“Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender, and puts forth leaves, you know the summer is near. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that it is near- at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.”
– Mark 13:28-31
This passage has puzzled believers and biblical scholars for centuries. What does the fig tree represent, and who is the “this generation”? C.S. Lewis thought the generation was the very one to which Jesus was speaking. For that reason, he felt this was the most embarrassing verse in the Bible because it did not come to pass. Jesus did not return in that generation of first believers.
Others have interpreted “this generation” as meaning, “this people,” referring to the Jewish nation, but that’s not the most apparent translation of the Greek word genea. This word does seem to mean a group of people within a specific timeframe. Could there be, however, another understanding of this mystery?
This passage may become clearer if we focus on the fig tree rather than determining the specific generation. Like many of Jesus’ parables, the individual pieces are best understood in relation to the overall meaning.
There are two keys to understanding this passage. First, Jesus’ prophecy here is in the context of His end-times teaching, which includes His foretelling of the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem. But is the destruction of Jerusalem what He is referring to here? It’s crucial to determine that before we analyze it further. Second, we must examine Jesus’ earlier teaching about the fig tree from the Gospel of Mark.
Jesus makes His triumphal entry in Mark 11:1-11, ending with His visit to the temple. Following that, He tells a brief story about a fig tree in verses 12 through 14. Jesus curses a fig tree for not producing fruit, though it no longer is the season for figs. The tree withers away. Immediately after this passage, Mark again details Jesus’ reentry into the temple. He overthrows the tables of the money changers and rebukes those misusing God’s house.
The mystery unravels when we notice the patterns of Jesus’ stories within Mark’s Gospel. Often, He will begin a story (a), pause it to tell another short story (b), and then return to His original story (a), sandwiching one story between another (a-b-a). These stories parallel each other, often with direct symbolic representations that help us understand the significance of each moving part.
In this case, Mark intends us to interpret that the temple is the fig tree! Now that Jesus has arrived, the temple is no longer producing fruit. Its season is over. This is why Mark places the story of the fig where he does. Jesus’ rebuke of the money changers is meant to correlate to His rebuke of the fig tree. Later, in Mark 13, Jesus speaks of the temple’s destruction – just as the fig tree in chapter 11 wilted away, so will the temple itself.
But where does this leave the parable of the fig tree in chapter 13?
It’s possible Jesus is prophesying in chapter 13 about a generation that will see a third Jewish temple rebuilt. This is why He mentions a new fig tree rising up and putting forth new shoots. It will not be spiritually fruitful, but it will be a new temple. This third temple will be an indicator of the last generation before Jesus’ return!
– Matthew Foley, Staff Writer and Instructor