Flourishing Fig Tree

SYNOPSIS - The parable of the budding fig tree pointed to the destruction of the Temple predicted by Jesus – Mark 13:28-29

Budding Trees - Photo by trevor pye on Unsplash
Next, Jesus gave his parable of a “budding fig tree.” The illustration was the first part of the answer to the disciples’ original question – “When will these things come to pass?” The image of a fig tree sprouting foliage provided the clue for the “when” of the predicted events – Its sprouting foliage would signal the arrival of “summer,” the time of the fulfillment of “all these things.” - [Photo by trevor pye on Unsplash],
  • (Mark 13:28-29) – “Now from the fig tree learn her parable: when her branch is now become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that the summer is nigh; even so you also, when you see these things coming to pass, know you that he is nigh, even at the doors.”
When interpreting this parable, it must be borne in mind that in the ‘Discourse’ Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. At no point did he predict the future restoration of the nation of Israel or the rebuilding of the Temple.

 

Does the image of a budding fig tree represent Israel? Often in the Hebrew Bible, the fig tree symbolizes the impending judgment of Yahweh, sometimes against Israel but also on other nations. For example:

  • (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 will be dissolved all the host of the heavens, And the heavens will roll up as a scroll — all their host will fade — Like the fading and falling of a leaf from a vine, and Like what fades and falls 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.

Far more often in Scripture, the plants used to symbolize Israel are the grapevine and, less frequently so, the olive tree - (Psalm 80:15, Isaiah 5:1-7, Zechariah 4:3-12, Romans 11:17-24).


In the version of the parable in the gospel of Luke, the “fig tree” is combined with “all the trees” of the forest – Together, they all point to the imminence of “summer”:

  • (Luke 21:29-30) - “And he spoke a parable unto them: See the fig-tree and all the trees — Whenever they have already budded seeing it, of yourselves, you observe that already near is the summer: Thus, you also, whenever you see these things coming to pass, observe you that near is the kingdom of God! Verily, I say unto you — In nowise will this generation pass away until all things will happen.”

Since Luke does not limit the application to just one species of tree, the notion that Jesus intended the fig tree to symbolize a restored Israel does not fit. If the fig tree symbolizes Israel, then what do “all the other trees” represent?  In this account, “all the trees” were sprouting leaves, not just the fig tree.


In Luke, 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”; that is, to the events Jesus had just predicted.


Elsewhere in the gospel accounts, consistently, Jesus used a fig tree to symbolize the failure of Israel to produce the required fruit. For example, when he cursed a fig tree for its fruitlessness, which symbolized the coming destruction of the Temple for its lack of fruit - (Matthew 21:19-21, Mark 11:13-21).


Also, again in the gospel of Luke, we find 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 spoke this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit thereon and found none. And he said unto the vinedresser, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why doth it also cumber the ground? And he answering saith unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit thenceforth, well; but if not, thou shalt cut it 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 portrays Israel’s failure to produce the required fruit, as well as a warning of impending disaster if the nation did not repent and heed its Messiah.


Fig Tree by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash
Fig Tree by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

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 its imminence. The lesson he drew was - “When you see these things happening, you know that it is near” – That is, “summer.”


The budding fig tree represented a set of events (“these things”). When the disciples saw “these things” coming to pass, they would know that “it” was near, whatever “summer” or “it” signified - (The pronoun is neuter to match the gender of the Greek noun rendered “summer”).


The term “these things” refers to the preceding events predicted by Jesus – The “birth pains,” the persecution of the disciples, the rise of the “false prophets,” the proclamation of the gospel to all the nations, the “abomination that desolates,” and the “tribulation.


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


Note well the use of tauta or “these things” by Jesus:

  • (Mark 13:2) – “And Jesus said unto him, See these great buildings? there shall not be left here one stone upon another, which shall not be thrown down.”
  • (Mark 13:4) – “Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?
  • (Mark 13:8) – “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there shall be earthquakes in divers places; there shall be famines: these things are the beginning of travail.”
  • (Mark 13:11) – “And when they lead you to judgment, and deliver you up, be not anxious beforehand what ye shall speak: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye; for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Spirit.”
  • (Mark 13:13) – “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endures to the end, the same shall be saved.”
  • (Mark 13:29-30) – “When ye see these things coming to pass, know ye that he is nigh, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, until all these things be accomplished.”

Note next his use of ekeinos or “those things” by Jesus:

  • (Mark 13:17) – “But woe unto them that are with child and to them that give suck in those days!
  • (Mark 13:19) – “For those days shall be tribulation, such as there hath not been the like from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never shall be.”
  • (Mark 13:24) – “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light.”
  • (Mark 13:31) – “But of that day or that hour knows no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”

The use of tauta - “these things” - stems from the prediction of the destruction of the temple. Jesus applied the demonstrative pronoun to the things that his disciples would see leading up to its demise. Ekeinos or “those things” was applied to his statements about the “coming of the Son of Man” - (Mark 13:33).

Again, Jesus was responding to the two questions. In doing so, he made predictions about two related but distinct events - The destruction of the Temple – “These things” - And the “coming of the Son of Man.” The first would occur within “this generation”; the second, God alone knew.

In the ‘Olivet Discourse,’ Jesus made two chronological references – First, “this generation”; second, “no one knows when except God alone.” By predicting the fulfillment of his warnings within a “generation,” he claimed to know the general timing of certain events. But he also denied knowing the timing of his return in glory. Either he contradicted himself, or the two chronological statements do not refer to the same events.


It was vital for the disciples to understand this outline of coming events, especially the most pivotal one – The “abomination of desolation” – So they would know when to flee Jerusalem and Judea. They would see these catastrophic events unfold before their eyes - (“This generation”).


The parable of the Budding Fig Tree was a pictorial warning to the disciples about the events that would signal the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The generation contemporary with Jesus would not end until “all these things” came to pass. When they saw that “summer” was approaching they would know that judgment on the Temple was at hand.


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