Parables of Jesus - The Fig Tree
Our culture uses “signs” in most of our everyday lives whether we know it or not. There are signs to indicate storms. There are signs to indicate the seasons. There are signs in international events. We watch them and pay close attention to them. We make decisions on them. Look at the Farmer’s Almanac. It tracks signs and we track them for our crops. Listen to the words of many “natives” as they comment on the actions of the animals or the plant life.
The Aborigines are well known for their accurate weather predictions. Originally, they were dismissed as lucky or just superstitious. But scientists now are noticing that these tribes were not just guessing or picking up on coincidences. They were noticing nature. They were paying close attention to it. When the bearded dragon looks up to the sky, he is warning you that it will rain tomorrow. It might sound like foolishness but so far the observations of the Aborigines are giving them the reputation of the most accurate meteorologists.
My grandmother always noted when rain was coming by looking at the moon. If it appeared as a bowl holding water, would water come out of it in its current position? If so, then there would be rain tomorrow. Ironically, it is right quite often. Though I am not sure that science could prove this one.
There are signs of falling in love, marriage problems, when to change jobs, economy changes, a child’s earache, and so on. And they are found in the Bible.
Most of the time when you mention “signs” and “scripture”, the end times (the time for the world in which evil will take temporary control and the battle of all battles will be fought for the ultimate victory of good) come to mind. That is because for a Christian this is the culmination of all that has gone before and is eagerly looked for. Once Jesus ascended into the heavens, the next “great” event was His return and the end of all suffering. What more could they hope for?
While Jesus was physically on earth teaching, He did not neglect this topic. He knew that it would be foremost on His follower’s minds. So in Matthew 24:32-35, Mark 13:28-31, and Luke 21:29-33 He used His favorite method of teaching, the parable, to address it.
“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.” (Matthew 24:32-35 NIV)
The fig tree played a large role in the lives of the Jews. This sweet fruit was great to use in many of their dishes and the fact that it dried well for use in the winter only increased the value of it. Jesus knew this and used something that was common and understood by the people He was speaking to. To many people today, this might be something exotic since fig trees are not found everywhere in the world. In one person’s land, He might have used the coconut tree. In another, He might have used the crabapple. But for the people of Israel, the fig tree was familiar.
He starts off by saying “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree.” He is very pointed in this sentence. Why? Because things that are common and encountered everyday are also taken much for granted. We begin to not look too closely at them. We take them for granted. He wanted to use something familiar, but He also wanted to point out that maybe they needed to pay a little more attention to what was around them.
“As soon as the twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.” I love to look out my window and see the tiny shoots of leaves on the crabapple tree. I know then that the frigid cold will soon be leaving and the snow will be completely gone. I get excited. I know that it won’t be much longer that the blossoms will follow and all the birds will return. I will be able to sit out in the yard at night and gaze at the wonderful Milky Way. Summer will soon be here for picnics and swimming. It is eagerly anticipated. Jesus was setting up that feeling in the listener’s mind. Anticipation. Excitement. The reason for the cold winter.
The Jews had been waiting on the Messiah, the Anointed One. He would be the one to save them and throw off the oppressors. The Kingdom of Israel would be reestablished and all those against them would be defeated. They had been waiting for generations for this Christ to appear. Just like we eagerly await the young shoots of leaves and the first signs of the spring birds through the winter, they were waiting for the One person who would be their redeemer.
“ Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near right at the door.” Seeing the buds and the shoots coming up out of the ground are sure signs of what is about to happen. It is not a fluke or anomaly. It is a guaranteed sign. It might not be complete the next day and there still might be a few mornings of frost, but spring IS coming and coming soon. There is no more looking out the frosted windows into the high banks of snow wondering if you will ever remember what the green grass looks like. You will soon see the green and smell the flowers yourself. So, Jesus was using these expressions to let them know that the time of “winter” would not last forever. As with all scripture, verses should not be taken out context and interpreted alone (this should not be done with any form communication). If you read the verses preceding these, you’ll find that He was speaking to His followers who already acknowledged Him as the Messiah. So why was He talking about spring coming? Wasn’t it already here if the Messiah was here? Yes, but the spring He is elaborating on is not about the arrival of the Messiah, but the second coming of Him. He is explaining that yes He is here, but He will be physically (not spiritually) leaving them soon. But though at His ascension a form of “winter” might set in on the believers, there is hope of a spring that was to come. Here He is setting up that explanation for them.
In the previous verses, Jesus had been talking about His return and all the signs that would accompany it. These signs would be great and grab everyone’s attention. Then He continues with, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” This verse has been a stumbling block for some believers and an apparent flag for the ones who wish to disprove all scripture. But this is one of the pitfalls of pulling phrases out of their context and fixating on them. Jesus was describing the signs that were not taking place at that time. They would not happen the next day, the next year, or the next generation. He never said when it would be, only what they would be. Many have interpreted this verse to mean that the generation spoken to were the subject of this parable. Therefore, He either lied to them since His return did not happen before Peter, John and all the others passed out of this world or the generation in question is not the one we assume. Upon reading the entire passage, it becomes clear that He is talking about the generation that sees the beginning of the signs. These signs will not go on for thousands of years. The generation that sees the first one will not disappear from this life without seeing the culmination of them with the Messiah returning. That is what Jesus is promising here. Not that the original hearers of these words would experience it, but that the actual witnesses will be so blessed.
For the many who have used this passage as ammunition in their battle to disprove the scriptures, this shows an obvious bias and unfair analysis of the words. Take out the spiritual implications and the “religious” connotations and look at it strictly as a piece of writing, of literature. When that is done, no legitimate and respectable researcher and analyst can totally dismiss the context of the words and the possible meanings. When the fact that His return did not happen in that century is used to say that all is a lie, it becomes a thought of an illogical manner. C.S. Lewis used the following illustration on how we can misconstrue thought processes to prove what we want to prove and not what is actually there: “If there were an invisible cat in that chair, the chair would look empty; but the chair does look empty; therefore there is an invisible cat in it.” (The Four Loves) While the argument that the words are not true could be an actual hypothesis, the argument used is an illogical one.
Jesus concludes with, “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away.” Countries will be formed and swallowed up. Rulers will come and go. Lands will be formed and others will be swallowed by the sea. New inventions and discoveries will be made while old ways are discarded. But what He proclaims will be. It will stand the test of time, cultural advancements, and the skeptics.
What can we take away from this parable for our own lives? First, take the lesson to heart to read the scriptures with the same literary respect that you give other classics. If you are not a believer, that does not make the words worthless or less important to be regarded well. Second, hold the promise dear to you that when these signs actually begin to show themselves like the buds on the spring trees be excited and anticipate the next season of your life. It will come. He will come. It is not a vain hope or an empty promise. It is guaranteed. It is for certain.