Summary: The fruitless fig tree and its meaning.
We’re going to look from the scriptures at two of Jesus Christ’s most misunderstood actions. The two actions I’m talking about are:
(a) Jesus Christ’s cursing of a fig tree and
(b) his action of driving out the money changes from the Jewish temple.
On their own, these two events are very difficult to understand, but together these two events explain each other.
Now the way Mark tells us these two stories, he wants us to know that the two events help explain each other. You see, throughout his biography of Jesus , Mark uses a sandwich technique, where he starts with one story, goes to a different story, and then comes back to the original story. Mark’s starts by telling the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, then interrupt that story to describe Jesus driving out the money changers from the temple and only then will he return to the story of the fig tree. This is Mark’s way of telling us that these two events are related to each other, and that if we miss the meaning of the fig tree, we’ll miss the meaning of the clearing out of the temple as well.
1. The Fruitless Fig Tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21)
We begin with Jesus cursing a fig tree starting with one side of the sandwich in vv. 12-14 and then the other side of the sandwich in vv. 20-21.
Many people have struggled with why Jesus curses this fig tree. This is Jesus’ last recorded miracle in Mark’s biography, and it seems odd that it’s a miracle of destruction. Since Mark tells us that wasn’t the season for figs, Jesus’ expectation to find figs seems unreasonable to us at first. In fact, the famous atheist writer Bertrand Russell listed this miracle as one of the reasons why he’s not a Christian.
Jesus has left Bethany and is on his way to Jerusalem. So most likely the tree would be found in the vicinity of the Mount of Olives which would be on his way to Jerusalem. On the protected side of the mount of olives fig trees can be seen in leaf many times at the end of March or early April. Early green figs will appear before the leaves, they do not taste very good, nor do people eat them. They do not ripen until June, and very oft en will fall off, leaving only leaves. Jesus knows there will be no fruit. Yes, Jesus is hungry, but his action, like the action of entering Jerusalem and the action of cleaning the Temple point to a greater, deeper meaning, what will happen to Jerusalem, Israel and the Temple.
The prophets frequently spoke of the fig tree as referring to Israel’s status before God: Jer. 8:13, 29:17; Hos 9:10, 16; Joel 1:7, Micah 7:1-6. Jer. 8:13 “ ‘I will take away their harvest, declares the LORD. There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them.’”
The destruction of the fig tree is associated with judgment Hos. 2:12 “I will ruin her vines and her fig trees, which she said were her pay from her lovers; I will make them a thicket, and wild animals will devour them.” Isaiah 34:4, Luke 13:6-9. Here in this context the fig tree symbolizes Israel in Jesus’ day and what happens to the tree is the fate (it withers) that will happen to Jerusalem.
So as the action taken against the fig tree is primarily pointing to messianic actions – This action with the fig tree is parallel to Jesus’ action in the court of Gentiles and the entering of the city.
But this story isn’t what it first appears to be. Jesus encounters this fig tree on his walk from the city of Bethany to the capital city of Jerusalem during the Jewish Passover holiday. He sees this fig tree in full leaf from a distance. Fig trees were extremely common in ancient Israel, even as they still are today. And fig trees are unique from most other trees because they produce fruit before they produce leaves. So the fact that this tree has leaves suggests that some kind of fruit will still be on it, either leftover figs from the summer harvest or immature figs that were also edible. So even though the formal fig season was over, it wasn’t at all unreasonable for Jesus to find something on this tree. But Jesus finds nothing but leaves, which tells us that this is a sterile fig tree, a fig tree that doesn’t produce any figs.
Now there’s more happening that first meets the eye here, because this event isn’t just about Jesus having a liking for a fig. Remember that Jesus is on his way to the Jewish temple, and what happens here with the fig tree is symbolic of what Jesus is about to do in the temple. There’s a passage from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah that’s especially relevant to what’s happening here. This passage is found in Jeremiah chapter 8.