The trees coming into leaf – the budding fig tree, continued
A sharply relevant parable for days of unrest, pandemic and potentially devastating climate change
The coming of the Son of Man
“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Norval Geldenays comments that the fall of Jerusalem affected one small region and one people. The return of the Son of Man will ‘embrace the whole world and finally and forever determine the eternal fate of every individual.’
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. From the fig tree learn its lesson . . .”Matthew 24:29-32
William Barclay notes that the coming of the Son of Man will be associated with all the great upheavals that the prophets had foretold concerning the ‘Day of the Lord.’ God’s faithful prophets, Isaiah, Joel, Amos and Zephaniah each spoke of the Day of the Lord in just the same terms; the sun, the moon, the stars; the whole created order in great confusion and commotion. Men and women filled with overwhelming apprehension, fainting for fear of the future.
These great upheavals, writes John Calvin, are signs to summon humanity turn to the Lord God and to honour both him and his anointed Son; to repent. But – will we acknowledge our failure to honour the God in whose hand is our very existence? Or will we treat our Maker with contempt until the last day? Until the Lord Jesus returns, the kingdom of God continues to be ignored and despised by the world. But on that day every eye will be on him, God’s anointed Son. The Son of Man, who lived on earth as one despised and rejected, will then be seen in great glory and majesty. Those who have ignored and failed to honour him will be overwhelmed with fear for their future, but those who have received him, bowed the knee to him and continue to serve him faithfully are to take heart, because redemption, the kingdom of God is near. To those who face his just judgement, his appearance must inevitably bring terror. But his return will bring great joy to his despised but faithful people.
The nearness of the kingdom of God
“Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Illustrated by this parable of the fig tree and its leaves, disciples are solemnly called to take careful note of the signs of human history and so be prepared for what the Lord Jesus warned would be the terrifyingly violent and fearful end of this present evil age. These awesome and awful world-wide happenings are the birth pains that will herald the approach of the beginning of the Messiah’s glorious reign.
“. . . when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
The words ‘this generation’ could refer to the disciples and those who were present and physically hearing his words, some of whom certainly lived to see glimpses of the glory of the kingdom at Pentecost and in the days of the early church, some of whom also witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and the desolation of the temple. However, the word ‘generation’ can also be translated ‘nation’ or ‘people’, and so Jesus could have been speaking of the amazing continuity of the Jewish people. Despite being dreadfully mistreated and having no homeland for nearly 2,000 years, they are still a distinct people. Or, as a third possibility, he could have been speaking of an ongoing strand or ‘remnant’ of faithful believers, scattered throughout the world, a people watching, waiting, holding the faith, about his business and ready for his return.
Several passages in our Lord’s teaching make it plain that he did not indicate that his return would be in a very short span of time. Even in this chapter, Jesus had taught, “And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” (Luke 21:9) And the words ‘the times of the Gentiles’ suggest several different Gentile nations ruling over Jerusalem, and therefore the elapse of quite some time.
J. C. Ryle draws attention to the words of our Lord, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Although there are manuscripts which give scholars occasion to challenge these words, the words of Jesus will stand because he is Emmanuel, God amongst us. The words are very strong and solemn. The Lord Jesus does not speak as the prophets did, ‘Thus says the Lord,’ but speaks with all the authority of the Godhead, ‘. . . my words will not pass away.’
The great significance of Revelation chapter five is that the scroll of future human destiny has been placed in the hands of ‘the Lamb who was slain’. Into the hands of the one who told this parable has been committed all authority, and so he who gave these warnings will oversee the fulfilment of his own word. Our Lord’s words will neither fail nor pass away.
The ongoing significance of our Lord’s words and of this parable
The parable of the fig tree and all the trees bursting into leaf is as sharp and relevant for us in our day as it was to our Lord’s first hearers. It is clear from the New Testament, that the church in its early years lived in eager expectation of the fulfilment of Jesus’ promised return within their own lifetime. Two thousand years later we are still called to heed our Lord’s words and to be constantly on our watch and prepared.
Our natural modern human assumption is that the kingdom of heaven will be ushered in by universal peace among people. But that is not what our Lord said. The Lord Jesus uses very dramatic language to speak of wars and confusion, perplexity and great distress. There will be famines, earthquakes, international wars, and a general hatred and persecution of Jews, God-fearing Gentiles and believing Christian people. All these things taking place in such a spiritually-freezing and increasingly godless atmosphere that the love of many both for the Lord and for one another will grow cold. Could we be living at the beginning of days like these?
‘For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.’ (Matthew 24:7-14)
Godless men ‘will be perplexed and fearful,’ writes Leon Morris, ‘they will know that strange things are happening but will not understand what is about to befall them.’ J. C. Ryle comments, ‘The second coming of Christ will be attended by everything which can make it alarming to the senses and heart of man.’
It is during world-wide and overwhelming human disasters like these, that we are to hold fast and look for the sudden appearance of the Son of Man.
The unbelieving world will always regard Jesus’ warnings as ‘fairy tales’, but despite clever weaving of words or sneers, it is clearly essential for believers to hold fast to our Lord’s words, for only then shall we be prepared.
The ongoing call to be ready
“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:34-36)
These words summon us to walk closely with the Lord, and not to let the all-consuming cares, concerns and pleasures of this world make us like drunken people; dull-headed and sleepy. They call us to beware of all that would quench our spiritual discernment and alertness. The earth-shaking days of which Jesus had been speaking are clearly not local events, but the final days of the world as we know it. We are to keep alert, pleading for strength and godly wisdom that we may be found watching and ready, rather than overtaken and trapped. Our ultimate joy and aim should be to ‘stand before the Son of Man.’ The meaning here is not ‘to bow in his presence and receive his judgement,’ – as we all must, either to be honoured by him, or to be dismissed by him to our endless regret. The meaning here is to stand before the Son of Man as an honoured and faithful servant, standing in the Master’s presence and ready to be of further service to him.
In every succeeding generation, we are called to live with an eye to the signs of the times and to be constantly prepared. Kenneth Bailey notes that, ‘Some believers in every century have held the firm conviction that they were living in the last days . . . Christians in every age are encouraged to live expectantly and at the same time never to presume to read the mind of the Father as regards the timing of the end of all things’. Disciples are nowhere encouraged to work out a timetable for the return of the Son of Man.
In every generation there have also been good folk who, touched by war, epidemic, fire or flood, conclude and proclaim that ‘this is the end’. But, again, the Lord did warn, “And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” Rather, our Lord warned us to take careful note of the coming together of many world-wide and world-convulsing events and disasters that together present an overwhelming threat to humanity’s very existence. When these come, be prepared. “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
As the trees bursting into leaf are a clear sign that summer is near, so disciples then, and now, are called to watch the signs, and to be ready for times of great testing, and ready for the return of the Son of Man.
Gospel singer Larry Norman used to sing a song concerning the return of the Son of God with the plaintive line, ‘I wish we’d all been ready.’ Will we be? Will you be?
Heavenly Father, give us ears to hear and minds and hearts to heed these words of your Son. We pray for Jewish people, both scattered throughout the nations and gathered in their homeland, to whom these words were first addressed. We pray, too, for the people of the Gentile nations, the vast majority of whom are completely unaware of the seriousness of warnings such as these. Father, it is not your will that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. We plead with you to send a world-wide spiritual revival. Cause us turn, repent, believe, take heed, watch, pray and be faithfully about your business – and so be found ready for the return of your glorious and anointed Son.
Questions for personal reflection or discussion
1. Our Lord’s first disciples were hated and hounded, are there situations and places where this is still the case? How might we support and encourage our fellow disciples?
2. Jerusalem has been trampled on and fought-over for centuries by non-Jewish nations, are there signs that the ‘times of the Gentiles’ could be nearly over; signs that call us to be alert in our day to the return of the Son of Man?
3. In what way is our Lord using the bursting out of the leaves in the spring as a call to those who have yet to believe to bow the knee, and a call to believers to wake up and be alert?
4. Why will the final times leading up to the return of the Son of Man be very difficult days in which to live?
5. In times of great personal or national crisis, why can the attitude of true believers be so different from that of those around us?
6. How can we best encourage one another to hold fast and be ready?
7. In what ways can the words of our Lord help us to stand firm?
- Found favour with all the people – Acts 2:47
- Arrested Peter and John and threatened them – Acts 4:3&21
- Speak to the people all the words of this Life – Acts 5:18-20
- Stephen, ‘full of grace and power’ and ‘doing great wonders and signs’ – Acts 6:8
- Stephen, brought before the council who stoned him in rage – Acts 7:54-58
- A great persecution against the church in Jerusalem – Acts8:1
- The young man Saul . . . set about ‘ravaging the church’ – Acts 7:58-8:3
- Herod the king . . . Peter miraculously set free – Acts 12:1-11
- ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ – 1 Corinthians 2:2
- The prophecies of Daniel – Daniel 9:27 and 11:31
- The ‘lamb who was slain’ – Revelation 5:1-14
- All authority – Matthew 28:18
- That all should come to repentance – 2 Peter 3:9
1). Matthew and Mark record the teaching of the twenty first chapter of Luke’s gospel as a conversation with the disciples on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, overlooking the temple and the city of Jerusalem. But from Luke’s account, it could have taken place there, overlooking Jerusalem, or it could have been part of Jesus’ public teaching in the temple.
In chapter twenty, Jesus was teaching in the temple, ‘And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, “Beware of the scribes . . .” (Luke 20:45&46) Then chapter twenty one continues as Jesus noticed people contributing to the temple treasury. The chapter concludes with the words, ‘And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him.’ (Luke 21:37&38)
2). Our Lord’s teaching in Luke chapter twenty one is full of prophecy; a looking ahead to future events. Like looking at the horizon, the foothills and the great mountain ranges beyond are all ‘on the horizon’, with little or no reference to their order or indication of what lies between them – which could be great distances. So in speaking of future events there is a compression of the events so that they are all ‘on the horizon’. This is sometimes known as ‘prophetic fore-shortening’.
3). Matthew and Mark record our Lord giving warning to escape from Jerusalem when they see ‘abomination of desolation standing in the holy place’ or ‘where it ought not to be’. Matthew and Mark are alluding to the prophecies of Daniel, ‘on the wing of abominations comes one who makes desolate’ (Daniel 9:27) and ‘Forces from him shall appear and profane he temple and fortress, and shall take away the regular burnt offering. And they shall set up the abomination that makes desolate.’ (Dan 11:31) Luke does not draw attention to these prophecies.
4). It is possible that Titus placing the Roman standard, the symbol of conquest and worship of the Emperor, at the heart of the temple, would so desecrate it in the eyes of the defeated people of Jerusalem that it provoked them to destroy their own temple.
5). ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’ Transcribed at a time, almost certainly during the late fourth century in Egypt, when acknowledging the deity of the Lord was not in favour, some of the scribes producing the North African, New Testament manuscripts consistently adjust the smaller pointers to his deity, and so omit this last verse. So, Arthur Carr can write of Matthew 24:35 ‘This verse was originally omitted in the Sinaitic MS., but is inserted by a later hand.’