50. Fig Tree and Flood

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 50.  Fig Tree and Flood

Mt 24:32-37   “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

There are two analogies here and we are wrapping them together because they both speak about the same thing, although the surrounding verses give a certain air of mystery to them. Jesus is responding to the disciples in this chapter when they come to him: the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3) In the verses that follow it may be that the ‘signs of your coming’ should be taken to mean signs that will happen BEFORE he comes again rather than the signs that he is just about to come. There are, we suggest three parts to the things Jesus said: 1. The characteristics of the church age (v.4-14), 2. A destructive judgment that will come to Jerusalem and Israel in the immediate future (v.15-21), 3. The signs of the End Time immediately prior to his second coming (v.26-31)

So, Part 1, v.4-14: Those signs include many coming and claiming to be him (v.4,5), wars and rumors of wars (v.6). These are characteristics of the age in which we now live, “but the end is still to come.” (v.6b). Wars, famines and earthquakes are common (v.7) but note these are just “the beginning of birth pains” (v.8) i.e. they have to happen BEFORE the end time and throughout the Church age. There will also be persecution (v.9) and luke-warmness and a dropping away of believers (v.10), there will be false prophets and deception (11), and an increase of wickedness (v.12), so we need to stand firm to be saved (v.13) and when all nations have heard the Gospel Jesus will come again (v.14).

So, Part 2, v.15-21: he said to them AFTER THESE GENERAL SIGNS IN THE FUTURE, watch out because VERY SOON THESE OTHER SPECIFIC THINGS WILL COME:  the enemy coming into the Temple (v.15). When that happens, take to the hills (v.16), quickly (v.17,18) because it will be tough (v.19-21).

So now let’s jump down to verses 32 to 37. We’ll leave you to do your own study of Part 3, v.22 to 31. Now we consider the analogies.

First of all he refers to the analogy of the fig tree, a very common tree in their land. Look, he says, you know that when the leaves come out summer is near. We might say when the Crocus bulbs start pushing up or when the daffodils start coming up, Spring is here.

Now comes a bit that often confuses people: “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Some think ‘this generation’ meant everyone who lived afterwards but when we realise that verses 15 to 21 referred to their immediate future (although it is always possible there is a future element as well) it is easy to see that it meant those who were alive then for within 40 years it happened.

So whether it was them in their day watching the political upheavals with the Romans, us in the Church age, generally being aware of the characteristics of the age and so not being led astray, or whether we find ourselves in a time that is clearly the End Time with the chaotic things (physical and/or spiritual) taking place, the call is to be alert and watch the signs.

But then Jesus runs on and we see the second analogy: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (v.35-35) The first analogy was very straight forward and if we have any questions about the second one, the Flood and Noah, Jesus spells it out: “For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (v.38,39) i.e. it is going to happen rapidly and come as a shock to many. He concludes, “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (v.44)

The lessons and challenges are fairly obvious. Luke records Jesus saying, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8) So, don’t let the enemy deceive you and lead you astray so that your love grows cold. Keep alert in the Spirit to what is happening around you and don’t let yourself become distracted from the life in the kingdom. Hold firm, remain steady, be patient, rest in his timing, rejoice in his goodness and continue to be a faith person, because that is what he will be looking for according to the above quote. Amen!

2. Anticlimax & Provocation

Meditations on Aspects of Easter:  2.  Anticlimax & Provocation

Mark 11:12   The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.

It is Monday morning. Across the city and, indeed, in the surrounding villages where Passover pilgrims might be staying, people are waking up and wondering. They wonder about what had happened yesterday. Yesterday the Messiah had come to the city, they thought, yesterday he was welcomed by the crowds. For the Roman commanders, no doubt they had held their breath for a moment as the potential for a riot, if not worse, appeared to be approaching the city. But then it had dissipated as, instead, the crowd had gone up to the Temple. No doubt they breathed a sign of relief.

But not so in the house of the Chief Priest or in the homes of the temple administrators.  The agitator from the north had come and then, thankfully, gone. But at least he didn’t seem to upset the Romans! If he does that we’re really in trouble. It’s bad enough that we know we have these various rebels and troublemakers around who want to cause trouble and rise up against them. If they are allowed to cause upset – and just before this most important feast of the year – the Romans will bring such a crackdown it may even curb the entire festivities. We mustn’t let that happen! (We will follow what happened now in Mark’s account in chapter 11 – different from the others but we’ll comment on that in a later meditation))

And out at Bethany, just a few miles away where Jesus is staying with his disciples, the disciples wake and wonder. What will the master do today?  Yesterday was pretty exciting but where did it go? As they go to leave Bethany early in the morning, Jesus pauses for a moment and then wanders over to a fig tree. (v.13,14) It’s the time of the year when fig-trees normally begin to get leaves but do not produce figs until their leaves are all out in June. This tree was an exception in that it was already, at Passover time, full of leaves. A tree that looked good but bore no fruit!  And so he cursed it. His disciples looked on and wondered.  It wasn’t until they passed it next day on the way into town and saw it shriveled that they wondered some more and Peter commented, but Jesus gave no answer that made sense, it seemed, but simply taught them about having faith (v.20-). It would only be with further reflection that we might see Jesus highlighting a failure of Judaism – looking good but not producing godly fruit, thus worthy of divine condemnation.

But now on this Monday, he makes his way back up into the city and up to the temple. (v.15-) He enters and in a loud voice starts denouncing their making the temple a market, and starts turning tables over. Total chaos. There is much shouting. What is going on? He’s turned on his own people, or at least he’s turned on the administration of Judaism. If this is the Messiah he seems to have got it wrong. We expected him to have sorted out the Romans but instead he’s turned on us? The temple officials come running but Jesus has left. They had been made to look fools as this agitator from the north had gate-crashed the crowds in the temple and caused havoc and denounced them.

It is Tuesday and the familiar walk into town from Bethany starts again. They see the withered fig tree but continue on into town and again aim for the temple. In the temple courts, before he has time to do anything else, a band of the religious leaders approach him (v.27) and expecting a repeat of yesterday, demand, By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you authority to do this?” Jesus floors them with a question of his own which they refuse to answer, but it leaves them disarmed. Jesus turns away and teaches the crowd and tells a parable (12:1-) that had distinctly Old Testament echoes about it, of a vineyard owner who lets out his vineyard but whose rent-collectors are rejected, eventually sending his son who they then kill. The authorities, standing there in the background listening, know he is talking about them. The vineyard story was a familiar one used by the prophets to denounce Israel. They are angry, and they turn away angrily talking in whispers about how they could arrest the provocateur. (v.12)

Jesus leaves but they aren’t done with him yet. They gather some Herodians (more politically motivated and friends of the Romans) and some Pharisees (from a very conservative religious grouping who thought themselves guardians of the Law), both groups with their own agendas, (v.13) but both of whom would be upset by any challenge from an outsider from the north, and they send them to challenge Jesus, but he confounds them.  Then there came (v.18) a group of Sadducees, (another religious party of wealthy Jews who focused in Jerusalem on the temple) and challenged him, but again were confounded by Jesus.

It is a week of continual confrontation. By the way Jesus comes each day to teach in the vicinity of the temple, it is almost as if he is provoking the authorities, goading them into wrong action. He simply speaks the truth and his depth of teaching confounds all those who come to try to pull him down. The Chief Priest and the other priests are zealous to protect Judaism as they know it and they fear his presence might cause the Romans to react harshly against them. The Sadducees are jealous for their city and their temple and are angry that an interloper can barge in during the week running up to the great festival, causing upset. The Herodians fear political challenge and upset and see him as a real threat. The Pharisees can’t quite understand where he’s coming from, but it feels like he is challenging everything they believe in. He must go! The forces of opposition are mounting day by day. How will it end?

For those of us familiar with the story (possibly too familiar) we know the end, but what have we got here? We have the Son of God working out his Father’s strategy that will bring about his death on the Friday of this week. The apostle Peter, under the anointing of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, would summarise all this: This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) Yes, it was God’s set or pre-ordained purpose for this to come about and His foreknowledge knew that if sinful men were provoked enough by goodness they would rise up and sacrifice the Lamb of God who had come from heaven for that very purpose.

That is what is happening here and with hindsight it is easy for us to take it in, but imagine you were a disciple in this week. I suggest you would be largely clueless as to what is going on. Yes, Jesus has spoken about what was to happen (as we’ll remind ourselves in a later meditation) but it all seemed so strange, as to be beyond believing and so you had pushed it to the back of your mind. What we don’t understand we ignore and, if we are honest, often circumstances are so strange, we just don’t understand them; that’s just how life is so often but just possibly, God is working out His plans around you, even though you may not yet understand them. Simply trust Him and be at peace.

Additional Note:

In both this and the first meditation, I briefly noted that we were following Mark’s account of the things that occurred and because I am aware this differs in order from Matthew’s & Luke’s accounts, and question has been made about it, it seemed appropriate to add this further comment.

The Gospel writers, as they collate the reports and writings they have been collecting, aren’t always as clear as we today might wish report writing to be.  For instance, in the first meditation I cited Mark’s account of Jesus coming into Jerusalem, going to the temple, leaving and returning next morning to overturn the tables (Mk 11:9-17). Bear in mind that it is thought that Mark is dictated by the apostle Peter for whom these events would have been graphically imprinted on his mind!

Now if you look in Luke he, at first sight, appears to show the overturning tables on the same day of arriving. See Lk 19:41-46 and also Matt 21:9-13.  One reason, which is sometimes put forward, may be the total confusion that surrounded these events, which we’ll attempt to draw out as we proceed further through the week. Another reason, more likely, may be the simple fact that the Jewish writers approached their composition in a completely different way to the way we do today, often not bothering to include every detail (hence different accounts) and not showing the gaps in a series of (as they see them) individual actions. Thus in Matt 21, taking Mark into account, there is a twenty four hour gap between verses 11 and 12. Also Matthew being the ‘kingdom writer’ of the four, wants to emphasise Jesus’ ruling activities. Luke simply follows on. A different age, different styles and approaches to writing – but presenting the facts nevertheless.