Yeshua spoke the parable of the fig tree just before his crucifixion. It is found in all of the Synoptic Gospels:
MATTHEW 24:32 "Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near — at the doors! 34 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away." (NKJV)
MARK 13:28 "Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender, and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So you also, when you see these things happening, know that it is near — at the doors! 30 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away." (NKJV)
LUKE 21:29 Then he spoke to them a parable: "Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near. 31 So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away." (NKJV)
The modern state of Israel was founded by those from the ancient House of Judah in 1948 CE. After this momentous event, some Christian teachers began theorizing that this parable was actually a prophecy which revealed that Jesus would return within 40 years of the founding of Israel. This was based on the assumption that the Bible teaches a generation is 40 years in length:
NUMBERS 32:13 "So the LORD's anger was aroused against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the LORD was gone." (NKJV)
PSALM 95:8 Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, 9 where your fathers tested and tried Me, though they had seen what I did. 10 For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known My ways." 11 So I declared on oath in My anger, "They shall never enter My rest." (NIV)
Also cited in favor of this view was the 40-year period that elapsed between the crucifixion of the Messiah in 30 CE and the destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.
However, the return of the Messiah obviously did not occur by 1988 CE as had been speculated. Therefore, some proponents of the theory revised their view. Instead of the foundation of the state of Israel, they shifted the beginning point of their 40-year count to Israel's recapture of east Jerusalem and the holy Temple Mount in the Six-Day War during 1967 CE.
But once again 40 years passed and Jesus did not return by 2007 CE. After another target date had come and gone, some Christian teachers took the position that the parable was not a prophecy detailing the timing of the Messiah's coming after all (II Pet. 3:4). They began promoting the idea that the focus of the parable was NOT the fig tree, but rather the sign of the budding leaves, which is an indication of the change of seasons.
Therefore, in this revised view, the parable was not giving believers a time marker for the return of the Messiah. Instead, it was simply an admonition to WATCH for the signs of the Messiah's coming. These teachers supported the revised position by citing the very next statement made by Yeshua after the fig tree parable was spoken:
MATTHEW 24:36 "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only." (NKJV)
MARK 13:32 "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is." (NKJV)
Has the parable of the fig tree been proven NOT to be a prophecy because of the failed interpretations assigned to it in the past? How do we understand what this parable is telling us?
There is a related story in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark that also incorporates a fig tree as the central focus:
MARK 11:12 Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, he went to see if perhaps he would find something on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again." And his disciples heard it. (NKJV)
This event took place just before the Passover festival in 30 CE, around the beginning of April. To understand the true meaning of this event, it is necessary to be familiar with the annual fruit cycle of the Holy Land fig tree:
Two crops are gathered; the first is ripe about June and grows from the midsummer shoots of the previous year, while the second, ripe about August, is produced from the new spring shoots. By December all figs in the mountainous areas have shed their leaves, and new leaf buds appear only in March (cf. Mt. 24:32 par.), when the tiny figs appear simultaneously in the leaf axils. The figs grow to about the size of a small cherry, and then the majority fall off . . . In April and May the fig leaves develop and the fruit reaches maturity about June . . . Frequently, ripe winter figs can be found, hidden by leaves, when the summer figs are growing in August and September. (p. 302, vol. 2, "Fig; Fig Tree," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
Fig trees in the Holy Land put on figs twice during the year, in early June and at the end of August. Yeshua, having been raised in this area, would surely have known this. Why then would he curse a fig tree in late March or early April for not having figs when Mark clearly states that it was NOT the time for edible figs to be found? Is there more to this story than first meets the eye?
As with many things that Yeshua did during his ministry, this incident was intended to fulfill and explain prophecy. Most Christian commentators rightly understand that this parable was a symbolic condemnation of the spiritually barren Jewish nation of Yeshua's day (which was a reflection of the spiritually dead Jewish leadership). But what remains generally unrecognized is that this event helps explain the meaning of the fig tree parable given shortly thereafter by Yeshua and explains why the Jews as a whole have not accepted him even to this day.
As can be seen in the book of Joel, the fig tree is symbolic of the INHABITED LAND of Israel:
JOEL 1:6 For a nation has come up against My land, strong, and without number; his teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he has the fangs of a fierce lion. 7 He has laid waste My vine, and ruined My fig tree; he has stripped it bare and thrown it away; its branches are made white. (NKJV)
The Jews in the Holy Land at the time of Yeshua's ministry were desperate to once again be in control of their own destiny instead of being a vassal state of a pagan empire. Because of the time period spelled out in Daniel's prophecy of the "70 weeks" (Dan. 9:24-27), they were expecting their prophesied Messiah to arise at that time and throw off the chains of Roman rule.
When Yeshua arrived on the scene in the fall of 26 CE performing great miracles and preaching about the coming kingdom of God, many Jews began to believe that he might be the messianic King that they were awaiting. By the time he arrived in Jerusalem in 30 CE just before the spring Feast of Passover, the messianic expectations of the Jews had reached a fever pitch. He was welcomed into the city by the multitudes and effectively acknowledged as the long-awaited Messiah:
MATTHEW 21:7 They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set him on them [cf. Zec. 9:9]. 8 And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: "Hosanna to the Son of David! 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!' Hosanna in the highest!" 10 And when he had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, "Who is this?" 11 So the multitudes said, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee." (NKJV)
The word "hosanna" in the above passage is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew hoshi'ah, which literally means "deliver us" or "save us." This cry of the Jews upon Yeshua's entry into Jerusalem is a paraphrase of Psalm 118:
PSALM 118:25 Save [hoshi'ah] now, I pray, O LORD; O LORD, I pray, send now prosperity. 26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We have blessed you from the house of the LORD. (NKJV)
By their use of the title "Son of David," the multitude of Jews who welcomed Yeshua into Jerusalem on the back of the donkey colt showed their acceptance of him as the prophesied Messiah. This was the primary reason why the duplicitous Jewish religious leaders felt it necessary to take him at night before the Feast began, out of sight of the majority of the Jews gathered in Jerusalem for Passover (Matt. 26:5; Mark 14:2).
The morning after his triumphal entry was when Yeshua sought fruit from the out-of-season fig tree and cursed it for having none (Matt. 21:17-19; Mark 11:12-14). He did not curse the fig tree because he truly expected to find fruit on it. Rather, he used the barren fig tree to prophesy about the spiritual fate of the Jews and the physical fate of the Holy Land.
There is a common misconception among many that the Jews chose of their own free will to reject Yeshua as the Messiah. Yet the New Testament clearly states that God blinded the majority of Jews and hardened their hearts against Yeshua:
JOHN 12:37 But although he had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in him, 38 that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke: "Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?" 39 Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again: 40 "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, lest they should see with their eyes, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them." (NKJV)
ROMANS 11:7 What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded. 8 Just as it is written: "God has given them a spirit of stupor, eyes that they should not see and ears that they should not hear, to this very day." (NKJV)
It was not the appointed time for the fig tree Yeshua encountered to yield its fruit. In like manner, it was also not the time for the Jews to recognize their Messiah. Yeshua symbolized this prophesied blinding by God with his curse of the fig tree.
In our English translations, it appears that the fig tree was cursed to NEVER again bring forth fruit:
MATTHEW 21:19 Spotting a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. So he said to it, "May you never again [eis ton aiona] bear fruit!" and immediately the fig tree dried up. (CJB)
MARK 11:14 In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again [eis ton aiona]." And his disciples heard it. (NKJV)
Yet a closer examination of the Greek phrase eis ton aiona shows that the English translations obscure what Yeshua really said. The preposition eis is often used regarding time to mean "to" or "until." The article ton simply means "the." The noun aiona is a form of aion (transliterated into English as "eon"); this word means "a segment of time," or an "age." Therefore, the phrase eis ton aiona literally means "until the age":
MARK 11:14 In response Yeshua said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you until the age [eis ton aiona]." And his disciples heard it. (literal)
Until what "age" was Yeshua symbolically cursing the Jews to unfruitfulness? Undoubtedly he was speaking of the age which most Jews at that time were imminently expecting: the age of the Jewish Messiah's rule over the entire world from Jerusalem. The fig tree incident was designed to show that the Jews would not produce spiritual fruit until the Messiah comes to usher in the kingdom of God upon the earth.
This messianic age was prophesied by many of the Old Testament prophets. The writings of Zechariah include numerous revelations about the Messiah during both his first and second comings. The following prophecy shows that the divine blindness will be lifted and the Jews will recognize their Messiah AFTER he saves them and Jerusalem from an attack by the nations:
ZECHARIAH 12:8 "In that day the LORD will defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem; the one who is feeble among them in that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the Angel of the LORD before them. 9 It shall be in that day that I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. 10 And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for him as one grieves for a firstborn. 11 In that day there shall be a great mourning in Jerusalem . . . " (NKJV)
The Messiah's revelation to the Jews will come AFTER he has saved Jerusalem from the attack of Gog (i.e., the Antichrist) and his allies (Eze. 38-39). When they fully realize that the one they have rejected for 2,000 years is in fact the Messiah, there will be a great mourning among the Jews in Jerusalem and Judah over Yeshua.
The parable of the fig tree was designed to show us WHEN these prophesied events will take place. Since the fig tree cursed by Yeshua represented the Jews in the Holy Land, it stands to reason that the parable of the fig tree given the very next day would also have something to do with the Jews and the Holy Land. And indeed it does!
The Jewish people were permanently dispersed from Judea by the Romans after their second revolt (132-135 CE), and a distinct Jewish nation ceased to exist. The Holy Land became as a denuded fig tree during winter, devoid of leaves and fruit (i.e., its people). Yet this symbolic fig tree began to bud out once again when the modern nation of Israel was revived in 1948 CE.
As we saw earlier with the description of the annual fruit cycle of the fig tree, when the tree begins to put forth leaves, tiny figs appear at the same time in the leaf axils. This occurs at the beginning of spring, in late March. The figs are not ready to harvest until early June, about 70 to 80 days later. This fact is not devoid of meaning, for it confirms the time span of the generation mentioned by Yeshua.
The Scriptures show conclusively that God often employs the "day for a year" principle:
NUMBERS 14:34 "According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection." (NKJV)
EZEKIEL 4:4 "Then lie on your left side and put the sin of the house of Israel upon yourself. You are to bear their sin for the number of days you lie on your side. 5 I have assigned you the same number of days as the years of their sin. So for 390 days you will bear the sin of the house of Israel. 6 After you have finished this, lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear the sin of the house of Judah. I have assigned you 40 days, a day for each year." (NIV)
If we apply this principle to the fruit cycle of the Holy Land fig tree, we get a corresponding time period of 70 to 80 years. If the parable of the fig tree budding out represents the land of Israel once again becoming home to a Jewish state, then we have 70 to 80 years before the fruit of this entity will be ripe. Is it possible that the Messiah intended for us to understand that the culmination of God's plan would take 70 to 80 years from the reestablishment of modern Israel until the return of the Messiah and his acceptance by the Jews in the Holy Land?
Not only is it possible, but Scripture shows it is very likely that this meaning is the intended one. As we discussed earlier, initial efforts to discern a time frame from the fig tree parable failed due to the use of a 40-year generation. But what if that span of time wasn't the one intended by Yeshua? Is there another time frame given in the Bible for the length of a generation? There most certainly is!
PSALM 90:10 The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. (NRSV)
Using a 70-80 year generation, we can see that the specified time frame for the fig tree to produce fruit is in the range of 2016/2017 CE to 2026/2027 CE. Interestingly, the latter date is exactly 2,000 years from the time that Yeshua the Messiah first began his earthly ministry.
After speaking the parable of the fig tree, Yeshua stated: "Truly I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place." Based on the Psalm 90:10 definition of a generation, we should be looking for the return of Messiah Yeshua to defeat the Antichrist by 2027 CE, at the latest. Accompanying this event, Israel, the symbolic fig tree, will begin to bear spiritual fruit after their acceptance of King Yeshua the Messiah.
However, this event could come even sooner, because we are told that Yeshua must cut the time short at the end of this age in order to save some flesh alive (Matt. 24:22; Mark 13:20). There is an element of uncertainty in the dating the Yeshua provided (Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32-33), but we are given a vital clue to the timing, if we understand and accept it. Come soon, Lord Yeshua!
Bryan T. Huie
September 7, 2010