The Fig Tree
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The Advent season calls us to consider the promise of Jesus to come again. When asked about the time of his return, Jesus gave us all kinds of signs that we could observe in the interim between his two advents. He said there would be wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes and all kinds of things like that would happen but that we were not to get perturbed or anxious about any of them because the end was not yet. He also said the gospel will be preached to all people groups before the end would come. That is something that it would seem could possibly be completed at the rate is happening now within this generation especially with the advent of the internet. There was, however, one particular sign that he associated with his second advent and with which he gave a very strong admonition. That sign is that the Jews would recognize and turn to Him as their legitimate Messiah. At his first advent he wept over Jerusalem and prophesied about its destruction and said they would not see him again until they were willing to declare blessed anyone who comes in the name of the Lord.

One of the metaphors for the nation of Israel that is found in the Bible is that of a fig tree. On the final week of Jesus’ life here during his first advent there is a story about a curse he placed on an actual fig tree, Matt 21:20, which was not bearing any fruit and which consequently withered up and died in a short amount of time. That was considered to be an illustration of Israel at the time which was represented by the fig tree and why the author saw fit to put that story in the gospel. When Jesus was describing (in answer to his disciples’ questions) the events leading up to his second advent there was one thing he said, Matt 24:32, that indicated the imminence of that event. That was the sign of the fig tree. That is, when we see, as in the Spring, branches of the fig tree start to become tender and its leaves begin to shoot out so we know that summer is near. So also, when we see these things, we know that He is near even at the gates. This parable is repeated in all three of the synoptic gospels. In Luke it notes that when these things happen the kingdom of God is drawing near. Also immediately subsequently Jesus says, “Truly I say unto you this generation will not pass until all this has happened.” Many liberal scholars use this statement of Jesus to claim that he was wrong. But they interpret “this generation” to mean the one in which he was living at that time. What if it referred instead to the one when the fig tree begins to send out shoots?

This was also what Paul had prophesied about in Romans, saying that the gifts and calling of God to the Jews were irrevocable (Rom 11:29). The only reason it was ever necessary for them to be cut off by unbelief in the first place was so that the door could be open for a season to the Gentiles. Then, at the end of the age just before the Messiah was to return and the Gentiles had had their opportunity to respond to the gospel message, the door would once again open to the Jewish nation. It is not as if the door to them was ever closed in one sense because they could have always chosen to believe in Christ and be saved. However, as Jesus said once, no one can come to him unless they are drawn by the Father. They have to have their eyes opened to these spiritual realities before it was possible for them to believe. Because they did not believe, we know that did not happen. And it did not happen because they were blinded by their unbelief. In that sense the door has remained closed to them.

But what seems to be happening now more and more is that the door, that was previously closed or barely ajar, is becoming wide open. A relatively recent random nationwide survey (Conducted by the Pew Research Center in February, 2013 of about 3500 individuals) indicated that about 33% of all self identifying Jews living in the US believe in Jesus.[1] That is a rather stunning development. While there have always been some Jews who believed in Christ, if we were to have done that same survey not more than 50 years ago, I am confident we would have been hard pressed to have found more than 5% who would be willing to say they followed Christ. The number of Jews who are also Christians living here has grown so dramatically now that even a majority of those who are non-Christian have recognized that it is possible to believe in Christ and still be a legitimate Jewish congregation.  The only other time this has ever happened in the history of the world since the time Jesus first appeared here was in the very first generation, in the first 40 years, immediately following the resurrection and ascension of Christ.  After the year 70 AD when the nation of Israel was destroyed by the Romans, non-Christian Jews stopped recognizing Christians as being a legitimate branch of Judaism. Those Jewish believers fled Jerusalem when under Roman siege then only because Jesus instructed them to do so. In Matt 24 he said that when they see the city of Jerusalem being surrounded by hostile armies they were to flee, not stay and fight, which they did. All the other Jews who stayed to fight ended up dying and the ones who lived were only those in the diaspora, not living within the environs of Jerusalem. But news of those events traveled fast and since that time Christians were no longer considered as true Jews by other Jews who did not believe in Jesus as their Messiah. That has been the case since then, and only now has this perception begun to apparently change.

So what does that tell us about the imminence of the return of Christ? If these things are true, then it would appear that Christ’s return is very imminent, very possibly even within our own generation. This is because of what I would call a biblical perspective of history. The Bible originally written in Hebrew has also been written in a manner consistent with Hebrew logic (as opposed to Greek or Western logic). In Western deductive logic you have dualistic thought where things either are, or they are not, leading to a sequence of premises that results in a deduction or a conclusion. Hebrew thought actually builds upon this model and adds to it by way of reinforcement. In other words, in Hebrew logic a narrative will also use a series of premises or points to build up to a deduction. However, once having done so, it will then retrace its steps to review how that conclusion was achieved.

Sometimes this is called reverse parallelism or chiastic parallelism and it is found all over the Old Testament and in the New Testament as well. That is why when we want to consider what the major focal point is of any passage, it can, more often than not, be found not at the end of the passage, but in its center.  A sub-category and consequence of chiastic parallelism is a figure of speech known as an epenalepsis. An epanalepsis occurs when a phrase is repeated at both the beginning and the end of a passage. So in biblical narrative, events frequently occur that parallel each other at the beginning of a story and at its end. For instance, when Jesus was born there was the appearance of the Gentiles, the wise men, who came from the East. Well towards the end of the life of Christ we have another appearance of Gentiles when it says in John’s gospel John 12:21f that the Greeks wanted to see Jesus. When Jesus was told about it, he immediately recognized it as a sign that the time of his death was drawing near.

Thus, we should expect that at the time of Jesus’ second advent certain significant conditions would mirror those that existed around the time of his first advent. The most important event indicative of the imminence of Christ’s return is seeing the eyes of the nation of Israel finally opened to recognize who their true Messiah is. Another thing we may discern from these events is that the doors that have been open for so long will begin to close for the Gentiles. This by the way was something that was also prophesied in the book of Revelation and is something that has already begun to occur for close to a hundred years now.

In Rev 2-3 there are seven churches to whom the apostle John is instructed to write letters to. Although these were real churches existing at that time, they are also believed by most biblical scholars to be symbolic of the seven different periods of the church age between the advents of Christ. The fulfillment of those events actually transpired over the past two thousand years and from them we can be fairly confident that we are now living in the age of the seventh and last church which was the church of Laodicea.

The preceding age was described by the church of Philadelphia. In that church Jesus gave them an open door. Historically that occurred at the end of the 18th century when the missionary arm of the church began to bring the message of the gospel to the farthest reaches of the globe. A perfect example is right here in Hawaii when in 1820 Hiram Bingham came to its shores. He found what once was a feared and hostile savage nation known for murdering and sacrificing humans to its idols, to be suddenly and inexplicably open and receptive to the gospel.[2] Within 20 years Hawaii became the most Christian nation in the world. And those conditions prevailed for missionaries around the globe, for the most part, during that century until the first world war.

 After that, the doors began to close for missionaries in part due to their association with the colonial enterprises of the European nations. Not only were doors closing for missionaries to bring the gospel but the church itself was turning away from the gospel message of grace.  This is described by the church of Laodicea where Jesus describes himself as standing outside and knocking on its door. He still holds out the invitation to all who will only open up to him in his willingness to come in to them and sup with them.

What is keeping Jesus from coming back right now? I am fairly certain that it is primarily His desire to make sure everyone who would respond positively to the gospel message will have had the opportunity to do so. But the day in which this opportunity of Christ’s offer of amnesty exists will soon be over. If there is anyone you know and love who has yet to come to Christ, now would be a good time to let them know about it.

 

 

[1] Found at http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/chapter-7-people-of-jewish-background-and-jewish-affinity/, or as cited by Marvin Olasky in World Magazine, Nov 11, 2017.

[2] Actually an explanation of these events from a human perspective can be found in Hiram Bingham’s book A Residency of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands, Hartford: Hezekiah Huntington, 1848. Also available at https://archive.org/stream/aresidencetwent01binggoog#page/n7/mode/2up

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