Summary: At the end of each day of the Holy Week, Jesus withdrew from the city and then returned in the morning with a fresh symbol of who He was. On Monday He used a fig tree to teach a powerful lesson about spiritual fruit.
While in Israel last month (March 2001) I once again had the privilege of walking down the Mount of Olives in a manner similar to that which Jesus did so many years ago on Palm Sunday. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that view of city. It is, without a doubt, the best approach to the Holy City.
When Jesus’ time finally came, He made full use of the week that lay before Him to present Himself as Israel’s Messiah, fulfilling as many scriptures as possible. Clearly His approach to the city on a donkey was rich in symbolism and meaning as He fulfilled the Scriptures. ( Zechariah 9:9) That was just the beginning of a week-long demonstration of His Messianic mission.
This morning I would like to focus on Monday rather than Sunday. At the end of each day of the Holy Week, Jesus withdrew from the city and then returned in the morning with a fresh symbol of who He was. On Monday He used a fig tree to teach a powerful lesson about spiritual fruit. (Matthew 21:18-22)
The story goes this way. On the way into Jerusalem Jesus noticed a fig tree on the road ahead with leaves. That was unusual, because in March it is normally too early for leaves to be on a fig tree. The particular location of this tree must have given it an early start to the season. Because of the way fig trees grow, when there are leaves, there are also buds of fruit. When Jesus arrived at the tree, He looked for figs on the tree but found none. After finding no fruit, He cursed the tree and it began to wither. What did it all mean? Let’s pause for a moment and think about the various places that we read about figs in the Bible.
Figs are a common symbol in the Bible. The first mention of figs is in connection with the clothing that Adam and Eve attempted to make for themselves. (Genesis 3:6) The last mention of figs is in Revelation where falling figs picture the falling stars of heaven. (Revelation 6:13) The fig has long been a symbol in Israel of the abundance of the land. Moses described it as “a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey.” (Deuteronomy 8:8) When the spies were sent to survey the land, we learn, “Then they came to the valley of Eshcol and from there cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes; and they carried it on a pole between two men, with some of the pomegranates and the figs.” (Numbers 13:23) Figs were so common that Old Testament law allowed anyone passing down a road to pick figs from trees that were close to the road. (Deuteronomy 23:24-25)
On a more serious note, the prophets of old used the symbol of the fig as an illustration of Israel’s judgment. “I will surely snatch them away,” declares the LORD; “there will be no grapes on the vine and no figs on the fig tree, and the leaf will wither; and what I have given them will pass away.” (Jeremiah 8:13)
On the other hand, prophets also used the fig to picture blessing, especially the blessings of the Kingdom of God. “Each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with no one to make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:4) Sitting in the shade of a fig tree is a sign of prosperity and peace. Jesus complimented Nathaniel on his spiritual vitality by saying he was a man in whom there was no guile! (John 1:43-48) Nathaniel said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Why was Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree? It was probably a hot afternoon in Galilee, and Nathaniel was enjoying a cool breeze off the Galilee waters and seeking protection from the hot sun under the broad leaves of a fig tree.
This would be a good time to learn a few characteristics of the fig tree. Fig trees grow with multiple stems. They reach a height of 15 to 20 feet. Branches can spread out 25 to 35 feet. Fig trees usually bear twice a year. The first buds appear on the old wood in April, but the fruit is usually not ready until June. A second harvest of fruit appears in the new wood with the fruit being ready by September. Fruit can appear at the same time as the leaves.
Why did Jesus curse this fig tree the day after His triumphant entry into Jerusalem? I believe that He was fulfilling prophetic scripture about the Messiah. Micah used the symbol of the fig to make a statement about the actions of the coming Messiah. “Woe is me! For I am like the fruit pickers, like the grape gatherers. There is not a cluster of grapes to eat, or a first-ripe fig which I crave.” (Micah 7:1) What fruit was Messiah craving, physical fruit or spiritual fruit? Clearly Messiah was looking for spiritual fruit. Israel looked the part, was dressed for the part and knew the words to play the part; they just did not know the God who wrote the part. Jesus used this powerful illustration to predict the destruction of Jerusalem in less than 40 years. In many ways, what Jesus taught and did on Monday was more important than what He did on Sunday. This is true for us as well; Monday is when we need to live the Christian life.