Is Israel the “Fig Tree” of Matthew 24?

May 25, 2012 at 5:46 PM

I’ve read a number of articles related to the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24 as I’m sure you have.  In fact, I myself have written a number of articles and even one book that deals with the contents of Matthew 24.  A number of things bother me about the way people tend to interpret aspects of Matthew 24.  I know that sounds arrogant and I don’t intend it to be.  I’m simply saying that in some cases, it appears as though people have made connections to things where no connection actually exists.

Such is the case – I believe – with the reference that Jesus makes with the fig tree and the nation of Israel.  It is a connection that many have made and continue to make, yet it is one that I believe is done in error.  Let’s look at the passage, all right?

Matthew 24 opens with Jesus exited the Temple area and meeting up with a few of His disciples.  They immediately pointed out how beautiful the Temple was and Jesus responded with, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down,” (Matthew 24:2).  Wow.  Bummer.  I’m sure they were just making conversation, but Jesus used the moment to introduce a subject that was of extreme importance:  the end times.

So from the Temple, they crossed over to the Mount of Olives and asked Jesus a few questions about what things were going to be like toward the end of the age and what the sign of His coming would be.  By the way, it is important to understand that according to rabbinical sages there are only two ages; this age that we live in and the next one that is coming in which Jesus will reign for 1,000 years.  The rabbinic sages of old always looked toward the day when the Messiah would reign on this earth in His (humanly) father’s David throne from Jerusalem.  Gentiles forget this or never learned it…

Jesus then begins to point out some things that the disciples were probably not expecting to hear at that point.  They learned that there would be wars and rumors of wars.  There would also be many false messiahs and boy, have we seen a proliferation of this since His day!

There would also be famines and earthquakes in various places.  I’m certain that the disciples did not want to hear these things and it likely unnerved them at least a bit.

Beginning in verse 15 of Matthew 24, Jesus explains the upcoming “Abomination of Desolation” and He’s referring back to Daniel and Antiochus Epiphanes as the type here.  Ultimately, Jesus was using that to point to another event that would happen (and is still in the future) in which the final “Antiochus Epiphanes,” or the Antichrist would go into the rebuilt Temple of the future and do basically what Epiphanes did.  He would desecrate the Holy of Holies and proclaim himself to be the God of the universe!  Antiochus did this in 168 B.C. after he slaughtered a pig on the altar and sprinkled the blood around inside the Holy of Holies.  It is also believed that he set up a statue of Zeus and may even have covered Zeus’ face with a mask that resembled his face (Antiochus’).

Jesus was attempting to provide as much information as He could to the curious disciples who earnestly wanted to know about His Second Coming and what the world would be like at that time.  They were all ears.

Jesus speaks more about His return starting in verse 29 and then beginning with verse 32, He begins talking about a fig tree.  Some commentators believe that Jesus is using the fig tree as a reference to the nation of Israel.  I’ve read – and probably so have you – opinions that state that Jesus was really saying that when the “fig tree” (Israel) begins to “sprout,” then this would be a clear sign that the end was coming.  Since Israel became a nation in 1948, Jesus must have been referring to this event from the distant past.  So, at least some commentators and Bible students have believed that Jesus was giving us an actual date of time we could look to and start counting down from there.  Most of these commentators believe that the magic number is 70, representing they say, a basic generation.  So dutifully, they start with 1948 and add 70 years, which brings them to the year 2018.  Some people have used 40 years as a generation instead of 70.  In the end, all that this really accomplishes is a form of date setting.  However, the larger question is this:  is this what Jesus actually meant by using the reference to the fig tree?

Dr. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum does an extended commentary on Matthew 24 in his book Footsteps of the Messiah.  It was his doctoral thesis and something that everyone who is serious about the study of end times should have in their library.  There is a good deal in there that highlights biblical discourse from a decidedly Jewish perspective, something that is often missing with most of us Gentiles today.

As Dr. Fruchtenbaum points out, there is nothing in Scripture that portrays a generation dogmatically as 70 years, as some seem to believe and upon which they rest their theories like the one about the fig tree.  According to Fruchtenbaum, “the term ‘generation’ can mean twenty, forty, seventy, eighty and one hundred years.  Sometimes it simply means ‘contemporaries,’ much as the term is used today.” [1]  This last meaning is the way he believes it is used in the Matthew 24 passage.

Fruchtenbaum also notes (and I concur) that “the real point of this passage is that the fig tree is being used literally as an illustration,not as a symbol for Israel.” [2; emphasis in original]

In other words, it’s as if Jesus had said, “Look, when you see dark clouds gathering overhead, you know that it will likely rain soon.”  In that instance, He would not be comparing Israel with the dark clouds, but would be simply providing a literary device to liven up the information He was presenting.  Jesus is simply saying that people understand when one season turns into the next often by the way the trees appear.  This is not rocket science.  We know that fall is here when the leaves begin to fall off the branches and because of that, we also know that winter is on the way.  By way of another illustration, we know that when the sun is directly overhead, it’s around 12 noon.  So even if we did not have a calendar (or watch for time), we would understand the passing of the seasons and the relative time of day.  Those living in rural areas and especially farmers would certainly appreciate what Jesus said here because they farm based on the seasons.  The seasons tell them when to plant.

Fruchtenbaum explains it:  “The point of the illustration is this:  When the fig tree and all the other trees begin to blossom, it is a sure sign that summer is on its way, because the blossoming occurs in the spring.  Then, in application of the illustration, Jesus said:  Even so ye also, when ye see all these things, know ye that he is nigh, even at the doors.  Just as a blossoming fig tree means that summer is on its way, in the same way, when these events that Jesus spoke about occur, then they can know that His return is near.” [3; emphasis added]

This then brings us to another point.  If Jesus is not referring to the rebirth of the nation of Israel, then what is it that will tell us of His soon return?  It’s an event I’ve already mentioned in this article above:  the Abomination of Desolation.  According to Daniel 9:27, this event occurs in the middle of the “week” and the week in question is a period of seven years, or the Tribulation period.

Jesus is not referring to the Rapture of the Church at this point.  He is referring to His Second Coming when He physically returns to earth to set up His Kingdom.

Interestingly enough, verse 36 warns that no one will know the day or hour.  In essence, Jesus said we would simply not know when He was returning.  As numerous Greek scholars point out, the first word of verse 36 – “but” – is actually peri de in the Greek.  It is a contrastive introduction of a brand new subject, which is why it is often translated “But concerning…”  This new subject starting in verse 36 is somewhat related to His return, but not directly.

If Jesus is referring to the Abomination of Desolation and not the rebirth of Israel, what does that mean?  Ultimately, it means that Jesus is referring to the event that occurs in the middle of the Tribulation period.  That means that for the observant Christian and Messianic Jew (yes, there will be those who come to know Jesus as Savior and Lord during the Tribulation even though I believe the Church will be gone), they will know that within three and a half years, Jesus will be returning at some point.  His comments are meant to provide comfort specifically to the Jewish Remnant that will be here and will receive Jesus as Messiah during that time.  They will know that Jesus will be returning soon, within three and a half years.

So the point of this article is that the reference to the fig tree in Matthew 24 has nothing to do with Israel, but Jesus’ use of the fig tree was simply done as a literary device to make a point.  People do this all the time in daily conversation, so it should not take us up short as if Jesus is saying something that is out of the ordinary.  He did not mean that the fig tree here should be taken symbolically for Israel, but that it should be taken literally as a means to illustrate a point.

If the interpretation offered here is correct, then the others fall by the wayside along with the rest of their intended meaning they have attached to the parable of the fig tree starting in Matthew 24:32.  If it is not connected to Israel as I believe I’ve shown that it is not, then their attempts to connect it to Israel are nothing more than date-setting and therefore, wrong.

[1] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Footsteps of the Messiah, p 638

[2] Ibid, p 638

[3] Ibid, p 639

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