On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. (Mark 11:12-14 ESV)
The Monday following Jesus’s grand entrance to Jerusalem, we see Jesus doing what anyone would do in the morning—looking for something to eat—and he comes upon a fig tree. Figs were, and are to this day, a pretty big staple in the Mediterranean diet. At first glance, it might seem really strange for Jesus to curse a tree just because it isn’t bearing any fruit. If you have ever attempted to grow anything, you know plants can be very unpredictable. So why would Jesus use His time on this?
As we begin, it’s important to understand that the fig tree has a symbolic significance with the Old Testament people of Israel. The imagery of the fig tree is used in the books of Judges, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, and other places to represent God’s people. Jesus, then, drawing upon the Old Testament imagery that He knew His audience was familiar with, perhaps was trying to teach them something when He cursed the tree.
Upon noticing that the leaves had come into full bloom, Jesus looked for the fruit that should have at the very least been budding by then. But there was none. So the tree wasn’t simply out of season for producing fruit. It was in bloom and showing plainly that it would not produce, whether in season or out.
But even then, why curse it? Why not just walk on, let it go, and look for a good fig tree? Isn’t that what a reasonable person would do? Add that to the Israelites’ symbolic identification with the fig tree, and we can see even more that Jesus must have been trying to make a point.
The fig tree in Jesus’s demonstration was Israel. While the tree had been nourished and showed outward signs of health, like green leaves, there was no fruit. Israel, likewise, God had nourished for centuries to no avail. God gave them His law, fruitful land, protection, His prophets, and His promises to ensure they had hope as they waited for their Messiah, and yet they proved to be unfruitful.
They performed their sacrifices, celebrated their feasts, and attended the Temple, but perpetually worshiped other gods. And when presented with the promised Messiah, they rejected Him. When given the opportunity to have living water, they rushed to silence Him and plotted to kill Him. While having the appearance of being faithful worshipers of God, they did not receive Him when He came to them and proved to be a bad tree, worthy of being cursed.
Israel was like the bad fig tree in that they had taken God’s nourishment and seemed to be healthy and faithful to their purpose, but in fact had placed their hope in themselves, in their rituals and practices, and had no faith in their God. Down to their roots, they were faithless and thus incapable of obeying God’s commands and producing fruit, and Jesus was showing His judgment on the faithless. Timothy Keller, writing on this text, put it this way in his book, King’s Cross:
Remember that this happens between his first arrival at the temple and his return to the temple the next day. Jesus seizes the opportunity to provide a private, memorable object lesson, a parable against hollow religiosity, with the fig tree as a visual aid … Jesus finds the fig tree not doing its appointed job. The tree became a perfect metaphor for Israel, and beyond that, for those claiming to be God’s people but who do not bear any fruit for him. Jesus was returning to a place that was religiously very busy … But the busyness contained no spirituality. Nobody was actually praying. There are many things we do that can appear to be signs of real belief but can grow without real heart change and without real compassionate involvement with others … Jesus is saying that he wants more than busyness; he want the kinds of character change that only comes from realizing that you have been ransomed. (pp. 160-161)
Jesus’s lesson with the fig tree wasn’t just for His disciples then. It was recorded for even us to hear Him today. It should lead us to pause and examine ourselves. Spend some time reading and meditating on John 15:1-17 and then process through the following questions.