The sacred text refers to Israel as “the fig tree” in Joel 1:7 and again in Hosea 9:10, among other places. Knowing that this metaphor for Israel was established by Scripture in ancient times clarifies Jesus’ apparently out-of-character “cursing” of the fig tree — and also His revelation about key signs of the last days of this age. The Hosea reference is particularly clear:
“I discovered Israel
like grapes in the wilderness.
I saw your fathers
like the first fruit of the fig tree in its first season.”
In these lines God reveals His rejoicing over Israel. Certainly the Tanakh or Old Testament details Israel’s repeatedly falling into idolatry and various other sinful practices that greatly grieved God. Yet we see His great delight and hope in the people of Israel as well; His keeping His side of the covenant even when Israel repeatedly did not. More importantly, we remember Paul’s words to the effect that Israel had not stumbled, through her leaders of Jesus’ time, so badly as to be lost. “God forbid,” as he expressed it.
We know that Jesus wept over the Holy City shortly before the crucifixion. He recalled Israel’s long history of stoning the prophets who had been sent. He sadly predicted Israel’s misfortune as a result of her not knowing “the time of your visitation.” He undoubtedly saw Israel’s singular suffering down the centuries — right up to the present time. He alone knows “the end from the beginning.” Yeshua never stopped loving Israel.
Knowing that from ancient times the symbol of the fig tree had been used by God to represent Israel, we can understand the metaphor of Yeshua’s cursing the literal fig tree that failed to meet his personal hunger needs shortly before the crucifixion. The nation that God had painstakingly cultivated, in keeping His covenant to Abraham, had failed to recognize its long-prophesied Messiah. Her religious leaders had repeatedly tried to use Scripture to trip Jesus up — and to find an excuse to execute Him. He reminded them that it was these very Scriptures “that testify of Me.” Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 are prominent cases in point.
In Luke 13:6-8 we find Jesus’ informative “parable of the barren fig tree.”
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ But he replied to him, ‘Sir, leave it this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. Perhaps it will bear fruit next year, but if not, you can cut it down.’ ” (my italics)
As we consider this earlier parable and His later weeping over Jerusalem because of the blind arrogance of its religious leaders, there can be little doubt about the figurative meaning of His uncharacteristic act of “cursing” the literal fig tree. For three years He had “come seeking fruit” from the religious leaders of Israel — and found none. Not only did they not rejoice in and work alongside of their long-desired Messiah — they sought to murder Him!
But in His parable we see as well His reassurance to Israel that — unlike the literal fig tree that He cursed — the “vinedresser,” Yeshua, intercedes for the “fig tree” with its “owner,” Yahweh — in the hope that at a later time, or as Scripture often puts it, “in that day,” with increased “fertilizing and cultivation,” a reference to the Holy Spirit, Israel would indeed recognize her Messiah and “bear fruit.”
In considering the uncharacteristic nature of Jesus’ cursing anything, we remember the disciples’ having asked Him if they should retaliate against those who had prohibited their evangelism. He responded that their question revealed that they didn’t understand His mission or His nature. His mission was and is not to destroy, but to save the lost; his nature is Love. We see His clear signal against anger and violence again as we consider His reaching up to restore the ear of the high priest’s servant, Malchus, who was among those who had come to Gethsemane to take Jesus captive. Peter had impulsively cut off Malchus’ right ear. We recall “the Prince of peace” admonishing Peter to put his sword away even as He restored the ear of His own “captor.”
Jesus didn’t come to curse, to criticize, or to destroy. He came to love, to forgive, to restore, and to save.
But He had repeatedly assailed the values of Israel’s religious leaders. Their regard for money, for esteem in the marketplace. Their willingness to “devour widows’ households,” and their hypocrisy. Their arrogant pride in and attention to every jot and tittle of “the law.” He had continually worked to get through to the leaders of Israel — and to obtain the “fruit” of His centuries-long husbandry of them — over the course of His three-year ministry.
After the cursing of the fig tree, when the disciples marveled to see that it had withered from its roots, Yeshua reminded them to “Have faith in God.” Perhaps He also intended that the fig tree, representative of what “religion” had come to be among the proud Jewish leaders of His day, deserved to be withered. That the emphasis was to be on faith, on the spirit of the law, which gives life — rather than on a belabored legal mindset and the letter of the law, which had been misused for personal aggrandizement to the extent of blinding its proponents to their own Messiah!
Israel, the covenanted, chosen people and nation, the figurative fig tree, had not “been there” for Him when He came to them in fulfillment of His covenant promise and their own Scriptures. Just as the literal fig tree that should have been in season was “without fruit” when He went to it in hunger, only a few days before the crucifixion that He clearly foresaw.
The fig tree figures again in the sacred text in the Gospel of Mark, where we find Jesus describing the dark passage at the end of the age, in answer to a question asked privately by Peter, James, and John, along with Peter’s brother, Andrew. This conversation is known as the Olivet Discourse because it took place on the Mount of Olives. Speaking of the last days, their question was, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign when all these things are about to take place?”
In replying Jesus describes false messiahs, wars and rumors of wars. He urges us not to be alarmed because “these things must take place, but the end is not yet.” He tells his disciples that nation will rise against nation, that there will be earthquakes and famines in “diverse” places, and that these are only “the beginning of birth pains.”
He describes persecution of Christians for their faith. He tells them — and us — not to worry about how we will respond to questioning in these difficult circumstances, because the Holy Spirit will speak through us. He indicates that family members will even betray one another “to death.” That Christians will be “hated by everyone because of My name,” adding, “But the one who endures to the end will be delivered.”
He describes an “abomination that causes desolation standing where it should not,” after which the text parenthetically admonishes “the reader” to understand. He warns people in Judea to flee immediately when this abomination occurs — without even going back to their homes to get extra clothing or important possessions. He tells us that unless God had “limited those days no one would survive. But He limited those days because of the elect, whom He chose.”
He speaks a second time of false messiahs, but reminds us that He has told us everything in advance. He describes a time after this tribulation when the sun, moon, and stars will be shaken. Speaking immediately to His four disciples and through them, down the centuries, to us, He reminds us that He tells us these things in advance so that we will be alert, so that we will be watching.
And then these most-beautiful words: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. He will send out the angels and gather His elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.”
He then provides the clear “sign” that the four disciples had requested:
“Learn this parable from the fig tree: As soon as its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that He is near — at the door! I assure you: This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place.” (Mark 13:28,29)
In addition to providing signals we can read in world events, He links them to Israel with the unmistakable “figure” of the fig tree. Israel has been described as “God’s prophetic time-clock.”
As we recall the passages from Joel and Hosea, and Yeshua’s own parable of the fig tree — subsequently illustrated by His actual cursing of the fruitless, literal fig tree, the meaning of His fig-tree reference in His answer to His disciples here becomes unmistakable. He was building on a well-established metaphor. The greening of the fig tree speaks of Israel’s having returned to its ancient homeland; of its having transformed a barren, desert place into an oasis growing bountiful crops, including tropical fruit and roses. We recall the scriptural verse to the effect that “the desert will blossom as the rose.” Israel, whose land for centuries had lain desolate, has become a leading exporter of roses to Europe.
Yeshua was following God’s long tradition of alerting his servants before He did anything significant. He told us the developments to be watching for; He encouraged us to be alert. He told us what we would need to know as we begin to experience perilous times.
Prophecy teachers perceive that Jesus was speaking of the generation that would see Jerusalem come under Israel’s control again after more than 2,000 years, which occurred in 1967, with His time-reference to “This generation” in Mark 13:29.
Are we watching?
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