The Withered Fig Tree Read Mark 11:11-26 (Compare Matt 21:17-22)
Our passage records events that took place during the last week of Christ’s ministry on earth – a week filled with tension and expectation. At one point, Christ can be found overlooking the city of Jerusalem and weeping (Luke 19:41-42). At another, He could be found overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers (Mark 11:15-17). In these final days of His ministry, Christ is walking as on the edge of the fierce judgment that He will endure. All He says and does pertains to this truth, either as a message of well or woe. Some scenes are exuberant; others, solemn.
An instance of the latter is Christ’s miracle of the withered fig tree. It’s worth noting that this is a miracle of judgment. All of Christ’s miracles were miracles of power. Most of Christ’s miracles were miracles of mercy, but this miracle was one of judgment. Christ had often restored the withered limbs of disabled people (Matt. 12:13, John 5:8, Acts 3:7); here, however, Christ withered the limbs of a fruitless tree. The only other miracle Christ did that had an element of judgment was a legion of demons were cast into a herd of swine, who then plunged themselves into the lake (Mark 5:13). Even there, however, the main purpose of the miracle was the healing of the demon-possessed man. Christ did not go about cursing people and restoring trees, but restoring people.
Understanding the Miracle
We can surmise from a number of passages that Christ was lodging in Bethany, which was located on the Mount of Olives just a short walking distance from the city of Jerusalem (Mark 11:1, 11). The miracle we are looking at took place most likely on the Monday before what is known as Good Friday. The day before, Christ had entered the city to the Hosanna cries of the children (11:1-10). When He arrived at the temple, He “looked round about upon all things” (v. 11). This quiet and solemn inspection of the temple by the Son of God must have been impressive to those who observed it. However, the next day He would come into the temple and overturn the tables and cast out the merchants (11:15-16).
The picture is this: early in the morning, the Savior walked towards Jerusalem. He was hungry (Mark 11:12). We don’t know if he had been fasting or had missed a morning meal, but along the road were many fig trees. In fact, Bethphage (referred to in Mark 11:1), a neighboring village to Bethany, means “the house of figs.” Along the road, if the figs were ripe, people passing by would often help themselves to these figs.
There were basically three times a year when you could find ripe figs on trees – June, August, and December. However, it was only March or April; Mark says “the time of figs was not yet” (11:13). Nevertheless, even this early in the year, a small fruit could be found on the fig tree, even before the leaves would come out. It was knob-like and tasted rather starchy. This is probably what Solomon refers to in Song of Solomon 2:13, in his description of early spring: “The fig tree putted forth green figs” (2:13). The ancient literature tells us that peasants might eat this fruit when they were hungry; otherwise, it would fall off later, when the real fruit would begin to form.
As the Savior approached the tree, He noticed it from a distance. Clearly, it stood out from all the rest because of its foliage. He came up to it “if haply he might find” some fruit on it (v. 13). He found “nothing but leaves” (Mark 11:13). Thereupon He pronounced the following curse: “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter forever” (v. 14). “And presently the fig tree withered away” (Matt. 21:19). In Mark we read that the next day when the Lord and His disciples came back past the place, “they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots” (11:20).
Some commentators have suggested that Christ acted harshly here, out of unwarranted frustration even. That is not at all the case. First of all, here is the Creator of everything, including all the trees of the field. They are His to do with as He pleases. God gave to Adam dominion over the fish, birds, and also the trees of the field (Gen 1:28); should not the Second Adam be able to exercise that dominion? Finally, the Bible tells us that Christ was “holy, harmless, and undefiled” (Heb. 7:26). Never was “guile was found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22). Especially, as the curse of God comes into view as soon falling upon Him, everything Christ does is both fitting and full of significance. Man should cease subjecting Christ to our judgment. Instead, we need to come under His verdict concerning us.
The Lord’s Searching Gaze
This miracle of Christ has a profoundly spiritual meaning. The Old Testament often compares people to trees. More specifically, Israel or the church of the Old Testament is compared frequently to a fig tree (e.g., Hos. 9:10). The Lord is entitled to the fruit of what He has planted. In fact, in Micah 7, the Lord pictures Himself as one who desires to eat the fruit of Hs people, but “there is no cluster to eat: my soul desired the fir-stripe fruit” (7:1). Christ Himself taught the parable of the fig tree (Luke 13:6-9), which has many parallels with our passage.
The text implies there were many fruitless and leafless trees, and yet Christ did not curse any of them. So the problem is not fruitlessness, per se, but rather, the fact that this leafy fig tree pretends to have fruit, whereas the others do not. This was the kind of tree that if we would spot it today, we would photograph it and even put it on a calendar page. Imagine its long boughs laced with magnificent leaves.
The Bible teaches that “man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh upon the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Just as the Lord Jesus’ searching gaze examines this tree from top to bottom, and looks under every leaf to see if there is any fruit, so He examines the hearts and lives of men. Sadly, His eyes often see only leaves and no fruit.
What fruit is the Lord looking for? The Bible is clear on what sacrifices God accepts (Ps. 51:17): poor and contrite hearts that tremble at the Word; repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; love for Christ; love for souls; hatred of sin; contentment in God and the lot He gives us in life; longing for Him and His righteousness; liberality to the poor; resting in Christ and His finished work; renouncing the hidden things of dishonesty. Christ is looking for the fruit of the Spirit, which “is love, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22).
It is worth noticing that right before and after this incident, Christ would enter into the temple complex to search it, and what He would find would parallel this fig tree in a remarkable way. It was a beautiful and impressive temple, with beautifully dressed priests, imposing Pharisees, rich people giving gifts in showy ways – beautiful leaves without real fruit. The same lesson is found in Jeremiah 17:4: “I the LORD search the heart and try the reins.”
The Lord’s Withering Words
Focus for a moment on the cutting words the Savior speaks to this tree: “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter forever” (v. 14). If any of us spoke to a tree, our words wouldn’t accomplish anything, but Christ’s word can both give life and take it away. He fulfills Ezekiel 17:24: “And all the trees of the field shall know that I the LORD have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish: I the LORD have spoken and have done it.”
Christ is teaching us about the need for His withering work in our lives. This is difficult, especially for religious people. We love our beautiful fig leaves too much. Yet, still today one of the purposes of the preaching is to destroy the false show of religion in our lives. Like Adam and Eve, we use our fig leaves to cover up our shame and sin with them. But God needs to expose our sin and show that all our excuses and efforts to cover it up are vain. He does that by His Spirit through the Word still today:
And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness and judgment.John 16:8
This is exactly what happened with Saul of Tarsus. If anyone had a beautifully leafy fig tree of a life, it was Saul. Yet with one word from heaven by Christ, Saul’s religion withered before him (Acts 9:43-46) until nothing was left, and he appeared as he truly was. He expressed it like this: “I died” (Rom. 7:9). He died to his self-righteous religion in order to be made alive in Christ to bear true fruit.
If the Lord does not do this in the day of grace, He will do it in the day of judgment. A similar sentence will come down on countless people who trusted that all was well. With the word of His mouth He will send them away.
The Lord’s Unmatched Beauty
It would be beneficial to contrast this fruitless fig tree with what the Bible describes as a truly fruitful fig tree. What better illustration of that is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself? A few days later, He would compare Himself to a “green” or living tree and Jerusalem to a “dry” or lifeless tree (Luke 23:31). Indeed, has anyone ever seen a more beautiful and fruitful tree than He? Heaven’s verdict of Him was “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matt. 17:5). Never was there such matchless beauty! But despite the fact that He was a glorious Tree, heaven would pronounce a curse on Him just three days after the events of our text. He would be “made a curse” (Gal. 3:13) and enter an infinitely greater judgment than this tree. The tree only lost the plant life it had, but nothing more. By His death on the cross, Christ endured eternal death for each one of His people.
But three days later, in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, this tree appeared with the power of an endless life (Heb. 7:16). He is all the more radiant and beautiful now. He lives forevermore – and because He lives, His people can live also (John 14:19). That’s the gospel of free grace. In the gospel, He calls both unrighteous and self-righteous sinners to Himself. “From me is thy fruit found” (Hos. 14:8).
The fig tree in our passage is you and I by nature. We need to learn to despise a religion that deals in leaves alone. The fig tree of Calvary is what you and I need; His leaves never disappoint. He yields His fruit continually, without fail and to the satisfaction of every hungry sinner (Rev. 22:2). Under every leaf of this Tree is abundant fruit for even the most wretched and needy sinner.
He that cometh to me shall never hunger.John 6:35
Not only does He supply the greatest benefits, He can save to the uttermost “seeing he ever liveth” (Heb. 7:25). The same Christ who said to the fig tree in our passage, “Die,” can also say “Live.” How important it is for believers to cling to this Christ. We don’t find the life of our own hand (see Isa. 57:10); instead, the Lord Jesus says:
He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.John 15:5
- Why is a “fig leaf” religion so powerful and prevalent? How have we been content with leaves?
- Give examples from the Bible or your own life of how the Lord desires true fruit and not showy leaves. What means does the Lord use to strip away leaves and produce fruit in His people? Give an example of how He has done so for you.
- Why does Christ point Peter to the need for faith in God (v. 22)? You may want to consult a good commentary on this.
- Look at Luke 23:31 in its context. How does this help us understand the beauty of the Savior and our need of Him and His cross?
- How does this miracle of judgment relate to the hypocrisy that marked the temple service at Christ’s time? What warning does that contain for the professing church today?