“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:32-35).
One would think that this illustration of the fig tree would be very plain and easily understood. Just as you can tell that summer is near when the fig tree begins to bloom, so when you see ‘all these things’ you will know that ‘he’ (or ‘it’) – meaning ‘the end’ about which the disciples had asked Jesus – is near. What are ‘all these things’? That should be plain also: all of the signs, both general and particular, which Jesus had warned them about – wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, false prophets and false christs, believers falling away from the faith, the ‘abomination of desolation’ (Jerusalem surrounded by the Roman army), and the terrible ‘tribulation’ to be experienced at that time. Particularly when the Roman army entered Judea and surrounded Jerusalem, with the resulting famine and strife, numerous false prophets, etc., one could know for sure that the end was ‘at the very gates’.
One very popular ‘interpretation’ of this passage, though, because of unwillingness to accept the plain meaning of Jesus’ predictions, has decided that by the ‘fig tree’ Jesus meant the nation of Israel. So when the nation of Israel begins to ‘bloom and put forth its leaves’, then Jesus’ “coming” will be near! Instead of “all these things” meaning all of the things Jesus had just finished predicting, it is taken to mean things Jesus had not spoken of at all! Nothing in Jesus’ statement had indicated a ‘blossoming’ condition in Israel; rather, in case one couldn’t figure out what he was talking about when he spoke of persecution of Jesus’ messengers, false prophets, etc., Jesus specifically said: “Wherever the corpse [or carcass] is, there the eagles [or vultures] will be gathered together” (Matt. 24:28). The condition of Israel Jesus is talking about is not ‘blossoming’, but dead! I suspect that it was in order to keep people from putting this ‘spin’ on the fig tree illustration, that Luke has Jesus saying: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees; as soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near” (Luke 21:29, 30). While one might argue that the fig tree is frequently used in the prophets as a symbol for the nation of Israel, that is not true of ‘all the trees’. No, Jesus’ meaning was plain and simple: just as you can tell that summer is near when the trees begin to bloom, so you will be able to tell that ‘the end’ is near when you see these signs I’ve just predicted.
Just as Jesus had said in Matt. 16:28 that some of his hearers would not die before the Son of Man came in his kingdom, so he said here (Matt. 24:34) that “this generation” will not pass away before “all these things take place”. Again, the meaning of “this generation” should be very clear. It means the generation of Israelites then living, who were going to “fill up the measure” of their ‘fathers’ of preceding generations (Matt. 23:32). It was the then living generation of Israelites who would crucify Jesus, and then persecute and kill the messengers he would send to them; and the guilt which had been building up over many generations would finally find its punishment on ‘this generation’. Upon them would come “all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation” (Matt. 23:35, 36). And that generation did not pass away before everything Jesus predicted happened. The “lights went out” over Israel, as their national ‘world’ came to an end. Now the Son of Man (Jesus and his followers) could be plainly ‘seen’ to be ‘reigning’ in heaven and on earth. It is surely an act of pure desperation when ‘prophecy experts’ tell us that ‘this generation’ means simply the nation of Israel, not a particular generation of Israel’s history. They would have us believe Jesus made the absurdly redundant statement that “Israel will not pass away until they pass away”, rather than giving a time context that the disciples could observe and count on.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (verse 35). While one may say that there is a general meaning here that Jesus’ words would never fail to be accomplished, ‘even though’ heaven and earth were destroyed; yet there is more to the meaning of this statement. This is another example of Jesus’ carrying on a ‘prophetic tradition’ of using ‘end of the world’ terminology to express judgment on a particular nation (in this case, the ‘earthly’ Israel and the whole ‘Old Covenant’ arrangement). The writer of Hebrews, in chapter 8, referred to Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer. 31:31-34) of a “new covenant” God would make with his people, explaining that this new covenant has been introduced by Christ. Heb. 8:13 says: “In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away”. As pointed out in my previous article, the way into the true ‘sanctuary’ could not be open while the ‘first tabernacle’ was still standing (Heb. 9:8) – but it was on the verge of being taken down. Peter, in 2 Peter chapter 3, spoke of the dissolution of the heavens and the earth, and the coming of a new heaven and a new earth, as being just ready to happen. “But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men…But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought YOU to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (verses 7, 10-13). This destruction of the old creation, and coming of a new creation, was something that he and his readers were convinced was very near, and for which they were expectantly waiting. They didn’t have the kind of ‘eschatology’ (doctrine of ‘last things’) that foresaw a 7 year ‘tribulation period’ sometime in the vague future, followed by a 1000 year reign of Christ on earth, and only after that the coming of a new heaven and earth. They believed the words of their Lord, and rightly expected that ‘the old’ was just on the verge of passing away. According to Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, this was already being experienced by believers in Jesus Christ: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (NRSV). It is perhaps like a new company buying out an existing business, and beginning a process of remodeling the existing building. The new company opens for business while the remodeling is going on, and then has a ‘grand opening’ when the remodeling is complete. From Paul’s viewpoint the ‘new creation’ was open for business, but the ‘grand opening’ would occur when the ‘old creation’/’old covenant’ completely vanished away with the judgment on and destruction of ‘the Jerusalem which now is’ – when the ‘first tabernacle’ was torn down. Peter spoke of the ‘grand opening’ which was shortly to take place. This concept of nearness and expectancy pervades the writings of the apostles, based on the teaching of the one they looked to as their Lord.
The rest of the ‘Olivet Discourse’, as given by Matthew, is taken up (largely in the form of parables) with exhortations to remain alert, watchful, and diligent in duty as ‘stewards’ of their Master. “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the son, but the Father only…Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (verses 36 and 44). Jesus had given a number of signs by which the disciples could tell that the time of the end was approaching; but there were no definite dates given. “Date setting” by people who misunderstood the predictions of Jesus and his messengers has been popular throughout the centuries, but Jesus said no specific dates could be given to his disciples. Today many people are getting uptight about December 21, 2012 as being the date for ‘the end of the world’; but they’ll no doubt be just as wrong as any of their predecessors. Nevertheless, Jesus’ disciples and those who believed their teaching could be aware that the “coming of the Son of man in his kingdom” would occur during their lifetime, and should be constantly vigilant since they didn’t have a specific date given for it. So Jesus drew a parallel with the story of the days of Noah before the flood. Noah knew the flood was coming, made preparations, and was ready when the rain started falling. But for those who heard his ‘preaching’ and didn’t believe him, that day ‘came as a thief’. So it would be with the coming of the Son of man. Those who believed Jesus and his messengers would be prepared and ready; the day would come ‘as a thief’ on those who didn’t believe. Those who were unprepared would be ‘taken’ in judgment, while those who believed would be ‘left’, or preserved from the destruction which came on the ‘ungodly’. Therefore, his hearers should always watch and pray, so that the day would not overtake them like a thief in the night. Once again, this theme of watchfulness and expectancy pervades the writings of Jesus’ ‘apostolic’ messengers, and those who endured to ‘the end’ were indeed saved.
It’s too bad so many Christians today are deceived by the misunderstanding of the ‘prophecy experts’, with all of their spectacular predictions about the ‘Tribulation Period’ and the Antichrist. If they understood and believed what Jesus said (as his hearers did), they would see in this discourse an outstanding example of prophecy which was indeed ‘spectacularly’ fulfilled, as verified by Josephus and other historians of that period. The prophecy was so accurate, that some people have taken it for granted that Jesus could not possibly have actually said it. It must have been written after the events and then falsely ‘put in Jesus’ mouth’! It’s ironic that those Christians who insist so strongly on the infallibility of Jesus and his apostles should give up such an outstanding proof of Jesus’ predictive ability!
Since the parables from Matt. 24:45 through the end of Matt. 25 are largely simply illustrations of the need to be watchful and diligent in service to the Master, I’ll only comment on the ‘Judgment of the nations’ parable in Matt. 25:31-46. Daniel wrote in his prophecy of the coming of the Son of man in Daniel 7, “all peoples, nations, and languages [will] serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion” (verse 14). In Matt. 24:31, Jesus said that his ‘angels’ (messengers) would “gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other”. I believe the parable of the judgment of the nations is a composite picture showing the character of the reign and judgment of Jesus and his ‘saints’ throughout the ages. It should not be taken to portray a ‘once for all’ judgment of everyone at the same time. It is an ongoing judgment, and is based on our works (which show what our faith and character really are). ‘His dominion is an everlasting dominion’ and so is his ‘judgment’. One shouldn’t imagine that ‘the judgment’ has already ‘happened’, or that it is going to ‘happen’ in the distant future (after a future second coming and a 1000 year kingdom). Everyone will be ‘judged’ when his/her lifetime is finished, and then probably prepare for another lifetime to correct past mistakes and grow toward ‘maturity’. Regardless of what follows the ‘judgment’ though, it occurs for each of us when we die.