Jesus and the Fig Tree

There is a portion of the gospels that causes some people some concerns concerning the character of Jesus Christ.  Sometimes the concern comes from environmentalists who see Jesus as not being very eco-friendly.  Other times (the majority of the time) the concerns come from a sense that Jesus has expressed some unwarranted or unjustified anger.  The portion of Scripture in question is about a fig tree that is not bearing fruit.  It can be found in multiple gospel accounts, but the Gospel of Mark puts it like this:

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.  Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit.  When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs.  Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”  And his disciples heard him say it. (Mark 11:12-14)

Why does Jesus curse a tree for not bearing fruit when it is not even the season for bearing figs?  Is Jesus not demanding the impossible and something contrary to nature?  The scene appears to be looking bad for Jesus.  Yet, add some horticulture knowledge of fig trees in the Middle East and a person will begin to see that this was not a temper-tantrum by Jesus.  Timothy Keller describes it this way in King’s Cross:

Middle Eastern fig trees bore two kinds of fruit.  As leaves were starting to come in the spring, before the figs came, the branches bore little nodules, which were abundant and very good to eat.  Travelers liked to pick them off and eat them as they made their journey.  If you found a fig tree that had begun to sprout leaves but had none of these delicious nodules, you would know that something was wrong.  It might look okay from a distance because the leaves had emerged, but if it had no nodules it was diseased or maybe even dying inside.  Growth without fruit was a sign of decay.  Jesus is simply pronouncing that such is the case here (p. 160).

Common knowledge plant life has been explained.  But is Mark simply recording an interested event in the life and times of Jesus, or is he recording the event under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make a bigger point? The latter.  Keller explains:

Remember that this happens between his first arrival at the temple and his return to the temple the next day.  Jesus seizes the opportunity to provide a private, memorable object lesson, a parable against hollow religiosity, with the fig tree as a visual aid… Jesus finds the fig tree not doing its appointed job. The tree became a perfect metaphor for Israel, and beyond that, for those claiming to be God’s people but who do not bear any fruit for him.  Jesus was returning to a place that was religiously very busy, just like most churches are: tasks, committees, noise, people coming and going, lots of transactions.  But the busyness contained no spirituality.  Nobody was actually praying. There are many things we do that can appear to be signs of real belief but can grow without real heart change and without real compassionate involvement with others… Jesus is saying that he wants more than busyness; he want the kinds of character change that only comes from realizing that you have been ransomed (pp. 160-161).

The point is poignant.  Are we simply busy with religious activities, or are actively engaged with the transforming life of Jesus Christ?  Are we simply professing words of faith, or are we living by faith?  If we are simply saying words and performing tasks life there will not be noticeable change.  If we are living by faith there will be the fruit of change – change that is apparent to the world around us; change that is transforming us over time into resembling the person of Jesus Christ from the inside out.

The full impact of Jesus in a person’s life comes from centering one’s life on Jesus Christ and not attempting to fit Jesus somewhere into one’s life.  Timothy Keller offers this concluding thought, “Please don’t try to keep Jesus on the periphery of your life.  He cannot remain there.  Give yourself to him – center your entire life on him – and let his power reproduce his character in you” (p. 162).

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3 thoughts on “Jesus and the Fig Tree

  1. Thanks for writing, Seth. I’m in “King’s Cross” right now as one resource I’m using while preaching through Mark. The fig tree story has always struck me as odd in an I-must-be-missing-something way. Such insights as Keller (likely from James Edwards) provides on fig trees certainly help to fill that gap.

    Blessings on you and yours as you strive to serve fruitfully.

  2. Thank you…I also did not understand this scripture. Now I will never forget this profound lesson of the fig tree and will keep it in the caverns of my heart, mind and soul. God has truly blessed us all.

  3. Pingback: When the fig tree sprouts leaves | PoliNation

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