A Primary Sign
“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” (Matthew 24:32,33).
by David Rice
The metaphor that Jesus draws for us in these words is about the approach of the Kingdom. When Matthew records that Jesus said “it is near,” Jesus meant that the Kingdom is near. This is clarified in Luke’s record of the same testimony: “know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand” (Luke
Matthew 24 contains Jesus’ response to the disciples’ questions of verse 3, “When shall these things be? [when one stone would not be left upon another in the temple, verse 2]. And what shall be the sign of thy coming [parousia, presence], and of the end [sunteleias, concluding period] of the world [aionos, age]?”
Jesus’ reply takes the balance of chapter 24 and all of chapter 25. There are three parts to Jesus’ reply. (1) His answer to their questions, through verse 31. (2) Three lessons about those answers, through the rest of chapter 24. (3) Three parables about the subject in chapter 25.
Each of the last two parts contains three subsections each. That is true also of the first part, for there Jesus speaks of things to happen before the end of the age (through verse 13), things to occur during the end of the age (through verse 28), and things to occur at the climax of the harvest (verses 29-31). Thus, we have the following brief outline of the entire occasion.
Overview, Matthew 24, 25
(1a) During the age there would be deceptions, wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, betrayals, false prophets, and spiritual coldness trying the faith of saints, but the Gospel witness would expand widely. (1b) The end of the age would be a time of flight (from Jerusalem immediately, from Christendom in the larger picture). There would be dangers, great tribulation, false hopes, false signs and wonders, but also general enlightenment, and the sustaining of saints like eagles to a carcass. (1c) Thereafter would come the Armageddon climax, revealing the authority of Christ exercised with power and glory.
Jesus’ three lessons follow. (2a) This will surely happen, verses 32-35. (2b) The time would not be known until the ending events unfold, verses 36-41. (2c) Therefore, Jesus’ disciples were to watch responsibly, attending to their duties, so that they would be judged well upon the return of Christ, verses 42-51.
The three parables of chapter 25 pick up on this exhortation to devoted watching by faithful service. (3a) The parable of the wise and foolish virgins emphasizes attending to the word of truth. (3b) The parable of the talents
emphasizes using our opportunities to forward the cause of Christ so that we are approved at the time of judgment. (3c) The parable of the sheep and goats shows that the same principles will work in the kingdom and finally result in everlasting judgment for all.
Meaning for Two Ages
The answers that Jesus gave to the questions of the disciples have meaning for the end of the Jewish Age, and for the end of the Gospel Age. Only a generation after Jesus’ day, the Roman legions would destroy the temple, as Jesus predicted (Matthew 23:36, 24:2,3). The anticipation of impending judgment in the waning years of the apostolic era is reflected in James
5:9, “Behold, the judge standeth before the door.” After the fall of Jerusalem, Christianity grew even more widely in the Roman Empire. By this means the spiritual Kingdom of Christ grew more expansively than ever before.
But the fuller, wider-ranging application of Jesus’ words take us prophetically to our day: the harvest of the Gospel Age, the closing judgments of this harvest, and the introduction of the Millennial Kingdom of Christ. This will be established first in Israel. Thereafter, it will expand worldwide.
The Parable of the Fig Tree
This brings us to the “parable” of verse 32. It is not a parable in the sense of a story with a narrative meaning, as for example the three parables of Matthew 25. Matthew 24:32,33 is briefer, more like a simile or metaphor. Jesus said in verse 32 that when a fig tree is tender and puts forth leaves, it marks the advent of “summer” — the period we today subdivide into the two seasons of spring and summer. Here is his analogy. “So likewise ye, when ye shall see all things” that Jesus has predicted, coming to pass, “know that it [the kingdom] is near, even at the doors.”
Remember the essential question: “Tell us, when shall these things be?” Jesus’ reply covered things before the end, then things to happen during the ending period (verses 14-28), and then the relatively swift climax of judgment (verses 29-31). We have not yet seen the climax. That awaits Armageddon, the seventh plague of Revelation. But we have seen the
harvest or ending period of the Gospel Age ever since 1874, including the time of trouble from 1914 onward.
As the end of the Jewish Age brought three threats to Jerusalem,1 the third one fatal, so we have seen three threats to the present order of the Western world — two world wars, with Armageddon impending, which is the third and fatal threat. Therefore, we have seen “these things” being fulfilled. This tells us that the kingdom is near. That is the point and purpose of Jesus’ words in verses 32 and 33.
(1) In 66 AD Roman armies sieged Jerusalem but then mysteriously departed, in 68 AD Vespasian was advancing to Jerusalem but returned to Rome upon hearing of the death of Nero, and in 70 AD Vespasian sent his son Titus against Jerusalem, which was taken by him in August of that year.
Why a Fig Tree?
In the Bible, the fig tree is a symbol for the Nation of Israel. Trees represent nations, and a fig tree producing its sweet fruits connects to the Nation of Israel in particular. But in this case, Jesus did not make a direct and strict connection.
For example, Jesus did not say that when the fig tree buds forth, then the Kingdom is near. Instead, he expressed a weaker analogy — as a fig tree budding shows the approach of summer, so Jesus’ words coming to pass will show the approach of the Kingdom.
There is a reason Jesus presented his metaphor in this way. What the disciples had in mind when Jesus was speaking were the judgments closing the Jewish Age. It would not have been correct for Jesus to say that when
they saw the fig tree budding, then they would know that Christianity was ready to expand to a new level. For the fig tree, Israel, was not to bud in those days.
But for us at the end of the Gospel Age, looking for the establishment of Christ’s Millennial Kingdom, it is different. The return of Israel is a marker that the promised Kingdom is at hand. We still apply the direct words of Jesus now, as then. That is, we have seen the judgments of the harvest portending the advent of Armageddon and the resulting establishment
of the Kingdom.
But we can see a meaning in this second and more expansive fulfillment of the prophecy, for the choice of the kind of tree that Jesus used in his metaphor. The budding fig tree is Israel. The budding of Israel is a sign of the coming of the Kingdom. We cannot insist on this meaning, because the words of Jesus do not require this meaning. The interpretive connection is
thus not of constraint. But it seems so apt, that it makes sense of Jesus’ choice of a particular kind of tree.
Jesus’ Earlier Lesson About the Fig Tree
The words of Matthew 24 were given on late Wednesday, Nisan 12, two days before Jesus died. The previous morning, Tuesday Nisan 11, Jesus had encountered a fig tree on the way from Bethany to Jerusalem, and he
looked for some fruit on the tree. Mark 11:13 gives the account. “And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.”
This is a well-known event, but there are lingering questions. If it was not time for figs, why did Jesus look expectantly for some fruit? The answer may be in a peculiarity of the fig tree that is not well known but is observed sometimes by fig tree owners. We have noticed it here in San Diego, but not every year.
The normal fig crop matures in late summer, in August, and it can be abundant. However, sometimes there is an earlier crop in the spring.
It is much fewer in number, but — oddly — the individual figs are much larger than those with the general crop of late summer. They are large, sweet, and wonderful. Apparently it was this potential early fruit that Jesus looked for. Thus his search was justified, even though he was disappointed.
These two crops, the one fewer but lush and large, the latter abundant but individually smaller, nicely represent the two crops of persons developed during the Gospel Age, and Millennial Age, respectively. The Israelites
of Jesus’ day could have produced a delightful crop of large, luxuriant fruit for the heavenly calling, long before the general crop of the Kingdom and its earthly calling was due. Jesus looked for this. But he did not find what might have been found, had Israel responded more prolifically.
As a nation, therefore, the tree was cursed. The Gospel calling would be accepted by relatively few Jewish respondents. They did number in the thousands (Acts 4:4). But these thousands were few compared to the millions in Israel.2
(2) “The Miracle of the Fig Tree,” discourse, Chicago, 2011, by Br. Tim Alexander. “Parable of the Fig Tree” Herald Magazine, May/June 2019.
Song of Solomon
The Song of Solomon contains a spiritual picture of the Bride of Christ seeking her heavenly bridegroom. The Song of Solomon 2:8-17 depicts the harvest of the Gospel Age when Christ returned to receive his bride. “The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills … Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. …
The fig tree putteth forth her green figs and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, and my fair one, and come away.”
We are in this time today. Though the harvest waxes long, we are nearing its close, and we are sufficiently long into the harvest to see the budding of the fig tree. Israel is alive and shooting forth. Many of that nation appreciate God’s overruling on their behalf. But the great revelation of Zechariah 12:10 awaits them. The budding of this fig tree, sprouting with growth, is a marker of our time in prophecy. We are at a change of dispensations, an intersection of ages, the harvest of the saints proceeding to its close, and the preparation of the Kingdom approaching a crescendo.
Times of Restoration
One of the most renowned texts for Bible Students is Acts 3:21. “Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.”
The word “restitution” is better rendered “restoration” as in the NASB. The restoration of Israel is what Peter had in mind as he here addressed his Jewish fellows.
Peter drew his comments in part from a dialogue he had with Jesus, supplemented by the angelic testimony after Jesus ascended from the
Mount of Olives. Before Jesus left, Peter had a final question for his master. “Wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
Jesus replied that the time for Israel’s restoration was something then reserved by God “in his own power. … And when he had spoken these things … he was taken up” (Acts 1:7,9). While they gazed into heaven in the aftermath, two angels appeared to assure the disciples that Jesus would return. It would be natural for Peter to grasp the answer to his question — the time for Israel’s restoration would be at the return of Christ.
That is the background of Peter’s words to the assembled crowds in Acts
chapter three, following the healing of a man lame from the womb (Acts 3:2). After explaining to the amazed crowd that the power of that healing
was from their resurrected Messiah, Jesus, Peter encouraged them to receive Jesus, who from Pentecost forward had been sent by God “to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities” (Acts 3:26).
But as for seeing Jesus in person, that would wait. “The heaven must receive [him] until the times of restitution [restoration]” (Acts 3:21). That is when Israel would be restored nationally. We are there today. Christ has returned. As during the 40 days after his resurrection, Jesus is a spirit being of high order. He is not visibly seen because he has not chosen to materialize in order to demonstrate himself, as it was helpful for him to do then. But Jesus has returned.
The fact that Israel has been restored to their national independence, is evidence that Jesus has returned. For he was to be received “until” the time of restoration. The process of restoring Israel is not complete. The work of establishing them, strengthening them, increasing them, and finally converting them, will continue until the Ancient Worthies lead them again. But the time is well underway.
The year 1874 is the time marked in Daniel 12:12 for the return of Christ. Of interest respecting Israel is that 1874 saw the election of Benjamin Disraeli as Prime Minister of England — the only Jewish Prime Minister England has ever elected. Four years later, in 1878, the year parallel to the casting off of Israel in 33 AD, the Berlin Congress of Nations, through the influence of Benjamin Disraeli, opened the door for equal access to the land of Israel by
Jewish persons, an opportunity they took advantage of the same year.
Jesus has returned to establish his Kingdom, as the angels foretold. Therefore, Israel has been restored nationally, as Jesus indicated was
God’s intent at the due time. Israel continues to develop, unknowingly, toward the Kingdom.
The Year 1948
(1) The return of Israel to their ancient homeland is commonly marked from 1878, with the establishment of Petah Tikvah, followed rapidly by
other colonies. They ultimately achieved statehood famously in 1948. This makes a period of 70 years in restoring Jewish national independence. This
number is not random. Remember that Israel lost their national independence when Babylon was given authority over nations for a like period of time — 70 years (Jeremiah 29:10). Thus, the very dates at issue lend their testimony to an overruling providence from God.
(2) The date 1948 is also indicated in the Book of Daniel, in a way that would not be observed until after the fact. The Book of Daniel has two main sections: (a) things that personally occurred to Daniel and his friends (chapters 1-6), and (b) a series of four prophecies given through Daniel (chapters 7-12). The two sections overlap in time, but the chapters within
each section narrate things that happened consecutively.
Daniel 7:1 represents the dominion over Israel by four successive world powers — Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Thereafter, Israel would be restored to national independence. This vision of Daniel is dated
to the first year of Belshazzar, which began in 553 BC. 2500 years later brings us to 1948, the year Israeli independence was restored.
(3) Ezekiel’s vision of restoration came at the opening of a new year, and Jewish years begin with the month Tishri. The year marked by his vision began with Tishri of 574 BC, lapping into the year 573 BC. The seven prophetic “times” of Israel’s national punishment calculate to 2520 years (7 times 360). We normally count these years from 607 BC, arriving at 1914, and this is justified. However, if we also count 2520 years from 573 BC, they reach to the restoration of Israel’s national independence, in 1948, which followed 34 years after 1914.
(4) There is a picture in Noah’s Flood that relates to the Gospel Age forward into the Millennial Kingdom when the “curse” is dried. Peter said that safety in the ark represents safety in Christ (1 Peter 3:21). The five months spent
in the ark before coming aground may represent the Gospel Age, until the return of Christ at the end of the age in 1874. Seventy-four days later the “top of the mountains” appeared in the distance. This expression is found also in Micah 4:1 referring to re-established Israel. From 1874, forward 74 years, brings us to 1948, the very year that Israel again appeared as a nation among others.
Thus, the time of Israel’s national restoration is not random. There is order and meaning to it, which indicates divine providence is working in an orderly way.
Israel weathered the Arab onslaught incident to statehood, the Suez War of 1956, the Six Day War of 1967 securing Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and the near-tragedy of the Yom Kippur war in 1973. In 1980 old Jerusalem was annexed by Israel (1845 years after Israel was forbidden access in 135 AD, closing the Bar Kochba Rebellion).
The invasion of Gog looms perhaps a generation ahead. Before this time the ravages of plague six of Revelation intervene, perhaps connected to the 14-day storm of Acts 27. Meanwhile, Lebanon has fallen to internal strife, Iraq has been overturned, Egypt is absorbed with internal concerns (Isaiah 19:2), and Syria has been subdued by civil war (Isaiah 17:1).
For Israel, the present appears to be a time of internal fortification, economic growth, and technological advance. Her greatest ally continues to be the United States, the strong stay of Western culture, other forces notwithstanding. We anticipate that the United States will remain an ally and be prompt to welcome the Kingdom emanating from Israel, when the time comes. Thus the homeland of the Gospel Age Harvest, and the homeland of the Kingdom to come, will work cooperatively.
The chief blessings will flow when the Ancient Worthies bring Godly wisdom and Christian values to work for the blessing of the entire world. “And the prince in the midst of them, when they go in, shall go in; and when they go forth, shall go forth” (Ezekiel 46:10).
Then, “The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, Let us go speedily to pray before Jehovah, and to seek Jehovah of hosts: I will go also … many people and strong nations shall come to seek Jehovah … in Jerusalem” (Zechariah 8:21, 22).