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The subject of question concerns the Fig Tree of Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. I understand very well that statistically it has not been fruitful to speculate on exact timings for prophetic events and I'd like to emphasize that I'm not trying to promote any particular eschatological interpretations. I would simply like to ask for opinions on the viewpoint of the following article, which seems thoughtfully-written and reasonable (if one accepts all the necessary premises):

http://www.herealittletherealittle.net/index.cfm?page_name=Fig-Tree

The viewpoint of the article is hardly isolated in the Christian community (I can give other sources saying the same thing), so maybe some/many here would already be familiar with it. In general, it seems difficult to find prophetic discussions that are both very specific in date-setting and reasonably argued at the same time. Any comments? Below, a brief summary of this particular eschatological interpretation has been added.

Brief Summary of this particular Eschatological Interpretation

It is clearly Premillennial and adheres to a literal return of Jesus Christ.
It relies on an identification of the Fig Tree in Matthew 24 with the inhabited land of Israel. (Compare with Joel 1:7)
It posits that essentially the parable can be interpreted in a highly rigorous way. (Fig Tree = Israel, Generation = certain length of time, Budding of Fig Tree = certain historical event)

One probably dosen't have to go much further with this summary to see that the implications of this sort of thing are that very concrete predictions are being made. Since the predictions are so concrete, one may even make a rigorous discussion surrounding the idea. Here are some "axioms" for consideration, which I ask for opinions on:

A) The statements in the Bible, while at first glance might have meanings that are difficult to interpret, ultimately do in the final analysis have specific, objective meanings. While different groups of people might differ on the interpretations, some interpretations are correct and some are wrong. Discerning which interpretations are correct is a different story, but the notion of a "correct" interpretation exists.

B) In the matter of the Fig Tree of Matthew 24, the ONLY reasonable explanation is that it refers to the nation/inhabited land of Israel, that the Budding of the Fig Tree refers to a certain event in modern times, and that the generation refers to a specific lenght of time.

Please bear with me. If (A) if false, I can hardly see how studying the Bible could be inspiring or profitable since everything would be murky and nothing could be known with certainty. But if (A) is true, then (B) is almost certainly true. If (B) is true, then Jesus will be back by roughly the dates specified in the article, or there is something wrong with the law of the excluded middle. It may be the case that (B) dosen't follow from (A) as easily as I think. But the kind of reasoning in the article is far more sound than Harold Camping's types of predictions, hence it is not obviously false that (B) does not follow easily from (A).

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Questions on this site need to be self contained. Posting a link to a source for extended background is fine but you must include enough summary or quotes online so that it could be answered if the source was but available. Please edit your question with this in mind. Otherwise wee do have a chat room for Article of the Week for open ended discussion on outside content. Thanks! –  Caleb Apr 9 '12 at 13:18
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In addition to Caleb's suggestions, you might want to objectify your question a little more than just "any comments". –  Thomas Shields Apr 9 '12 at 13:57
    
alright, sure. thanks. –  user1539 Apr 10 '12 at 0:29
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Concerning predictions and stuff, thomasshields.net/article/8 :) –  Thomas Shields Apr 10 '12 at 1:34
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The question itself is quite murky. I think it should be entirely re-written, as I don't know what exactly it is asking. –  RiverC Apr 13 '12 at 3:33

3 Answers 3

Exegesis (sort of)

I think you are spot-on with your analysis of what you call "axiom A". There is objective truth, the Bible is a message from God with specific meaning, and it is possible to learn about objective truth through studying scripture. Consider the following examples:

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, "And to seeds," as referring to many, but rather to one, "And to your seed," that is, Christ. -Galatians 3:16

Jesus said to them, "Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God?" -Mark 12:24

It is helpful to recognize that in both of these passages concerning specific, objective truth, the vast majority of the people studying the relevant scriptures missed the true meaning - and it wasn't for a lack of study! Let's be honest - it was for a lack of relationship with God. (See John 3:3, 1 Cor 2:14, Matt 13:11, etc.) We should be cautious of hermeneutical approaches that are so impersonal that they can be followed by anyone of any spiritual condition.

This is tricky to articulate, but I once heard a Pastor say, "Words don't have meaning - people have meaning." Honestly, I don't know if I have ever heard a statement more helpful in hermeneutics! In the case of scripture, it is essential to recognize that it is God who has meaning, and not merely the text, or the author. (See, for instance 1 Peter 1:10-11 or Hebrews 9:6-9.)

The Lion

Let me start by justifying the first part of the claim - "Words don't have meaning..." (Bear with me in a little foolishness.) Who (or what) does a "lion" symbolize in scripture? Jesus, obviously!

and one of the elders said to me, "Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome . . ." And I saw . . . a Lamb standing, as if slain -Revelation 5:5-6

Sadly, David killed Jesus, as we can see from this next passage, but it was the Lord's doing.

Your servant [David] has killed both the lion and the bear . . . The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine -1 Samuel 17:36-37

OK, we're on to something - David obviously represents Israel, who slew Jesus, and Jesus brought about His own death... right? But there are two lions, so there is another Jesus:

There were six steps to the throne and a round top to the throne at its rear, and arms on each side of the seat, and two lions standing beside the arms. -1 Kings 10:19

...this must represent His resurrection! But wait... resurrection to what? This next passage was written after the resurrection and talks about the "other lion".

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. -1 Peter 5:8

OK, I'll stop. Hopefully it is clear, the "symbolic lion hermeneutic" led us down the wrong path. You can do this with just about any "symbol" in scripture. My point is, it is extremely dangerous to assume that if a word is used symbolically in one context, that it must be a symbol everywhere else in Scripture as well. This is called "illegitimate totality transfer" in hermeneutics. This is essentially what people are doing when they interpret the fig tree of Matthew 24 as "Israel."

"Objection!"

I am sure someone will object on the grounds that we have clear evidence from other passages of symbols being used in scripture, for instance in the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:3-9, the seed represents the word of God. I will quickly address this objection:

  1. Jesus was trying to explain something. He was using symbols which had specific meaning relative to His message. There is no indication anywhere in scripture that His use of these symbols carry across all of scripture. (v.18-23)
  2. Jesus explained His meaning to those closest to Him (v.18-23), which I think is a pretty good illustration of how sound exegesis happens.
  3. Jesus was not trying to be understood by the rest of the folks! (v.10-17)
  4. In the next parable (v.24-30), the seed represents people - some righteous and some wicked! (v.36-43)
  5. In the third parable, the seed represents the Kingdom of Heaven! (v.31-32)

Clearly "seed" doesn't equal "word" everywhere in Scripture, even when "seed" is being used symbolically.

What Jesus meant

Words don't have meaning; people have meaning. When Jesus referenced "the fig tree" He meant something by it. To discover what He meant, let's start by looking at why Jesus was talking. Matthew 24 is all about the "end times" and starts with a request from His disciples (which He has no reservation in answering.)

His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. And He said to them, "Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down." . . . the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (from v.1-3)

Jesus proceeds to explain that a lot of troubling stuff is going to happen, but that this is not yet the end. (v.4-8) He then says that tribulation will come on His people and many will fall away, but the gospel will go out to all of the nations before the end comes. (v.9-14) Jesus then explains that the abomination of desolation will mark the beginning of the Great Tribulation. (v.15-28) And then immediately after the Tribulation, He will return (v.29-31) And in this context, Jesus says the following:

Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. -Matthew 24:32-34

This isn't a mystical story about a fig tree nation... what Jesus is doing is answering His disciples' question about what the signs of His coming and of the end of the age will be, and then urging them to recognize it when it happens, just as they would recognize that summer is near by the leafy tree.

Also, for what it's worth, a "generation" can mean a number of things scripturally, and the claim that it means a particular length of time may be correct for some passages, but is clearly not for others. (I'll save the full explanation for another question.)

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ha, great answer! I was about to complain about saying "Jesus killed David, because it says David killed a lion" and then you demonstrated how that's absurd to say. +1 :) –  Thomas Shields Apr 18 '12 at 13:39
    
thanks for your great answer! I understand what you mean that sometimes the symbolic approach doesn't always work. But regarding the Fig Tree = Israel symbolism, that one seems to be generally agreed-upon. It's even noted here (douglashamp.com/the-fig-tree-has-budded) for example that the "Apocalypse of Peter", an extra-canonical early Christian writing mentions this. So in this case, seriously, it is not a question of whether I want the symbolism to be a fact or not, but that there does not seem like there is an alternative... –  user1539 Apr 19 '12 at 5:55
    
@user1539 The alternative is that it is not symbolic at all. My challenge to you would be: if the symbolic approach doesn't always work, how do you decide when to use it? I would suggest that a doctrine being "generally agreed upon" has no bearing on whether it is true. Likewise, finding an ancient theologian who believed it has no bearing. –  Jas 3.1 Apr 19 '12 at 15:55
    
@ThomasShields rofl... I love the article you linked above (thomasshields.net/article/8) –  Jas 3.1 Apr 19 '12 at 22:03
    
@user1539 By coincidence, I was studying Mark 13 last night in preparation for this week's sermon. The commentaries I currently review when preparing for sermons are: Matthew Henry's, Constable's, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, The NIV Application Commentary, and The Bible Speaks Today. All of these commentaries explained the significance of the fig tree in Mark 13 in the same manner that I did, and most (if not all) explicitly rejected the interpretation you refer to as "generally agreed upon." –  Jas 3.1 Apr 20 '12 at 20:41

I would like to offer a few small thoughts on the highly complex area of end-times, especially in relation to Douglas Hamp's article 'The Fig Tree has Budded' which seems to offer confirmatory evidence of a theory previously held, rather than explanatory the events recorded by Bible writers in the first century. My own personal approach begins from the formal principles of proposing explanations such as those found, for example, in Copernican astronomy. A small introduction may be useful to identify a formal principle; a state of affairs.

The Problem of self-as center.

To earthlings, the earth's centrality seemed intuitive and one-hundred percent certain, simply confirmed by a single observation (the sun moves) and a conclusion (therefore we are stationary and central). This simplistic intuitive start-finish second century theory placed humanity in the Dark Ages until 1543, when the confusion of Geo-centrism was refuted.

The principle:
  • Assuming Self as Center ignores observable facts.
  • Ignoring observable facts leads to distorted theories.
  • Therefore false assumptions lead to distorted theory.

Self not Center - the Fact Approach; A State of Affairs.

Copernicus's 'De Revolutionibus' put earth in its proper State of Affairs - or context. The wise astronomer gathered all of the facts first, and then found the proper combination of all of the facts that corresponded to observation. A State of Affairs results when all facts are placed in their proper observable relation. Copernicus:

  1. recorded the orbital 'year' of planets - chronological relation
  2. determined their position from their orbital 'year' - ordinal relation and
  3. moved the earth from the center- relation to motion

All this came under observation.

This seemed crazy at the time because it ran counter to me-as-center model. However an observation based model was the base for the entire scientific age from Kepler's Ellipses, to Galileo's laws of motion, to Newton's gravity, and later to Einstein's Relativity.

Principle;
  • All true theory is an acquaintance with observable facts.
  • Observable facts lead to predict more observable facts.
  • Therefore all true theories predict more observable facts and ignoring observation leads to false theories.

Applied to Douglas Hamp - Self as Center Assumption.

There are two set of facts to be explained in end-times: First century Time Facts and First century Descriptive Facts. The problem I see is that Doug's view takes Descriptive Facts and;

  1. intuitively assumes they are literal, and
  2. "proves our generation" is the end-time.

This is reading the Bible in the same intuitive way as reading the sun moves, it makes the first century Bible facts central to us. This creates two problems (21st Century problems as well as a First Century problems) instead of solving the First Century problem.

One one hand we observe:

  1. First Century time theory of Jesus that has no First Century descriptive meaning
  2. 21st Century descriptive theory created out of modern signs, has no 21st century time facts: no 2000 years; no gap; no comings; and no delay.

    For in just a little while, the Coming One will come and not delay.

    Heb 11:37 NLT

Here we have a First Century promises in that generation empty of events, and a "future to me" 21st Century descriptive theory missing 2000 year time facts, and has failed in every generation since the First Century, disregarding Jesus' very words;

Compare:

I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene before all these things take place Mk 13:30 NLT

and

Jesus went on to say, "I tell you the truth, some standing here right now will not die before they see the Kingdom of God arrive in great power!" [Mk 9:1 NLT[(http://biblehub.com/mark/9-1.htm)

and

As a result, you will be held responsible for the murder of all godly people of all time—from the murder of righteous Abel to the murder of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you killed in the Temple between the sanctuary and the altar. I tell you the truth, this judgment will fall on this very generation.

Mt 23:35-36 NLT

and

Jesus replied, “You have said it. And in the future you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Mt 26:64 NLT

Both cannot be correct, as no two truths contradict. If Doug is right, Jesus was wrong. If Jesus was right, then Doug is wrong. Doug takes self as center in the 21st Century and reasons forward. But to understand Jesus we must look backward to the First Century state of affairs that existed in Jesus' own generation.

Principle

  1. Assuming Self as Center ignores observable facts.
  2. Ignoring observable facts leads to distorted theories, therefore false assumptions lead to distorted theory.

A State of Affairs.

A 21st Century model starts with me-as-center, but cannot explain First Century time facts; assumes Bible terms are only literal; deduces a future-to-me literal coming that has no time fact; cannot be proven, demonstrated, falsified or observed; and is based on the circular argument, 'We know He will return because He hasn't returned yet.' This creates two puzzles! However Jesus said he would return in clouds with power (Mk 13:26) in the First Century generation and they would see Him (Rev 1:7).

Principle.

  1. *All true End-time theory is an acquaintance with observable time facts.
  2. Observable time facts lead to explain more observable time facts.
  3. Therefore all true theories predict more observable facts.
  4. Ignoring observation leads to false theories.
  5. Doug Camp ignores Jesus' own time facts.

Conclusion - looking back to Jesus' First Century time facts.

Douglas Hamp's view seems to ignore the plain time facts spoken by Jesus and recorded by the apostles to satisfy a self-as-center application. A more objective approach would be to look back to the First Century context to find the biblical meanings of biblical terms, understand the Jewish context in which it was written as well as well as the causes of events, and only then try to explain descriptive facts in the state of affairs that existed in the First Century. This is the standard method of inquiry used by work-a-day historians of note.

The simple principle
  1. Prophesies and signs promised in speech and written to the First Century people applied to them.
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us! This was a good reminder to respect the historical peculiarity of each work of literature in Scripture. Please continue to contribute, and when you get a chance, review our tour and faq pages to familiarize yourself with the goals and guidelines of the site. Also, you might enjoy our BiblicalHermeneutics site, where methodology in exegesis is more heavily emphasized. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 2 '13 at 3:31

"Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place." (Matthew 24:32-34, NASB)

If you read the passages immediately prior to this, you'll find a listing of events that take shape: The abomination of desolation, v15 Great tribulation, v21 So-called sightings of Christ, v23-26 The sun will be darkened, v29 The moon will not give its light, v29 Stars will fall from heaven, v29 The sign of the Son of Man in heaven (the Son IS the sign!), v30 The gathering by the angels, v31

... then we hear of the fig tree and the generation. Therefore, the generation is the group of people who witness the above events. The events will happen over a short span of time so that whoever is alive for the first sign will likely be around for the last sign.

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