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All Scripture citations are to the King James (Authorised) Version unless noted otherwise.
Question: ‛If they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?’ (Luke 23: 31). What do these words of Jesus mean?
Answer: Jesus said this as He was being led through the streets to Golgotha.
27 And there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him. 28 But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. 29 For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck. 30 Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us. 31 For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?
Although the nation of Israel had by Jesus’ day long since lost its glorious independence, and was a tributary of the Roman Empire, God had not abandoned it. Christ’s presence in its midst, the calling out of His disciples, the miracles, the healings – these held out the opening of a blessed future, the promise of salvation for those among the Jews who would believe in Him as the promised Messiah. As the natural inheritors of the Abrahamic Promise, the prospects for the Jews ought to have been ripe with promise. God was selecting a bride for His Son and, in keeping with His covenant, He made the offer to ‛the Jew first’ (Matthew 10: 5; Romans 2: 9, 10). The kingdom of God had begun to be preached in Israel (Luke 16: 16).
Even so, after His death, there ensued a relatively brief period during which principally Jewish converts were brought into the burgeoning Church. With the conversion of the first Gentile, Cornelius, in 36, God’s exclusive favour began to pass from Israel. By 70 the Roman overlords laid siege to Jerusalem, creating such conditions as Jesus had predicted in our query text. From that point, national Israel entered its dry wood phase, a condition in which it remained for many centuries. Worse sufferings than those inflicted by the Roman Empire were to come. Shunted from pillar to post over the following centuries the Jews were persecuted in many of the lands to which they were dispersed, culminating in the worst ‛dry tree’ experience, the Holocaust, during the period of the Second World War (1939-1945).
19 And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. 20 And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away! [Compare with Mark 11: 12-14, 19-21.]
It is worth noting, too, the association of Nathanael, one of Jesus’ disciples, with the fig tree, especially in light of Jesus’ commendation of him as a worthy Israelite (John 1: 48, 50):
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! 48 Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.
The tree’s rude health depicts the nation’s ‛green’ (moist) state; its withering, the ‛dry’ phase. As the tree began to wilt by degrees over a period of about 34 years, from 36 to 70, so the budding of the national tree came on by degrees over a period of about 34 years, from 1914 to 1948, on which latter date Israel was revived as an autonomous nation. As the real fig-tree was miraculously cursed and died, so Israel, figuratively dead-dry for the period of the Gospel Age, was miraculously revived. This latter-day independence seems to be meant by Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 24: 32.
On Luke 23: 31: ‛If they do these things in a green tree . . . .’ To whom does ‛they’ refer? Possibly to the generalised, national sentiment, which now worked against Him. He could not have meant the individuals of the Jewish leadership, whose murderous envy directly prompted His crucifixion. For at least two reasons: first, those individuals would almost certainly not be alive at the time of the Roman assault in 70 and could not therefore have perpetrated it; second, and most importantly, Christ’s crucifixion occurred but once, and no future event would be ‛worse’ . Nonetheless, the responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion is laid at the door of the Jewish leaders and their supporters, not the Romans (Acts 2: 23, 36; 3: 13, 14, 17). Rome also crucified many of the prisoners it captured at the siege of Jerusalem, but this was the customary exemplary punishment. It was not the method of Christ’s death, as terrible as it was, that constituted the greatest historic tragedy; rather it was the fact that the righteous Son of God was judged as deserving of it.
Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (Tr., C.F. Cruse; Hendrickson Publishers; Massachusetts, 1998), 70, 71.
[A] number of calamities then overwhelmed the whole nation: the extreme misery to which particularly the inhabitants of Judea were reduced; the vast numbers of men, women, and children who fell by the sword, famine, and innumerable other forms of death; the numerous and great cities of Judea that were besieged; the great and incredible distresses that those experienced who took refuge at Jerusalem as to a place of perfect security; . . .
Whiston’s Josephus: Wars: Book V, Chapter XI (Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd.; London, 1907), 709, 710.
It was now a miserable case, and a sight that would justly bring tears into our eyes, how men stood as to their food, while the more powerful had more than enough, and the weaker were lamenting [for want of it]. But the famine was too hard for all other passions, and it is destructive to nothing so much as to modesty; for what was otherwise worthy of reverence was in this case despised; insomuch that children pulled the very morsels that their fathers were eating out of their very mouths, and what was still more to be pitied, so did the mothers do as to their infants; and when those that were most dear were perishing under their hands, they were not ashamed to take from them the very last drops that might preserve their lives; . . . [W]hen they were going to be taken, they were forced to defend themselves, for fear of being punished; as after they had fought, they thought it too late to make any supplications for mercy; so they were first whipped, and then tormented with all sorts of tortures before they died, and were then crucified before the wall of the city. This miserable procedure made [General] Titus greatly to pity them, while they caught every day five hundred Jews . . . their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.
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