29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
37 And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. 38 And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him. – Luke 21:29-38 ESV
One can only imagine the look of shock and dismay on the faces of Jesus’ disciples as He continues to disclose the Father’s grand plan of redemption. Ever since they began to follow Jesus, these men had been driven by a shared hope that He was their long-awaited Messiah. Over time, they grew in their confidence that He was the anointed one of Israel, the seed of Abraham and the son of David who would ascend to the throne and re-establish the Davidic dynasty and restore the nation of Israel to power and prominence once again. But in His Olivet Discourse, Jesus seemed to dash their hopes by revealing aspects about the future that did not line up with their expectations. He had already told them that He would be arrested, tried, and put to death in Jerusalem. But now, He was telling them that they too would suffer at the hands of the same men who would put Him to death.
“… they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.” – Luke 21:12 ESV
Then He added insult to injury by declaring that the city of Jerusalem will be invaded and the house of God will be destroyed. He warned them that “there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people” (Luke 21:23 ESV). Then He added…
“…there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity…” – Luke 21:25 ESV
“…people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world…” – Luke 21:26 ESV.
“…the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” – Luke 21:26 ESV
But all of these devastating signs and disturbing events will culminate with His return.
“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” – Luke 21:27 ESV
We tend to read these pronouncements with a sense of apathy because we know how the story ends. We have the completed canon of Scripture and, thanks to the book of Revelation, have been given a glimpse into God’s plan for mankind’s future. We have been given additional details that help make sense of what Jesus was telling His disciples on that fateful evening. They found His words to be cryptic and difficult to comprehend because these cataclysmic events had not been part of their religious training. They were mentally and emotionally unprepared for such things.
But Jesus was attempting to open their eyes and help them develop a long-term perspective regarding His Kingdom. They were focused on the here-and-now, and having trouble understanding that the talk of His coming death in Jerusalem was anything but bad news or something to be avoided at all costs. This entire chapter contains the surprising and difficult-to-comprehend words of Jesus as He reveals the bigger picture regarding God’s plan of redemption. Jesus’ death on the cross would be just the beginning of the much larger, comprehensive plan of God. It would also include His resurrection as well as His return to His Father’s side. But, even more importantly, it would require His eventual return to earth as the conquering King.
And while Jesus knew that there would be a long delay before His return would take place, He wanted His disciples to live with a sense of eager anticipation. If they expected it to happen and kept their eyes open, looking for the signs of its approach, they would be able to endure the struggles that were coming their way.
After deluging His disciples with a tidal wave of disturbing news concerning future events, He gave them a brief respite by telling them a parable. In effect, it was a visual lesson. As they sat on the hillside on the Mount of Olives, there was likely a fig tree nearby. So, Jesus took advantage of its close proximity and said, “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees” (Luke 21:29 ESV).
By diverting His disciples’ attention to the tree, Jesus was using something from the temporal and natural world to convey eternal and spiritual truths. He used the visual lesson of a fig tree in order to help the disciples understand that there would be visible, recognizable signs associated with His coming. The budding of a fig tree was a natural indication that summer was drawing near. It was an unmistakable and irrefutable fact of nature. In the same way, Jesus stated that the signs of His return would be undeniable. He even assured them that “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32 ESV).
But what does that mean? Was He saying that the events associated with the end times would take place during the lifetimes of His disciples? The answer would seem to be no. The appearance of leaves on a fig tree was a sign that summer was approaching. It did not mean that summer had arrived. It simply served as a presage or foreshadowing of what was to come.
Jesus is using this natural phenomenon to disclose that, while they were alive, they would begin to see the early signs of His return. The budding of a fig tree provides a premonition or portent of something else to come. The buds do not mean summer has arrived, but that it is coming. In the same way, the disciples would live to see signs that would point to His eventual and inevitable return. They would not be alive when He returned, but they would be given clear indications that it was going to happen.
Each generation of believers has been given signs that point to His imminent and inevitable return. These signs act as assurances of God’s faithfulness and are meant to encourage us to continue to wait eagerly and hopefully.
Jesus was letting His disciples know that the earth would continue to go through all kinds of struggles, including earthquakes, famines, floods, disasters, and even wars. The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Corinth: “Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away” (1 Corinthians 7:31 NLT). The apostle John wrote, “this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave” (1 John 2:17 NLT). Even Jesus, earlier in this very same discourse, warned His disciples:
“…you will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately. Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in many parts of the world. But all this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come.” – Matthew 24:6-8 NLT
But while there will be clear signs along the way, the actual day and date of the Lord’s return will remain a mystery. We will be given assurances of its coming, but we will not know the exact time. That’s why Jesus commanded them to “stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place” (Luke 21:36 ESV). The days ahead would be difficult. And while the years following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension would be marked by great joy at the birth of the church and its global expansion, Christ’s followers would also encounter tremendous persecution and opposition.
His referral to “this generation” in verse 32 seems to be an indication that the disciples represent a new dispensation or age among mankind. They will become the first fruits of those who make up the church age. But they will also represent all those who live after the cross and who face the choice between salvation through faith in Christ alone or the condemnation and death that come through disbelief.
“This generation” includes all those who will witness Christ’s ascension and all those who will see His second coming. They and the world they inhabit will not be destroyed until all these things take place. Believers and unbelievers will inhabit this planet until the bitter end. And Jesus assures His disciples that they can trust His words. His word will prove more lasting and permanent than the universe itself.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” – Luke 21:33 ESV
The signs they saw along the way were meant to remind them that God’s plan was not yet done. There was more to come. Any persecution they encountered was intended to remind them that He would one day return and complete the redemptive work that God had given Him. In the meantime, while they waited, they were to live with their hopes firmly focused on the promises of the future and refuse to be distracted by the temporal cares of this world.
“…watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” – Luke 21:34 ESV
The signs would come. The difficulties would be real. But the return of the Lord would take place just as God had planned.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.