The fig tree prophecy is a reference to part of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Below is what Jesus said:
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:32–35).
Fig trees were common in Israel, and it could be that there was a fig tree nearby as Jesus used this illustration of the signs of the end times. The appearance of leaves on the fig tree heralded the onset of summer; similarly, the appearance of all the things Jesus had just described would herald the second coming and the end of the age.
Note the wording of the fig tree prophecy: Jesus says that, when people see all the signs, then the end is near. What are all the signs? Here’s what Jesus had mentioned up to that point:
• many false messiahs will come (Matthew 24:5)
• there will be wars and rumors of wars (verse 6)
• nations will rise against each other (verse 7)
• there will be famines and earthquakes around the world (verse 7)
• Christians will face persecution and death (verse 9)
• many professed believers will turn away from the faith and betray each other (verse 10)
• many false prophets will deceive masses of people (verses 11, 24)
• wickedness will increase (verse 12)
• the love of most will grow cold (verse 12)
• the gospel will be preached to the whole world (verse 14)
• the abomination of desolation will stand in the holy place of the temple (verse 15; cf. Daniel 9:27)
• there will be a time of great distress, unequaled in the history of the world (verse 21)
• there will be signs in the heavens affecting the sun, moon, and stars (verse 29)
• the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven (verse 30)
According to the fig tree prophecy, “when you see all these things, you can know his return is very near, right at the door” (Matthew 24:33, NLT). There were some present when Jesus spoke this that saw some of the things Jesus prophesied (false teachers and persecution, for example), but His return will not occur until all of those things are seen. We consider the events Jesus lists as corresponding to the seal judgments of Revelation 6.
Jesus goes on to say, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matthew 24:34). The generation that Jesus speaks of “not passing” until He returns is a future generation, namely, the people living when the predicted events occur. They are the people alive in the future when all the events of Matthew 24—25 take place.
In other words, the people who will see the start of those events will be the same people who see the end of those events. As one scholar puts it, “The generation that sees the beginning of the end, also sees its end. When the signs come, they will proceed quickly; they will not drag on for many generations. It will happen within a generation” (Bock, D., Luke 9:51—24:53, Baker Academic, 1996, pp. 1691–92).
These events haven’t begun to unfold yet. To use Jesus’ illustration, the leaves of the fig tree have not yet appeared. When they do, the world can know that Jesus is coming soon.
We should distinguish between the rapture of the church and the second coming of Christ. The fig tree prophecy concerns the second coming, not the rapture. The second coming is preceded by signs, just as summer is preceded by the fig leaves. But the rapture of the church could occur at any moment. There are no signs that must precede it.
Also, we don’t know when the events of Matthew 24 will begin to unfold. “About that day or hour no one knows,” Jesus said (Matthew 24:36). So we don’t know if anyone alive today will see any of the signs. We believe we are getting closer to that time—we certainly aren’t getting farther away—and we pray, “Thy kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10, KJV). As we wait and pray, we remember the fig tree prophecy.