“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 11:13-14).
As the Lord of creation, Jesus would have known when the season for figs was, yet the tree is cursed for not producing fruit out of season. Taken by itself this story almost sounds like it came from one of the apocryphal gospels, which show a sideshow Jesus using His miracle powers for personal entertainment (or just because He can). Yet, its placement in Matthew and Mark and the historic use of a fig tree as symbolic of Israel's spiritual condition shed light on the meaning of Jesus action. The context thus reveals it to be “bookending” Christ's second cleansing of the temple.
Since figs typically appear along with the leaves “a tree in full leaf at Passover season is making a promise it cannot fulfill; so to is Israel” (France, 441). For the temple cleansing is a scene where Christ is enraged by the hollow shell of religion manifested in God's temple, by excluding the Gentiles (by setting up a market in their court) and prostituting the worship to God (by the religious leaders who used religion for a profit). Israel's prophets made references to the nation through the imagery of the fig tree, calling the patriarchal founding fathers “like the first fruits on the fig tree in its season” (Hosea 9:10) and the lack thereof (“nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered” (Jeremiah 8:13)) as figurative language for the nations authentic worship of God (a theme Jesus picked up in the beatitudes). Jesus' added teachings about fruit/fig trees (Luke 13:6-9) “illumine the cursing of the fig tree as an acted parable of judgment on the hypocritical religious leaders of Israel...[who] make a show of external piety, like the leafy tree, but fail to bear the fruits of a nation in covenant with a holy and loving God” (Howell, 277). In the end, Jesus is seen far from being a fruit-loving tree-hater with “horticulturally unreasonable” demands (France, 441), but using the tree as a visual-aid for the spiritual destruction Israel's actions were leading them to.
Thus, Jesus actions fulfill a handful of prophetic fig allusions to Israel's destruction (Isaiah 34:4, Jeremiah 29:17, Hosea 2:12, Micah 7:1-6) for their “faithlessness and whose temple, the very symbol of their faithless religiosity, will be destroyed along with the city of Jerusalem (a prophecy fulfilled in AD70)” (Elwell, 788). The ominous question today is whether such passages can be applied to the church, which many would attest may be putting forth a splashy show of leaves, but no fruit. If we are to take Christ's words regarding the “evidence of true discipleship to Jesus the Messiah is the bearing of fruit of faithfulness and righteousness” (Elwell, 788), we would do well to heed history's warning and keep with the production of a fruit harvest characteristic with the dynamic reign of God.
Brett Yardley: Warrior for Christ. Devoted Husband. Proud Father. Martial Artist. Hopeful Philosopher & Theologian. Aspiring Teacher & Writer.