadeshbarnea, until we were come over the brook Zered, was thirty and eight years; until all the generation of the men of war were wasted out from among the host, as the LORD sware unto them.”

Conclusions

The analogy of the budding fig tree was a pictorial warning about coming events that would signal the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. “This generation,” the one contemporary with Jesus, would see “these things” taking place, and that “generation” would not cease until “all these things” came to pass.

Jesus provided a list of things that would signal the approach of the Temple’s destruction - “these things.” Of special note is the warning about the “abomination of desolation.” When the disciples saw it, it was imperative that they fled Jerusalem in all haste.

The fig tree is not used consistently in Scripture to symbolize Israel or the nation flourishing in the Promised Land. Jesus used the image of a fruitless fig tree on at least two occasions to represent a rebellious nation that merited divine judgment.

The point of the analogy was that the predicted events would indicate the approach of “summer” - The judgment on Jerusalem and the Temple that the “generation” contemporary with Jesus would witness and experience. The parable was not about a restoration of national Israel but, instead, its judgment for rejecting the Messiah of Yahweh.




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