I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your forefathers as the earliest fruit on the fig tree in its first season. (Hosea 9:10)
The regathering of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is prophesied repeatedly in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus offered another clue to the timing of the end of the age when He mysteriously cursed a hapless tree. What was the Lord communicating — to His surprised disciples and to us — by His seemingly uncharacteristic action?
A Nation Cursed and Cast Aside
When Jesus walked throughout the Promised Land 2,000 years ago, Israel was already past its prime. The golden era under David and Solomon had come and gone. Divided into Israel and Judah, the Jews had been conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians and carted off into exile. Fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, Cyrus had encouraged Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Waves of exiles returned from the east, repopulating the Land — even as Samaritans and others now shared the territory once known as Israel.
Then came Alexander and his generals, followed by Rome and its legions. To the Caesars, the Jews of Judea were a bothersome population in a backwater territory who were frustratingly insistent on maintaining their own religion. Convictional Jews longed for the Messiah. Zealous Jews sought a military leader to throw off Rome’s yoke. None of them were expecting the Anointed One to lay down His life on a cross.
While He ministered, Jesus consistently challenged the expectations of His disciples and His followers. He showed them that God is not pleased by sanctimonious religiosity, but with repentance and obedience. Through His death, He offered the innocent blood needed to ensure that God’s wrath would pass over anyone who put their faith in Him.
Jesus’ message was clearly for the Jews first, even as He demonstrated a willingness to bless Gentiles as well. However, His love for individual Jews was matched by impatience with the Jews as a collective whole. That is why He offered His disciples a dramatic object lesson by cursing a hapless fig tree on His way to cleanse the temple of money-changers.
Seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it except leaves only; and He said to it, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you” (Matthew 21:19).
That fig tree, found barren of figs even though it was not the season for figs, withered dramatically at Jesus’ command.
Cast Aside, But not Forsaken
We are sometimes convinced that Jesus was meek and mild to the point of being a wimp. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus balanced unfathomable power with absolute control. He did not lash out in rash anger or wring His hands in the face of evil. With a word He stilled a storm, healed broken bodies, and restored life. He described the judgment that would fall upon Jerusalem and the Jews in general, because most of them refused to accept Him in their time of visitation. Symbolized by a fig tree, the nation that bore little fruit would itself be cursed to wither for a season.
Approximately 40 years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, Rome’s 10th Legion put down a Jewish insurrection with an iron boot, destroying the temple in the process. Those Jews who were not slaughtered in Judea were driven out of the Land.
For the next 1800 years, Jews became known as outcasts and vagabonds. They were persecuted and ostracized. They were forcibly converted and then accused of heresy. Inquisitions, pogroms, and edicts kept them down and out in most of the places they dared to try to live. Lacking much fruit in the season of His first Advent, the Jewish nation was cut off and cast aside for almost two millennia. The lesson of Luke 13:6-9 was applied to God’s own chosen people.
But that is not the end of the story.
During the long centuries of the Diaspora — the Jewish dispersal among the nations — as the Jews were afflicted and oppressed, the Land became barren. Although in the fullness of time, God prepared both the people and the Land to realize the prophetic promises.
In the late 1800s, a few impassioned Zionists were advocating for a Jewish state. However, most Jews believed they were accepted by the societies in which they lived. The Jewish emphasis on academic study and financial prowess made them excellent students, musicians, businessmen, artists, doctors, scientists, and citizens. In spite of lurking antisemitism and episodic persecution, most Jews were content to pursue quiet lives in places like Germany, Poland, France, and Russia. All that would change in the 20th Century.
Preparing the Land for the People
Lest we get ahead of our story, it is important to realize that just as fertile soil is required for a healthy fig tree, the Land had to be prepared for the people before the Diaspora could return.
Over the centuries following Rome’s expulsion of the Jews in 70 AD, the Promised Land fell under a curse. Known as Palestine (the Latinized version of the name given to the Holy Land by the Romans), it was controlled by a succession of foreign powers — including Christian crusaders and Islamic caliphates. By the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire obliterated the 1000-year Christian Byzantine Empire and began to rule Palestine with a heavy hand.
God’s curse lingered on the Land throughout the millennia of the Jewish exile — as foretold in Ezekiel 33:28-29. And make no mistake, the Land was forsaken — denuded of vegetation, deprived of people, and largely devoid of life. In 1869, Mark Twain documented the cursed status of the Holy Land in his book, The Innocents Abroad. He rightfully understood that God’s hand of judgment had fallen on His own Promised Land.
But when Europe was consumed by war early in the 20th Century, the “sick man” Ottoman Empire sided with Germany. It chose poorly. In the aftermath of the war, the victorious allies divided the Ottoman territory among themselves. Thus, France came to oversee Lebanon and Syria, and the British acquired a mandate to govern Palestine and Trans-Jordan. For the first time in almost two millennia, the Jewish Seder prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem,” seemed like more than a throw-away sentiment.
Once the land was wrested from its Ottoman occupiers and a commitment had been given to support Jewish aspirations, the reestablishment of Israel would have seemed to be a fait accompli. But Jewish motivation was not yet sufficient to emigrate to a Middle East wasteland.
The horror of the Nazi Holocaust changed Jewish hearts and minds. Jews realized that away from their Promised Land they would always be homeless. So, by the thousands (and eventually millions) they streamed back to Eretz Israel — the Land of Israel.
The fig tree branch was becoming tender and beginning to put out leaves.
Now Learn This Lesson from the Fig Tree
In the week between the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday and His crucifixion, Jesus spoke much about Israel’s rejection (Matthew 21:28-44), the shift of the Gospel to the Gentiles (Matthew 22:1-14), and the judgment about to fall on Israel (Matthew 23:13-39). He also responded when the disciples asked Him, “Tell us, when will these things (the destruction of the temple) happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3).
We have extensively addressed the discourse that follows in Matthew 24. But the lesson of the fig tree offers a key to understanding the timing of the end. Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 24:32-33).
There are many signs contained in the proceeding 27 verses. But Jesus specifically pointed His disciples back to the dramatic lesson of the fig tree from earlier in the same week. The fig tree that was cursed for failing to bear fruit for the Messiah would be restored. And, along with all the other signs of the times, that crucial sign tells those with eyes to see that He is near.
Evidence Right Before Your Eyes
Ask the average Christian to describe a present-day fulfillment of Bible prophecy and they’ll probably look at you funny. The idea that God is actively bringing His ancient promises to pass before our very eyes is something they probably haven’t considered.
But over the past 100 years, the amazement of Habakkuk 1:5 is once again appropriate: “Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days — you would not believe if you were told.”
That was the way the Lord described His plan to raise up the Chaldeans to sweep across the Jewish nation. Habakkuk was appalled at the horror of such a judgment and registered his complaint before the Lord. God reiterated the finality of His declaration, saying, “For the vision is yet for the appointed time; it hastens toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it tarries, wait for it; for it will certainly come, it will not delay” (Habakkuk 2:3).
In the case of the most important prophetic sign of all, the evidence is right before our eyes. The withered tree that did not bear fruit when Jesus was here 2,000 years ago has become tender and put forth new branches. We know that He is coming soon.
I Know the Plans I Have for You
Throughout the Old Testament, God offered glimpses of His plans — His Gospel plan, His plan to discipline yet protect and preserve Israel, and His plan to bring all of human history to a close. Scoffers have dismissed the relevance of His plans for ages because God has tarried. But those of us who put our faith in Christ are given understanding when we “read and heed” (in the language of Revelation 1:3 and 22:7) His prophetic Word.
In his beautiful song, “It Is Well With My Soul,” Horatio Spafford wrote, “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight…” Some of the glorious promises of Bible prophecy still await fulfillment. Others are being fulfilled before our very eyes. We can bear witness to God’s faithfulness by pointing to the promises He is keeping right now. That is also why we take pilgrims to Israel: to bear witness to what God is doing in our own day and age.
Let the Redeemed of the Lord Say So
Take a moment and read Psalm 107.
In light of the Diaspora (the scattering of the Jews) for almost 2,000 years, see if that Psalm does not describe the Jewish regathering “from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (v. 3). One day Jewish eyes will be opened en masse to see the Messiah. Until then, you and I have a great privilege. We are among the redeemed mentioned in verse 2. We know already that the LORD is good; that His lovingkindness is everlasting.
If you are among the redeemed of the Lord, don’t miss an opportunity to say so. In the words of Psalm 107:43, “Who is wise? Let him give heed to these things, and consider the lovingkindnesses of the LORD.”
In conclusion, all of the great prophetic promises fulfilled just recently in the land of Israel prove that we are living on borrowed time!