Why did Jesus curse a fig tree?

asked by Bailey Hook

Note: Combined from multible sources.

There is a very reasonable explanation why Jesus cursed the fig tree even though it wasn’t the season for figs. Even before the season, fig trees produce little knobs which are eaten by a passerby.

As the late renowned NT scholar F.F. Bruce noted: “The other miracle is the cursing of the barren fig tree (Mk. xi 12 ff.), a stumbling block to many. They feel that it is unlike Jesus, and so someone must have misunderstood what actually happened, or turned a spoken parable into an acted miracle, or something like that. Some, on the other hand, welcome the story because it shows that Jesus was human enough to get unreasonably annoyed on occasion. It appears, however, that a closer acquaintance with fig trees would have prevented such misunderstandings. ‘The time of the fig is not yet,’ says Mark, for it was just before Passover, about six weeks before the fully-formed fig appears. The fact that Mark adds these words shows that he knew what he was talking about. When the fig leaves appear about the end of March, they are accompanied by a crop of small knobs, called taqsh by the Arabs, a sort of fore-runner of the real figs. These taqsh are eaten by peasants and others when hungry. They drop off before the real fig is formed. But if the leaves appear unaccompanied by taqsh, there will be no figs that year. So it was evident to our Lord, when He turned aside to see if there were any of these taqsh on the fig-tree to assuage His hunger for the time being, that the absence of the taqsh meant that there would be no figs when the time of figs came. For all its fair foliage, it was a fruitless and a hopeless tree.” (Bruce, Are The New Testament Documents Reliable? [Intervarsity Press; Downers Grove, Ill, fifth revised edition 1992], pp. 73-74; bold emphasis ours)

Another noted Evangelical scholar Craig S. Keener makes the following observation: “At Passover season in late March or early April, fig trees are often in leaf on the eastern side of the Mount of Olives. At this time of year, such fig trees contained only green early figs (Arabs call them taqsh), which ripen around June but often drop off before that time, leaving only green leaves on the tree. A leafy tree lacking such early figs, however, would bear no figs at all that year,” (Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, July 1999], p. 504)

Thus, what was thought to be an example against the veracity of the NT ends up actually becoming a rather persuasive argument for its historical reliability! This exemplifies the minute accuracy of the Synoptic Gospels, both in time and place, i.e. this took place during the month of Passover, figs located on the eastern side of the Mount of Olives etc. It also provides evidence for an early dating of Matthew and Mark – or, at the very least, shows that they were dependent on very old and early material – well before the fall of Jerusalem. After all, the knowledge of these details would most likely have been lost or unknown to authors writing after the destruction of Jerusalem. So, why curse the fig tree….

A short history lesson is in order :-)!

Centuries earlier, the Hebrew nation had been separated from the pagan peoples of antiquity to serve in a special role in the divine economy. In the days of Moses, the people of “Israel” were designated as Jehovah’s “firstborn” (Ex. 4:22), i.e., they were granted a priority status. God thus said to Pharoah, who held Israel captive, “let my people go” (Ex. 5:1). Across the centuries, however, the Israelite people frequently rebelled against their Creator. Isaiah once characterized the situation in the following fashion.

“The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isa. 1:3).

Read the prophet’s stirring rebuke of a wicked nation that refused to be governed by the Sovereign of the Universe (Isa. 5:1ff). While there were occasional periods of spiritual revival among the Hebrews (as in the days of Josiah, a good king – see 2 Kgs. 22-23), the tragic fact is, the nation was on a gradual, degenerative slide. Though they had enjoyed every conceivable spiritual advantage, they had become, for the most part, an utterly renegade nation.

In the symbolism of the Scriptures, a fruitless, withered tree was worthy of nothing more than being cut down (cf. Psa. 90:6; Hos. 9:16). “Withering” was a symbol of imminent death (Joel 1:12).

In fact, the OT often uses the fig tree as a symbol of national Israel:

“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.’” Jeremiah 8:13

“You may say, ‘The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,’ but this is what the LORD says about the king who sits on David’s throne and all the people who remain in this city, your countrymen who did not go with you into exile- yes, this is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like poor figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth and an object of cursing and horror, of scorn and reproach, among all the nations where I drive them. For they have not listened to my words,’ declares the LORD, ‘words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets. And you exiles have not listened either,’ declares the LORD.” Jeremiah 29:15-19

“When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, IT WAS LIKE SEEING THE EARLY FRUIT ON THE FIG TREE. But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved… Ephraim is blighted, their root is withered, they yield no fruit. Even if they bear children, I will slay their cherished offspring.” Hosea 9:10, 16

“What misery is mine! I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard; there is no cluster of grapes to eat, none of the early figs that I crave. The godly have been swept from the land; not one upright man remains. All men lie in wait to shed blood; each hunts his brother with a net. Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate what they desire- they all conspire together. The best of them is like a brier, the most upright worse than a thorn hedge. The day of your watchmen has come, the day God visits you. Now is the time of their confusion.” Micah 7:1-4

In the blasting of this fruitless fig tree, the Son of God was suggesting this:

(1) The nation, as a political entity, had become a worthless mechanism in the sacred scheme of things. It thus was worthy of nothing but destruction.

(2) That destruction would shortly come (within forty years — A.D. 66-70) with the invasion of the land by the Roman armies (cf. Mt. 22:7ff; 24:15ff).

(3) The punishment would be complete and final; the “tree” would be dead from the very “roots” (Mk. 11:20).

Conclusion

There was a very good reason why Jesus Christ acted as he did on this occasion. It was not an impulsive act, it was not a misguided, irresponsible gesture. It was a deliberate, highly instructive warning to Israel and to us. Unfortunately, the lesson conveyed has been lost upon the minds of many.