The Budding Fig Tree

SYNOPSIS - The parable of the budding fig tree meant that the fulfillment of the things predicted by Jesus signaled the imminent destruction of the Temple.

Fig Tree - Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash
Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash
In his final discourse to the disciples given on the Mount of Olives, Jesus employed the image of a fig tree sprouting foliage to provide insight into the “when” of the events he had just predicted. One popular interpretation is that the budding fig tree symbolized the nation of Israel flourishing once more in the Middle East in the "last days" - The underlying assumption is that the fig tree is the traditional symbol for Israel.

In his ‘Olivet Discourse,’ he answered two questions posed to him by the disciples (Matthew 24:1-3):
  1. When would the Temple be destroyed?
  2. What would be the “sign” of the coming of the Son of Man?
  • (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).
This understanding has several problems. First, it imports ideas into the words of Jesus that he never expressed. Second, it ignores the different symbolic uses of the fig tree in the Bible, including its use by Jesus. Third, it ignores the parallel passage in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus used the analogy of the “fig tree and all the trees” (Luke 21:29-32).

Fourth, it ignores the consistent application by the gospel accounts of “this generation” to the generation of Jews that was contemporary with Jesus. Fifth, it does not apply the reference to “this generation” in accord with normal Greek usage. Sixth, it ignores the Old Testament background behind the phrase. Seventh, it fails to note that, in the parable,  the fig tree was sprouting leaves but NOT fruit - It was fruitless. Its foliage signified the approach of “summer,” not the reestablishment or prosperity of Israel.

This popular view is combined with the statement by Jesus that “this generation will not pass until all these things are fulfilled.” It is then concluded that all the things predicted by him would come to pass by the end of the “last generation” that would see Israel restored as a nation in Palestine.

What Future Temple?

In his ‘Olivet Discourse,’ nowhere did Jesus predict the future restoration of Israel in the Middle East or the construction of another Temple in the city of Jerusalem. Both ideas are read into his parable by proponents of this interpretation.

Instead of this popular view, all four gospel accounts paint a consistent picture of Jesus being resisted by the Temple authorities and, consequently, his judicial pronouncement on the Temple and the Jewish nation.

For example, in Matthew 21:33-46, Jesus gave the parable about the vineyard owner to the religious leaders of Israel. At the end of it, 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.” The “chief priests and the Pharisees” understood quite accurately 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.”
The gospel accounts present Jesus in frequent conflict with the Temple authorities, the same ones that conspired to have him executed by Rome. He responded as one would expect from the pattern of the ancient prophets of Israel - He pronounced judgment on the nation for its rebellion against the will and word of Yahweh.
What Jesus did not do was predict the future restoration of the Temple or the nation of Israel. Whether other passages in Scripture predict a future restoration of either the Temple or the nation, Jesus did not.

The Fig Tree in Scripture

This popular view presupposes the fig tree is used consistently in Scripture as a symbol for Israel. But was this how Jesus used his analogy? And is the fig tree used consistently by Scripture to symbolize Israel?

A cursory search of scripture demonstrates the fig tree is not consistently or even frequently employed to symbolize a flourishing nation of Israel. For example, the Old Testament uses it to represent the impending judgment of Yahweh, sometimes on Israel, but also on other nations (Compare, also - 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.
Moreover, nowhere in the ‘Olivet Discourse’ did Jesus state that he was using the fig tree to symbolize a healthy nation of Israel dwelling in the land of Palestine. If there is a tree or plant used in 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).

In the Gospel of Luke

More telling is the version of the parable found 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.”
Trees - Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash
Matt Artz on Unsplash
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 Discourse. And if the fig tree symbolized Israel, what do “all the other trees” represent?  Remember, all of them are “putting forth leaves.”

In this account, the budding foliage represents the approach of “summer,” which Jesus connects to the nearness of the “kingdom of God,” and also to all “these things coming to pass” - The things he had just predicted. The budding trees do not point to the nation Israel or its flourishing in the land, 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,’ the New Testament refers to fig trees in the story of the cursing by Christ of an unfruitful fig tree (Matthew 21:19-21, Mark 11:13-21), the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-8), when Jesus saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree (John 1:48-50), an analogy from the fact that fig trees do not produce olives (James 3:12), and in Revelation 6:13, part of a simile describing cosmic upheaval on the “Day of the Lord.”

On two occasions Jesus used a fig tree symbolically. The first instance occurs in the 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).
Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash
Matt Artz on Unsplash
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 impending disaster if the nation did not repent and heed the words of its Messiah.

On the second occasion, Jesus cursed an unfruitful fig tree. This was an “enacted parable,” a prophetic act symbolizing God’s judgment on the Temple for its failure to produce the required “fruit.” This is not immediately obvious in Matthew’s account (Matthew 21:19-21Mark 11:13-23).
However, in the version found in the Gospel of 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 judgment on the Temple. In this way, Mark links both acts. He cursed the fig tree for its fruitlessness, which represented the coming judgment on the Temple for its fruitlessness.
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 that the cursed fig tree had withered. If Jesus used a fig tree to symbolize national Israel, it was to signify its impending judgment for barrenness, not its restoration.

The Budding Fig Tree

The depiction of a budding fig tree is called a “parable,” a teaching device that uses an analogy to make its point. 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 Jesus 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, the rise of false prophets, 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 (24:4-26).

In contrast to the claims of these false prophets, when the Son of Man does arrive there will be no mistaking the event. Like lightning flashing across the sky, “so shall be the coming of the Son of Man.” His arrival will affect the entire created order, including all nations and tribes.  It is a universal event. However, the events that constitute the “these things” are largely limited to the region of Judea.

In short, the image of a “budding of the fig tree” represented the fulfillment of the things Jesus predicted to his disciples. Some of these developments are well documented in the Book of Acts. The analogy has nothing to do with national Israel flourishing in the Middle East at the end of the age.

These Things

The ‘Olivet Discourse’ was a response to two questions asked by the disciples after Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple (“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”):
  1. When shall these things (tauta) be?”
  2. What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the age?”
These things” translates the Greek demonstrative pronoun, tauta, meaning, “this, these.” In his response, Jesus alternates between two pronouns, tauta and ekeinos (“that, those”). While somewhat synonymous with ekeinos, in general, the pronoun tauta refers to things closer to hand, spatially or temporally (“these things”), while ekeinos to things further removed (“those things”).

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, even if only approximate. Seemingly, that claim contradicts his declaration that “God alone knows the day or the hour of the coming of the Son of Man.” Either Jesus was mistaken, or the two statements do not refer to the same event(s).

As stated above, Jesus alternates between the two pronouns. Note his use of tauta or “these things”:
  • (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.”
Note next his use of ekeinos or “those things” by Jesus:
  • (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.”
His use of tauta or “these things” stems from his original prediction of the destruction of the temple. Jesus applied the demonstrative pronoun to the things that his disciples would see leading up to the destruction of the Temple.

Ekeinos or “those things” was applied by Jesus to his statements about the coming of the Son of Man, with a stress on how God alone knows the timing of that day, including its “season” (Mark 13:33).

Again, Jesus was responding to two questions and made predictions about two related but distinct events: The destruction of the Temple, and, the coming of the Son of Man. The first would occur within “this generation”; the second, God alone knew.

This Generation

In the Gospel of Matthew, “this generation” is a repeated phrase for the generation of Jews that was contemporary with Jesus and had rejected him. The following is a complete list from Matthew:
  • (Matthew 3:7) – “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
  • (Matthew 11:16) – “But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows.”(Matthew 12:34) – “generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”
  • (Matthew 12:39) – “But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.”
  • (Matthew 12:41-45) – “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here…Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation.”
  • (Matthew 16:4) – “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed.”
  • (Matthew 17:17) – “Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me.”
  • (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.”
  • (Matthew 24:34) – “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.”
Most telling is the passage found in Matthew 23:33-36, the conclusion to the judgment pronounced against the “scribes and Pharisees,” the very hypocrites who had resisted his ministry from day one. He pronounced the imminent destruction of the Temple and judgment on “this generation.”

In this context, the phrase 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 from Matthew 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 that all “these things will be fulfilled before this generation passes away” refers to a future generation contradicts normal 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.

The Old Testament Background

This generation” on the lips of Jesus alludes to references in the Hebrew Bible to the generation of Israel that disobeyed Yahweh and, consequently was condemned to die off in the Wilderness, that generation of Israel that NEVER entered the Promised Land.  The verbal allusion is deliberate, for the same consequences befell the generation of Jews that rejected the message of Jesus and John the Baptist. It was this “generation” from which God removed His “kingdom” and gave it to “another nation,” one that would produce the required fruit (Matthew 21:43). Note the following:
  • (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 to the disciples about coming events that would signal the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple that Jesus had predicted. “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 unequivocally predicted the utter desolation of the Temple that was standing in his day. In response, the disciples asked, “When will these things (tauta) be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age”? That is, when will the destruction of the Temple take please that Jesus had just predicted.

Jesus provided a list of things to occur that would signal the approach of the destruction of the Temple and the city, “these things.” Of special note is the warning about the “abomination of desolation.” When the disciples saw this, it would be imperative for them to flee Jerusalem in all haste while there was still time. Note carefully, whatever this “abomination” was, it was a localized event. If the arrival of this figure meant the end of the present order and the arrival of Jesus in glory, action would be required of all disciples regardless of where they lived on the earth. Further, there would be no point in fleeing Jerusalem or anywhere else if Jesus was about to come in all his power.  For the wicked, there would be no escape and, for the righteous, what would be the point?  The entire created order would be affected, not just Judea and Jerusalem.

The fig tree is not a consistent symb0l for Israel in Scripture, let alone for the nation flourishing in the Promised Land. Jesus used the image of a fruitless fig tree on at least two occasions to symbolize a rebellious nation that merited divine judgment.

The point of the budding fig tree was that the events predicted by Jesus would indicate the approach of “summer”; that is, the judgment on Jerusalem and the Temple that the Jewish “generation” contemporary with him would witness. The parable was not about a restoration of national Israel in some remote future but, instead, its impending judgment for the rejection of Yahweh’s Messiah.

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