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Jesus Loves Figs

I love figs. My parents had a fig tree in the backyard. My mama would make strawberry-fig preserves with those figs. There was a time when we grew strawberries too, so sometimes those preserves came entirely from our land. But, as far as I know, the figs always came from our tree. It wasn’t huge, but it made enough figs for us to enjoy. Figs hold a special place in the story of Scripture. We know they were in the garden of Eden because Adam and Eve covered their nakedness with fig leaves. Figs were used medicinally and for food, being made into fig cakes, and were often used symbolically to speak of peace and prosperity.

But there is this one instance in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus has an unpleasant encounter with a fig tree.

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 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. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
– Mark 11:12-14 (ESV)

Then, the next morning when Jesus and His disciples passed by that tree again, it was dead.

20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.
– Mark 11:20 (ESV)

Figs appear before the fig leaves.

This episode often confuses readers. Christ’s response seems harsh in light of Mark’s narration. If it wasn’t the season for figs, why should Jesus expect, much more, be annoyed that the tree had no figs? Why curse the tree to its death if there was no reasonable expectation that it should have any fruit in this season? Well, you have to know something about fig trees for this to make much sense. With many fig trees, apparently with this variety as well, the fruit of the trees appear before the leaves. Therefore, one would normally expect that a fig tree with fig leaves would have some fruit. This tree possessed all the signs of healthy fruit, but no actual fruit.

Why did Christ curse the tree? Is this the one time that we see Jesus a little vindictive? Was it the tree’s fault? No and no. The sign of the cursed fig tree isn’t explained in the text. When Peter saw the dead tree he remarked, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” Jesus responded with a lesson on faith, but He never explained why He cursed the fig tree in the first place.

What are we to conclude? The unspoken reason is actually acted out. What happened between these moments?

15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “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.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.
– Mark 11:15-19 (ESV)

The fig tree is a metaphor for Israel. He came to them. They appeared to be healthy. Like the fig tree, they had all the trappings of a healthy people. They had a beautiful Temple. There was religious fervor among the people. The people were even expectant that Messiah was coming soon. But when Jesus, the Messiah arrived, He drew near to harvest some fruit, but found none.

There’s something about having the appearance of fruit, but no actual fruit, that Jesus hates. He cursed the tree, and it died. Implication? The Old Covenant will never bear fruit again. But there’s more. If you pay attention to the entire New Testament, bearing fruit is a metaphor used on repeat. In the ESV translation, the word fruit appears fifty-two times in the New Testament. Of all of them, these verses, these seem most appropriate for this discussion.

4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
– John 15:4-6 (ESV)

Are you a fruitless tree? Do you have the appearance of life, but upon closer examination have no fruit? Jesus’ warning here is stern. Abide in me. If you go on fruitless it demonstrates that you aren’t in Him and you’ll be cut down. Don’t be fruitless when He comes to harvest, but do as John the Baptist warned the Pharisees: bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Apparently, even an immature fig tree, before it puts forth its leaves, can bear some fruit. You don’t need to be a seasoned, well-discipled believer to bear fruit. You only need to abide in the Vine and He will make the fruit grow.

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Last modified: August 10, 2023