I've always found the fig to be a funny, odd sort of fruit. Ficus carica, also known as the common fig. It's so common in fact that we take it for granted that figs are an important fruit in the Scriptures. Jesus ate figs long before they became a trendy super-fruit in pudding (and ridiculous Christmas songs), Jamba Juice smoothies and of course my favorites, Fig Newtons. Maybe it's because they look funny or because they've been abused and misused in so many holiday dishes, but we rarely think about this fruit's significance (or should we say, fig-nificance...sorry, couldn't help myself) in the Scriptures. That is, until Jesus uses the fig tree as an illustration both of the temple's destruction and his own return in glory (Mark 13).
28 “Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender, and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So you also, when you see these things happening, know that it is near—at the doors! 30 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.
Of all the flora available in ancient Israel, Jesus mentions a common fig tree. Why not a palm tree or an olive tree or a pomegranate tree? What's with the fig?
At least three reasons come to mind: 1) The nature of the tree and its fruit. Figs are peculiar; normally they bear a rather mundane, pear-like appearance. There's not much to look at on the outside. Its beauty is hidden, locked inside a hollow, shell-like receptacle. Only when the fruit is cut open do you see the rich colors and seeds, the unseen flowering jewel of the fig tree. The town of Bethpage receives its name from this tree, meaning "house of figs."
Fig trees also happen to be plentiful and hardy. Jesus would have had about as much trouble finding a fig tree as we have finding a Starbucks. Different varieties of figs are available in season at least nine to ten months out of the year. Being fruit trees, they lose their leaves and regain them again, just as Jesus mentions. Also, their fruit ripens on the branch. Both images give us a visual, agricultural illustration of Jesus' promised return: fruit ripening, ready for the picking and harvesting and, of course, eating! And the fig tree springing back to life. Not a fig tree in the dead of winter, lying dormant. Although the Scriptures do use the fig tree as a warning and illustration of judgment (Isaiah 34:4; Jeremiah 5:17; 8:13; Hosea 2:12; Joel 1:7; ; Matthew 21:19; Mark 11:13). GOD HATES FIGS PIC. But rather, the fig tree with its sap surging through its branches; leaves sprouting. Spring time giving way to summer. A sign of growth, not decay.A sign of life, not death. A sign of the new creation, not the old. The endless summer is near. Christ is at the gates. Keep watch!
And that leads to one last horticultural significance of the fig tree: it's typically planted typically near vineyards, provides a great deal of shade with its thick canopy and feeds off of deep, cool water. (Similar to Old Man Willow in The Hobbit - 'What be you a-thinking of? You should not be waking. Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water! Go to sleep! Bombadil is talking!') All of theses images form a grove of eschatological biblical images signalling the coming Messianic kingdom and Christ's new creation. Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a tree upon whose branches the birds gather (Matthew 13) and Revelation reminds us that the lush shade of the fig tree also foreshadows the very presence of the Lamb in his kingdom who shelters his saints with his presence. The scorching heat of judgment and Satan's fiery arrows will not strike us there as we rest beside the still waters flowing from the throne of the Lamb (Revelation 7 and 21).
2) Throughout the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is also compared to a fig, at times for judgment as noted above, but also as a sign of Israel's vitality on account of YHWH's blessing (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4). Hezekiah is even cured of boils when a cake of figs is placed upon his wounds. In Jesus day, the nation of Israel had ripened with expectation for a coming Messiah. The one they got was a lot like the fig: rather odd looking and seemingly insignificant. But this Messiah was ripe with salvation. Thus it was in the fullness of time that God sent forth his Son, fruit of a Virgin's womb, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born under the Law to redeem us who are under the Law. From Mary's womb sprouted Abraham's seed and the seed of the woman that had been promised to Eve - and all creation - before hand in the form of a curse to Satan.
"Truly truly I say to you, heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away," Jesus says. How fitting.
3) It's no accident or coincidence that Jesus uses the fig tree for his divine object lessons. After all, it was a fig tree that gave its leaves to cover Adam and Eve's nakedness and shame. They did not want to reveal their wayward humility before YHWH. But God uncovered their sin. He knew the truth. Just as Christ will come to reveal all things at his judgment - both sin and righteousness. But the hope and comfort of the Last Day is that we will not stand before God in nakedness and shame covered in fig leaves or any other filthy garments of self-righteousness. Our dead and decaying garments of the fall have been replaced. Instead of a leafy death-shroud, we are given new robes, washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb. Just as there was a sacrifice in the garden to clothe Adam and Eve from humility and shame. So too, there is a greater sacrifice to clothe you. You are clothed in Christ's humility; He bore your shame and guilt and death for you, just as he did for Adam and Eve.
Leave your fig leaves behind and rejoice for you are covered in Christ's righteousness, without shame, guilt or sin; you stand before God justified a new creation. Christ hung in nakedness and humility and shame so that we can stand before the Father clothed in Christ's peace and righteousness forever. He bowed his head so that we could lift up ours in praise and thanks forever. He took on our filthy garments and clothes us with his death and resurrection. He bore the scorching heat of God's wrath and judgment over sin so that we can sit in the cool shade of his cross and await his second coming.
And like the fruit of the fig tree, Christ's glory is found in His wounds, in being cut open for the sins of the world. Christ's salvation is plentiful and abundant. In Christ you lack no good thing. His vineyard is fruitful and fills to the brim our cup of blessing. As we sing in the hymn, Christ's cross is now our tree of life that bears fruit in all seasons for us. New life. New heavens. New earth. New you.
By pointing to the fig tree as a sign of his return Jesus is pointing to the new creation that springs forth out of the root and stump of Jesse, a living shoot. All that Adam had sown Christ reaps and sows salvation for us by water and the promise that it will grow and live as he has promised (Isaiah 55:10). Adam's fig leaves were a sign of guilt and shame. But Jesus undoes all that on the cross. The curse is cast out. And Eden is restored to greater glory. Jesus' fig leaves are a sign - not of sin and death - but of life. Life in his cross. Life in his resurrection. Life in his return in glory. Life in his kingdom which has no end. Life in the fruit of his death and resurrection: the succulent wine of his blood that is pressed down and shaken out in his passion; take, drink! He gives you his flesh as bread, the harvest of fine wheat, sifted in Satan's sieve, baked in the fire of God's wrath and given to you to eat. Paradise is restored in the Holy Supper. Taste and see that the Lord is good.
You are rooted in that goodness and mercy, grafted into Christ the vine by the cool, deep water of the font. Your Baptism buried you into his death like a seed so that what was sown in corruption might be sown incorruptible in Jesus resurrection. And like the fig, you too bear fruit.
All of this is a sign - not yours or mine - but Jesus' sign. A sign that the gardener will tend and prune his plants (when he must) and will bring to ripen, a harvest unlike any other. For he himself is the first fruits of our resurrection. From the fig tree, learn its lesson...When its branch has already become tender, and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that it is near—at the doors!
O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign before the peoples, before whom all kings are mute, to whom the nations will do homage: Come quickly to deliver us.