The Parable of the Fig Tree: Prophecy or Overlooked Prophecy Key?
"The Parable of the Fig Tree" of Jesus is popularly thought to be a prophecy in disguise referring to certain milestones in the history of modern Israel. But can the return of Jesus be calculated using this parable? Does "this generation" refer to Jesus’ First Century audience or maybe to our generation, the "last generation?" Find out the parable’s true meaning and what Jesus’ actual philosophy to Bible prophecy was so you can better understand prophecy and recognize false interpretations.
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Like most everyone else, when I started studying Bible prophecy, I hoped to answer the question of "How much time do we have left?" I quickly learned that it was not going to be easy to figure that out. There were so many contradictory theories and approaches to sift through it was overwhelming and discouraging. Too much time would be required to study each one out in order to see if it had merit. So naturally, I figured out which were the most popular or promising ones and started with that.
One very popular approach which I encountered frequently early on was to treat the Parable of the Fig Tree at the end of the Olivet Discourse prophecy as a prophecy in itself:
Matthew 24:32-35 (HCSB) 32 Now learn this parable from the fig tree: As soon as its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 In the same way, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near—at the door! 34 I assure you: This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away.
A prophecy book I bought treated the Fig Tree Parable as a prophecy. It reasoned that there had to be something special about this parable as "it is the only parable that our Messiah commanded us to 'learn'." It went on to use the parable to come up with a date that has long since passed without its attached event happening. Yet, it seemed clever and insightful enough at the time to give me hope that perhaps there was a way to know when the end of the age was due. It took me several years to completely shed this way of looking at the parable and to see what Jesus was really teaching by it. (More on that below.)
Parable of the Fig Tree Generation Calculations
If you are not already familiar with prophetic interpretations of the Parable from the Fig Tree, here's how they work. First, the fig tree is equated with Israel. Several passages already use that metaphor and they can be conveniently cited as "proof" (Joel 1:7; Lk 13:6-9). Then one ties in the creation of Israel in 1948 as "the fig tree" and/or Israel's gaining of land in 1967 in the Six Day War as the fig tree "putting forth leaves." With the latter, it can even be said that "summer was nigh" since that war started and ended in early June. Finally, "this generation shall not pass" is used to start "a one generation countdown" from the year previously assigned to the parable.
But, "how long is a generation?" you ask. That's where it gets interesting or certainly very creative. Varying definitions of what constitutes a "Biblical generation" are seen: 40 years (Nu 32:13; Ps 95:10), 70 years (Ps 90:10), 120 years (Gen 6:3), However, the most commonly accepted definition of a generation, 40 years, no longer used much since it is not conducive to the scheme working anymore.
For example, the book 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988 used 40 years from 1948 to provide one of its 88 proofs that "Jesus will acquire His bride" in 1988. We all know how that turned out. 1967 + 40 = 2007 is another variation which is also already past due. One popular Internet teacher who once taught that using the 40-year generation now teaches a generation of 48.33 years and Jesus' return Fall, 2015 (June, 1967 + 48.33 = 2015). If that does not immediately sound forced to you, try coming up with the same number from the verse she bases it on: Matthew 1:17.
The clear lesson from these few examples is that people can imagine many generation lengths that when plugged into the Fig Tree Parable as prophecy create many yet future timeframes for the rapture.
Problems With Fig Tree Parable As Prophecy
But there really is no need to wait-and-see on those rapture years, withholding judgment in the meantime. There are several serious difficulties with this theory which bring any years generated by it into doubt immediately. If I had been astute enough to recognize these problems from the start, I never would have given the theory the credence I initially did.
The first thing to notice is that the emphasis on the fig tree is not warranted for a couple reasons. If you check the other Gospels' versions of this parable, you'll find that Luke's version of the Olivet Discourse has extra verbage that is inconvenient to the theory:
Luke 21:29 (HCSB) — Then He told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees.
The parable is drawing attention to all the trees as examples, not just one type. Of course, nearly all types of trees (and plants) sprout leaves in the Spring. This alone does not prove that the Fig Tree was not singled out for some hidden purpose, but it does steer you towards the plain literal meaning of the concept "fig tree" as a literal harbinger of the literal season of Summer.
The other issue is that there is no indication given in the parable that we should take the fig tree figuratively. It makes sense plainly. Therefore, to to take the fig tree out of its context here by using other passsages where the context uses a fig tree as a symbol for Israel is not proper exegesis. This type of replacement should only be done by the reader when the local context points to the words used as being figurative and not literal. An example of this would be Revelation 9:1-2 where it describes a star falling from heaven "with a key" to the abyss which "he opened." Stars don't use keys, but from other passages about the fall of Satan and the fallen angels describes as stars (Rev 12) it is understood that the star here can refer to a fallen angel, if not Satan himself.
The biggest issue of all perhaps is the twisting of the phrase "this generation." When Jesus spoke this parable, the words "this generation" could only refer to his First Century audience standing there before him hanging on his every word. Many agree that he spoke those words in 30 AD, as some 40 years later, in the year 70, the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. In fulfillment of Mt 24:2, not one stone was left on another. More importantly the timing was just as he said multiple times "upon this generation" (Mt 23:36; 24:34) or happening before 40 years passed from the speaking of the prophecy (Nu 32:13; Ps 95:10).
To hear someone take Jesus' words "this generation" to mean "that generation" requires a complete disregard for the meaning of the word "this." It breaks Scripture, or denies its plain literal meaning which is not how Jesus taught by example to handle Scripture (John 10:35). If you have heard people talking about "the last generation" this is where it comes from. There is no "last generation" in the Bible. Always only "this generation" whether it was Moses or Jesus addressing a crowd who were about to be cursed.
The Plain Meaning of the Fig Tree Parable
The worst part of the twisting of the Fig Tree parable into a prophecy is not the creation of a false doctrine that is used for false date setting. When the parable is twisted, the real message it was trying to convey is lost. So what was the real meaning?
As it turns out, the real message of the parable is pretty important. The Parable of the Fig Tree tells us how to properly look at the rest of the Olivet Discourse that preceded it. It is actually part one of a two part instruction on how to handle Bible prophecy.
Skippng ahead to the second part of this instruction we find that it is equally plain...and equally overlooked. It's the very next passage after (Mt 24:36-39). I covered that "no man knows the day or hour" passage in another article already. But in brief, the passage plainly says that no man can figure out far in advance the date of Jesus' return (and by extension, other prophetic events connected with it). Yes, that means even a man equipped with the Bible because Jesus was also excluded from knowing the date and he was the complete Word of God itself, of which the written Bible is only a subset. If someone thinks they can do better than the Word of God himself by using a subset of what he had to go off, then their name might just be Harold Camping, Ronald Weinland, or William Miller =).
If we can't use Jesus' words in the Olivet Discourse and other prophecies to figure out in advance the date to put on our calendar to watch, then what are these prophecies for?
That's where the Parable of the Fig Tree comes in. Before hearing how not to treat the prophecies, it tells us the correct way. It instructs us to interpret the appearance of "all these things" or events that Jesus just finished describing as signs to watch for of his coming being near—just as the sight of all the leaves sprouting on the trees is an indication of summer being near or their nonappearance indicating summer is not near.
Likewise, if you do not see any of the events described, then you know the rapture (Mt 24:29-31) and coming of Jesus is not near or definitely not "imminent." In fact, he says earlier that the very end times is "not yet" or "not by and by" (Mt 24:6; Lk 21:9) unless you first see specific milestone markers called "the beginning of sorrows" or "the beginning of birth pains". (For what those end time birthpains are, see this earlier article.)
Taking parables out of their context and overworking the metaphor is a common problem in Christian exegesis. It has lead to many false doctrines and theories. However, in fairness let's not forget that Jesus said he spoke in parables to hide the meaning of his teachings from the masses (Mt 13:11). Obviously he has been successful in his parable strategy. Parables have proven especially ripe for mistinterpretation and twisting.
As we listen to people spin their Bible theories, using parables or not, it would help us greatly to stop them the minute they twist the meaning of a plain word and replace it with an opposite or different meaning. If we can manage to do this, we greatly increase our chance of not being distracted from finding the real meaning of the passage.
In the case of the Parable of the Fig Tree, the real meaning overshadowed by popular twisting is as plain as the nose on your face. Jesus had described a roadmap of events leading up to his coming. Rather than try to use his words to calculate a date we could put on a calendar and watch, he wanted us to watch for the appearance or non-appearance of the events he described as a barometer of whether his coming was "at the doors" (Mt 24:33) or "not yet" (Mt 24:6; Lk 21:9). If you can learn just these two points from the Olivet Discourse, you will have important keys towards the correct philosophy for how to look at Bible prophecy. Correct understanding will flow from there.
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