As we’ve been studying New Testament eschatology, we started working through a sermon attributed to Jesus commonly called “The Olivet Discourse.” To the surprise of many, the Olivet Discourse has not been about the “end of the world” but about the destruction of Jerusalem. We’ll slow down a little bit and look at this next section in more detail. The reason for this is that a lot of people think that Jesus changed topics and moved from the destruction of Jerusalem to the “end of the world.” We want to determine if that’s the case. This is important because, as I have stated before, Matthew 24 (and the parallel passages) is part of the foundation for how the disciples interpreted the time they were living in.
Matthew 24.32-36: “Learn this parable from the fig tree. After its branch becomes tender and it sprouts new leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things, you know that the Human One is near, at the door. I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.
“But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows.”
In this passage, a lot of people interpret the “fig tree” as the re-establishment of Israel in 1948. The phrase “this generation,” then, refers to the world wide group of people who were alive at that time. This prophecy would reach its climax when “heaven and earth...pass[es] away” (i.e., destroyed). They see this for two reasons: 1) The “fig-tree” is seen as a poetic image for Israel (see Hosea 9.10; Joel 1:6-7; Jeremiah 24:2, 3, 5, 8). And 2) Because Jesus said “nobody knows when that day or hour will come.” Since the War of the Jews is history (66 to 73 CE), we know that “day [and] hour,” so, it can’t be that (they reason). For these people, then, the “end of the world” clock began ticking in 1948 and will stop with the complete destruction of the cosmos.
But is this accurate?
A few things need our attention in this passage. First, as we have seen up to this point, Jesus used the word “you” (roughly 11 times so far, including the four times in this section), obviously meaning the disciples and his contemporaries. Secondly, when Jesus said “when you (disciples) see all these things,” he clearly meant all of the things he had just told them in the previous verses. Thirdly, and tied to both of these, is the phrase “this generation,” solidifying that Jesus meant his contemporaries (we’ll return to this momentarily). So, Jesus hasn't changed topics. He was still referring to the destruction of Jerusalem.
But what about the ‘fig tree’?
Good question. As noted above, a lot of people believe that Jesus was referring to Israel in that phrase. That is, Jesus was referring to a re-established nation of Israel. Many claim that this took place in 1948. Therefore, Jesus must have been talking about things that we will see. But, this idea really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The “parable from the fig tree” is about recognizing the signs of change. This can be seen when we read the parallel passage in Luke 21. There Jesus said “Look at the fig tree and all the trees” (v.29, emphasis added). His point wasn’t the tree. His point was the changes of the season observed in the transformation of the trees. Likewise, when the disciples and their contemporaries started to see the things Jesus had been talking about, they would know that “his return [was] very near” (v.33; NLT).
This is further seen by his following statement. Jesus said, “I assure you (i.e., the disciples) that this generation (i.e., his and their generation) won’t pass away until all these things happen.” Think about this for a moment. If Jesus was actually talking about something we would experience, why would he tell the disciples about it? They wouldn’t be around to witness the validity of his statements. It wouldn’t make sense. It only makes sense if Jesus was talking to them about things they (and their contemporaries) would undergo.
But “generation” means the people who will see the things Jesus talked about.
I certainly agree with that statement. But, more times than not, this thought is tied to the previous one about Israel starting again in 1948. The meaning of such an interpretation is that the generation that saw Israel re-established in 1948 would be the generation who would see the “Second Coming of Jesus.” This is populated by a lot of books, including (but not limited to) “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsey and the very popular “Left Behind” novels. But, again, as we have seen, Jesus was not talking about the “Second Coming” and/or the “end of the world.” Jesus was talking about the destruction of Jerusalem that his contemporaries would experience. Moreover, consistently throughout the Gospel of Matthew, the term “generation” always referred to Jesus’ contemporaries (see for example, Matthew 11.16-19; 12.41-42).
What about the “passing away of heaven and earth?”
These, of course, would be seen as poetic images of authority. As we’ve noted before, the desolation of the cosmos was often used as a way of expressing the fall of a nation. From that point of view, then, we can see that Jesus told his disciples that Jerusalem would “disappear” (i.e., the Jerusalem they knew would disappear) but his words would be fulfilled. That is, he was a (the) true prophet.
Finally, although Jesus had been giving the disciples certain “signs,” i.e., things that pointed to the coming judgment, the exact moment was not known beforehand, not even to Jesus (v.36). This is crucial because it kept his first-century followers in an expectant mood. They were continually looking at their world for the predicted signs. And, if the signs were adding up, they would know that the fall of Jerusalem would be soon, right “at the door” (v.33).
Once more we see that each paragraph has dealt with Jesus answering the disciples initial question about when the Temple would be destroyed. However, the next section seems to deal with the “Second Coming.” We will look at this next time. Click here for the next post in this series.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC