Wrote the apostle John to his fellow Christians, “Little children it is the last hour. . . .” He here had reference to a period that set in with the advent of Christ and that will end with Christ’s second coming. Another designation of this period is the term “New Dispensation”. We are living in this last hour, and, judging from certain signs, to which I purpose to call your attention in this writing, in the last half or quarter of this hour. There is the fig tree, the church, presented by Christ in one of His parables as barren. The parable reads, “A certain man had a fig-tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of the vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on the fig-tree and find none: cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground? And he answered and said unto him, Lord, let it alone for this year also, till I shall dig about it and dung it. And if it bear fruit well; and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down,” Luke 12:6-9.
The parable concerns, in the first instance, the church of the Old Dispensation,—the Israelitish nation. And it rose before the eye of Christ a fig-tree that at the time of His sojourn among us, bore no fruit for its owner. This it should have done; for it belonged not to itself but to its owner who had planted it. In his ground it grew. Upon his soil it fed. The tree was not its own but its planter’s. For him it should have been bearing fruit. But it bore no fruit. It took all and gave nothing. What an abominable tree! How utterly useless! It was a tree worthy to be cut down and given over to the flames.
This tree is Israel, the Church. The Lord had chosen Israel to be a people for His own possession above all peoples. He brought them out with a mighty hand and redeemed them out of the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Forty years He led them in the wilderness. He fed them with manna which neither they nor their fathers knew, that He might make them know that man lives not by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord. Their raiment had not waxed old upon them, neither had their feet swelled those forty years. As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them up, beareth them upon her wings, so the Lord alone did lead Israel. And He brought them in a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills, a land of wheat, and barley, and vines and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil, and honey; a land where they did eat bread without scarceness, and where they lacked nothing in it; a land whose stones were iron, and out of whose hills they dug brass. In that land he brought them to possess it, and had cast out many nations before them. These the Lord delivered unto them. And they smote them and utterly destroyed them.
So the Lord had established Israel as a people unto Himself, and that He might be unto them a God as He had said. And Israel was made to suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rocks; butter of kine, milk of sheep with fat of lambs, and rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats with the fat of kidneys, and of wheat. And he drank the pure blood of grapes.
God’s fig-tree was Israel. He therefore must bear fruit for his Planter. His commandments, statutes, judgments Israel should keep. His name confess, His glories declare, and His praises sing. For he was the Lord’s planting. His ground he cumbered. His was the honey out of the rock, and the butter of kine and the milk of sheep. His were the lambs and rams and goats and the fat of those kidneys and wheat and the grapes whose blood they drank.
And how this fig tree thrived in God’s soil. Israel waxed fat and was grown thick and was covered with fatness. But Israel bore no fruit. He took all and gave nothing in return. And he forgot God Who made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation. He provoked the Lord to jealousy with strange gods and to anger with his abominations. And he sacrificed unto devils and not to God. He placed the gifts of God upon the altar of Baal. What an abominable tree!
It was also a lying tree. Peculiar to a fig-tree is its foliage betokening the presence of fruit on it. Israel had foliage and thus took on the appearance of a fruitbearing tree, though no fruit was to be found on it. Israel brought a multitude of sacrifices unto the Lord; burnt offerings of rams, the fat of fed beasts, the blood of bullocks, lambs and he-goats. Israel appeared before the Lord and tread His courts, brought oblations, burnt incense, kept the new moons and the sabbaths, called assemblies and solemn meetings, observed the appointed feasts, spread forth its hands and made many prayers (Isa. 1:11-15) compassed sea and land to make proselytes, swore by the altar, payed tithes of mint and anise and cummin, strained at a gnat, builded the tombs of the prophets, and garnished the sepulchers of the righteous and said that if they had been in the days of their fathers, they would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.
What a beautiful appearance this tree presented! It might be expected that the tree bore fruit—the peaceable fruit of righteousness, of mercy, faith, poverty of spirit, contriteness of heart, meekness, hunger and thirst after righteousness.
So the planter, the Lord God, came and sought fruit thereon in the season of the tree’s fruit-bearing. But, Lo! He found no fruit. Instead of faith, He found unbelief; instead of humbleness, pride; instead of love, hatred of God; instead of mercy, cruelty; instead of contrition, hardness of heart, extortions and excesses. So did the Planter discover that the appearance of the tree belied its true nature, that He had to do with a planting that was a hypocrite, devouring widows’ houses and shutting up the kingdom of heaven against men; a child of the devil, making the proselyte for which he compassed land and sea twofold more the child of hell than himself; a blind guide, a, fool, outwardly clean but within full of hypocrisies and iniquity (Matt. 5). Amazing! All this piety, this treading God’s courts, this bringing of many sacrifices, this making of many prayers, this tithing, this building of the tomb of the prophets, a vain show, a mass of glittering sins, iniquity! Isa. 1. Attend to the Lord’s own appraisal, “I am full of burnt offerings of lambs. . . .I cannot away with it; it is iniquity. . . . your new moons and the sabbaths, the calling of assemblies. Your appointed feasts my soul hateth.”
Full was He of their sham piety, their outward, civic righteousness, their fruits of common grace. He could not away with it. It was iniquity. He abhorred it all. So, when upon one of His journeys Christ came upon the symbol of Israel—the fig tree by the wayside, He, discovering that despite its leaves it bore no fruit, cursed this tree. And its subsequent withering was prophetic of the judgments of God soon to overtake Israel, God’s barren fig-tree. The tree was doomed. For three years Christ, the Dresser of the church, had labored with this tree, exhorting it to repent, preaching to it the gospel of the kingdom, presenting Himself to it as the Savior of His people by miracles, providing it with the evidence that he had come from God. But His words had found no response in Israel’s heart. Despising and rejecting Him, Israel finally nailed His blessed body to the cross. Then said God to Christ, the Dresser of the vineyard, “Behold, these three years have I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none; cut it down. Why cumbereth it the earth?” But Christ said, “Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it and dung it. And if it bear fruit, well; and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.”
But why would Christ have this tree spared for yet another brief season? For the elect’s sake in the nation, some of which were still groping in darkness and others of which still had to be born. So for a season, the glorified Christ, through His servants, held forth to this doomed tree Christ and Him crucified. And His people believed and were saved. The others were hardened. So Jerusalem finally was destroyed. Thus the type, having waxed old, vanished away. The shadow tree was cut down. It had outlived its usefulness. And the church emerged from its typical shell.
But this parable has a universal message, a message for the church of this dispensation. It, too, is a planting of God. To it also He comes, seeking fruit. Is the tree bearing fruit? Or is this tree barren, so that the Planter now, too, says to the Dresser, “Behold, I come seeking fruit on this tree but find none.” Is the tree about to be cut down? Behold, this fig tree, the church of this present time, as it is spread over the earth. What is the church doing with the Son of God? Crucifying Him afresh. It began to do this openly and boldly during and shortly after the Reformation. About the year 1650 there occurred an eruption of unbelief that became more and more violent with time. Christianized paganism then began to shed its pagan shell and the beast of the abyss came forth. The subterranean stream of unbelief left its cavern then and continued its course above ground. The children of darkness became bold. Worldly philosophy everywhere raised its head in the church and became loud mouthed. The movement is known in the history of the church as the Enlightenment. Since that day, out and out unbelief in the church has increased with amazing rapidity. Such fundamental doctrines as the virgin birth of Christ and His vicarious atonement are being denied by great numbers of church men. And few indeed are the circles in which such doctrines as the total depravity of man and the sovereign grace of God can be consistently preached. Even in such a conservative group as the Christian Reformed, the preacher who attempts it, is cast out.
A barren fruit tree is the church, a sepulcher filled with dead men’s bones. Yet the tree, as did Israel of old, especially at the time when it was about to be cut down, presents a beautiful appearance. There is this same bringing of many sacrifices, treading God’s courts, and the making of many prayers. The church now, too, the very despiser of the cross, compasses sea and land to make one proselyte. The age in which we live is the age of missions.
This tree, too, will be cut down, then, when the elect will have been saved out of it. Then Christ will come. And then the true church will appear with Him in glory.