Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.Matthew 21:18-22 NIV
When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
The incident recorded here took place during the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. He was commuting each day from Bethany to Jerusalem. And this account took place along the road on his way to Jerusalem. According to Mark 11:12-14, 19-21, it actually happened over two consecutive mornings, but Matthew rolled it up into a single day.
This cursing of the fig tree can appear very strange today. It does not seem to serve any real purpose other than to teach us that Jesus is cranky when he gets hungry. But I’m pretty sure that is not the point that is being made here.
The Context for the Cursing of the Fig Tree
When trying to understand the significance of this story, it is important to understand the context. Matthew intentionally organized his material in a way to teach us specific lessons. He does not include this random event just because he thought it interesting. Rather it is a part of a larger lesson that he is presenting.
The context of this passage is important. It will help us to understand why Matthew included it. And what he is telling us through it. This passage is preceded and followed by accounts of conflict. On one side is the cleansing of the temple and the praise of the little children. On the other side, it concerns his authority to do what he was doing; healing and teaching.
So the context is one of conflict. The Jewish religious leaders are indignant with Jesus and challenge his authority. They have rejected him as their Messiah. And were trying to discredit him and turn the people’s hearts away from him. We need to bear that in mind when we look at what happens to the fig tree and Jesus’ teaching concerning it.
One other note on context that Matthew does not record. In Mark 11:13 we are told that it was not the season for figs. So it would not appear to be reasonable for Jesus to actually expect the tree to have figs. So it would seem that there is more to this story than Jesus’ disappointment in not having figs for breakfast.
Several times in the Old Testament prophets there are references to fig trees and their fruit. Not just as fig-trees, but reflective of the health of Israel.
What misery is mine!Micah 7:1 NIV
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.
Micah pictures God as looking for the early figs that he craves but finding none. Israel is not producing the fruit that God wanted from them.
This sounds very much like what is happening in the account of Jesus cursing the fig tree. He is craving figs, even though it is not the season for figs. It would seem, like God in Micah, that he is looking for early figs but does not find them.
I will take away their harvest,Jeremiah 8:13 NIV
declares the Lord.
There will be no grapes on the vine.
There will be no figs on the tree,
and their leaves will wither.
What I have given them
will be taken from them.
Jeremiah builds on what Micah said, this time making clear the judgment that was coming because of Israel’s unfaithfulness. There will be no figs on the tree. And the tree will wither. Again, this sounds very much like Jesus’ encounter with the fig tree.
A Living Parable
One of Jesus’ primary teaching tools was the use of parables. Telling a simple story that had a spiritual point. It would seem that is what Jesus is doing here, telling a parable, but without words. You might think of it as an object lesson.
But clearly, this lesson was initially a mystery to his disciples. Their response indicated that they had no idea what Jesus was illustrating with the fig tree. They were amazed, not understanding how it all happened so quickly. And likely not understanding why Jesus had cursed the poor tree in the first place.
Jesus then tells them the point of this object lesson. A point that we all too often take out of context today.
The Point of the Story
Verses 21 & 22 are often used as a stand-alone passage about faith. If we have faith and do not doubt, then we can even cast a mountain into the sea. And while I agree that faith is important in the life of the believer, I do not believe that is what Jesus was telling his disciples here.
Remember that these two verses come in the context of the cursing of the fig tree, and directly in answer to his disciple’s question about it. And the larger context of conflict with the Jewish religious leaders. Unless we want to accuse Matthew of a random insertion, we need to interpret this passage in light of that context.
Another point that we often overlook concerns the mountain we might cast into the sea. Jesus does not say ‘a mountain’. Rather he says ‘this mountain’. He is talking about a specific mountain that might be cast into the sea.
Matthew does not specify what mountain Jesus might have been referring to. But given his location on the road from Bethany to Jerusalem, it would be most natural to assume a mountain that he could point to. And the most logical mountain would be the one on which Jerusalem is built. Or maybe even the temple mount.
But that does not seem to solve the problem of casting a mountain into the sea. Even knowing that Jesus was referring to a specific mountain, rather than just an inconvenient mountain that might be in your way.
The Fig Tree and the Mountain
In Jesus’ response to his disciples, he connects the fig tree and the mountain together. If they have faith, they can do what was done to the fig tree, or cast a mountain into the sea. So what are these objects he is referring to?
Based on the similarity between Jesus’ encounter with the fig tree and the message of Micah and Jeremiah, I would think that the fig tree represents Israel. And more specifically, an Israel that has turned away from God’s intent for them.
And the mountain would seem to represent Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life and religious practice. This mountain that they could cast into the sea was likely not the literal mountain Jerusalem was built on. But represented all that Israel had become.
Casting Them Off
I don’t believe that Jesus is referring to literally casting Jerusalem’s mountain, or any mountain for that matter, into the sea. Nor is he telling us that we can curse a fig tree and have it wither. So, then, just what is he saying to us in this passage.
I believe it has to do with rejecting the old way of the Law with all of the baggage associated with it. And instead, by faith, turning to Christ for salvation. It is by grace we are saved, through faith. By faith, we can cast off the old shackles that imprisoned us. And we can experience the newness of knowing Christ in his fullness.
We will have conflict in this world. The world does not accept Jesus as the promised redeemer and Messiah. And neither will they accept those who are his (John 15:18-19). But, in faith, we can overcome them (1 John 5:4).
If You Believe
Hebrews 12:18-24 speaks of two mountains. The first was Sinai. A mountain that could not be touched and was burning with fire. The second is Mt Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.
Cast that first mountain into the sea. Be free from it. And come into the city of the living God. Not the physical city of Jerusalem that Jesus was likely pointing his disciples to. But the Jerusalem that is above. How do we do that? By believing what God has already done for us.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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