NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 32: “The fig tree teaches us a lesson: When its branches become green and soft, and new leaves begin to grow, then you know that summer is very near.”
With Jesus’ introduction of the fig tree into the conversation, the focus now shifts away from what He said would actually happen to a precursor that would catch every believer’s attention to the signs of the time. That’s why we must not concentrate on the fig tree, but on what happens to the fig tree during its growth and maturation that announces summer is on its way. To this several early church writers had something to say.
Early church Bishop Hilary of Poitiers offers this commentary: “Both this fig tree and this summer are very different from those found in nature. In nature, there is a considerable interval between the onset of summer and the greening of a tree’s branches, which begin to grow tender early in the spring. Consequently, this parable cannot be about the tree. We saw that Adam had covered himself with its leaves to hide his shameful conscience, which is to say that he was bound under the law as though clothed in sin. The fig tree’s branch, therefore, represents the Antichrist, who is a son of the devil, a partaker of sin and protector of the law. When it begins to grow tender and green, then the summer, which here represents the day of judgment, is near. The greening of the tree then refers to the rise of sinners, a time that will be marked by the flowering of slanderers and the popularity of criminals and favor for blasphemers. This signals that summer, the heat of eternal fire, is near.”1
From my study of early church writings, especially the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers, I have not found many, if any, that agree with this bishop in France. Chrysostom, who comes some fifty years later, gives us this to think about: “The time is ‘immediately after the tribulation of those days.’ After how long a time would it be? They desired to know in particular the very day. So He puts forth the analogy of the fig tree. He indicates that the interval was not great but that in quick succession these things would occur at His advent. He declared this not by the parable of the fig tree alone but by the words that follow. He foretells a spiritual summer, a calm for the righteous that would come on that day, after the storm. But to sinners, on the contrary, there would be winter after summer, which he declares in what follows, saying that the day shall come upon them when they are living in luxury. For these two purposes, He spoke about the fig tree: in order to declare the short interval and to underscore that these things assuredly will come to pass. It was possible for Him to have demonstrated this in other ways, but He chose the fig tree as an example of a necessary series of things occurring in sequence.”2 So, in Chrysostom’s mind, the key was noting that Jesus was talking about how one thing would lead to another, thereby sending out signals that the prophesied event was drawing near.
Verse 33: “In the same way, when you see all these things happening, you will know that the time is very near, already present.”
When Jesus speaks of these signs pointing to the fact that what is going to happen is near, we find some interesting comments on this. In the Ethiopic Version of Matthew, it reads, “…the Son of Man is near, even at the doors.” The Latin Vulgate renders it, “…the Son of Man is in the gates,” as does Münster’s Hebrew Version of Matthew. In fact, the Rabbis in Europe constructed Hebrew versions of the Gospel of Matthew as part of their polemical debate with the Catholic church. They were the Shem-Tob’s Matthew, Du Tillet Matthew, and the Münster Matthew versions. What Jesus said signifies a warning that He was already on the scene. Thus the fig tree putting forth its leaves is a sign that summer is not only near but has already come, even though springtime has not yet finished.
Those who watch weather reports know the difference between a storm watch and a storm warning. A storm watch is when forecasters track the advancement of a storm as it approaches a given area. This alerts the population that they need to make preparations in case the storm does arrive when predicted and with the expected fury. A storm warning is an announcement that a severe storm will occur and people are alerted to evacuate if necessary or take all precautions in order to make it through the storm no matter how severe. With this in mind, we can see that Jesus was issuing signs for both a watch and a warning of when the end would be near and His impending coming about to take place.
In other words, when these signs appear it will mean that the return of the Messiah is imminent, not just anticipated. But there is another factor to consider here. As Matthew recorded all of what he could remember about the Lord’s teaching on His return, we are not given any specific timeline. The subject we find in verses 30-31 clearly says that everyone will be able to see Him descend from heaven. But starting here in verse 32 there seems to be a shift in what coming He is referring to.
This one will be a surprise to everyone, even those who may be awaiting His return. This gives some scholars the impression that Jesus is now talking about His return to resurrect the believers and transforms those still alive. Others, however, accept this as the period during the Tribulation when those Jews who’ve come to believe are taken into heaven. And to assure His listeners that He means what He says, Jesus tells them that the universe will collapse before His word will be found untrue.
In Isaiah, we find a similar expression about God’s goodness, “Look up to the heavens! Look around you at the earth below! The skies may disappear like clouds of smoke. The earth may become like worthless old clothes. The people on earth may all die, but my salvation will continue forever. My goodness will never end.”3 Or as the Lord told Jeremiah, “The descendants of Israel will never stop being a nation. That would happen only if I lost control of the sun, moon, stars, and sea.”4 Certainly, Old Testament prophet Balaam was on the mark when he said, “God is not a man who is prone to lie; God is not a human being who inclined to change His mind. If He says He will do something, then He will do it. If He makes a promise, then He will do what He promised.”5 And king David attested to this in his song, “The Lord’s teachings are perfect. They give strength to His people. The Lord’s rules can be trusted. They help even the foolish become wise.”6
And, Agur ben Jakeh (or Yakeh) from Massa, who may be a descendant of the seventh son of Ishmael,7 made this point: “You can trust this: Every word that God speaks is true. God is a sure place for those who seek His counsel.”8 One Jewish rendition says: “Every word of God is zestful.”9 Rabbi Abun the Levite Berabbi took this to mean: “as zestful as pepper.”10 But here’s how God put it: “In the same way, my words leave my mouth, and they don’t come back without results. My words make the things happen that I want to happen. They succeed in doing what I send them to do.”11
Verse 34: “I assure you that all these things will happen while these people are still living.”
On this text, Chrysostom has this to say to his congregation: “All these things. What things? Those about Jerusalem, those about the wars, about the famines, about the pestilences, about the earthquakes, about the false Christs, about the false prophets, about the sowing of the gospel everywhere, the seditions, the tumults, and all the other things which we said were to occur until His coming. Who does He refer to when He says ‘this generation?’ He is speaking not of the generation then living but of the age of believers. For he is prone to distinguish a generation not by times only but also by the mode of their religious service and practice, as when he says, ‘Such is the generation of those that seek Him.’1 He said ‘all these things will take place,’ and yet the gospel will be preached.’ These two are not inconsistent. The generation of the faithful shall remain through all things that will surely come to pass. The faithful will not be cut off by any of the things that have been mentioned. For both Jerusalem shall be destroyed and a large part of the Jews shall be decimated, but over this generation—the faithful—nothing shall prevail, not famine, not pestilence, not earthquake, not the tumults of wars, not false Christs, not false prophets, not deceivers, not traitors, not those that cause to offend, not the false brothers, nor any other such temptation whatever.”13
The interpretation of this verse has been a matter of much debate and disagreement between scholars down through the centuries. One scholar said that the key to understanding what Jesus meant by ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things take place’ is the context. In other words, we must understand the surrounding verses, especially the verses prior to it. Jesus is clearly giving a prophecy; He is speaking of future events. Jesus had already told those living during His earthly ministry that the kingdom had been taken from them. Therefore, it is imperative that this verse must be seen as dealing with a future time.
The generation that Jesus speaks of ‘not passing’ until He returns is a future generation, namely, the people living at the time when the predicted events occur. So, to be clear, the generation Jesus was speaking of was not the ones standing in front of Him. Remember, He was instructing His disciples, not those who would start seeing the calamities He spoke of coming into view. I heard one prophecy preacher lecture that with Jesus’ prophecy of the regathering of the Jews back into their homeland, this was to be understood as the reestablishment of the State of Israel in 1949. Therefore, the generation to see that happen would also be the one to see these calamities take place and some of them would live long enough to see our Lord’s return.
Think about this: Had Jesus returned to resurrect and transform the saints within just one hundred years after this statement, the Gospel would have hardly penetrated the darkness of the world to save its inhabitants. Since God paid such a heavy price by sacrificing His Son to settle the price of redemption, He wants as many as possible to benefit from this act of grace and mercy.
1 Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew, 26.2
2 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 77.1
3 Isaiah 51:6; cf. 54:10
4 Jeremiah 31:36
5 Numbers 23:19
6 Psalm 19:7
7 See Genesis 25:13
8 Proverbs 30:5
9 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, op. cit., Piska 12:13, p. 318
11 Isaiah 55:11
12 Psalm 24:6
13 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 77.1