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.


  1. What about Hosea 9 where fathers (in Israel) are likened to figs?

    Or Jeremiah 24 where Israelite exiles are likened to good figs and the remnant to bad figs?

    And does Jesus reference Israel when he tells the parable of the unfruitful fig tree in Luke 13?

    1. Hosea 9 deals with finding first figs, not fig trees per se, and does so in a very clear and limited way that metaphorically describes God's feelings toward Israel before they turned to Baal-peor. It does not establish a symbolic precedent that would suggest that fig trees can be expected to refer to Israel throughout scripture.

      Jeremiah 24 also deals with figs, not fig trees, although I suppose that could possibly be inferred from v. 6. Regardless, the use of figs in this passage is focused upon the quality of God's discerning judgment or election, the good and bad figs being merely the imagery used to vividly communicate the concept. I think it's clear that the temporal scope of the prophecy only extends to the exiles who began to return from Babylon some 70 years later (especially in light of chapter 25) rather than the distant eschatological future. So I see nothing here that would lead me to believe there was an intent by the Holy Spirit to establish a reliable symbolic precedent that fig trees symbolize Israel.

      Luke 13 is the best case for making the symbolic claim, but it still fails because that was not the intent of using the parable. Jesus was addressing oblivious self-righteousness (see vs. 1-5) through the parable, not making a symbolic statement about Israel. He does indirectly refer to Israel, but only in that his hearers were Israelites and his audience is likened to a fig tree. The point of the parable was that everyone (in his audience and in general for that matter) was unrighteous/unfaithful (fruitless) in the sight of God and was in danger of being cut off without remedy. Self-righteousness blinds people (Israelites in the case of the immediate audience) to their need for repentance before God, who may already have them on borrowed time quite unaware to them. When readers try to force extensive and exhaustive symbolism upon the parable concerning Christ and Israel, the point the parable was actually making is entirely lost, and clarity is replaced by uncertainty and confusion.

      When this kind of error is carried into interpreting the Parable of the Fig Tree in the Olivet Discourse, the result is going from the clarity of seeing the parable as I have suggested in my post, to endless speculation about what a generation is, how long a generation is, and deflecting from the straightforwardness of the signs (like the Abomination of Desolation) to something nebulous like what does it mean that Israel is blossoming (was it 1917 or 1948 or 1967 or not even yet, etc.).

  2. Thanks. I didn't have strong views about the fig tree in the Olivet discourse. I do think that Jesus was saying in Luke 13 that the Jewish nation had one more year to respond to him.

    1. It is an interesting perspective, I must admit, but it doesn't hold up for me because it actually speaks of four years, and I can't see how that fits into anything prophesied about Israel or historical about Israel and Christ Jesus. If this occurred in his third year of ministry, there is no fourth, so what does the warning mean? Even if this is similar to the three days and nights of Jonah, was Israel cut off after that year? The earliest church was all Jewish, and stayed predominately Jewish for maybe 20 years. The Apostle Paul was going to the Jew first throughout his ministry, so I wonder in what way was Israel cut off when that fourth year elapsed. They certainly didn't repent, even to this day they reject God because they reject Messiah. So even though there are some intriguing symbolic connections one could make, and seem justified in doing so, on closer examination the proposed symbolic connections don't pan out. Why? Because it's a parable and was never intended to bear such meaning.


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