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encouragement theology

The Barren Tree

Thoughts from Matthew 21…

This is a very simple story. Jesus was returning to Jerusalem on Monday morning when He saw a fig tree full of leaves. It was early in the season, but the leaves indicated that the tree must have figs (the fruit forms before the leaves).2 5 He went to the tree in hunger, only to find that there was no fruit. He then responded by cursing the tree, saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!

The next morning, the disciples noticed that the tree had withered completely. Jesus then used the dead tree as a teaching point to demonstrate the power of prayer. You can move a mountain into the sea if you have faith without doubting.

Some have seen this passage as an example of Jesus reacting in anger, cursing out at the fruitless tree that failed to feed Him, and killing it for its failure. But if this is the case, was this the tree’s fault? Did the fig tree make a conscious decision to not bear fruit?

But Jesus’ response regarding the dead tree shows that this was not a reaction of anger but a lesson for His disciples. There were only two recorded events in the life of Christ where he destroyed nature: this scene with the fig tree, and the earlier scene in Gadara, where He healed the demon-possessed men and allowed the demons to drown the herd of pigs.

This scene with the fig tree shows three teaching points: The first point is the illustration of the fig tree itself. It was full of leaves and looked very healthy, but it was fruitless. It had more leaves than would be expected for that time of the year, yet it didn’t have any fruit. Many Bible scholars understand the fig tree to be an illustration of Israel, with the fruitless tree representing the fruitless nation.1 a The people of Israel had a great show of good deeds and religious fervor, but without any real fruit of repentance. Like the fig tree, they were all green and healthy looking, but without any substance. And just like the fig tree, they were doomed to destruction because of their fruitlessness. The nation of Israel would ultimately die, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

The second point is that Jesus used the fig tree to teach the power of prayer. He repeated the earlier promise that only a small amount of faith can cause great things to happen. It is important to note that the prayer is for judgement this time. God hears our prayers for a blessing, but He also honors our prayers when we ask judgment for those who are rebelling against Him. This is the same prayer that Elijah prayed for his unbelieving nation, when He prayed for drought (see here). This is not a prayer for vengeance, but that the people would be moved to repentance. God promises to hear us when we seek to advance His agenda — even when it is against those who oppose him.

The final point is an application that each of us needs to consider. We may not be as wicked as the Jews of that day, when they were conspiring to kill the Lord Jesus Christ, but we can all fall into the same trap of becoming leafy without any fruit. We show all forms of good deeds on the outside, but there is no Godly fruit from our actions. There is no repentance from our disobedience, nor is there any work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. When you see this happening, it is an immediate time to check yourself with God. Have you really received Him into your life? If not, all of your good deeds are worthless to Him (Isaiah 64:6). But even when you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, we can still lapse into times of fruitlessness. We need to continually repent, turn away from our disobedience, and come back to Him. Only then will our lives be fruitful, and only then will we not be like the barren fig tree.

Previous post: Don’t Ignore Him!


Matthew 21:18-22
In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”

Mark 11:12-14
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he 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.

Mark 11:20-25
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig 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 into 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.”


Matthew 21:18-19
In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

Mark 11:12-14
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he 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.

The tree was full of leaves, leading any passer-by to expect it to have fruit. But the tree had no fruit, so the Lord cursed it that morning. 

“For it is a well-known fact, that in Palestine ‘the fruit appears before the leaves,’ and that this fig-tree, whether from its exposure or soil, was precocious, is evident from the fact that it was in leaf, which is quite unusual at that season on the Mount of Olives. But in the present case there was neither old nor new fruit, ‘but leaves only.’” – Alfred Edersheim5

Although this scene comes after cleansing the temple in Matthew’s account, Mark’s account contains more detail about the sequence of events, showing that Jesus first encountered the fig tree on His way back to Jerusalem on Monday morning, before cleansing the temple. He found the tree to be fruitless and cursed it, causing the tree to wither and die.

For a more detailed look at the types of fruit in the lives of the believer, see the study on John 15 here.

The following study shows the chronology of the events of the final week of Jesus’ ministry on earth: Events of the Passion Week

Matthew 21:20-22
When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”

Mark 11:20-25
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig 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 into 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.”

The following morning (Tuesday), the disciples noticed that the fig tree had withered and died. They pointed this out to Jesus, who then used the dead tree as an illustration for praying in faith. Jesus repeated the same promise as earlier (Matthew 17:20). As shown in the study here, the expression to “move a mountain” was a common idiom of that day for doing the impossible. When we pray with faith, we will see impossible things happen!b


References

[1] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 21:18-22, pages 245-246

[2] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 21, The King in Jerusalem

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 21:17-22, page 63

[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Mark 11:12-26, pages 121-122

[5] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book V, CHAPTER II: THE SECOND DAY IN PASSION-WEEK, THE BARREN FIG-TREE, THE CLEANSING OF THE TEMPLE, THE HOSANNA OF THE CHILDREN (St. Matt. 21: 12-22; St. Mark 11: 15-26; St. Luke 19: 45-48.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.x.ii.html

[6] Doug Bookman, Life of Christ, Audio Series, Lecture 12, https://www.christianity.com/jesus/life-of-jesus/harmony-of-the-gospels/30-the-fig-tree-and-the-second-temple-cleansing.html

[7] John MacArthur, The Way of the Fig Tree: Promise Without Performance, Matthew 21:18-22, Dec 4, 1983

[8] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 2005, Matthew 21:18-22, page 1164

[9] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 2005, Mark 11:12-26, pages 1236-1239

[10] D.A. Carson, Editor, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Zondervan, 2010, Matthew 21:18-22


Notes

[a] Jesus used the fig tree as an illustration three times during His ministry. This was a common expression for Israel in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 8:13, Hosea 9:10-16, Nahum 3:12),3 4 and most Bible Scholars agree that these three illustrations all point to the nation of Israel:

  • Luke 13:6-9: This parable of the fig tree, whose owner has been waiting for fruit for three years. The vinedresser pleads for one last chance, otherwise the tree will be cut down. The common understanding of this parable is that the three years show the three years of ministry that the Lord Jesus Christ has had with Israel at this point, yet they still would not repent and turn to Him. They had one more chance, otherwise they would be “cut down” and destroyed.
  • Matthew 21:18-22: This is the passage here, also showing a barren fig tree. In this living illustration, the barren tree was cursed and withered.
  • Matthew 24:32-33: During His teaching of end times, Jesus taught the disciples to learn from the fig tree. When it puts forth leaves, know that “summer is near”. This is part of a future prophecy by the Lord, and could mean the imminent destruction of Israel or the nearness of the end times when Israel regathered. We will study this passage in more depth when we cover Matthew 24.

[b] Some translations contain Mark 11:26, “But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your trespasses”. This has been omitted or marked with a footnote in later translations because this passage is not contained in the earliest manuscripts, and appears to have been added by later copyists, as a repetition of the warning from Matthew 6:15.

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