The parable of the budding fig tree pointed to the imminent destruction of the Temple that Jesus had predicted – Mark 13:28-29.
The parable of the “budding fig tree” provides a graphic illustration of Christ’s answer to the question – “When will these things come to pass?” The image of a fig tree sprouting foliage is the clue for the “when” of the events predicted by him. Its foliage signals the arrival of “summer,” the time when “all these things” will be fulfilled.
When interpreting the parable, it must be borne in mind that Jesus began his discourse on the Mount of Olives by predicting the destruction of the Temple that was standing in his day, the one built by Herod:
- (Mark 13:2-4) – “And Jesus said to him, Do you see these great buildings? There shall not be left here one stone upon another, which shall not be thrown down… Tell us, when shall these things be?”
- (Mark 13:28-29) – “Now from the fig tree learn her parable: when her branch is now become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that the summer is nigh; even so you also, when you see these things coming to pass, know you that he is nigh, even at the doors.”
Often in the Hebrew Bible, the fig tree symbolizes the impending judgment of Yahweh, sometimes against Israel, but also on other nations. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus used the fig tree to symbolize the failure of the Temple to produce the fruit required by Yahweh. Earlier, he cursed the fig tree for its fruitlessness, which symbolized the coming destruction of the Temple – (Isaiah 34:2-4, Jeremiah 29:17, Matthew 21:19-21, Mark 11:13-21).
Likewise in Luke, the parable of the Barren Fig Tree compared the nation of Israel to an unfruitful tree. For three years the landowner expected fruit, but none was produced. Just before he cut down the fig tree, the vinedresser asked for one more year to make it productive – (Luke 13:6-9).
The reference to “three years” links the parable to the ministry of Jesus. God was the owner of the tree, Jesus the vinedresser, and Israel the fruitless fig tree. The parable portrayed the nation’s failure to produce the required fruit and warned of the impending disaster that would befall the nation if Israel did not repent and heed its Messiah.
The placement of the parable of the budding fig tree at this point in the discourse recalls the fig tree that Jesus had previously cursed. It, too, was sprouting leaves, nevertheless, it was completely barren of fruit:
- (Mark 11:13) – “And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs. And he answered and said -to it, No man eat fruit from you hence forth forever. And his disciples heard it. ”
The depiction of the budding fig tree is called a “parable,” a teaching device that uses an analogy to make its point. Jesus described how a fig tree sprouts foliage prior to “summer.” The arrival of new leaves was a sure sign of the latter’s imminence. The lesson was that “when you see these things happening, you know that it is near”; that is, the “summer” – (In the Greek clause, the pronoun is neuter or “it,” as is the noun rendered “summer”).
The fig tree represents the series of events referenced by “these things,” events the disciples will witness, including “birth pains,” persecution, “false prophets,” the proclamation of the gospel to all the nations, and the appearance of the “abomination that desolates” – (Mark 13:2-13).
The use of the Greek demonstrative pronoun tauta or “these things” stems from his prediction of the Temple’s destruction (“Do you see these great buildings?”). Jesus applied it to the things the disciples would see leading up to its desecration and demise.
It was vital for the disciples to understand this outline of coming events, especially the arrival of the “abomination of desolation,” so they would know when to flee the city. They would see these catastrophic events unfold before their own eyes – (“This generation”).
The parable of the Budding Fig Tree is a pictorial description of the events that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. When the disciples saw “summer” approaching, they knew that the judgment on the Temple was at hand, and therefore, presumably, they “fled to the mountains.”