What is Going on with the Fig Tree?

Have you ever read the story when a hungry Jesus approached a fig tree, and seeing that it had leaves but bore no fruit, cursed it?

“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 11:12-14

I had always been so confused by this section of Scripture. What in the world is happening here?

Is Jesus hangry and irritable so he randomly curses a tree that’s not doing what he thought it ought? Does that mean that Jesus sinned (big doctrinal problem with that one) or that acting this way in hunger and anger is not sinful? Am I allowed to curse things randomly when they do not do what I think they should?


Is something else going on here? Was there a deeper meaning behind what Jesus was doing? Was this an intentional message?

Short answer: Yes.

Jesus was being purposeful and intentional, not hangry and irritable. There is a much deeper meaning to the cursing of the fig tree that is lost without careful study.

Markan Sandwich

This passage is a part of a large Markan Sandwich: a literary technique that is common in the Gospel of Mark. A sandwich is when Mark takes an event and interrupts it with another. It is often marked by two mirror images on either side of the event as well.

One great example of this is the story of Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman in Mark 5:21-43.

Jesus is on the way to heal Jairus’ daughter, when he is interrupted by a woman who had been bleeding nonstop for many years. He heals this woman and then continues to the home of Jairus to heal his daughter. The woman had been bleeding for 12 years, and the daughter is 12 years old.

From this interruption, it seems that Mark is making a connection between the stories and drawing our attention to an overarching meaning. With the story of Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman, we see two women who would be considered ceremonially unclean: one dead when Jesus touches her, the other bleeding when she touches Jesus. This does not keep Jesus from healing them. We also see two people on opposite sides of the economic isles. Jairus is named in the passage, is a leader in the synagogue and likely wealthy. The woman is unnamed and destitute, having spent all her money on doctors. Both are absolutely desperate for Jesus to act and both put their faith in him. Because of the interruption of the story, we are able to see these connections much more clearly.

There are at least 9 sandwiches in Mark and you can read more about these in the following link: https://jbburnett.com/resources/mark/Edwards_Markan-Sandwiches.pdf

The Temple and the Fig Tree

Here is a basic outline of Mark 11:11-27.

Do you see the Markan Sandwich(es)? What is the central event being highlighted and what are the bookends?

  • Jesus visits the temple (Mark 11:11)
    • Jesus curses the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14)
      • Jesus clears the temple (Mark 11:15-19)
    • Disciples see the fig tree shriveled (Mark 11:20-25)
  • Jesus visits the temple; bold move after the events of the day before: (Mark 11:27)

We can see that the clearing of the temple is the central event and the cursing and then withering of the fig tree bookend that event. So what is the connection? What does the fig tree have to do with the temple?

To understand that, we need to better understand what the fig tree represented to Jews in the Old Testament.

The Fig Tree and Israel in the Old Testament

First, in the Old Testament Scriptures, we see repeatedly Israel represented by plants and vineyards, and specifically a fig tree.

Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard;
    they have trampled down my portion;
they have made my pleasant portion
    a desolate wilderness.
– Jeremiah 12:10

See also: Isaiah 3:14, Isaiah 5:1-7, Ezekiel 17:2-10, Ezekiel 19:10-14.

Second, Israel was meant to bring forth fruit that would extend to the whole earth.

In days to come[a] Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit.
– Isaiah 27:6

Third, this was not the first time “first ripe figs” had been searched for and found missing. God had already inspected the nation of Israel looking for “first ripe figs” and there were none:

Woe is me! For I have become
    as when the summer fruit has been gathered,
    as when the grapes have been gleaned:
there is no cluster to eat,
    no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.
– Micah 7:1

See also: Isaiah 1-4, Hosea 9:10, Jeremiah 8:13

Additionally, this was also not the first time the figs had been used as a representation of a curse. We see in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles of the Jews, God curses Israel with barrenness and compares them to a rotten fig.

‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten.
– Jeremiah 29:17

See also: Hosea 9:16.

Later, God made a promise that Israel will again blossom and ripe figs are used in this analogy as well.

“but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,
    and no one shall make them afraid,
    for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”
– Micah 4:4

See also: Joel 2:22, Amos 9:14, Micah 4:4, Zechariah 8:12, Ezekiel 36:8

Because of these scriptures, Jews would have seen the fig tree in this situation as a symbol of Israel and God’s calling on Israel.

Jesus and the Fig Tree

With these scriptures in mind, we see the imagery of Jesus cursing the fig tree with much more clarity. There would have been no doubt to the Jewish audience as to what Jesus was actually saying, especially when juxtaposed with Jesus’ rebuke of the hypocrisy in the temple.

Israel had all the outward signs that one would expect to see from a tree that should be bearing fruit, yet there was no fruit in sight. It was like a robot, going through the motions but with no blood pumping through their heart.

Jesus had called the nation to bear fruit already many times, but to no avail.

“You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
-Matthew 7:16-20

By cursing the fruit tree just before the clearing of the temple Jesus is showing God’s anger at the nation of Israel, and the religious leaders in particular, for not being a healthy tree and not bearing the fruit they were called to bear.

What Fruit Was Israel Supposed to Bear?

As a nation called by God, Israel had the privilege of the presence of God, as well as the responsibility of that presence. So what fruit should Israel have been expected to produce?

Representatives of God to the Nations

Israel’s special job was to represent God to the rest of the world. They were blessed to be a blessing and in them, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3) They were called to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6) so that others may look at them, know that the God of Israel is the one true God, and turn and worship Him.

However, being a part of the nation of Israel was not meant to be about ethnicity. It was about faith in God even from the beginning and being willing to follow Him. Hebrews 11 lays this out for us very clearly in the New Testament looking back at the Old.

Foreigners were allowed to join the nation of Israel and to worship the One true God. God even gave specific instructions for foreigners who wanted to participate in Passover (Exodus 12:48), and when the Hebrews left Egypt, the Bible records that a “mixed multitude” went with the Israelites crossing the Red Sea alongside them (Exodus 12:38). Most poignantly, there are a number of women specifically included in the lineage of Jesus that are non-Jewish.

Israel was not called to focus on ethnicity and birth, but on the heart, one’s willingness to follow the God of Israel and welcoming others into that family.

Unfortunately, in the time of Jesus, Jews had become incredibly ethnocentric. They had begun to think of themselves as the only ones God would save because of their birth and had ignored the Scriptures which prophesied otherwise. They were not trying to show God to the nations. They were not trying to gather the people of the nations under the God of Israel. They were not evangelizing.

The lack of fruit in this area is especially highlighted in the cleansing of the Temple.

The exchanging of money and the transactions for animal sacrifices at the temple would have occurred in the Court of the Gentiles. This was quite literally the only section of the temple that non-Jews would have been allowed to enter. They were not allowed past a dividing wall separating the rest of the temple and signs were posted in both Greek and Latin warning of this.

Look closely at what Jesus says when he clears this area:

“Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
– Mark 11:17 (ESV)

What should have been a place of prayer for all the nations, had become a place to make money. A place to minister to people and to pray for Gentiles had become a marketplace focused on commercial enterprise.

On top of that, this courtyard was the most prominent and intimate image Gentiles would have had of the temple and, by connection, the God of Israel. The only part of the temple they could experience as a non-Jew wasn’t about God at all, but about business.

Can you think of any modern day examples like that?

Instead of representing God to the nations, a fruit they should have born, the Jews were representing a love of money.

Recognize the Messiah

One key piece of fruit that Israel should have born was to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.

The call to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3 is twofold. It is not simply about the call for Israel to represent God to the nations, but about the fact that the Messiah would be born in the nation of Israel. It is the prophecy that Jesus, the Promised One, would be a direct descendant of Abraham. Through Jesus, all the nations would be blessed. Through him, all the nations would be invited into the family of God if they choose to accept the invitation. (Galatians 3:28) Through him, all the nations would be able to worship in spirit and in truth irrespective of location. (John 4:21-24)

The point of the Old Testament is to show the coming Messiah. The people who should have recognized him, the religious leaders of the time and those most acquainted with the scriptures, did not accept him as the Messiah because they feared the loss of power.

We do see some in leadership who do accept Jesus on some level (Nicodemus the Pharisee and Joseph of Arimathea of the Sanhedrin) and after the resurrection we read in Acts 6:7 that many priests came to believe in Christ, but the fact is they should have known before.

If the religious leadership had truly understood what was written in the Old Testament, they would have understood what was happening in front of them. Jesus says to them

“If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.”
-John 5:46

These religious leaders clearly did not believe, understand, or want what Moses had written. If they had they would have recognized the Messiah in front of them and worshiped him instead of killing him.

Love God, Love Others

When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus summarized the law into two parts:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
– Mark 12:30-31

This was what Israel was supposed to do. Their hearts were supposed to love God and their hearts were supposed love others. From this love, works and actions would naturally flow. The works were meant to be a sign of the love.

But what was meant to be an overflowing fountain of godliness had turned into a hollow shell. Instead of following the law out of love for God, Israel was going through the motions. Their insides were dark and sinful, while they worked incredibly hard to make sure they look pious and good on the outside.

And Jesus hated that.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.  So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
-Matthew 23:25-27

Also, check out the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14.

Jesus wasn’t one to pull any punches.

The issue here wasn’t that the Pharisees were focused on the law and religion. The issue was the heart behind it.

The hearts of the Pharisees were dead. They still had a heart of stone and they should have had hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). They were focused only on their outward deeds and how those made them look. They were not truly loving God and not truly loving others, which was the fruit they should have been producing.

What Fruit Should We Produce?

The natural question to ask next is what fruit should our lives be producing? If Jesus were to look at us as the fig tree what would he say? Would there be good fruit flowing from our hearts, or would we have leaves and the appearance of fruit from far away but none to be found?

What should our faith produce in us?

It looks very similar to what Israel was called to produce.

Representatives of God

We are still called to be representatives of God to all the nations. Our call is to evangelize and share the truth about God with others from all over the world, regardless of language, color, creed or behavior. This call is even more pronounced after the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost, filling the disciples up and allowing them to speak God’s truth in the different languages of all present.

We are still called to share Christ with others and preach the Word of God.

Loving God,  Loving Others

If we truly love God, works will naturally flow out of that. If we truly love God, we will love what he loves: people.

We cannot lean on works to save us or to go backwards from works to love, as the Pharisees so painfully show us. They had the works down, but no love behind them.

Works do not inspire love. Love inspires works.

Knowing God

How do you come to love someone? You must know them first.

This is also how Jesus himself defines eternal life:

And this is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
-John 17:3

Studying the Bible is our primary tool for how we learn about God. It is what He has said to us; what He has chosen to be preserved and shared throughout the generations. It is where He tells us about Himself and who He is. And it’s incredible when we really dive in and start to see what God has been doing from the very beginning. When stories like this one which were once so confusing, suddenly make sense, we are growing in our knowledge of God and our ability to love Him better grows as well.

If you’re looking for an in-depth Bible Study, check out this one on Mark 

Crucified with Christ

When we put our faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts and strengthens us to make decisions that please God. From that point on, every moment of every day, our first question should be “Is this what God wants?” Paul speaks about it as if we are dying to our own personal wants and desires, and pursing God’s wants and desires instead. (Galatians 2:20) We are killing off the sinful parts of us and putting on Christ, living by faith.

These actions don’t earn us any part of salvation, but they are an outward sign of our love for God bubbling up inside of us.

If We Have Leaves, Let Us Have Fruit

It is my hope that this story of Jesus and the Fig tree now makes a lot more sense than it did before. If you feel like you finally understand this often misunderstood section of scripture, share this blog with your friends!

Jesus wasn’t just angry at this random tree that didn’t have food for him. It was a purposeful analogy for the fact that Israel had the leaves to show there should be fruit but had no harvest. They had all the worldly outward signs of holiness, but none of the fruit they were supposed to have born. They look really good on the outside, but inside were dead.

This is not what God wants.

If we claim Christ, let him dwell in our hearts. If we claim to follow God, let our love for God be first and foremost in our lives. Everything else, works included, will flow out of that. If we claim Christianity, let us be ready to multiply for the harvest through sharing the truth of Christ clearly and in both word and deed.

If we have leaves, let us have fruit