The Place of Israel in Christian Hope
There has long been a close connection between the aspirations of Jews and Christians, the one yearning for nationhood, the other for the second coming of Christ. The idea of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine did not surface among Jews until Leon Pinsker, a Russian Jew, proposed it in 1882, and the first congress of the World Zionist Organization did not meet until 1897 (1). But long before then, many Jews had turned their faces toward what they regarded as their homeland. Throughout the nineteenth century a small stream of Jewish emigrants from Europe had been flowing to Palestine. A major impetus to migration came in 1840, when the British expelled the Egyptians from Syria and enlarged their own influence in the region (2). The Earl of Shaftesbury (then Lord Ashley), whom we have discussed in an earlier lesson, saw the resolution of the Syrian question as an opportunity to restore many more Jews to the Holy Land. According to his biographer,
He had long cherished the belief, founded upon an earnest and diligent study of the prophecies contained in Holy Scripture, that the Jews were to return to their inheritance in the Holy Land, and it appeared to him that the time was ripe for the accomplishment of these prophecies (3).
In meetings and in correspondence with Lord Palmerston, the Secretary of State, who was also the second husband of Lord Ashley's mother-in-law, Lord Ashley strongly urged the government to take measures that would encourage Jewish migration. One offshoot of this effort was that the British advised the Turkish authorities in Syria to grant the Jews greater protection and privileges (4). Lord Ashley's biographer reports that at this time there was
everywhere a revival of zeal on behalf of "God's ancient people;" . . . certain promises and prophecies of the Scriptures were regarded as about to be fulfilled (5).
Throughout the remainder of the century, the church remained alert to the continuing Jewish migration to Palestine. And when that migration intensified as a result of the great events of the twentieth century, the church saw it as a definite sign that the present age was drawing to a close. The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 greatly strengthened the conviction of Bible-believing Christians that these are the Last Days.
But has the church correctly understood prophecy? Has prophecy been fulfilled through the return of Jews to Palestine and the rebirth of a Jewish nation? Has God planted these events in history to serve as signs that the Church Age is winding down? To see whether the modern history of the Jews has prophetic significance, we must start with what Jesus Himself taught about the future of His people.
The Olivet Discourse
Jesus saved His fullest discussion of things to come until shortly before He died. This discussion, known as the Olivet Discourse, took place on the Tuesday evening between Palm Sunday and the day of the Crucifixion. Matthew's record of Jesus' words on this occasion requires two long chapters. Rather than reprinting the discourse in full, we will ask the reader to peruse it in his own Bible. The discourse arose out of a discussion earlier in the day, between Jesus and His disciples.
1 And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to shew him the buildings of the temple.
2 And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
3 And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?
The disciples had offered to show Jesus the magnificent buildings of the Temple (v. 1). Jesus had replied that not one stone would be left upon another (v. 2). Sometime later, as He sat on the Mount of Olives, perhaps gazing across the valley at the beautiful scene of the city spread out before Him, certain disciples—Mark informs us that it was Peter, James, John, and Andrew (Mark 13:3)—came to Him privately and sought further information (v. 3). They asked, when will these things (the destruction of the Temple) be, and what will be the sign of His coming and the end of the world (v. 3). They evidently thought that all these developments would be concurrent.
Jesus' answer is an ingenious mixture of fact and symbol. In the first section of the discourse (Matt. 24:4-31), He gives a straightforward, literal account of events during the time of the end. In the middle section (Matt. 24:37 to 25:30) He presents a series of parables dealing with events attending the rapture of believers during this period, and in the last section (Matt. 25:31-46) He returns to a narrative style, describing an event just after the close of the age: the Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats. In response to the disciples' original questions, He inserts a direct answer between the first and middle sections.
32 Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:
33 So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
34 Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
35 Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.
36 But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.
Here, He says four things.
- An event will be signaled as imminent by the budding of the fig tree (v. 32-33).
- A generation shall not pass before all these things are fulfilled (v. 34).
- We can be sure that Jesus will return, as He promised (v. 35).
- But no one can know exactly when Jesus will return (v. 36).
To make sense of these answers, we must understand that the disciples had, no doubt unwittingly, presented Christ with two distinct questions. The first question was, "When shall these things be?" The disciples meant, "When will the Temple be destroyed?" Their second question was, "What shall be the sign of thy coming and of the end of the world?" "Coming" corresponds to the Greek word parousia ("presence"), a technical term referring to the glorious presence that Jesus will manifest at His coming. In Matthew 24:27, Jesus uses the term with reference to His coming at the end of the Tribulation. In Greek, "end of the world" is sunteleias tou aionos, which means simply "completion of the age." The disciples wanted to know when Jesus would come and set up His kingdom. The answers to both questions lie hidden in Jesus' riddling oracle, "Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. This generation shall not pass until all these things be fulfilled" (vv. 32-34). By "generation," He evidently meant the generation that starts with the leafing out of the fig tree.
With reference to the first question, the expression "these things" (v. 34) refers to the destruction of the Temple, an event that the disciples also called "these things" (v. 3), and the fig tree is the actual fig tree that Jesus found and cursed on Monday of Passion Week (Mark 11:11-14, 19-21). The disciples saw this tree putting forth leaves in A.D. 33, and the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, less than a generation later. Jesus' prediction that the Temple would be destroyed less than a generation after the disciples saw the budding of the fig tree was therefore fulfilled.
With reference to the second question of the disciples, "these things" (v. 34) are the events He has enumerated in the preceding verses (in vv. 4-31), and the fig tree must be understood figuratively.
The Fig Tree
The question of great moment, therefore, is what the fig tree represents. Many commentators throughout church history have agreed that it represents the nation of Israel. In this symbolism Jesus is alluding to a vision of Jeremiah.
1 The LORD shewed me, and, behold, two baskets of figs were set before the temple of the LORD, after that Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon had carried away captive Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah, and the princes of Judah, with the carpenters and smiths, from Jerusalem, and had brought them to Babylon.
2 One basket had very good figs, even like the figs that are first ripe: and the other basket had very naughty figs, which could not be eaten, they were so bad.
3 Then said the LORD unto me, What seest thou, Jeremiah? And I said, Figs; the good figs, very good; and the evil, very evil, that cannot be eaten, they are so evil.
4 Again the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
5 Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel; Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge them that are carried away captive of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans for their good.
6 For I will set mine eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them again to this land: and I will build them, and not pull them down; and I will plant them, and not pluck them up.
7 And I will give them an heart to know me, that I am the LORD: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart.
8 And as the evil figs, which cannot be eaten, they are so evil; surely thus saith the LORD, So will I give Zedekiah the king of Judah, and his princes, and the residue of Jerusalem, that remain in this land, and them that dwell in the land of Egypt:
9 And I will deliver them to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth for their hurt, to be a reproach and a proverb, a taunt and a curse, in all places whither I shall drive them.
10 And I will send the sword, the famine, and the pestilence, among them, till they be consumed from off the land that I gave unto them and to their fathers.
The prophet saw the people of Israel as two groups of figs, one good, the other bad. The Lord told him that the good figs, representing the godly portion of the nation, would someday be planted like a fig tree, never to be rooted up.
The same imagery occurs more than once during Jesus' ministry. For example, He uttered the following parable about a year before His death.
6 He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none.
7 Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?
8 And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:
9 And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.
The standard interpretation is that the owner is the Father, the keeper is Christ, and tree is Israel. If this interpretation is correct, the meaning of the parable is transparent. Jesus' ministry has gone on for three years without any fruit and the Father is ready to set Israel aside, but the Son pleads for the nation, asking that it be cultivated another year and given another chance.
But notice Jesus' view of the fig tree a year later, after the year of prolonged opportunity had passed by.
11 And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve.
12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:
13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.
14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.
15 And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves;
16 And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple.
17 And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves.
18 And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine.
19 And when even was come, he went out of the city.
20 And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.
21 And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.
Why did Jesus curse the fig tree—a mere tree whose only fault was that it had not yet borne fruit? The incident is obviously symbolic. The day before the cursing of the tree was Palm Sunday, the day of Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, when He presented Himself to the people and their leaders as the Messiah, in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. The response of the nation was divided. Although some individuals accepted Him, the nation as a whole rejected Him. In particular, the elders of the people rejected and severely opposed Him (Matt. 21:15). Therefore, in His justice and holiness, God rejected the Jewish nation. Subsequently, less than forty years later, in A.D. 70, God judged the Jews by destroying their city and scattering them throughout the civilized world.
Now it should be perfectly clear why Jesus cursed the fig tree on the morning after His triumphal entry. The two incidents are linked together. The cursing of the tree was a picture of the judgment that would soon fall on Israel because Israel had rejected their Messiah.
Now it should also be perfectly clear what the parable of the fig tree in the Olivet Discourse means. As the disciples were walking into the city on Tuesday morning after Palm Sunday, they noticed that the tree which Jesus had cursed the day before had withered and dried up. Later, on Tuesday evening, when the memory of the withered fig tree was still fresh in their minds, Jesus spoke the parable in question. He said that when the church sees the fig tree leafing out again, it will know that "it is . . . at the doors." The Greek for "it is" can also be translated "he is." In prophecy, "door" is often a symbol for the passageway between heaven and earth (Rev. 4:1). What the parable means, therefore, is that when the nation of Israel revives after its coming disintegration and death in A.D. 70, the return of Christ will be imminent.