Trees of the Bible - Part 2
The Fig Tree
The Fig Tree in the Synoptic Gospels
"And He left them, and went out of the city into Bethany; and He lodged there. Now in the morning as He returned into the city, He hungered. And when He saw a fig tree in the way, He came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!" (Matt. 21:17-20). Chapter 21 begins the account of the last week of the Lord's life. It was obvious that the leaders of the nation were determined to have Him put to death. They were sore displeased when the children in the temple cried, "Hosanna to the Son of David."
How deeply solemn are the words with which verse 17 begins, "And He left them." These were critical days for Israel as a nation. He lodged in Bethany where He was made welcome. In the morning He returned to the city and being hungry looked for the fruit that should have been on the fig tree but found only leaves. There was an outward show of religious observance, but it was lifeless. The whole incident is figurative of the state of Israel at that time. It had become very obvious that He was rejected and the setting aside of the nation of Israel was at hand. This is what lay behind the Lord's severe words, "Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever." The disciples were taken aback by the swiftness with which the fig tree withered away.
The testimony of Mark as to this incident is very similar. However, in Luke's Gospel no account is given of this. Instead the Lord puts the truth in a parable. We will quote it all. "A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down" (Luke 13:6-9). Much has been written about the three years of this parable when fruit was sought. There had been three particular periods during which Israel had been put to the test: (1) under the law; (2) under the prophets; and now (3), in the presence of grace in the Person of Christ. At the very moment when He spoke this parable the leaders of the nation were plotting against His life.
How patient God was with His earthly people: "let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it." The early chapters of the Book of Acts tell the story of His patience with them. There was a response from the three thousand on the day of Pentecost, a remnant out of the nation. When it became evident that God was to turn to the Gentiles in blessing, the nation's antagonism was directed against the gospel. Things came to a head at the stoning of Stephen. We note Stephen's words, "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye" (Acts 7:51). The prophets had shown the coming of the Just One. The charge was laid at their door, "... of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers." How this echoes the words of the parable, "cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?"
We can learn much from God's dealings with His earthly people. Looking at the history of the church in responsibility we have nothing to boast about, for what a sad story it is! Owing to the patience of our God there have been occasions when truth has been revived, such as at the Reformation, and later when there was the restoration of the truth of the Headship of Christ and His body. But in spite of these there is a downward trend. The end is given us in the Lord's words to the church at Laodicea. "So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of My mouth" (Rev. 3:16). There is, however, that which remains and is unchanging. Christ remains unalterable in His Person and in His grace, and His word never changes. How thankful we ought to be that our God is a God of patience. "Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another, according to Christ Jesus; That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:5-6).
The Fig Tree in the Olivet Discourse
"Now learn a parable of the fig tree: When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh" (Matt. 24:32; Mark 13:28). The contrast is very evident between the references to the fig tree already observed in the early part of the Gospel, and those given here. It was seen in the first place as fruitless, cursed, and withered away. But here in these later Scriptures the fig tree is seen putting forth her leaves. This is the evidence that summer is near. The time here described is the time of the great tribulation which will befall the Jewish nation after the rapture. A godly remnant will be tried and refined during those terrible times, and it is to such that these words of comfort are given. Just before the verse above, reference is made to "the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory" (v. 30). It is to this event that the godly company look for their redemption. The fig tree putting forth her leaves means that God is about to deal with Israel again after the many centuries of their blindness. In the account given by Luke they are bidden to "look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh" (Luke 21:28).
The Fig Tree and All the Trees
"And He spake to them a parable; Behold the figtree, and all the trees; When they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand" (Luke 21:29-30). There are differences in the way this subject is looked at in Luke's Gospel. Luke takes more account of the immediate results of the rejection of Christ by Israel. The destruction of the city and temple by Titus in A.D.70 comes within his teaching. The consequences of this have come right down the present age. However, Luke does take us on to the end of the age beginning at verse 25, including the reference to "... the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory" (v. 27). Reference is made in Luke's account to the times of the Gentiles, which period continues at the present time. It will be seen from this that Luke looks at Israel's involvement with the Gentile powers down the ages, starting with Nebuchadnezzar. In connection with this the passage quoted at the head of this section is seen to involve more than the fig tree; in fact, all the trees. This refers to Gentile nations. During the times of the Gentiles Israel is under their authority, but in the future day when Israel has been given the place rightly belonging to her as head among the nations, these others will be blessed along with her. So starting with the fig tree (Israel) putting forth her leaves, all the trees (Gentile nations) will also have their proper place. These will be glad days for Israel. Looked at as the earthly bride she will rejoice: "The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away" (S. of S. 2:13).
As we read those words addressed to an earthly people, how often we apply the sentiments to ourselves as the heavenly people, the bride of Christ. In an earlier verse in the above section of the Song of Songs (v. 10), it says "Rise up." The relevant expression with regard to the church is "caught up." For this we look with anticipation, waiting to hear the Lord's voice. "For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:16-17).
A Practical Note
There is one point we have not referred to as yet with regard to the fig itself. It is used on one occasion for healing. When God had told His servant, the godly king Hezekiah, that he must set his house in order for he was to die, we remember how distressed he became. We read, "And Hezekiah wept sore." God listened to his prayer and saw his tears. Isaiah said, "Take a lump of figs. And they took and laid it on the boil, and he recovered" (2 Kings 20:7).
In the passage in Judges 9 we read, "The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them" (v. 8). The fig tree as well as the olive and the vine had no aspirations to be king. They preferred to remain as they were. The answer of the fig tree is worth repeating, "Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees?" We have noted that it was a lump of figs that gave healing and recovery to Hezekiah. The parable of Jotham may very well teach us that leadership is not necessarily the answer to the troubles among the saints. This has been proven in past times. As we think of goodness and sweetness, these are features that were seen in Christ. It may be that obscure believers, who are living near the Lord and display these traits, are better equipped to bring in healing and recovery among the saints. We recall the words of the Lord, "And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all" (Mark 10:44).
May the Lord bless these meditations on the fig tree, and may the various lessons learned stand us in good stead until we are bidden to rise and meet the Lord in the air.
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