WHY DID JESUS CURSE THE “POOR” FIG TREE?
by Shawn Brasseaux
A noted atheist once grumbled about the Bible account in which Jesus cursed the fig tree. Christ was allegedly wrong in causing that tree to wither away and never bear fruit again. Some dismiss the Lord as petulant, throwing a tantrum because He was hungry and had found nothing to eat. Others argue He destroyed public property. Beloved, this is such reckless and thoughtless slander, indisputable proof that man in all his “wisdom” cannot make sense of God’s holy words!
Oh, how unfair and mean Jesus was to that poor tree! Or was He? Friends, why do we not give the Lord the benefit of the doubt and actually do some Bible research before griping about things we are not qualified to discuss? If we must critique God’s Word, then the least we can do is actually read it first! Moreover, honestly, let us grow up and cease thinking childishly. Here is an example of how, if we approach the Scriptures irreverently, we will get nothing meaningful out of them. If we have the eyes of faith, the Holy Spirit will illuminate us so we see the many things the “natural man” cannot (1 Corinthians 2:9-16).
WHO IS GOD (AND WHO IS NOT)
Before delving into the specifics of the Bible account under consideration, here is one fact we should never forget. Who are WE to dictate to GOD what HE can and cannot do? After all, it is His creation. “The earth is the LORD’S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). He owns everything because He made everything! What right do we—puny, weakly creatures that we are!—have attempting to control Almighty God? Do we go to someone’s house and command him or her to do as we want? Then, my friend, do not live in God’s universe and audaciously assume He needs your permission to act!
If you disagree with God, my friend, here is what you can do. Create your own universe, go live in it, and then you can make your own rules. In the event that you cannot create a universe—and this author suspects that to be the case!—then you must remain here in God’s world and powerlessly watch Him do what He wants. You may keep on throwing tantrums, whining, and screaming “Foul!,” but Almighty God will forever continue doing “His good pleasure!” (With that straightened out, my friend, we can get to addressing the cursing of the fig tree.)
THE CURSING OF THE FIG TREE
Of the Four Gospel Records (Matthew through John), only Matthew and Mark record the account of the Lord Jesus cursing the fig tree. We provide those verses now for your consideration.
Matthew chapter 21: “ Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungred.  And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away.  And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!” (If you study the context, Matthew is not interested in chronology but rather lays out events around a common theme. Mark, on the other hand, follows a timeline. These facts account for the differences in the two Records.)
Mark chapter 11: “ And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:  And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.  And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it….  And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.  And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.”
Friend, could there be a logical explanation to this bizarre narrative? Was Jesus punishing the fig tree? Had it displeased Him in some way? Why this tree of all plants? And, the greatest question of all… Why was this fig tree cursed forever? Why such severity? On the surface, it seems silly. To the aforementioned atheist, and those who agree with him, the things of God are indeed “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Such a “natural man,” one lacking interest in learning Divine truth, is completely unable to grasp the wonderful truths of God’s Word. Without any capacity to appreciate spiritual light, he will (with superficial awareness) immaturely complain about the matter. If he would only take God’s Word, submit to its authority (what he refuses to do because of sIn!), and allow the Holy Spirit to teach him, then he would learn concepts he would never imagine in a billion years!
As people who believe the Bible (do we?), we genuinely seek answers here (are we?). Something amazing is transpiring in this strange situation and we must search the Scriptures to discover it. Watch how God’s Word interprets itself. Here are a few preliminary observations we can make about the cursing of the fig tree. Firstly, it happened in Jerusalem. After spending the night in nearby Bethany, Jesus returned to Jerusalem in the morning to find the unproductive fig tree (cf. Matthew 21:12-19; Mark 11:11-15). Secondly, that fig tree is associated with Jesus cleansing the Jerusalem Temple that has been corrupted with false doctrine (cf. Matthew 21:12-23 [especially verses 12-13]; Mark 11:11-21 [especially verses 15-17]). These two points will prove quite useful in our study later. For now, we look for some verses… and (that “dreaded” word) study!!!
Why choose the fig tree? It is highly beneficial for us to see that Jesus did not randomly select the tree He cursed. Why not an olive tree, an almond tree, or a pomegranate tree? Why not a grapevine? These were growing in the region as well, but the Lord deliberately chose a fig tree because it has scriptural significance in this situation. Again, we will give the Bible a fair hearing and let it keep explaining itself.
Figs first appear in Scripture in Genesis, chapter 3, verse 7: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” If you are familiar with this passage, friend, you know this happened immediately after the Fall of Man, when Adam and Eve sinned against the LORD God by eating the forbidden fruit. Therefore, from that time onward, figs in the Bible carry the meaning of man attempting to cover his spiritual nakedness (sin problem). Thus, the fig tree in Scripture is indicative of religion.
Now, turn to Luke chapter 13: “ He [Jesus Christ] spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none.  Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?  And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:  And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.”
This parable is quite simple, provided we remember our earlier comments. A certain man, really the LORD God, planted a fig tree (Mosaic Law at Mount Sinai, Judaism, the Jewish religion—Exodus chapter 19) in His vineyard (Israel—Isaiah 5:1-7). That system, because it was God’s perfect Law, should have generated faith and righteous deeds in Israel. Using the Law, Israel could have become the nation who could do, by faith, what JEHOVAH God wanted them to do.
However, when Jesus Christ came to Israel during His earthly ministry, He was disappointed. He spent three years looking for fruit—seeking faith and good works, righteous living, a people ready to work by faith in accomplishing God’s will. Sadly, the Lord found no such nation living in the Promised Land. That religious system could not make Israel God’s people because it always emphasized their performance. Since the Jews were sinners like all descendants of Adam, their performance was never enough to please God. Religion could not permanently deal with their sin problem any more than it could help the Gentiles in their sin. (This is made quite clear in the first three chapters of the Book of Romans.)
Romans 8:3 says, “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh….” The Law cannot help the sinner do right because the sinner is by nature a failure! God’s Word says in Romans 3:19-20: “ Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.  Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
Galatians 3:19 affirms, “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.” The Law was added to the promise (Abrahamic Covenant—Genesis 12:1-3) in order to prove to Israel their works would not result in the promise. In other words, the promise would be given completely by God’s grace, not by their efforts. The same is true today for us. If we want sin to reign in our lives, the Law will cause just that! First Corinthians 15:56 says, “The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.” (See also Romans chapter 7, and Romans 6:14-15.) No sinner needs a set of rules to follow to gain a right standing before God. That outcome is impossible. The sinner needs God to give him a right standing. (Hence, Romans chapter 3 outlines justification by faith alone in the shed blood of Jesus Christ alone. It is all about what Christ did for us—grace—and not what we do for God!)
While tangential to our discussion, we must point this out in passing. Luke 13:8-9 talks about God permitting Israel a one-year extension to display faith and works: “ And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:  And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.” This is the one-year period of mercy as recorded in Acts chapters 1–7. When that one-year ministry of the 12 Apostles resulted in more persecution and unbelief, not faith, God temporarily set national Israel aside. The ascended Lord Jesus Christ raised up Saul of Tarsus, saved him, and sent him out as Paul, “the apostle of the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13). (See our related study on Acts 7:55-56, linked at the end of this article.)
Returning to the account of the cursing of the fig tree, we find the Lord Jesus “hungry” (Matthew 21:18; Mark 11:12). He desires faith and works in Israel: He wants Israel to function as His earthly people as He intended. Traveling from Bethany to the Temple in Jerusalem, He comes across a fig tree. Displaying a complete set of green leaves (Matthew 21:19; Mark 11:13), the tree is a very spectacular sight compared to the surrounding brownish, arid (desert) landscape. “And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.” That tree’s appearance was highly misleading. It looked promising in providing fruit to satisfy the hungry soul. Alas, it was nothing but leaves—completely fruitless!
The Palestinian fig tree yields leaves and small figs in early March. It was thus unexpected to find a fig tree with leaves but lacking fruit. The leaves obscured the tree’s barrenness. Even today, religion has a nice outward appearance but—on the inside—it abounds with spiritual death! “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matthew 23:27-28). Despite the “fair shew in the flesh” (Galatians 6:12-13), God was not impressed. That hypocritical nation was not what He intended. Israel’s perverted works-religious system did not fool the Lord! They pretended to be righteous, but it was all artificial. In fact, they worshipped the religious system instead of the God who gave it to them. Lastly, in their “religious goodness,” they will demand the Lord Jesus (God’s Son) be put to death!
Christ Jesus responded to Israel’s fruitless religion by pronouncing over the fig tree, “Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever” (Matthew 21:19). Mark 11:15 reports it this way: “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever.” By the way, the tree was on the side of the road, making it public property. No one owned it; Jesus did not destroy “private property.” In making this decree, Christ was showing how He would one day end the Mosaic Law system (which was only temporary anyway—see Galatians 3:15-26). The Old Covenant will pass away so the New Covenant can be established. Rather than an arrangement that depends on Israel’s faithfulness (which will produce nothing that pleases God), the LORD God will institute a new system. This New Covenant will be entirely dependent upon Him causing Israel to obey His law. It will be His Spirit working in them to accomplish His end.
Notice Hebrews chapter 8: “ But now hath he [Jesus Christ] obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.  For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.  For finding fault with them, he saith [Jeremiah 31:31-34], Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:  Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.
“ For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:  And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.  For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.  In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.” (The fig tree “withers” in verse 13.)
The New Covenant will be established at the Second Coming of Christ. For example, see Acts 3:19-21: “ Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.  And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you….” Also read Romans 11:25-27: “ For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.  And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:  For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.”
Based on the shed blood of Jesus Christ at Calvary (Hebrews chapters 9 and 10), the New Covenant will take care of Israel’s sins committed under the Old Covenant (Mosaic Law). Under the New Covenant, God will place His Holy Spirit into believing Jews to cause them to keep His laws. What religion could not do for Israel, what Israel could not do for herself, that is precisely what God will do for Israel. GRACE! They could not become His people in their own strength, but He can make them His people. GRACE! Ezekiel the Prophet wrote in chapter 36, over five centuries before Christ: “ And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.  And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.” (This will fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant of Genesis 12:1-3, allowing Israel to then be a blessing to all nations in the Millennial Reign of Christ.)
God will never again institute the Mosaic religious system (Old Covenant) in Israel. Instead, He will replace it with the New Covenant. Nevertheless, one person in the Bible will “resurrect” the Mosaic system—the satanic Antichrist. This man is future even from our time. In A.D. 70, the Romans overran Jerusalem and destroyed its Temple that existed during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Those Judaistic animal sacrifices, first instructed by Moses, have been suspended for nearly 2,000 years. The Antichrist will rebuild the Temple and resume its worship services (including the animal sacrifices). Daniel 9:27 says to this point: “And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate.”
The Antichrist will restore the Mosaic system in Israel, before replacing it with the worship of himself (Daniel 11:36-39; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12; Revelation 13:1-18; cf. Romans 1:25). In other words, the Antichrist will restart the Mosaic system—the very system Jesus Christ already condemned forever by cursing the fig tree perpetually. God is not going to cause the Mosaic system to resume in Israel. Satan will be behind it, and he will use the Antichrist to do it!
SUPPLEMENTAL: JONAH AND THE GOURD
In an interesting parallel to any silly atheist carping about Almighty God cursing a fig tree, we find equally-clueless Jonah irritated that God killed a gourd plant.
The final chapter of the Book of Jonah says: “ And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.  But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.  And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.  And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.  Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:  And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”
In other words, Jonah’s complaint was just as hollow as the atheist’s. Jonah did not create the gourd, God did. God, the plant’s owner, killed it. Thus, Jonah had no right to whine about it dying!