July 16, 2017
So this week, I was in the office, actually preparing the sermon for this morning. Sue Waters, who volunteers in the front office, was telling me her sister, Joanna, who also goes to our church, is going to Jerusalem to teach for an entire year. Sue said, “I told her, that’s no problem – Mark 14 has 72 verses in it.” That has nothing to do with my sermon – I just thought I’d let you know others think the same way you do.
If you have been a Christian for any period of time, you know there have been many spurious, fanciful, even crazy interpretations of the Bible through the years. Some that cause you to shake your head in disbelief. In his book Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson gives this humorous anecdote to demonstrate how some approach biblical interpretation. The piece is entitled, Why are Fire Engines Red?[Well, that’s easy,] They have four wheels and eight men;
Four plus eight is twelve;
Twelve inches make a ruler;
A ruler is Queen Elizabeth;
Queen Elizabeth sails the seven seas;
The seven seas have fish;
The fish have fins
The Finns hate the Russians;
The Russians are red;
Fire engines are always rushin’;
So they’re red.
What exactly did that say? Who knows? But it is unfortunate many approach Bible interpretation just that way – making connections that aren’t there, assigning meanings that aren’t there, searching for secrets behind the natural and obvious meaning of the text, applying numerical codes to expose hidden meanings. Listening to them makes you feel like you need this best seller (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Bible), or its companion, (The Bible for Dummies). And as a result, we arrive at interpretations that neither the human author, nor the divine author, the Spirit of God, ever intended.
The point of all that is, the obvious reading of the text is usually the right meaning of the text. That’s not to say we should not be involved in Bible study to plumb its depths. I believe there is inexhaustible value to the Word of God and we should commit our lives to learning and growing by it. But, we must apply simple biblical hermeneutics – hermeneutics is the science of biblical interpretation, meaning, we must try to understand what the author meant without inventing crazy stuff. We must be careful about coming up with things no one ever thought of before. Listen, if you come up with an interpretation no one ever has, you’re probably wrong.
I have challenged us over the past few weeks in our study of the Olivet Discourse to take the clear and obvious meaning of the text. Complex, spurious, fanciful interpretations are found most often in prophetic passages. Never is that more true than the Olivet Discourse and the passage at which we arrive today – Mark 13:28-31. As we read the text, you’ll find these are familiar verses, but we’re going to have to clear out some clutter – some things we’ve maybe heard before – and deal with the clear meaning of the passage. Read it with me.
So, I don’t know if you realize it, but we have a problem. What is this fig tree Jesus is talking about? And what are all these things that will happen? And who or what is standing at the door? And during whose generation? What is, and how long is a generation?
Why is this a problem? Well, some have suggested Jesus was just plain got it wrong – that indeed His words have passed away into erroneous obscurity. Others have come up with all kinds of crazy interpretations for the fig tree, these things, and the generation just to make sense of the text – to fix what Jesus said – or to support their system of prophecy. As I suggested a couple weeks ago, it is this passage among others that caused British philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell to write, Why I Am Not a Christian. He thought Jesus was wrong in this text. So while we may read this and think, it’s not that hard, or, how is he going to get a whole sermon out of that – know that we have deep waters to navigate. (Family Worship Sunday)
We must remember, Jesus is answering two of His disciples questions, namely, when will these things be, that is, when is the Temple going to be destroyed, and what will be the sign of Your coming? When are you coming back? Jesus gave an extended answer, known as the Olivet Discourse.
One of the first things He wanted to do was clear up some misconceptions for the disciples, which we have successfully used to create our own misconceptions. Listen guys, there are going to be lots of things along the way – things that will point to the coming destruction of the Temple. But listen, these are just the beginning of birth pains, the end is not yet. You will hear of and experience false christs and wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines. You will be delivered over to tribulation and persecution. Not only you, but My followers throughout history are going to experience these things which will cause them to long for My coming. But it’s not yet the end.
And you, disciples – you are going to see the sign – the precursor of the destruction – known as the abomination of desolation. Lots of discussion as to whether there will be another before His coming – I think perhaps – but this one is clearly talking about the destruction of the Temple. If there is any doubt, Luke 21 clears it up: when you see the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem, you’ll know its desolation is near, flee to the mountains. The abomination of desolation was associated with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. And again He says, false christs and false prophets will continue to arise, so as to mislead the elect – but don’t worry about, that won’t be possible. I will take care of My elect. But here’s another misconception – these two events – the destruction of the Temple and My return – are not the same thing. They are separated by at least a couple thousand years now. We’ll come back to that.
So, the sign for the destruction – the abomination. You want to know what the sign of My coming will be? You’ll know it when you see it. There will be cosmic disturbances – after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the heaven, and powers in heaven will be shaken. When you observe these cataclysmic, cosmic supernatural wonders, then you’ll know. When you see the sign of the Son of Man appear in the sky, then you’ll know. When you see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory, then you’ll know. When you hear the trumpet, then you’ll know. And when you see the angels of God gather the elect from the four corners of the earth so that not one is missing, then you’ll know. You will not miss the coming of Christ, and neither will anyone else. Make no mistake about it – everyone will know. Some will rejoice, many will mourn.
So learn, then, the parable of the fig tree, which brings us to our text today. Before we jump into it, let me give you the outline – it’s really quite simple:
- The [Elusive] Parable of the Fig Tree (28)
- The Meaning of the Parable (29-30)
- The Certainty of the Parable (31)
Let’s start with the Parable of the Fig Tree in verse 28, and then we’ll look at Jesus’ interpretation in verses 29-30. You see, we don’t have to invent interpretations – Jesus gives it to us right in the text.
But this is where it gets kind of squirrelly, and I have to do some teaching. Jesus is answering the when question – when will these things be and how will we know it? He set them straight by saying there will be lots of things to point to the coming destruction, but the end is not yet. So, learn the parable of the fig tree. When you see its branches becoming tender and it’s starting to leaf out, you know summer is near. Now, the question is, to what does the fig tree parable point – the coming destruction or the coming of Christ?
For almost 70 years now, there have been those who have speculated the fig tree in this parable is Israel, and when Israel achieved statehood, when it became a nation in 1948, this parable was being fulfilled – the fig tree was putting forth its leaves, and this generation (the generation alive when Israel became a nation in 1948) would not pass away until Jesus came back. A generation was seen as 40 years, which is why, by the way, so many people thought Jesus would come back by 1988. That year was a big guess year – 88 Reasons for the Rapture in 1988 and all that. In case you haven’t noticed, 1988 has come, and gone, which means, either a generation is longer than 40 years, or the fig tree is not Israel, or the generation Jesus was talking about was not the last generation until His return – in other words, we’ve misinterpreted the parable.
How many of you have heard that before –this parable refers to Israel becoming a nation? Can I tell you I don’t know of one credible Bible scholar who holds that position – not one. They all mention it and talk about how ridiculous it is. It a perfect example of reading a current event back into the pages of Scripture. Let me tell you, the fig tree is not Israel – Jesus never referred to Israel as a fig tree. The parable of the fig tree is rather straightforward – quite simple – but there are some things to clear up.
We’ve talked about the fig tree before – it was used throughout Scripture for analogies because it was grown in abundance in Israel – people grew them in their yards, there were fig groves – they even grew along the side of the road. It was an important agricultural commodity – everyone knew about fig trees. So, Jesus takes this common, everyday item – a tree – and lays it alongside a spiritual truth to illuminate that truth – that’s what a parable does. When you see the fig tree branches get tender because of the rising of the sap, when you see it start to leaf out, what do you know? Summer is almost here. That’s the simple meaning of the parable. To make specific assignments to the fig tree or the leaves or the summer is to take it beyond what Jesus said. I would say it this way, since the dogwood is one of my favorite trees – when you see those beautiful white blooms, you know summer is almost here.
We’re not left to wonder – in verses 29-30 Jesus explains the parable – so also, when you see all these things happen. Stop right there – what are all these things? Jesus used that phrase back in verse 4 when the disciples asked, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled? Then, in verse 8, these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs – what things? All those things that happened till the destruction of the Temple – and frankly beyond. Wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, persecutions. These must take place, remember, but they are the not the signs – they are simply the beginning of birth pangs, pointing to the destruction of Jerusalem. So, when you see these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door.
Now, that’s a bit confusing. He is right at the door – is that referring to Jesus and the second coming? Because you said those things primarily pointed to the destruction, not His coming. And there’s the problem. If it refers to His coming, He didn’t come within a generation of His listeners, He didn’t come within a generation of Israel becoming a nation. Jesus must have been wrong.
Not exactly. You see, the word He could be translated it – and it actually depends on your interpretation of the text. So if we translate, know that it is coming – then it would be referring to the destruction of the Temple. A viable translation. In fact, I think the chapter could be outlined this way:
- The Coming Destruction of the Temple (1-23)
- The Coming of Christ (24-27)
- A Parable Concerning the Coming Destruction (28-31)
- A Parable Concerning the Coming of Christ (32-37)
Now, if you’ve been taking notes, you’ll notice I’ve slightly adjusted that from my introduction to Mark 13 a few weeks ago. But it’s basically the same. The point is, Jesus says in verses 29-30, when you see all these things, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. And that presents an interpretive challenge. And these verses have caused countless people through the centuries to try to identify signs – is that a leaf? How about that one? Must mean Christ is coming in our generation. People have always thought Jesus would come in their generation, and in a sense – they’re right – He could have come in their generation, and He could come in ours. The precursors, the leaves are all around us, we need to be prepared.
Again, this passage has been notoriously difficult to interpret. So, some have suggested Jesus was mistaken. Jesus was simply wrong. Since He didn’t know the day or the hour He was coming back, He just assumed it would be soon, and this generation, that is, the generation of the disciples, would be alive to see His second coming. Oh, but He was wrong. Does that cause a problem for anyone besides me? If He was wrong about that, what else was He wrong about? We are going to talk about this not knowing the timing of His own return next week, but let me assure you, Jesus didn’t make a mistake – rather, I believe, we have – we have misinterpreted His words.
The key to interpreting this passage falls on two understandings: First, what is these things referring to, and second, who is this generation. There have been tons of interpretations, but let me review two of the most prominent ones before we look at the most obvious, straightforward approach. We’re going to stay away from fire engines today.
You may remember when we began the Olivet Discourse, I said there were basically 3 or 4 approaches to interpreting the discourse. One is called the preterist approach, which teaches everything Jesus talked about in Mark 13 was fulfilled by 70 AD. You should know the reason they hold that is because of these verses. This is what they say: Jesus said all these things, which must refer to everything He’s said up to this point, from verses 5-30, will take place before this generation passes away – so it did, by 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed. So, they say, verses 24-27 which we looked at last week, isn’t talking about the second coming, but Jesus coming in judgment on the nation of Israel, specifically Jerusalem, for its rejection of Him. So, this generation refers to the generation of the disciples. Obviously, I don’t fully hold that view since I taught last week verses 24-27 are talking about the second coming.
The second view is the futurist view. The futurist view teaches much, if not all of what Jesus talked about in Mark 13 is still future. Yes, they say, there have been wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, but nothing like it will be near the end. So also, the abomination of desolation will take place in the future, in the middle of the 7 year tribulation. And also, the events of verses 24-27 are speaking of the future second coming. So for them, all these things refers to the future, and this generation is the future generation, whenever that is, which will see the coming of Christ.
I personally don’t think either of those positions are completely right, so let’s take the most straightforward, obvious approach to the text. In verse 30, Jesus says, when you see these things, then you’ll know He or it is near. So again, what is all these things? It must be the events of verses 4-23, which I’ve described as birth pains, which took place till 70 AD and beyond – throughout the church age – false christs, wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, believers handed over to tribulation, and the abomination of desolation, leading to the destruction of the Temple.
So, verse 30, this generation will not pass away until all these things are fulfilled – all what things? The road signs along the way, to include the abomination of desolation. I know this is really detailed, more than you probably want to know, but trust me – this has been the source of endless debate. When you see the abomination, this generation will not pass away until the Temple is destroyed.
This generation, I believe, is the generation Jesus was talking to – the generation of the disciples. The words are used that way two other times in Mark to refer to the present generation to whom He was talking. And it fits with the way we’ve interpreted Mark 13. Disciples, you will not pass away until you personally see everything that I’ve talked about, all these things, take place. You’re going to see the destruction of Jerusalem. You’ll seen the birth pangs – so be prepared. And not only will you see them, but so will every generation following you. We’ve said it before – the second coming has always been right around the corner – it’s always been the next event on the prophetic calendar. He could have come right after 70 AD over 1900 years ago, He could come today, and He could come later – we see these things and long for Christ and should be prepared. We’re always supposed to be prepared and looking for His return. From the first generation, who saw all the signs, through our current generation who continues to see the signs, to the last generation who will see the signs. Jesus is coming back – be prepared.
Which brings us to the third point and our conclusion – always be prepared, because of the certainty of My words. Regardless of how you read and interpret this chapter – this you can know for sure. Jesus is coming back – heaven and earth will pass away, but My word never will. There are lots of passages that talk about the present heaven and earth passing away – but the point is, all of the created universe will pass away – but never His words. My words are more sure than the universe.
And so, here we are, 2,000 years after Jesus ascended and said, He’s coming back. And just like Peter said, people have always ignored the warnings. We can fix this broken planet. Have they? We can fix famines – have they? We can fix wars – have they? We can fix earthquakes – at least know when their coming to minimize their destruction – have they? “Where is this coming He promised” they scoff, “for all things remain just the same, just like it was in the days of our fathers. You guys are nuts to believe this stuff” – and the Son will come in judgment and sweep them all away. Don’t misinterpret His not coming for 2000 years as a failure – He will come – to Him, in the flow of II Peter there, to Him a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day. And His not coming yet is not a failure to keep the promise – rather, it is a demonstration of His patience – because God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But one day, the last person to be saved will be saved, and Jesus will come back.
Therefore, Jesus says to His disciples of all ages, be on the alert. Be prepared. Can I tell you in closing this morning that the purpose of knowing Jesus is coming back is not to try and guess when – let’s stop chasing that fire truck. The purpose is to be on the alert and be prepared.