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Part II: Three Trees and Israel's
The Fig Tree and Israel's Religious History
AS WITH THE
vine and the olive, so with the fig: it is a symbol. There is
a peculiar suitability in the use of the fig tree to symbolize
Israel's religious history.
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Unlike all other trees, the fig
has this unique feature about it, that its fruit appears before
its leaves. It is as though the clothing of the tree, the outward
show of religious observance, the ceremony and the regalia of
formal worship, is really the aftermath only of the bearing of
a real fruit. Earlier in this Paper we proposed that all religion
is descended from an earlier true spiritual understanding. Many
people reverse this, enamoured as they are with evolutionary
philosophy, holding the view that religion gives rise to spiritual
life. James says otherwise: "Can the fig tree, my brethren,
bear olive berries?" (3:12). Religion is a vestige of the
real thing. This circumstance lies behind the symbolic action
of the Lord when He saw a fig tree in the distance with leaves,
but upon approaching it found no fruit upon it -- and cursed
it (Matthew 21:18-20).
In a somewhat similar way, the
Lord meant more than His actual words are usually taken to mean
when He said of Nathanael, "Behold, an Israelite indeed":
and to Nathanael, "When thou wast under the fig tree I saw
thee" (John 1:48). Within the framework of Israel's religious
life -- involving as it did the whole complex of education, religious
orders, temple worship, and so forth -- there were those here
and there who were truly spiritual. Under the fig tree one might
now and then discover an olive.
Remembering what was said about
the first occurrence of some subject or object to receive particular
attention later on in Scripture, we may remind ourselves that
Adam and Eve sought to cover their nakedness in the presence
of God and one another with fig leaves. So long ago the spiritual
light which covered them was replaced by the poor substitute
of the outward form of religion. To the Lord Jesus --
if one may speak for
a moment by accommodation to our own limitations of perception
-- the Jewish people must have presented the outward appearance
of a very flourishing fig tree, heavily foliaged. But in fact
when seen at close quarters, as the Lord could see only too
clearly, the tree which ought certainly to have fruit upon it
had none. In a peculiar sense, the Temple signified the fig tree.
It appears from Scripture that Jesus probably visited it three
years in succession, each time "expecting" to find
fruit upon it in view of its verdure: three times He found none.
This led to His telling a parable of deep significance.
The story opens (in Luke 13:6):
"A certain man had a fig tree planted in a vineyard. . .
. " It is hardly necessary at this juncture to point out
the significance here of the position of this particular fig
tree. Nor perhaps need one underscore the statement of the husbandman
who visited it three years in succession and, finding no fruit
upon it, said: "Cut it down."
But someone stood in the breach
and asked that it might be given one more year and then if it
still bore no fruit, the axe should be laid to the root of it.
Perhaps the "year" was up when Stephen presented the
claims of the Lord as their Messiah to officialdom (the Sanhedrin)
in Jerusalem -- and became by their rejection of his message
the first Christian martyr. The die was cast, the fig tree was
doomed, and in due course the axe was indeed laid so closely
to the root of the tree that it is doubtful if any single stone
of Herod's temple was left in position. If any of the disciples
lived to see this, they must surely have marvelled, as they did
in Matthew 21:20, that such an impressive "fig tree"
could wither away so quickly.
Finally, the Lord had a promise
for us who look for His coming again, a sign which is to mark
the end of the age. He said, "Behold the fig tree . . .
when his branch is yet tender and putteth forth leaves, ye see
and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand"
(Luke 21:29,30 and Matthew 24:32). This was the sign of the end,
the sign of the fig tree -- not the sign of the vineyard nor
yet the sign of the olive. The promise of national renewal with
the coming of the Lord is in the Old Testament. Joel 2:18-32
is a prophetic statement dealing with the end of the present
age: in verse 22 the fig tree and the vine both are to bear their
fruit again, and there will follow a time (verse 28) when the
Lord will pour out His Spirit upon the sons and daughters of
Israel. This was the time of blessing which Peter in Acts 2:17
ff assured the people could follow only when Israel as a nation
accepted Jesus Christ as their Messiah.
Long ago it was predicted that
Israel would return to their Holy
Land, and we Christians
have been stirred to see such things taking place before our
eyes and are assured that the coming of the Lord draws nigh.
But I think a much more important sign that we should look for
is, not this revival of Israel's national life, nor a revival
of her spiritual life, but a revival of her religious life taking
place in the Holy Land: the fig tree flourishing in the vineyard.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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When we begin to
hear, as even now we do hear occasionally, of a concern on the
part of the Israeli government for the re-building of the Temple,
the re-establishment of the priesthood, and the restoration of
their ceremonial worship in Jerusalem -- then I think we may
indeed say, "The coming of the Lord draweth nigh."