The fig tree – Matthew in Advent day 14

Some years ago I heard a talk by a Christian which turned out to be an hour long advert for a scheme he was involved in which comprised finding Jewish people living in Russia and paying them to emigrate to Israel. Which seemed like a very strange thing for a Christian based in the UK to be doing. The theology behind the idea is that Christ will not return until the full number of Jews are living in the promised land and that by by bringing people into the land we could bring the second coming of Christ forward.

I did not and cannot contribute to that charity.

A fig, cut in half
Photo by Pixabay on

The Gospel of Matthew is written as a series of six narrative sections, telling the story of Jesus’ life, interspersed with five sections of teaching. The beginning of the Gospel links back into the past of the Old Testament. This, the last of the teaching sections, links forward to the future. Advent is a time when we look forward to the return of Christ.

The fig tree, a lesson in two parts

32 ‘Now learn this lesson from the fig-tree: as soon as its twigs become tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

Matthew 24:32-35 NIV UK

The above is part 2 of Jesus using a fig tree as a means of warning the people. The first is earlier that week when Jesus curses a fig tree for nor having fruit at a time of year when the tree would have no reason to bear any fruit at all. The three synoptic gospel writers treat this in three different ways.

  • The cursing of fig tree in Mark 11:12-25.
    Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. The next day on the way to clear traders from the temple courts he sees a barren fig tree and curses it, the next day as as Jesus and his disciples are returning to the temple and to teach, the tree is seen to have withered. Mark uses the cursing of the fig tree to frame the clearing of the temple. The two events are linked.
  • The cursing of fig tree in Matthew 21:18-22.
    After entering Jerusalem and clearing the temple courts, the next day Jesus returns to Jerusalem where they come across a barren fig tree. Jesus curses the tree, which withers immediately.
  • The parable of figs in Luke 13:6-9.
    Jesus hears of the deaths of Galileans, and gives the events a prophetic interpretation: a man planted a fig tree expecting it to bear fruit, but despite his visits it remained barren; the owner’s patience wore thin, but the gardener pleaded for a little more time; the owner agrees.

This is more than just another miracle showing Jesus’ power over nature. The fig tree in the Old Testament is used as a picture of either the people of God or its leaders. By cursing the tree Jesus is acting out a prophesy of the fall of Jerusalem and the temple. The parable in Luke says the same thing, Judea is on its very last chance. The cursing of the tree sandwiches the clearing of the temple in Mark and is sandwiched between clearing the temple and teaching in the temple in Matthew. The two are linked. In the same way as the cursing of the fig tree is an acted out prophesy of the judgement of God on the people, so is clearing out the temple courts.

Matthew’s Gospel is structured and carefully written. It is consistent in its message. Jesus curses the fig tree before going to teach in the temple. Having finished teaching he mentions the destruction of the temple openly to his disciples and bookends the temple teaching by mentioning the fig tree again. Then he says “Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door,” in which he says all these things. Again. The first “all these things” in this passage was back in chapter 23:36. The context is that these things will take place in this generation.

That is nor what I have always believed. I used to hold a dispensational view, and believed that was what all Christians must believe because it is what Christians have always believed. How wrong I was.

Dispensational beliefs started about 1832 in writings by John Nelson Darby (1800 – 1882). They were not readily taken up.

The Scofield Reference Bible of 1917 together with The Fundamentals a series of 90 pamphlets published between 1910 and 1917 some of which were strong on Dispensationalism,

But it was after World War II with the State of Israel 1948 being recognised by the United Nations that chain references in the Scofield Bible on dispensations. The Jews were back in their homeland, the final dispensation of 70 years had started (and time ran out on this in 1918).

It is the lack of age to the dispensationalism that I find problematic.

The church fathers could not have believed in a theory that would nor exist for 15 centuries.
Martin Luther and the other reformers could not have believed in a theory that would nor exist for over 300 years.
The early Evangelical leaders John Wesley (1703 – 1791) and George Whitefield (1714 – 1770) also died before 1832.

Despite Evangelicalism having been founded before dispensationalism, it it here that dispensationalism has its support. In a survey of American Evangelicals in 2018 when the USA moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, two thirds said that Israel has a prophetic role in the end times.

To fit in with how I read Matthew’s Gospel as a consistent whole I find the best fit, for me, is for these verses to be about the fall of Jerusalem and not about the return of Christ. Up until this point in the story, that is.

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