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10 August 2019

Is the Fig Tree a Sign of Israel’s Restoration?

Jesus Teaches his disciples -
        One interpretation of the parable of the Fig Tree is that it is a symbol of the nation of Israel flourishing in the promised land before the return of Jesus. Supposedly, when the figure of a fig tree is a biblical symbol of national Israel. When it begins to bud once more, it signals the start of the "last generation" before the coming of Jesus.
        This view reads information into the words of Jesus, ignores the Bible's varied use of the fig tree image, as wells as Christ's consistent reference to his Jewish contemporaries by the term "this generation." Further, it does not apply the term according to its normal Greek usage.
This interpretation is combined with Christ’s statement that “this generation will not pass until all these things are fulfilled” to conclude that all the things predicted by him in the Olivet Discourse will come to pass by the end of the “last generation,” the one that sees national Israel restored to Palestine.
(Matthew 24:32-34) - “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also when you see all these things, you know that it is near, at the very gates. When you see all these things know that it is near, at the doors. Verily I am saying to you, this generation will not pass until all these things are fulfilled.
In his Olivet Discourse, Jesus nowhere predicted the future restoration of Israel or the Temple; that is an interpretation of the fig tree symbol that is read into the text. This view presupposes that the Fig Tree is used consistently by scripture as a cipher for Israel. But was this the point Jesus intended to make with the analogy of a Budding Fig Tree? Is the fig tree the consistent symbol for Israel in scripture? 
The Fig Tree in Scripture
A cursory search of scripture demonstrates the fig tree is not consistently or even frequently used as a symbol for a flourishing nation of Israel. The Old Testament used the fig tree to symbolize God’s judgment, sometimes on Israel but also on other nations (Isaiah 34:4, Jeremiah 29:17, Hosea 2:12, 9:10, Joel 1:7, Micah 7:1).
Moreover, nowhere in the Olivet Discourse did Jesus indicate he was using the fig tree to symbolize Israel. If there is a tree or plant used frequently to symbolize Israel, it is the grapevine rather than the fig tree (Psalm 80:15, Isaiah 5:1-7, 27:2, Jeremiah 12:10, Ezekiel 15:1-8, Hosea 10:1, Matthew 20:1-16, 21:33-46, John 15:1-11).
In a few passages, the olive tree is used as a symbol for God’s people (Zechariah 4:3-12, Romans 11:17-24, Revelation 11:4), but it does not follow that the fig tree is a cipher for a restored (or not) Israel in Christ’s parable.
Most telling is the version of the parable found in Luke 21:29-30: “Behold the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they put forth leaves you see it and know for yourselves that summer is near.” Since Luke does not limit the application to just one tree or species of tree, the notion that Jesus intended the fig tree to symbolize Israel does not fit. 
Jesus’ Use of the Symbol of The Fig Tree
The fig tree is rarely mentioned in the New Testament. In addition to Jesus’ use in the Olivet Discourse, the New Testament refers to fig trees in the story of his cursing of an unfruitful fig tree (Matthew 21:19-21, Mark 11:13-21), the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-8), when Jesus saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree (John 1:48-50), an analogy from the fact that fig trees do not produce olives (James 3:12), and in Revelation 6:13 as part of a simile describing cosmic upheaval (“and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale”).
On two occasions, Jesus used a fig tree symbolically. The first instance occurs in the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9), which compares the nation of Israel to an unfruitful tree. For three years the tree’s owner sought fruit from it but found none. Just before he cut it down the vinedresser asked for one more year to make the tree productive.
If at the end of the year no fruit appeared, the tree would be cut down. The reference to “three years” links the parable to the ministry of Jesus. God is the owner of the tree, Jesus the vinedresser and Israel the barren fig tree. The parable is a portrayal of Israel’s failure to produce the required fruit and a warning of judgment to come if the nation did not heed its Messiah and repent.
The second occasion is when Jesus cursed an unfruitful fig tree (Matthew 21:19-21, Mark 11:13-23). This was an “enacted parable,” a prophetic act symbolizing God’s judgment on the Jerusalem Temple. This is not immediately obvious in Matthew’s account.
However, Mark 11:13-23 makes this plain by dividing the story into two sections (Mark 11:13-14, 11:20-25), then “sandwiching” between them the “cleansing of the Temple,” also a prophetic act pointing to judgment on the Temple (Mark 11:15-19). In this way, Mark links both acts by Jesus.
On his way to the Temple Jesus cursed a fig tree for its fruitlessness. He pronounced: “no more forever let anyone eat fruit from you” (Mark 11:14). When he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Court of the Gentiles, he declared: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the Gentiles,’ but you made it a den of brigands?”
The Temple authorities understood the import of his words and “began to seek how they might destroy him.” On his return to Bethany, the disciples observed that the cursed fig tree had withered. If Jesus used a fig tree to symbolize national Israel, it was to signify its impending judgment for barrenness, not its restoration (or, more specifically, the Temple rather than the entire nation, though the Temple was its religious center).
Jesus’ depiction of a Budding Fig Tree is called a “parable,” a teaching device that uses an analogy to make its point(s). Jesus described how a fig tree sprouts foliage prior to summer. The arrival of new leaves was a sure sign of summer's approach. The lesson Jesus drew was: “when you see these things happening, you know that it is near.”
The image of a Budding Fig Tree presents one set of events (“these things”), which indicate the imminence of something else. When the disciples see “these things” coming to pass, they should know that “it” is near, whatever “summer” or “it” signifies. The context needs to be studied to determine precisely what “these things” are as well as “it” (the pronoun must be neuter to match the gender of its noun or antecedent, “summer,” which is neuter in Greek).
The Budding Fig Tree was a pictorial warning to the disciples about coming events. “This generation,” the one contemporary with Jesus, would see “these things” taking place and would not cease until “these things” came to pass.
The immediate questions are: what are “these things,” and, which “generation” is meant? Both questions will be taken up in detail in subsequent articles, but the literary context of the Olivet Discourse points to specific answers. The judgment pronouncement of Jesus on Jerusalem just before the Olivet Discourse provides several keys: 
“That upon you may come all the righteous blood being poured out upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachias, whom you slew between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I am saying to you, all these things (tauta panta) shall come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! …Behold, your house (oikos) is forsaken and desolate (erémos)”- (Matthew 23:35-38).
Jesus predicted coming destruction on Jerusalem with a focus on the Temple. His reference to “your house” (oikos) may be metaphoric for the nation but, more likely, it is a reference to the Temple. It is not uncommon for scripture to refer to the Temple with the term “house” (e.g., Matthew 21:13, “house [oikos] of prayer”).
More relevant is the reference to the murder of “Zechariah son of Barachias, whom you slew between the sanctuary and the altar.” Commentators often debate which Zechariah is meant, but this is to miss the real point: he was murdered in the Temple complex.
This was a trespass of horrendous magnitude that defiled the Temple. Judgment was coming on the contemporaries of Jesus because of their continuing rejection of God’s messengers, including John the Baptist and above all Jesus.
The Greek term translated “desolate” in verse 38 is the adjective erémos. Its related noun is the like-sounding erémōsis, which occurs in the New Testament only in Matthew 24:15, Mark 13:14, Luke 21:20. 
In Matthew and Mark, erémōsis is used in the term, “abomination of desolation” (erémōsis). While this phrase is enigmatic, when disciples “in Judea” see it they are to “flee to the mountains.” Luke clarifies what is in view when he refers to “Jerusalem surrounded by armies,” indicating “its desolation (erémōsis) has come near.”
Christ’s judgment pronouncement in Matthew 23:35-38 leads into his explicit prediction of the Temple’s destruction: “coming forth from the temple Jesus was taking his departure when his disciples pointed out to him the buildings (oikodomé) of the temple.
But he answered, ‘Are you not beholding all these things (tauta panta)? Verily, I say unto you, in no wise shall there be left here stone-upon-stone that shall not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:1-2).
His use of oikodomé for the Temple “buildings” is a further indication that “house” in Matthew 23:38 refers to the Temple (oikodomé is related to the Greek term oikos or “house” used in 23:38).
Regardless, in the opening paragraph of chapter 24 Jesus unequivocally predicted the utter desolation of the Temple complex than standing. In response, the disciples asked, “when will these things (tauta) be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age” (verse 3); that is, when will the destruction of the Temple that Jesus just predicted occur?
Is the fig tree the consistent symbol for Israel in scripture and did Jesus use the Parable of a Budding Fig Tree to point to the restoration of the Jewish nation in the “last days?” The answer to both questions is a clear “no.” The fig tree is not consistently used in scripture to symbolize Israel and is rarely mentioned in the New Testament. If anything, Jesus used fruitless fig trees to symbolize a rebellious nation meriting judgment.
The point of the Budding Fig Tree was that the onset of “these things,” events and phenomena predicted by Jesus in the preceding section(s), would indicate the approach of “summer” or “it.” “They are ‘all the events’ that make up the leaf before the fruit.” His parable was not about a future restoration of national Israel.

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