Ellen G. White Writings

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The Signs of the Times

February 15, 1899

The Barren Fig Tree

“And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, He was hungry; 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 the time of figs was not yet.”

It was not a common thing in the East for a fig tree to present full foliage so early in the season. It is the nature of the fig tree for the fruit to make its appearance before the leaves. Therefore upon a tree covered with leaves one might expect to find well-developed figs. Christ approached the tree, expecting to find fruit upon it; but after searching from the lowest bough to the topmost twig, He found nothing but leaves. And Christ uttered against it a withering curse.

The next morning as the Saviour and His disciples were again wending their way to the city, the blasted branches and drooping leaves attracted their attention. “Master,” said Peter, “behold the fig tree which Thou cursedst is withered away.”

This instance in the ministry of Christ was a singular one. It was unlike His ways and works. We trace His life, and see that His acts were ever performed to restore, not to destroy. He scattered mercy wherever He went, in words of counsel and deeds of goodness. He came not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. The disciples could not understand this act in punishing a tree for its barrenness, and they said, “Declare unto us the parable of the fig tree.”

It was the purpose of Christ that this fig tree should teach His disciples a lesson. He desired to impress upon them the true state of Jerusalem, and her final doom; and to do this He invested the tree with moral qualities, and made it the expositor of divine truth. Just before this Christ had made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. For the second time He had cleansed the temple, driving out from its courts the traffickers, saying: “Take these things hence.” “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” Dishonest dealing was practised by the men who brought cattle to sell in the temple courts; but the word of command was given; divinity flashed through humanity, and no trafficker or priest in his gorgeous dress looking on that countenance dared to remain. In haste all fled from the temple courts. Now under the symbol of the blighted tree Christ presents before His disciples the righteous anger of God in the destruction of Jerusalem. That tree flaunting its pretentious foliage in the very face of Christ was a symbol of the Jewish nation, who had been separating from God until, in their pride and apostasy, they had lost their power of discernment, and knew not their Redeemer.

The Jewish nation had indeed been the favored people of God. The Majesty of heaven had been their leader in the wilderness. He had brought them water out of the flinty rock; He had given them bread from heaven to satisfy their hunger. He had turned from them the wrath of God when their iniquities had called forth His anger. And after more than a thousand years of blessings bestowed and blessings withdrawn, He fulfilled His purpose of coming to the world in person. He veiled His divinity with humanity. Had Christ come in His divine form, humanity could not have endured the sight. The contrast would have been too painful, the glory too overwhelming. Humanity could not have endured the presence of one of the pure, bright angels from glory; therefore Christ took not on Him the nature of angels; He came in the likeness of men.

But thirty years was all that the world could endure of its Redeemer. For thirty years He dwelt in a world all seared and marred with sin, doing the work that no other one ever had done or ever could do. And for three years He waited, and prayed, and worked, and wept, crying, “Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backsliding.” “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” But the Jewish nation would not receive their Messiah. Throughout the years of His public ministry they sought to put Him to death; and this act was to prove their ruin.

The Gentile world was represented by the leafless, fruitless fig trees. The Gentiles were destitute, as were the Jews, of godliness, but they had not claimed to be in favor with God. They made no boast of exalted spirituality. They were blind in every sense to the ways and works of God, With them the time for figs was not yet. They were still looking forward to a day which would bring them light and hope.

The Jews as a nation had laid claim to righteousness above every other people, while they stood out in proud defiance of God. As a people they were self-confident, exalted, selfish, and boastful. The barren tree was a fit representation of them. Ambition, and erroneous views in regard to Christ's advent, had deceived the Jewish nation, and when Christ came as the meek and lowly One, they would not receive Him. Israel had perverted the Scriptures, and had taught for doctrine the commandments of men. They made void the law of God through their traditions. That law which they claimed to observe so strictly, they made a yoke of bondage. Satan had put his leaven into the most precious, everlasting truth, to make of none effect God's sacred institution.

The law of God, if observed with heart obedience, would have produced altogether a different influence; but vainglory, selfishness, and oppression marked the character of the Jews. They were proudly displaying their ceremonies before the very face of Christ, who was the foundation and center of the whole Jewish economy, while they rejected the Antitype of all their types, the Substance of all their shadows. They were so blinded by Satan that they knew not the time of their visitation. And God declared, “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself.”

Christ had often sought the Father in anguish of spirit, as He beheld the situation of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Often in the lonely mountains He had prayed with strong crying and tears, because that of all the people on the face of the earth, none were so filled with bitterness and hatred against Him as were those who had been favored with every temporal and spiritual advantage. This was the people for whom the Son of God had done so much, in order that they might become a treasure-house of rich truth, to impart the same to the world. Those who claimed to know God were opening their hearts to the attributes of Satan. In the blighted fig tree Christ sees the ruin of the nation, and the sight draws tears to His eyes.

The bright future of prosperity and glory which Jerusalem might have enjoyed rises before Him. Had Jerusalem but known the time of her visitation, had she accepted the world's Redeemer, she would have been healed of her grievous malady; she would have been exalted as the world's metropolis. No Roman army would have stood at her gates. No Roman yoke would have rested upon her shoulders. As the favored citadel of truth, the dove of peace would have gone forth from her to all the nations of the earth. She would have been as a diadem of glory to her God.

But instead of this, Christ sees Jerusalem surrounded with the besieging army. He sees the inhabitants suffering from starvation, delicate mothers slaying and eating their own children, fathers, mothers, and children contending for a morsel of food, and forcing the fragments from the mouths of their starving relatives. He sees the gates open to the invaders, and those who have defied them and refused to surrender, He sees suffering beneath the scourge, the rack, and the cross. He sees Jerusalem in ruins, the beautiful, costly temple, the pride of the nation, torn down until not one stone is left upon another. Its site is plowed as a field. Terrible picture. The sight calls forth deep emotion from the Son of God.

The explanation of this strange act of Christ in the cursing of the fig tree was to stand as a living, warning appeal to all Christian churches. The blighted tree was to repeat its lesson in every age to the close of earth's history. God is looking for piety, self-denial, self-sacrifice, compassion for man, and zeal for God. He longs to see in man a deep yearning of soul to save his fellow-man from unbelief and ruin. But the present condition of the Christian churches is similar to the condition of the Jews in Christ's day. The Lord and all heaven behold the fruitless fig tree. They see men trampling upon the law of Jehovah, making the covenant between Him and His commandment-keeping people a thing of naught. But to the people who trample upon that law which God has ordained, Christ says, as He said to the Jewish nation, “Thou hast destroyed thyself.”

Mrs. E. G. White

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