What did the Lord Jesus mean when he said "Now learn a parable of the fig tree" (Mt. 24: 32); what is the fig tree?
The fig tree in scripture is ever a figure of Israel as a nation for God, while characteristically the vine is the religious system. In Matthew 21 the Lord pronounced a curse on the fig tree - there was no fruit for Him, just empty profession (leaves) - though He had come to them as foretold (Zech. 9:9) and been amongst them for three years - the nation by its leaders rejected Him.
In chapter 24 the Lord having prophesied the destruction of the temple responds to the disciples questions "when shall these things be, and what is the sign of Thy coming and the completion of the age?" He tells them of wars and threats of war, of famine, pestilence and earthquakes, all to be part of the preliminary judgment, followed by the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom throughout the world, the restoration of all Israel to the land the great tribulation and all the associated fearful judgments followed by a sign in heaven and then the coming of the Son of Man in power and great glory. (See the article by J.T. Mawson in this issue for a more complete outline.)
Thus the parable of the "Fig Tree" is in remarkable distinction to the establishment of the Kingdom by Joshua and David. What characterized the kingdom then was victory after victory - all foes defeated and introducing the glorious reign of peace under Solomon.
Because the nation has been unfaithful and rejected the King then judgments and sorrows must follow, the people must be brought to the realization of their sin and failure. Only after their repentance toward God will the days of peace and glory come. Thus through grace, and under the new covenant, will Israel shine forth and the fig tree will once more bring forth fruit under the rule of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus judgment is the necessary work of God to bring about the conditions wherein the fig tree will once more flourish.