“In the morning, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, he was hungry, and he noticed a fig tree beside the road. He went over to see if there were any figs, but there were only leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” And immediately the fig tree withered up.” ― Matthew 21:18-19.
The Bible has classic stories that most Christians have heard since they were young—David and Goliath, Noah and the Ark, Daniel In the Lion’s Den, The Good Samaritan and Jesus walking on water to name a few. But within the pages of Scripture are many stories that are more obscure. For example, there is a story in Acts 20:7-13 about the effects of long sermons. Paul was preaching in Troas, and a young man named Eutychus decided it would be a great idea to sit on the sill of an open third-story window. Once the sermon ran long, Eutychus fell asleep… and fell out of the window, breaking his neck. Before his family could even start planning the funeral, Paul raised him to life again. Is it a cautionary tale about staying awake in church? Another obscure story is Jesus cursing the fig tree.
Jesus enters Jerusalem to cheers and acclamation. In the morning, as He travels from Bethany, He spots a fig tree “in full leaf.” Although it is too early in the season for fruit (Mark 11:13) it already has a full covering of leaves. Its foliage signals that it should have early figs. With that expectation, Jesus inspects the tree. He is immediately disappointed. In a shocking turn, Jesus curses the tree and makes it wither from the roots, never to yield fruit again. This action seems stunningly out of character for Jesus, the compassionate healer, storm-calmer and loving Savior. Why not just make the tree bloom? If He could turn water into wine and bring the dead back to life, why didn’t He command the tree to bear fruit?
The next day, as they left Jerusalem and passed by the same tree, the disciples were astonished to find the tree totally withered. “Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, “Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!” (Mark 11:21) When Peter expressed his surprise about the tree, Jesus used the opportunity to teach about failure. The empty tree serves as a warning that we cannot pretend to be spiritually alive, for we won’t bear any fruit. It is not about putting on a good show.
Our personal lives can look like they are “in leaf.” Our leaves may look like those of a super spouse and parent; we may look successful in business and in spiritual matters because of an overstuffed schedule of ministry activities. But we constantly need to look at what we are producing from all our efforts and activities. But what will the Lord find upon close inspection? Will he find only leaves? Or will he find figs, too?
- What does looking for figs on the fig tree actually symbolize? What does cursing the fig tree symbolize?
- What can we do this week to kill complacency?