Introduction: As our Lord Jesus prepared to ascend to the Father, His disciples still did not fully understand all that He had taught them concerning the kingdom of God, so they asked Him, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6b). Jesus’ reply was one which we should all take to heart whenever we seek to understand the future fulfillment of His kingdom promises:
NKJ Acts 1:7-8 And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. 8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Of course, Jesus had promised them at an earlier time that “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26). Yet, as we have seen, before His ascension Jesus made it clear that the things the Holy Spirit would bring to remembrance and teach them would not include the “times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.”
In fact, Jesus had stressed the same idea when He taught the disciples about His second coming in the passage before us. After prophesying about His return and the events that would precede it, Jesus taught the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree. Then, right after the teaching and application of the parable, He said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (vs. 32). This is an issue we will consider more next week. For now I will just say that it is one of the reasons why I am not going to spend time this morning trying to understand all the specific details of the prophecy leading up to the teaching of the parable.
Although we will try to get a good basic understanding of what our Lord Jesus was saying, our focus will only be on seeking an understanding sufficient for the task of properly understanding the parable itself and Jesus’ intended application of it. With this in mind, we shall examine 1) the context of the parable, 2) the communication of the parable, and 3) the application of the parable.
I. Context of the Parable
As I have already indicated, the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree follows immediately after a significant section of future prophecy given by our Lord Jesus. This teaching was given in response to a question asked by the disciples after Jesus foretold the destruction of the temple and the surrounding buildings:
NKJ Mark 13:1-4 “Then as He went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!’ 2 And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down.’ 3 Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Him privately, 4 ‘Tell us, when will these things [ταῦτα, taũta] be? And what will be the sign when all these things [ταῦτα … πάντα, taũta … pánta] will be fulfilled?’”
In the first part of His answer, Jesus speaks about the destruction of the temple, which focuses primarily on the future destruction of Jerusalem, which we now know took place in their lifetimes. We see this in verses 5-23:
NKJ Mark 13:5-23 And Jesus, answering them, began to say: “Take heed that no one deceives you. 6 For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and will deceive many. 7 But when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These [ταῦτα, taũta] are the beginnings of sorrows. 9 But watch out for yourselves, for they will deliver you up to councils, and you will be beaten in the synagogues. You will be brought before rulers and kings for My sake, for a testimony to them. 10 And the gospel must first be preached to all the nations. 11 But when they arrest you and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand, or premeditate what you will speak. But whatever is given you in that hour, speak that; for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 Now brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. 14 So when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet [Dan. 9:27], standing where it ought not” (let the reader understand), “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let him who is on the housetop not go down into the house, nor enter to take anything out of his house. 16 And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. 17 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 18 And pray that your flight may not be in winter. 19 For in those days there will be tribulation [θλῖψις, thlípsis], such as has not been since the beginning of the creation which God created until this time, nor ever shall be. 20 And unless the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake, whom He chose, He shortened the days. 21 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘Look, He is there!’ do not believe it. 22 For false christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 But take heed; see, I have told you all things [πάντα, pánta, recall vs. 4] beforehand.”
In the second part of His answer, Jesus focuses on His second coming and the cosmic events which will accompany His return. We see this in verses 24-27:
NKJ Mark 13:24-27 But [ἀλλά, allá] in those days, after [cf. Matt. 24:29, “immediately after,” but the emphasis here is more pecisely on the tribulation that would occur within that generation] that tribulation [θλῖψις, thlípsis], the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 the stars of heaven will fall, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then He will send His angels, and gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven.
Thus Jesus has taught about a time of terrible tribulation that would come upon Jerusalem, and He has indicated that sometime after this terrible tribulation period, He will return, and there will be amazing cosmic signs which will accompany His return. It is this teaching about the future which leads to His communication of the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree, to which we will now turn our attention.
II. The Communication of the Parable
We see the communication of this parable in verse 28:
NKJ Mark 13:28 Now learn this parable [παραβολή, parabolē, ESV = lesson] from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender, and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near.
As the Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark explains, “in the springtime the sap, rising through the limbs, makes tender the branch which has been stiff and dry through the winter, causing the leaves to sprout” (p. 417).
This is something that was common knowledge in first century Palestine, where there were so many fig trees. So, the parable is actually very simple, isn’t it? It is a basic analogy from nature that is used to make a point. Just as one may easily tell that summer is near when he sees the fig tree begin to sprout leaves, even so the believers living in Jerusalem could know that its destruction was near when they saw the signs Jesus had described. Jesus made this point even more clearly when He Himself applied the parable to His hearers.
III. The Application of the Parable
We see Jesus’ application of the parable beginning in verse 29:
NKJ Mark 13:29 So you also, when you see these things [ταῦτα, taũta] happening, know that it [as in the KJV and NIV; ESV and NASB = he/He] is [Pres. Act. Ind. 3S > εἰμί, eimí], near – at the doors [or gates]! [Note: There is no pronoun in the Greek text in the clause it is near; the pronoun is implied in the verb and must be supplied. In this case it could be either a masculine or a neuter pronoun.]
Some of you may have a slightly different translation of this verse. For example, the ESV translates the verse this way:
ESV Mark 13:29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. [Italics mine.]
This translation understands Jesus as referring to the fact that, when they see these things, they may know that He Himself is near, whereas the New King James Version understands Jesus as referring to the nearness of the destruction of Jerusalem that He has also just foretold. The Greek text can actually be understood either way, depending on how one understands the context. For example, to what do the words “these things” refer? Well, here is where our brief rehearsal of the preceding context will prove fruitful, for Jesus is referring back to what He had said in His earlier prophecy, where his disciples had used the phrase these things in their question about the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Remember, for example, that, after Jesus said that “Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (vs. 2), His disciples had asked, “when will these things be? And what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?” (vs. 4, italics mine). Thus Jesus uses the same language here that the disciples had used in asking about the destruction of the temple.
I think William Lane makes an excellent point when he observes regarding these things referred to in verse 29 and all these things referred to in verse 30 that, “They cannot have reference to the cosmic dissolution described in verses 24-25 since these are phenomena which accompany the parousia [second coming of Christ], not preliminary events which point to it. These things in verse 29 refers to the entire discourse from verses 5-23, with special reference to verses 14-23” (NICNT, e-Sword).
The ESV Study Bible also favors this interpretation when it states in the notes corresponding to this passage that “‘These things’ probably refers not to the events of 13:24-27 (for they are the end) but the events of vv. 5-23” (BibleWorks). So, although the ESV translation understands the clause as properly being translated He is near, the notes in the ESV Study Bible apparently disagree and understand the clause as better rendered it is near.
So, when Jesus speaks of these things, He is referring to the first part of His answer in the preceding context rather than to the second part. That this is the best way to understand what Jesus is talking about is reinforced by what He says next.
NKJ Mark 13:30 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation [ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη, hē geneà haútē] will by no means pass away till all these things [πάντα ταῦτα, pánta taũta] take place.
Again we see that Jesus uses language that hearkens back to the questions His disciples had asked about the destruction of the temple – which turns out to be about the destruction of Jerusalem as well – when He speaks of “all these things.” But here Jesus makes it clear that these things will happen within the lifetimes of the people to whom He is speaking. He specifically says that “this generation” will not pass away until these things take place. This means that we were right to understand the words these things as a reference not to Jesus’ second coming which had just been prophesied by Him, and which has yet to take place, but rather as a reference to the coming destruction of Jerusalem which had also just been prophesied by Him, and which we know did take place within the lifetime of that generation, because it happened in AD 70.
Now, some people take Jesus not to be referring to the generation alive in the first century but to a future generation yet to be born, but that is not the most obvious reading of the text. In addition, the interpretation I have offered reflects the way Jesus had referred to that generation on several earlier occasions. For example:
NKJ Mark 8:11-12 Then the Pharisees came out and began to dispute with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven, testing Him. 12 But He sighed deeply in His spirit, and said, “Why does this generation [ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη, hē geneà haútē] seek a sign? Assuredly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation [τῇ γενεᾷ ταύτῃ, tē geneã haútē].”
NKJ Mark 8:31-38 And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke this word openly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. 33 But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” 34 When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 35 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? 37 Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation [τῇ γενεᾷ ταύτῃ τῇ μοιχαλίδι καὶ ἁμαρτωλω, tē geneã haútē moichalídi kai hamartōlō], of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
NKJ Mark. 9:17-19 Then one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. 18 And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” 19 He answered him and said, “O faithless generation [γενεὰ ἄπιστος, geneà ápistos], how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.”
Now, it may be that the tribulation that took place in AD 70 in association with the destruction of Jerusalem was only a foreshadowing of yet another future period of tribulation that will precede the second coming of Christ. This is my own view on the matter. In fact, I think a dual fulfillment, with one in the near future and one in the distant future immediately preceding the return of our Lord Jesus, is the best way to explain the complexities and difficulties in understanding these prophecies and the parallel accounts in Mathew 24 and Luke 21. But that is an issue for another time. For now I will just say that I don’t see how there there can be any doubt that, when Jesus said “this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place,” He intended a near future fulfillment in the lifetimes of those who heard His teaching.
So, Jesus was warning them that all they once knew as most important in their lives as Jews under the Old Covenant would soon be passing away. But what was really most important would never pass away, as He went on to make clear.
NKJ Mark 13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.
This would have been a very startling statement to anyone who had not already accepted Jesus as the divine Son of God, for in it Jesus claims for His own words what can only be said of the words of God Himself. In fact, the statement reflects Old Testament language about the Word of God. As Isaiah said, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:8).
The reason that God’s Word stands forever is, of course, because God Himself endures forever, as the Psalmist says:
NKJ Psalm 102:24-27 I said, “O my God, do not take me away in the midst of my days; Your years are throughout all generations. 25 Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. 26 They will perish, but You will endure; yes, they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will change them, and they will be changed. 27 But You are the same, and Your years will have no end.”
As William Lane put it, “While heaven and earth will be cataclysmically destroyed, Jesus’ word is established forever. This claim of high dignity for Jesus’ words implies a christological affirmation: what is said of God in the OT may be equally affirmed of Jesus and his word” (NICNT, e-Sword)
Jesus’ statement here is therefore just one more way in which He assumed His own deity and equality with God the Father in His teaching. In this case, however, He stresses this fact so that we may be confident that His words will indeed come to pass. We can be sure that, no matter what terrible things happen in our lives, or no matter how many changes we see taking place all around us, the word of our Lord is a sure foundation upon which to build our lives.
Conclusion: So, what are the primary lessons our Lord Jesus wants us to take away from His teaching and application of this parable? I would suggest at least three.
First, we can trust that the future is firmly in the hands of our sovereign Lord. Nothing will take Him by surprise. Even the terrible tribulations and sorrows of this life serve His greater purpose. As the Apostle Paul taught us, “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). We should not fret, then, as we see things disintegrating all around us and as we watch the judgment of God upon our culture.
Second, since our Lord knows the future, and nothing takes Him by surprise, He is able to warn us about things to come so that we may be prepared to face them. Despite the fact that we cannot know the “times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority” (Acts 1:7), we can know certain signs of the times that will help us to be prepared for the terrible things to come, and we can become well acquainted with His ways so that we can understand how He often works in the world and therefore not be surprised or hindered in our faith. As the Apostle Peter said:
NKJ 1 Peter 4:12-13 Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; 13 but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.
Third, we can rely upon the Word of our sovereign Lord as the sure foundation for our lives and our future hope. As our Lord Jesus said in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders:
NKJ Matthew 7:24-27 Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: 25 and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: 27 and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.
This leaves each of us with a decision to make. Will we trust in our Lord Jesus and His Word, or will we try to build our lives on the shifting sands of the world and its lies?