The Fig Tree: An Anchor in the Stream of Time
“Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh” (Matthew 24:32).
— Dave Larson
The ability to discern the current point in time with respect to God’s plan for mankind has long been of importance to His followers. As the current Gospel Age draws to a close, this need has become even more critical. During his ministry, Jesus spoke to his disciples at length about the end of the age, and the importance for God’s followers to recognize the transition that would be taking place. He further spoke of the need to remain spiritually strong during these particularly trying times. One such interaction between Jesus and his disciples is recorded in Matthew chapters 24‑25. (Note that although Matthew 24 will primarily be referenced, much of the same event is also recorded in Mark 13 and Luke 21).
Difficulties at the End of the Age
Shortly after entering Jerusalem, Jesus and many of his disciples visited the temple. Afterward, Jesus spoke of the prophecies that foretold the destruction of the temple. Later, some disciples asked Jesus to explain when these prophecies would come to pass, and how his followers would know that the end of the age had come (Matthew 24:1‑3). Jesus responded to their request with a combination of prophecies, parables, warnings, and instructions concerning the end of the Gospel Age.
Throughout mankind’s history, there have always been disasters, both natural and manmade. History is riddled with wars and rumors of wars. Man has set up many false gods. Individuals have falsely set themselves up as representatives of God. Earthquakes and other natural disasters have also occurred. There have been many symbolic earthquakes, such as political and social upheavals as well. However, Jesus’ words indicate that during the end of the age these occurrences, whether literal or symbolic, would become more intense and more prevalent, and that even God’s most faithful followers would be at risk of becoming deceived (Matthew 24:4‑31).
Given the amount of rapid change, combined with strong deceptions predicted to occur at the end of the age, God’s people would need equally strong signs to anchor them in the stream of time and reinforce their faith. Jesus taught that one such sign would be the nation of Israel itself, represented by a fig tree.
The Sequence of the Fig Tree
Prior to his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus delivered a parable regarding a fig tree. This parable, recorded in Luke 13:6‑9, depicted a fig tree planted in a vineyard at the direction of the vineyard’s owner. After three years, the owner discovered no fruit on the tree. He then sought out the vineyard’s caretaker, and directed him to cut down the fig tree because it was not producing fruit. The caretaker then requested that the owner allow the fig tree to remain for one more year. The caretaker would give the fig tree special attention. If, after one year, the tree was found to produce fruit, the owner’s desire for fruit would be fulfilled. If the tree remained barren, it would be cut down as requested.
The fig tree represents the nation of Israel. The tree’s three years in the owner’s vineyard indicates the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, when he searched for character development and faith among the people of Israel.
The fig tree is also referenced in Matthew 21:19‑21. This incident takes place after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and shortly before the events in Matthew 24. Jesus and his disciples came upon a growing fig tree and Jesus observed that the tree bore no fruit, only leaves. He cursed the fig tree for its lack of fruit, and the tree promptly withered. Although some translations indicate that Jesus’ command was that no fruit would grow “henceforward for ever” (Matthew 21:19), other translations, such as the RVIC, indicate that this phrase may also be translated, “until the age” or “for this age.” This incident indicates the fate of the fig tree depicted earlier in the Luke 13 parable. Throughout the majority of the Gospel Age, Israel did not exist as a nation. As a result, Israel would not bear fruit “for this age,” or the Gospel Age. Any change in this condition can then be reasonably understood as a sign that the age is ending.
Another Fig Tree Parable
As Jesus discussed the end of the age, he presented another parable involving the fig tree. In Matthew 24:32‑36, Jesus described a fig tree whose branches were “tender” and “putting forth leaves.” This means that the fig tree was awakening from a period of dormancy and regaining a lost measure of vitality. Given the previous two depictions the fig tree, first as a fruitless tree in the owner’s vineyard, and then one that is cursed “for the age,” the fig tree in this parable is waking from its “curse” at the end of the Gospel Age. The three parables together paint a harmonious picture of Israel’s history from the First Advent to the current day.
By including this parable as a sign that “summer is nigh,” Jesus was indicating that the revitalization of Israel would be a significant sign that the current age is coming to a close. He ends the parable with the declaration that “when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near.” Even more amazingly, the generation that sees these things come to pass “shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.”
With the end of the Gentile Times in 1914, mankind has seen the Jewish people regathered to their promised land and the nation of Israel re‑established. During the following years, Israel has continued to grow in prosperity, size, and influence. In this growth, the picture of a dormant fig tree putting forth leaves and beginning to grow is easily seen. The unfolding of these events, the “fig tree putting forth leaves,” stands as a clear marker indicating the ending of the Gospel Age to those of God’s followers who have, through study of the scriptures, remained watchful.
The Need for Faithfulness and Watchfulness
Jesus continually stressed the need to remain watchful as events in God’s plan unfold, particularly at the end of the age. In His wisdom, God knew that the end of the age would create many difficulties for those who sought to serve Him. The inability of mankind to recognize the end of the age (Matthew 24:37‑43), combined with strong delusions and rapid upheavals and changes, all serve to try, and “if it were possible,” “deceive the very elect” (verse 24). But God’s standards for faithfulness remain as high as they are unchanging. Thanks be to God for His infinite wisdom in providing His followers with the ability to see the restoration of Israel as a sign by which to strengthen their faith. “It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not” (Lamentations 3:22).