Friday, April 20, 2018

The Olivet Discourse: The Fig Tree Parable

The synoptic gospels are virtually identical in their accounts of the Parable of the Fig Tree within the Olivet Discourse. Whereas Luke specifically identifies the segment as a parable, the other accounts merely communicate its substance without a label. As in the case of many of the biblical parables, fanciful interpretations have arisen throughout history as to what are the "true" meaning of "symbols" within the parable. Therefore, it is vitally important to understand what parables are and are not in order to interpret this type of figure reasonably and to not veer off into the tall weeds.

Parables are merely analogies or comparisons--one thing, perhaps unknown or not fully understood, is likened, indirectly, to another that is readily known or understood. Parables are NOT allegories: each item in a parable is NOT meant to be symbolic of some other item in reality or to symbolically represent its action. Parables are really more akin to metaphors than to allegories in regard to their use of imagery. The conclusion or moral that can be drawn from the overall story of the parable, and thus teach a lesson, is the aim of using it.

As for the fig tree parable itself, two hermeneutic considerations need to be taken into account when interpreting it.

First, it is not really symbolic at all! It is a parable and is not reliant on meanings hidden in symbols. The audience knew figs, there were figs on the Mount of Olives where this discourse was being made (as well as olives), and so Jesus spoke about figs. When figs wake up from the winter and put out leaves, it is a sure sign that summer is around the corner. We could say the same thing using trees we know about in our neck of the woods and make the same point Jesus was trying to make, and make it just as well.

Second, Israel has never been symbolized anywhere in scripture as a fig tree, and it wasn't being symbolized as such in this parable. Making a fig tree represent Israel is beyond a stretch anywhere it is attempted, and it is not remotely hinted at, let alone obviously intended, by the language of this parable. To do so is bad interpretation, plain and simple. The fig tree is merely the means to communicate the concept of predictability in sequence from a known event to another related event: if one step of the progression occurs, you know with certainty the next step is about to happen.

Jesus said that when all (Matthew; Koine: panta) these things (Matthew, Mark and Luke; Koine: tauta) were seen (i.e., experienced), then we would know we were at the very end. Those things were all the things, each and every one of them (the force of tauta), detailed in the prior verses. When that condition exists, then the Son of Man bursting through the skies is at the door.  The intent is to keep folk from jumping the gun and anticipating the return of Christ before all of these things had come to pass--an especially helpful point considering the length of time envisaged in giving the signs in the first place.

The generation (Koine: genea, all those alive over a particular span) referenced has nothing to do with any symbolic meaning attached to the fig tree, since there isn't any. The point being made was that at least some of those who saw the Abomination of Desolation and its outcome ("all these things") would see the end as well. Clearly, the use of "generation" was not referring to the initial hearers of the Discourse such a long time ago, for the implicit scope of elapsed time within the signs given throughout the Discourse would have made their lifetimes an unlikely frame for fulfillment. So the use of "generation" was a way to push the scale of fulfillment off to a period in the future when the Abomination actually occurred and to offer hope to those believers who would be living through it.

The heavens and earth may seem like bastions of enduring reliability, but Christ's words are so established as to be more certain than even the existence of the creation itself, and especially so in regard to the end of the age.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Olivet Discourse: The Gathering of the Saints

In their accounting of the Olivet Discourse Matthew and Mark describe, briefly, the gathering of the saints by Christ at the end of age. Luke, however, is silent on the subject. I've written elsewhere about how this gathering relates to the timing of the Rapture of the Church, so I won't touch upon those considerations here. Suffice it to say, the discourse merely states that the ultimate gathering of the elect will happen at the end of the Tribulation, and gives us some sense of how.

Specifically, the Son of Man will send angels to assemble the saints from everywhere in heaven and earth. The bifurcation in the description is important: one aspect of the gathering is earthly, the other aspect heavenly. The expression, "from the four winds" refers to the four compass directions and entails every place on earth; "from one end of heaven to the other" refers to the realms beyond the skies and is heavenly. We would have to assume that at least the dead in Christ were part of the heavenly group, but there is no textual reason why it wouldn't or couldn't include the already raptured.

Those gathering angels are sent with a trumpet call, which might lead the inquiring reader to ask, "Exactly which trumpet blast might that be?" A succession of seven trumpet calls are mentioned in Revelation but none of them are associated with the gathering of the saints. I do not believe they are what is referenced by Christ in the Olivet Discourse. A last trump is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:52, and is definitely associated with the Rapture, but I don't believe that it is associated with the seven trumpets of Revelation either.

The seventh trumpet of the Apocalypse leads to more tribulation (i.e, the seven bowls) rather than the Return of Christ after tribulation is finished. The seven trumpets are not referenced anywhere else in scripture (even though modeled in a sense at Jericho), and I do not think the Apostle Paul would have even known of them when writing to the Corinthians in 55 CE (at the latest). John wrote the Apocalypse in 95 CE, and I doubt the Apostle Paul had the same type of revelation or awareness of detail as John would have prior to him receiving his vision on Patmos. There is just no good reason to associate the last trump of 1 Corinthians with the seven visionary trumpets of Revelation.

Last (Koine: esxate, meaning final, extreme) certainly implies more than one, but if it's not referring to the series of seven in the Apocalypse, then what is it referring to? Perhaps Israel's mandate to use trumpets during the exodus can provide some insight.

A long trumpet blast, not followed by another, in other words, the last signal trump sounded meant all Israel was to gather. It seems reasonable to me that Paul could have had this in mind when writing to the Corinthians (or even that a succession trumpet blasts were signaled when they set out by camp, the last signaling that all Israel was on the move). If so, then Paul was merely relying upon that imagery in conjunction with the word "last" to get across the sense of totality and finality in God's people moving into their eternal state, rather than connecting this to any series of trumpet blasts.

So, at the end of this age, immediately after the Great Tribulation, there will be an actual trumpet blast, unconnected to the seven visionary blasts of the Apocalypse, which signals the final ingathering of the saints in heaven and on earth to be with Christ. All the faithful dead will have been raised at that time, and those alive and remaining will have been changed. That doesn't mean that some of either category won't have been raised or changed before, only that all those that will be will have been so at that particular time.