A sharply relevant parable for days of unrest, pandemic and potentially devastating climate change
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.
And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf you see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, 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.
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 21:25-36. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
The trees coming into leaf – the budding fig tree
The parable of the fig tree coming into leaf and the teaching around it is recorded by each of the first three gospel writers.
‘Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?”’ (Luke 21:1-7) In answer to this two-fold question, Jesus spoke of all that was to come.
The first thing Jesus warned against was the succession of people who would falsely claim to be the Messiah, or to speak on his behalf. “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them” (Luke 21:8)
Looking far ahead, Jesus told of great international commotions, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs in heaven.” (Luke 21:10&11)
Looking to the immediate future, he warned the disciples, “But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness . . .” (Luke 21:12&13)
Looking some 40 years ahead, Jesus warned, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near . . . there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:20& 24)
Finally, Jesus speaks of his return. “. . . And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when you see these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28)
It is in the setting of these words of warning and prophecy that our Lord tells the parable of the fig tree and the trees coming into leaf.
And he told them a parable
“Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf you see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
Why did our Lord specifically draw attention to the fig tree? The fig was a very common and familiar local sight, and it could be that our Lord was drawing attention to a particular tree as an example. The fig has very large leaves and so when the swollen buds burst into leaf the change is particularly dramatic. Only Luke records Jesus mentioning all the other trees, from which the same great lesson can be learnt.
The parable was told as Jesus was approaching Passover and the cross of Calvary. It was springtime and, with the arrival of the warmer weather, the swollen buds on the trees were bursting into leaf. So it was a very natural, seasonable and clear parable. Arthur Carr comments that the Lord God is as consistent in his dealings in the affairs of nations as he is in his dealings in the affairs of nature.
If disciples then, and now, watch and pray and take note of the great happenings of the times in which they are living, and compare them with the signs the Lord had just described, they will be able to judge, writes Matthew Henry, ‘with as much certainty and assurance as they could judge the approach of summer by the budding forth of the trees.’
“When you see these things taking place . . .”
The signs that Jesus described before telling the parable:
False claims and false prophets
And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them” (Luke 21:8)
Among Hebrew people, from time to time, even in our day, charismatic leaders arise who falsely claim to be the long awaited Messiah. In the Gentile (non-Jewish) world, over the centuries, a great many have been led astray, following religious leaders whose teachings have caused them to wander very far from the teachings of our Lord and his chosen apostles.
The persecution and the wonders that so closely followed the birth of the church at Pentecost
“But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness.”
Initially, as the Apostles taught daily in the temple, they, and those whom the Lord added to the new-born church, found favour with all the people. But all too soon the religious authorities stepped in. They first arrested Peter and John and threatened them. Later, they were again arrested and put in prison. ‘But,’ Luke records, ‘during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.”’
Stephen, ‘full of grace and power’ and ‘doing great wonders and signs among the people’ was seized and brought before the council who, hearing his faithful witness, ground their teeth and stoned him in rage. On the day of Stephen’s death, there arose ‘a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.’
The young man Saul, who had approved the stoning of Stephen, set about ‘ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.’
Herod the king ‘laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword and, when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.’ Despite chains and guards, the Lord sent an angel and Peter was yet again miraculously set free.
The young man Saul, who became the great apostle Paul, also suffered almost endless persecution for the gospel. Brought before leaders, governors and kings, he fearlessly and tirelessly proclaimed ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ first to his own people, the Jews, and then on their rejection of it, to the Gentile world. As he did so, the Holy Spirit honoured the apostle’s words with God-given power and effectiveness.
The fall of Jerusalem and the temple reduced to rubble
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfil all that is written. Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:20-24)
Within the lifetime of many of those listening to Jesus, these words were fulfilled. The unthinkable happened. Jerusalem, the strong and secure city of David, was surrounded, overthrown and razed to the ground by the all-conquering Roman army under Titus.
Luke records Jesus saying, “. . . when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains . . .” Matthew and Mark refer to our Lord giving warning to escape when they see the ‘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, but these prophecies are not mentioned by the Gentile writer Luke. He simply records our Lord saying ‘surrounded by armies’ and warning of desolation, but the prophecy of Daniel would exactly fit the vast, ruthless Roman army surrounding Jerusalem with their Eagle, emperor-worshiping banners.
Eusebius records that when they saw the city beginning to be surrounded by the Roman armies, many believers, aware of our Lord’s warning, fled and during the siege took refuge in Pella, a city on the eastern side of the Jordan valley, a little under twenty miles south of the Sea of Galilee.
As it was Passover season when the Romans began their offensive, the city was packed with people who had come up to the city for the feast. After a brief siege from without and many self-inflicted tragedies within, the city fell in August A.D. 70 with the loss of over a million lives. Over ten thousand survivors were taken prisoner and sold into slavery.
The temple, considered to be the very seat of God’s presence among his people, was reduced to rubble, ‘not one stone left on another’. This was certainly not the intention of Titus, who had ordered the temple to be spared, but it was totally destroyed; burned down by fire which the defeated people of Jerusalem first started.
So strong did the city first appear to Titus, that Josephus quotes him exclaiming, “We certainly had God on our side in this war; and it was God alone who ejected the Jews from these fortifications.” Titus is also said to have declined the wreath of victory, saying that the victory was not his, he only served as an instrument of divine wrath.
The times of the Gentiles and the desolation of the Jewish people
“. . . there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
Jesus, writes Matthew Henry, ‘foretells the terrible havoc that should be made of the Jewish nation . . . after days of patience long abused, there will come days of vengeance; for reprieves are not pardons.’
With the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 temple worship ceased and the Jewish people were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. This was to be the beginning of many centuries of great difficulty. Scattered throughout the nations, they have been hated, hounded, falsely accused, oppressed, robbed and despised. More than one attempt has been made to completely wipe the Jewish nation from the face of the earth, and yet under the hand of God they have survived. Their continuing existence as a distinct, scattered and, until recently, homeless people must surely be a clear sign of the reality of God and of his sovereign control of human history.
These first four signs spoken of by Jesus have been fulfilled: false leaders have arisen leading many astray; terrible treatment and yet wonderful opportunities to witness for their Lord were given to the disciples; the fall of Jerusalem with the destruction of the temple has taken place; and the centuries of oppression, dispersion and dreadful treatment of the Hebrew people together with present day anti-Semitism continue to be a shameful blot on world history.
Jerusalem has been trampled on, neglected, desecrated and fought over by Gentiles for approaching 2,000 years. Have the times of the Gentiles been all but fulfilled? The non-Jewish nations have been given ample opportunity to receive and to share the gospel message and, in recent decades, the people of Israel have been able to return to their land. Are the times of the Gentiles coming to their end – or perhaps coming to their devastating climax?