One of my regular correspondents, Richard, has asked for my thoughts on the “Jesus and the fig tree incident”. You know, the one where Jesus talks to a tree before cursing it. What on earth is that all about? Below is my attempt at making sense of it, but before that, here’s the passage in question:
“On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he [Jesus] was hungry. 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.
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fruit tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown in the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in Heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
(Mark 11:12-14 and 20-25)
There are a number of things that we must get our heads around if we are to have any chance of understanding this passage.
- Where was Jesus when he said it?
- What happened in between these verses and afterwards?
- What symbolism is there in the passage?
So where was Jesus when he said these words? The answer to that is that when he cursed the tree he was on his way from Bethany to Jerusalem. However, we can be a bit more specific than this. Jesus refers to “this mountain”, and the question is this: is he talking about a particular mountain, or do we just take from this that he wanted to be the originator of that well-known expression “faith that moves mountains”? Actually, there was indeed a mountain there – the Mount of Olives. That’s hugely important, as I’ll come on to towards the end of this piece.
Our second question is what happened before, between and after these verses. This too is crucial, because it gives us the context for the fig tree episode. Prior to these verses, Mark records the triumphal entry, where Jesus rides into Jerusalem to cries of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Mark then tells us that he goes into the Temple, takes a look around, before going to Bethany.
Between these verses, Jesus again enters the Temple, but this time he doesn’t just take a look around, but after calling them out for turning the “House of Prayer for all nations” into a “den of robbers”, he famously overturns tables of money changers before driving them out.
After the fig tree incident, Jesus then goes into the Temple for the third time, where his authority is challenged by the leaders of Israel. From the end of chapter 11, all the way down to the end of chapter 13, he proceeds to tell them a series of parables aimed at pointing out their apostasy, along with answering their loaded questions. That section ends with his foretelling the destruction of the Temple and the Old Covenant order along with it.
The third question relates to the symbolism in the passage. There are chiefly four things:
A fig tree
The fig tree is often used as a symbol in Scripture of fruitfulness and prosperity in Israel (see Deuteronomy 8:8 and 1 Kings 4:25 for instance). But it is also used as a figure for Israel itself (see Jeremiah 8:13 and Joel 1:7 and 12).
Here we must go all the way back to Genesis 3, where we find that Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together to make aprons. Why? To attempt to cover their nakedness.
Fruit is often used as a symbol of righteousness and good works. For instance, the righteousness and good works that come from the Holy Spirit are said in Galatians 5:22-23 to be “the fruit of the Spirit.
Mountains are often symbols of nations or kingdoms in the Bible. For instance, Babylon is described by God in Jeremiah as “O destroying mountain” (Jeremiah 51:25). Not only this, but God’s kingdom itself is often figuratively referred to as a mountain, or the Mountain of the Lord (see Isaiah 2:1-3 and Daniel 2:35-45 for instance).
There is one more comment to make before coming onto the passage, which is this: Jesus didn’t just tell parables – he also acted them out. For instance, he is tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. Why? Because he is the new Israel, and Israel itself was tested (and failed) for 40 years in the wilderness. He turned water into wine. Why? Because it was a picture of the Old Covenant being replaced by something much fuller, deeper and more joyful (see Psalm 104:15 for the connection between wine and joy). So with the fig tree incident. It’s nothing to do with Jesus being hungry. Nothing to do with him wanting to demonstrate his power. Jesus is acting out a parable. But what is that?
We are told in the passage that Jesus saw the fig tree in leaf. Now this was odd, because, as it goes on to tell us, “it was not the season for figs”. When a fig tree has leaves, it should have fruit, for the simple reason that the fruit comes before the leaves. So seeing the leaves, he goes to examine it, and what he finds as he comes near is that it has no fruit underneath – it is naked.
Where have we seen this before? In the first instance, as mentioned above, we’ve seen it in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve had a covering of fig leaves, which they had sown together in the hope that somehow it would could placate God. But of course it didn’t and it couldn’t. So when God came to examine them, he found no good fruit – only sin and unrighteousness – but plenty of leaves trying to cover it up.
The same thing is going on here. Like God in the Garden, Jesus has come once again to examine his people. What he finds, especially when he goes into the Temple, is a lot of external religion, but underneath it there is nothing but sin. And so not only is the fig tree generally a symbol of Israel, this particular fig tree is the perfect picture of the state of Israel at that time – a lot of leaves, but underneath no fruit.
Another backdrop to the whole episode is to be found in Jeremiah 7-8. At the beginning of chapter 7, Jeremiah tells the people of Israel to stop trusting in the Temple to save them. He says that they have become superstitious, saying “This is the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD” (7:4). Yet despite their apparent reverence, they have actually turned it into a “den of thieves” (v.11) through their stealing, murdering, adultery, swearing falsely, and making offerings to Baal and other gods (7:9). In other words, they have a lot of pious externals, but the inside is rotten. And so after a long denunciation of them for their continued wickedness, and warnings that God is going to destroy them, in chapter 8 Jeremiah says, “When I would gather them, declares the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree;” (8.13).
Jesus is basically doing the same, only this time it’s terminal. Having found leaves on Israel – and especially the leaders – but no fruit, Jesus announces that God’s patience has run out and they are cursed. Those who refuse to accept the Messiah God graciously gave them will be destroyed, along with the whole Old Covenant system with its priests, its sacrifices, its ceremonies and its Temple. Which is exactly what happens 40 years later. And to show the disciples what he intends to do, Jesus curses the fig tree, which like Israel had a lot of leaves but no fruit.
A couple more things. When he tells them “whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown in the sea’”, what’s he talking about? Basically the same thing. The mountain in question was the Mount Olivet, which was itself symbolic of Jerusalem and Israel. Throughout the Book of Acts, we see that the biggest persecutors of the Christians by far were the apostate Jews – those who refused to accept God’s Messiah. The persecution from the gentiles only really started majorly in 64AD, when the emperor Nero launched a wave of horrendous persecutions against the Christians. But until then – as Acts shows – the overwhelming adversary of the Christians were the apostate Jews.
And so when Jesus talks about “throwing this mountain” in the sea, this is what he is referring to — Mount Olivet being a figure of Jerusalem/Israel. He’s saying that the time will come when they will need to pray for the biggest obstacle to the spread of the Gospel — apostate Israel and the Old Covenant system –to be thrown into the abyss.
And indeed it was. In Revelation the “great city” Babylon is pictured like this: “Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, ‘So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence,’ (Revelation 18:21). What is the “great city”? In chapter 11:8 we are told that the “great city” is symbolically called Sodom and Egypt, where the Lord was crucified. In other words, Jerusalem, which because of its rejection of Jesus and its apostasy, gets to be named after some of the most notoriously wicked cities or countries in the Old Testament, and in Revelation 17 it is named Babylon.
Yet, just in case his disciples took his words as carte blanche to pray imprecatory prayers, Jesus then very quickly reminds them that although they should pray for the overthrow of the system and the city that was cursed and set for destruction, they should not forget to remember mercy and forgiveness: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in Heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”