On Monday, Jesus left Bethany in route to Jerusalem. On his way into the capital city, something atypical transpired. Jesus performed his one and only destructive miracle:
Mark 11:12-14 … 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.
At that point, no one asked him about his curse. His disciples simply noticed what he did, heard what he said, shot glances at one another, shrugged their shoulders and kept on walking after their fearless king. Into the city they went. There Jesus cleansed the temple, healed the sick, received worship from children, and totally frustrated the Pharisees. Then Jesus returned to Bethany for the evening.
On Tuesday, Jesus and his men arose to return to the Holy City. Taking the same route, they passed by the cursed fig tree. But something was very different on this day:
Mark 11:20-21 … They saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Also Matthew 21:12-22)
What’s happened here?
Some have seen a character flaw in Jesus. They have accused the holy Son of God of having a temper tantrum, pointed out his impulsive nature, and condemned him for his meaningless act of tree vandalism.
Others have been a bit more kind towards Jesus the Nazarene. Recognizing the intense pressure building about Jesus on this week, they have sought to give him a break. Jesus was emotionally tense and tender as could be seen in his reaction to the fruitless fig tree followed by his action in the fruitless house of prayer.
But friends, Jesus was not reacting. No, he was intentionally acting. The teacher was teaching, and the fig tree was his instructional prop. Jesus was righteous. He was righteously expectant and righteously indignant. He had the right to demand, inspect, condemn, and curse. And on the week of his self-sacrifice, he desired his disciples — then and now — to learn the lesson of the fig tree.
The fig tree, throughout the OT and in this text, represents Israel. This is why Mark creatively sandwiches the temple cleansing episode in the middle of the fig tree story. **
Israel exists to delight its Creator and Lord with its fruit of love. As individuals, as a nation, and as a missionary force, they are to love the Lord with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and they were to love their neighbors with lavish, self-sacrificing, God-like, affection and action. This is the fruit demanded, desired, and delighted in by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Israel is making loud boasts of their faithful worship and love — their fruit. Jesus notices the tree and sees it has many green leaves. He knows what this mean, for Palestinian fig trees first produce their fruit, and then they sprout their luscious greenery. Now, this does not normally occur in the spring, for figs are a summer product. However, Jesus looks, and there is no doubt about it; this particular fig tree has green leaves and is effect yelling, “Come to me, I have fruit!” And this is what is going on in Jerusalem this week. Loudly, they proclaim their love of Yahweh. Loudly, they sing their songs of the Messiah. The Passover week is full of worshipers singing of their faithfulness and devotion to God.
Israel is examined by Jesus — the king who deserves and desires their worship. Just as the tree is examined by the Fig Creator, so Israel and her temple worship is being examined by the Temple Builder. The Lord is in town to receive his fruit and express his delight in the worship owed to him.
Israel is discovered to be utterly fruitless and extremely disappointing. Upon personal inspection, the fig tree proves to have no substance to back up its external proclamation. It has no fruit! God is rejecting Israel’s ceremonies, traditions, sacrifices, practices, leaders, followers, temple, capital city, and country. Israel has no fruit!
Israel is cursed. Towards the tree he declares, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And upon entering the Holy City, Jesus utters his sorrowful and judgmental woes. Israel is accursed.
Israel immediately began to wither and die. As the fig tree dried up from its roots, so too is the rebellious nation of Israel about to wither and die. (Mark 13:2) Some might be asking at this point, “Does this mean that all Jews are without hope?” The answer is “No, only those without Jesus.” But this will be explained in a couple minutes.
So, how can this episode assist us in the year 2020?
First, let us recognize the fruit demanded, deserved, and desired by God. The scriptures proclaim over and over again our joyful duty to love God and those made in his image.
Second, let us recognize the fruit declared by religious people and establishments. Like Israel, we are consumed with energy, effort, expense, inconvenience, pomp, traditions, sacraments, ceremonies, programs, abstinences, observations, and donations. Loudly we proclaim our uniqueness. Proudly we scream of our self-righteousness. We are “God’s People” we say. We are those boasting most of our fruitful faithfulness to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Third, let us recognize our barrenness. Despite our activities and advertisements, we have not that which the Inspector demands, deserves, and desires. In Old Testament language, all of our supposed “righteousness” is as “filthy rags” in his eyes. In New Testament language, our good deeds are considered “dung.” J.C. Ryle comments that our leaves have the same effect as did the leaves about Adam and Eve — they hide our fruitlessness from one another, but they never hide our true selves from the all-knowing and all-seeing God.
Fourth, let us recognize God’s response. Instead of earning his admiration, all we merit is his anger and curse.
But now some good news …
Fifth, let us realize why Jesus came to town. What is going on here? Why is Jesus about to travel the Via Delarosa called the “Way of Suffering?”
- As God flooded the planet with his wrath in the day of Noah …
- As God poured out his hell fire on Sodom and Gomorrah …
- As God pummeled Egypt with his plagues and drowned them in his sea of death …
- As God pulled the walls down upon Jericho …
- As God severed the head of Goliath …
- As God was about to demolish Egypt in 70 AD …
So God is about to pour out his angry curse on Jesus — the Righteous, Holy, Worshipful, Fruitful, Delightful, and Well-Pleasing Son. In three days, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will make sure the Holy Son is crucified for our transgressions.
Friends, let us not take this episode out of context. Yes, I suppose it could be a sermon on how one should produce good fruit for God. But that is not the primary point of this passage. This story is intended to point to the Father-pleasing, Self-sacrificing Jesus Christ — the one who was betrayed and arrested on Thursday, and was then tried, tortured, and crucified on Friday.
Let’s get our eyes off ourselves and our pretended fruitfulness.
Let’s get our eyes on our substitutionary redeemer.
Let’s think more on Jesus and his upcoming sacrifice and be rightly humbled today.
** For Further Study
Jeremiah 29:17 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty says: “I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like poor figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten.
Hosea 9:10 “When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved.
Micah 7:1 What misery is mine! I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard; there is no cluster of grapes to eat, none of the early figs that I crave.
Other passages: Isaiah 34:4; Hosea 2:12; Joel 1:5-7; Jeremiah 8:13
Isaiah 29:13 The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.
Luke 13:6-9 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'”
Matthew 21:43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.