While speaking with his disciples, Jesus told them about when his second coming would take place. This parable relates to a post-tribulation time frame, which I’ll highlight below.
Parables had a two-fold purpose in Jesus’ ministry: When unexplained, they concealed truth; when explained, they revealed truth.
So when Jesus told a parable to the multitudes or to the religious leaders in Israel, without also giving them an explanation, it always remained a mystery to them. But when he told a parable to his disciples and then explained it, it became a vivid illustration that made a certain truth clear and understandable.
par•a•ble [noun] a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, as told by Jesus in the gospels
synonyms: allegory, moral story/tale, fable
Is this parable’s fig tree “budding” or “barren”? It’s important to realize the difference between this parable and the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree.
The "Barren" Fig Tree Parable appears only in Luke’s gospel. It’s about a fig tree that doesn’t produce fruit. And it gives its readers a dire warning: Unless you repent, you will perish.
The "Budding" Fig Tree Parable, found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, has Jesus likening the leaves of a budding fig tree to the second coming of Jesus. As well, the "budding" fig tree might also represent the nation of Israel being politically reestablished in its land once again.
Regarding this parable’s sign of Jesus coming, please note how much his second coming permeates the New and Old Testaments.
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 (Mark 13:1–4). In the first half of his answer (vv. 5–23), Jesus spoke about the destruction of the temple, which focuses primarily on the future destruction of Jerusalem, which we know took place in their lifetimes. In his answer’s second half, he focused on his Second Advent and the extraterrestrial events that would accompany his return. Thus, Jesus had taught about a time of terrible tribulation that would come; he indicated that sometime after this terrible period he’d return and there’d be amazing cosmic signs accompanying his return. It’s this teaching about the future that led him to present his Parable of the Budding Fig Tree.
Note: Similar end times accounts preceding Jesus’ "budding fig tree" parable presentation can also be found in the two other synoptic gospels: Matthew 24:1–31; Mark 13:1–27; and Luke 21:5–28. Also realize that Jesus isn’t teaching an order of end-of-age events. Rather, he’s speaking about individual topics, referencing them in his teaching of what will happen prior to his return.
For ease of comparison, here are all three gospel versions of the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree.
32“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it [or he] is near, right at the door. 34Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:32–35).
28“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it [or he] is near, right at the door. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mark 13:28–31).
29He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Luke 21:29–33).
Jews were accustomed to a fig tree being used for illustrative purposes. Palestine had an abundance of fig trees that weren’t only grown commercially but were found in many peoples’ yards to provide fruit, as well as shade during hot summer months. Few illustrative examples would have been better known to the disciples than that of the fig tree. It was so basic that even young children knew that a budding fig tree signified springtime and that summer would soon follow.
Realize that the fig tree doesn’t have a direct correlation to anything, such as the nation of Israel. Jesus was simply using the imagery of when leaves sprout, you know that something else is right around the corner: fruit is about to appear. As the short video above presents, although the fig tree represents Israel elsewhere in Scripture, it doesn’t mean that it has to represent Israel here. It’s not important that the nation was a fig tree. Jesus could have used another type of tree for his parable’s analogy.
Let’s look closely at what’s revealed on this parable’s fig tree branches. In effect, during springtime, a tree’s sap, rising through the limbs, makes tender the branch that had been stiff and dry through the winter, causing the leaves to begin to sprout. That was common knowledge in first-century Palestine, where fig trees were numerous. So, the parable’s message is actually very simple, isn’t it? It’s a basic analogy from nature, used to make a point. Just as one can easily tell when summer is near when fig trees begin to sprout leaves, so could believers in Jerusalem know that its nation’s destruction was near when they’ll observe those signs that Jesus had revealed to them. He made this point even more clearly when he applied the parable to his listening disciples.
"Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near" (Luke 21:31). "These things" refers to the entire discourse of what Jesus had been talking about in preceding passages of this parable in all three gospels: deception by false teachers (Luke 21:8); destruction by wars (vv. 9–10); devastation by disasters (v.11); deliverance to tribulation (vv.16–17) as believers are persecuted; birth pains (Matt. 24:8); the abomination that causes desolation (v. 15); the need to flee because of the impending dangers (vv. 16–28); and the catastrophic chaos of the universe (v. 29). There’s destitution, and death, and distress, then delight when Jesus returns to rule and reign. All of those things will indicate that Jesus is near, just as the budding of the fig tree indicates that summer and harvest time is near.
Matthew 24:33’s "it is near" (Greek estin) literally means "it is." Bible versions translate estin as "It is near" or "He is near," since the Greek text can be understood either way. The interpretations mean the same: The time when the Lord will come to establish his kingdom is near. And in v. 34, when Matthew writes "Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened," we should sense the idea of immanency, that it will take place soon.
The term "this generation" obviously wasn’t referring to the disciples’ generation because Jesus didn’t return during their lifetime. He must have had another generation in mind. And he wasn’t specifying a specific time in history when he’ll come. What he was revealing were the anticipatory events that would identify his second coming without indicating a specific time. He was referring to that lone generation of people who’ll be alive during the end times, those who’ll recognize the signs of his return and ultimately see and worship him upon his return.
Just as the budding of the fig tree’s leaves means that summer isn’t far away, so "this generation" that will experience occurrences of these signs won’t have long to wait for Christ’s appearance. “This generation” doesn’t refer to a 40-year period; "the generation” is a group of people alive to see such difficult, painful events. Those who witness so-called "birth pains" (such as wars, famines, earthquakes, etc., accompanied by false prophets and false messiahs) will witness new birth. However, because “With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8), these events don’t indicate how close the end is, only that it is near. These signs indicate that the end is coming, but "the end" might be thousands of years away.
35“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33).
This would have been a very startling statement to hear for anyone who hadn’t already accepted Jesus as the divine Son of God, for in it Jesus personally claims what can be said of the words of only God Himself. In fact, the statement reflects Old Testament language about the Word of God, as spoken and written by Prophet Isaiah when he said, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8). The reason that God’s Word stands forever is, of course, because God himself endures forever, as the psalmist says in Psalm 102:24–27.
Jesus’ announcement here is one more way in which he assumed his own deity and equality with Father God in his teaching. In this case, however, he stressed this fact so we’d be confident that his words will indeed come to pass. No matter the terrible things that happen in our lives, or how many changes we see taking place, we can be certain that the Word of our Lord Jesus is a sure foundation upon which to build our lives and wait patiently for him.
The universe may now be falling apart, and heaven and earth will pass away. That is: The sun will collapse; the earth will be consumed by fire; God will create a new heaven and a new earth; everything we see will one day be gone; our bodies will fail; the planet will dry up; the sea will disappear. However, the Word of the Lord will not fail. What Jesus has just announced in this parable won’t fail to come to complete fulfillment. Both the Old and New Testaments clearly predict that the universe will dramatically and catastrophically be affected at the coming of God’s divine judgment. All that Jesus has said about the fate of Jerusalem, the great tribulation, the persecution, the religious deception, and his return — all of it will happen! The day and the hour of Christ’s return are known only by God (Matt. 24:36). As shown in the box below, Mark says even more about the day and hour of Christ’s return in his gospel. Believers are to be ready; there’s no excuse for being caught off guard.
The Day and Hour Unknown
32“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back — whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:32–37)
While this parable speaks of God’s kingdom and the coming of Jesus, it’s definitely a wisdom-specific parable. We must be wise enough to read, discuss, and fully follow Scripture daily, so we can fully realize that Jesus is going to return to earth one day. Every sign given in Scripture is there to warn, encourage, and prepare generations for his eventual return.
Further, every sign that we find in Scripture pointing to Christ’s return can be seen today. Finally, you need to prepare yourself for Christ’s day of return. And you should do everything within your power to tell others how they too can prepare themselves for that life-changing event.
What are the primary lessons our Lord Jesus wants us to take away from his teaching and our application of this parable?
† First, we can trust that the future is firmly in the hands of our sovereign Lord. Nothing will take him by surprise. After all, even the terrible tribulations and sorrows of this life serve his greater purpose. As Apostle Paul teaches 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” (Romans 8:28). We shouldn’t fret, then, as we see things disintegrating all around us while God’s judgment is made upon our culture.
† Second, since our Lord knows the future, and nothing takes him by surprise, he can warn us about things to come so that we’ll 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 see those certain signs of the times that will help us to be prepared for the terrible things to come. Seeing those signs, it behooves us to become well acquainted with his ways so we’ll be able to see and understand how he works in our world and, therefore, not be surprised or hindered in our faith.
† Third, we can rely upon the Word of our sovereign Lord as the sure foundation for our lives and future hope. As our Lord Jesus said in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matt. 7:24–29).
This wisdom-related Budding Fig Tree Parable 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 world’s lies and shifting sands?
Need help answering that question? If so, you can explore God’s Word for suggestions. After Jesus told the Parable of the Budding Fig tree, he immediately followed up by giving several brief, related parables (in all three synoptic gospels) to reveal the most appropriate response for you to have when you see the signs. Please see what the three gospels recommend.