In yesterday’s article, “Testing the Prophets (Again),” I began a brief response to Greg Laurie’s article “Are these signs of the times?” I included comments From H. Wayne House who is a NT scholar and takes a dispensational premillennial approach to the passage. One of House’s points is that the “wars and rumors of wars” mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 24:6 had to be global. But notice Jesus’ words: “you will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars.” There is no expectation that His audience would see or experience any of these wars. They would only be hearing about them. The dispensationalists expect “global warfare and chaos.”
If this is what Jesus is claiming in Matt. 24:6, and there is some time yet before the temple is destroyed (“these are the beginning of birth pangs”: v. 8), then according to House, Judea will be left out of the conflagration for decades. But dispensationalists teach that Israel is the catalyst for the maelstrom. As we go deeper in Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse, we see that the judgment upon Israel is local, confined to the area around Judea. To escape it, all the occupants had to do is “flee to the mountains” (24:16). Jesus is NOT describing global events.
There’s one more point made by Wayne House that I would like to address. He argues that “[t]here is little historical evidence for false Christs appearing around the time of the Jewish war or for false Christs performing great miracles.” He says “little historical evidence.” Does this mean there is some evidence? We are dependent on secular histories for information about the NT era. The problem with making such a dogmatic claim is that there are few histories about the period and no extant material from the period to study. In fact, the more false messiahs, prophets, and magicians that appeared in the first century, the less attention they got by the historians.
Two major histories about the era make only passing reference to Jesus Christ who had three years of public ministry, a Roman execution, and tens of thousands of followers. Suetonius makes one statement regarding a “Chrestus”: “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome” (Life of Claudius, 25.4). If this is not a reference to Jesus, then Suetonius says nothing about Jesus. In his Lives of the Caesars, Suetonius also wrote: “Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” In his Annals (XV.44), Tacitus alludes to the death of Jesus and the existence of Christians at Rome.
“But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also.”
So why would minor messianic figures be given any historical attention when Jesus is given only passing comment by these two noted Roman historians?
When the Jewish leader Gamaliel discussed the claims of the apostles regarding Jesus Christ with the council, he said, “For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him…. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him” (Acts 5:36-37). Luke also tells us about Simon: “Now there was a man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, ‘This man is what is called the Great Power of God’” (Acts 8:9-10). Of course, these examples were before the ministry of Jesus, but should we expect that for a period of 40 years after Jesus’ ministry that no local messianic figures popped up? Justin Martyr (A.D. 103–165) reports the following in his First Apology addressed to Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar, his sons, and the Roman Senate (Chap. 26):
[A]fter Christ’s ascension into heaven the devils put forward certain men who said that they themselves were gods; . . . There was a Samaritan, Simon, a native of the village called Gitto, who in the reign of Claudius Caesar, and in your royal city of Rome, did mighty acts of magic, by virtue of the art of the devils operating in him. He was considered a god, and as a god was honoured by you with a statue, which statue was erected on the river Tiber, between the two bridges, and bore this inscription, in the language of Rome:—Simoni Deo Sancto, “To Simon the holy God.”
And almost all the Samaritans, and a few even of other nations, worship him, and acknowledge him as the first god; and a woman, Helena, who went about with him at that time, and had formerly been a prostitute, they say is the first idea generated by him. And a man, Meander, also a Samaritan, of the town Capparetaea, a disciple of Simon, and inspired by devils, we know to have deceived many while he was in Antioch by his magical art. He persuaded those who adhered to him that they should never die, and even now there are some living who hold this opinion of his. And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator. And he, by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies, and to deny that God is the maker of this universe, and to assert that some other being, greater than He, has done greater works.
So we are to believe that before Jesus’ ministry there were messianic-type figures and in periods later in the first and into the second century men who declared themselves to be gods arose, but in the period in between, there is “little” historical evidence for them.
Dispensationalist Larry Spargimino states that “false messiahs were not limited to the first century.” ((Larry Spargimino, “How Preterists Misuse History to Advance Their View of Prophecy,” The End Times Controversy: The Second Coming Under Attack, eds. Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2003), 210.)) This means that there was more than a “little” evidence for their existence. Alexander Keith, in his study of the first-century destruction of Jerusalem, wrote that “Dositheus, the Samaritan, pretended that he was the lawgiver prophesied of by Moses.” ((Alexander Keith, Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion, Derived from the Literal Fulfillment of Prophecy; Particularly as Illustrated by the History of the Jews and by the Discoveries of Recent Travelers (Edinburgh: William Whyte & Co., 1844), 60.)) There were so many impostors preying on the gullibility of the people that under the procuratorship of Felix (Acts 23:24), “many of them were apprehended and killed every day. They seduced great numbers of the people still expecting the Messiah; and well therefore might our Saviour caution his disciples against them.” ((Thomas Newton, Dissertations on the Prophecies, Which Have Remarkably Been Fulfilled, and at This Time Are Fulfilling in the World (London: J. F. Dove, 1754), 333.)) In Acts 13:6 we read about Elymus who is described as “a magician” and “a Jewish false prophet” who was working to turn people “away from the faith” (13:8). This sounds a lot like what Jesus said would happen in that generation: “as to mislead, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24).
Paul was thought to be “the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness” (Acts 21:38). This incident is reminiscent of Jesus’ words about those who claimed that He might be “in the wilderness” (Matt. 24:26). Those who had rejected their Messiah at the “time of [their] visitation” (Luke 19:44), the same people who wanted to make Jesus king to overthrow the tyrants of Rome (John 6:15), were still looking for a political savior right up until the time of Jerusalem’s destruction.
Having dispensed with some of House’s arguments, let’s get back to Greg Laurie. He rightly acknowledges later in his article that the signs he has put forth as evidence that we are probably living in the last days “has been going on for hundreds of years” and “that everyone thinks Jesus is coming back in their lifetime.” While granting this, he goes on to claim that Israel becoming a nation again on May 14, 1948 puts these end-time signs in a different light. “The Jewish people who had been persecuted throughout history, who had been murdered in the millions by Hitler, began to return – as if on cue – to their homeland. And on that day in 1948, Israel was once again a nation. After the War of Independence, the modern state of Israel was declared, fulfilling a very significant Bible prophecy. It wasn’t just a sign; it was a super-sign. And it happened against all odds.”
Here’s Laurie’s problem. The NT does not say anything about Israel becoming a nation again. Jesus does not mention Israel becoming a nation again in the Olivet Discourse and neither does Paul in Romans 11. If it’s a “super-sign” as Laurie claims, then why didn’t Jesus saying anything about it? A “super-sign” requires at least one super-verse. There isn’t one. While Jesus prophesies the temple’s destruction and the judgment upon Jerusalem, He doesn’t say anything about a rebuilt temple or a new national status for Israel. Certainly the OT tells us that Israel will return to the land, rebuild the temple, and fortify the city. And this happened as it was prophesied. But the NT does not attach any prophetic significance to Israel’s future national status.
I know some prophecy writers argue the “fig tree” (Matt. 24:32) is the definitive sign of Israel’s new national status. This hardly qualifies as a “super-sign” verse. Luke mentions “the fig tree and all the trees” (Luke 21:29). It’s obvious that trees are being used to make a point about the nearness of an event not to identify Israel’s new national status. Here’s what dispensational author John F. Walvoord says about the fig tree illustration:
Actually, while the fig tree could be an apt illustration of Israel it is not so used in the Bible. . . . Accordingly, while this interpretation is held by many, there is no clear scriptural warrant. A better interpretation is that Christ was using a natural illustration. Because the fig tree brings forth new leaves late in the spring, the budding of the leaves is evidence that summer is near. In a similar way, when those living in the great tribulation see the signs predicted, they will know that the second coming of Christ is near. The signs in this passage, accordingly, are not the revival of Israel, but the great tribulation. ((John F. Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come (Chicago, IL: Moody,  1980), 191–192.))
And that great tribulation was the one leading up to and including the destruction of the temple and the judgment upon Jerusalem that took place in A.D. 70 at the hands of the Roman General Titus.
Like Walvoord, dispensational author Mark Hitchcock takes issue with the often used argument that the fig tree in Matthew 24:32 describes the reinstitution of the nation of Israel, a point he also made in his book The Complete Book of Bible Prophecy. ((Mark Hitchcock, The Complete Book of Bible Prophecy (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999), 158.)) Tim LaHaye and many popular prophecy writers see Matthew 24:32 as the key New Testament prophetic passage: “when a fig tree is used symbolically in Scripture, it usually refers to the nation Israel. If that is a valid assumption (and we believe it is), then when Israel officially became a nation in 1948, that was the ‘sign’ of Matthew 24:1-8, the beginning ‘birth pangs’—it meant that the ‘end of the age’ is ‘near.’” ((Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Are We Living in the End Times? Current Events Foretold in Scripture . . . And What They Mean (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999), 57. The editors of LaHaye’s own Prophecy Study Bible (2000) disagree with him on this point: “the fig tree is not symbolic of the nation of Israel” (1040).
Other dispensationalists are beginning to reject the popular belief that the fig tree of Matthew 24 refers to modern-day Israel. The following are comments from Larry D. Pettegrew who’s a professor theology at dispensational-oriented Master’s Seminary: “The fig tree, however, does not illustrate Israel becoming a nation in 1948. The fig tree is simply an illustration from nature.” ((Larry D. Pettegrew, “Interpretive Flaws in the Olivet Discourse,” TMSJ 13/2 (Fall 2002), 173–190.))
If Israel is the fig tree in Matthew 24:32, then Israel is the fig tree in Matthew 21:18–20 where Jesus says, “‘No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.’ And at once the fig tree withered.” The fig tree of Matthew 24 was a leaves-only tree. There is no fruit on the tree. A fruitless tree is to be cut down (Luke 13:6-9). The tree was fruitless for three years. The land owner wanted to cut it down. The vineyard-keeper asked for one more year. If it did not produce fruit the next year, it was to be cut down.
The tree that represents Israel is the olive tree. The olive tree sunk its roots in the first pages of Genesis and continued throughout the Old Testament period (Heb. 11) and into the New Testament where Gentiles were grafted in. That’s the tree that we should focus on.