Studies on Christ’s Olivet Discourse
Dr. Frederick A. Tatford of East Sussex, England, is president of the prophetic Witness Movement International. This is his sixth study in his extended series on Christ’s Olivet Discourse.
The Fig Tree
The significance of our Lord’s action in cursing the barren fig tree on the side of Olivet did not seem to have been comprehended by the disciples at the time, although the indication He had given in an earlier parable should have provided them with the interpretation of His action.
In emphasizing the necessity for repentance at that earlier date, He had illustrated His point by relating the parable of the vineyard in which there stood an isolated fig tree. The owner of the vineyard had come to the tree for three successive years, seeking fruit, but finding none.
Eventually he justifiably gave instructions for the barren tree to be cut down as useless. But the gardener pleaded for one further opportunity to be given to it, pledging himself to do everything possible to induce its fruitbearing. If it then continued fruitless, he acquiesced in his master’s decision that it should be cut down (Luke 13:6-9).
J. McNicoll appropriately comments in The New Bible Commentary, in loc., that, in this parable “Jesus pictured the failure of Israel to respond to God’s patient dealing with the nation and foreshadowed its coming judgment. The fig tree represented Israel in the Old Testament (see Jer. 24:3; Hos. 9:10). The owner corresponds to Jehovah as the God of Israel, and the vinedresser to Jesus as the Messiah.” It is not a fanciful interpretation which sees the three years of visits by the owner of the vineyard as a picture of the Lord’s three years of public ministry and the repeated opportunities which had been given to the nation to repent. The final test had come and they were about to reject Him. There was no fruit for God and He accordingly cursed the barren fig tree. In Jeremiah 11:16 the prophet had used an olive tree as a symbol of Israel and the destruction of the tree as a picture of the Divine judgment upon the nation which bore Him no fruit.
In Solomon’s day every man dwelt under his own vine and fig tree (1 Kings 4:25) and this will be repeated in a future day (Mic. 4:4). The fig and the vine were frequently associated with each other in the Old Testament (Isa. 34:4; 36:16; Hos. 9:10; Hab. 3:17; Mic. 4:4; see also Luke 13:6, 7). The vine, olive and fig tree were commonly regarded as symbolic of Israel, and they still appear periodically on Israeli postage stamps, trade marks, etc.
Our Lord’s action in cursing the barren fig tree by the roadside was clearly intended as a parabolic one. It was not the consequence of a petulant outburst by a hungry man. He knew it was barren before He approached it and was teaching the disciples a lesson which is still pertinent to Israel today. The cursing of the tree was a serious action. J. D. Douglas says, “The failure or destruction of these slow-growing trees, which demanded years of patient labour (Prov. 27:18; Luke 13:7) was a national calamity (Jer. 5:17; Hab. 3:17; cf. Psa. 105:33), and productiveness was a token of peace and of divine favour.”
Our Lord now proceeded, however, to use the fig tree as a sign of the imminence of the end time. The fig tree is the last to produce leaves; it is later than any of the other indigenous trees of Israel. When the fig tree begins to put forth its leaves, all would know that summer was near. So, said the Lord, when people saw all these things of which He had spoken taking place, they would know that it (or better “He”) was near, even at the doors (Matt. 24:32,33; Mark 13:28, 29). Luke renders the words as “the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:29-31). In other words (if the fig tree is regarded as a symbol of Israel), when Israel began to show signs of national life once more, it could be concluded that the end was imminent. “The fig tree is a picture of Israel,” says A.C. Gaebelein.
“In Matthew 21 we see in the withered fig tree a type of Israel’s spiritual and national death. But that withered tree is to be vitalised. The fig tree will bud again.”1
For sixty years Jews have now been trickling back to their ancient homeland, and since May 1948 the country has been a state once more. There can be no doubt that the fig tree has begun to put forth its leaves. If this was a sign which was relevant to the end-time rather than to the present Christian era, it may justifiably be assumed that the end of the present age must be extremely close.
The Lucan passage referred not only to the fig tree but also to “all the trees” coming into leaf (Luke 21:29). To be consistant the symbol must refer to other nations (presumably in the vicinity of Israel) beginning to demonstrate their life, and it is usually concluded that the reference was to the Arab nations surrounding Israel. If the latter is beginning to flourish, so are they. When that occurred, the Master declared, it would be know that He is near, even at the doors. His Advent would not long be delayed.
1 The Gospel of Matthew, II, pp. 213-14.