The cursed fig tree

The story of Jesus cursing the fig tree appears in two gospels, Matthew 21, and twice in Mark 11 (first to describe the event and then to show its outcome).  There is another parable about a fig tree in Luke 13:6-9, but there is not a clear connection to the scriptures above, other than God dealing with unfruitfulness — which does, of course, run through pretty much everything.  On that basis, it is the Matthew and Mark scripture that we are focusing on here.  However, before we start, it is worth realising that the fig tree is intended as a parable.

So, let's begin with asking why Jesus was hungry.  Micah 7:1 gives us some understanding here.  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.  The grapes and the figs in this scripture are the fruit of the vine and the tree from which they come.  The vine and the tree are, of course, there to produce fruit.  In the same way, both you and I are there to produce fruit for God.

In both Matthew and Mark, the context of the parable is Jesus’ visit to the temple.  Therefore, it is essential that we ask, “What does the fig tree have to do with the temple, and what does it represent?”  Before we tackle that question, we may benefit from a better understanding of what blessings and curses are, as defined in the bible.  I know that we commonly think that blessing someone is saying something good to them and a cursing someone is saying something bad to them.  However, that is not what we find in the bible.

What is a blessing?

A blessing is a prophetic definition of who, or what, you are.  Genesis 49:1-28 is possibly the clearest example to study.  Jacob called his sons together and told them straight to their faces what he saw in them.  In short, he was identifying to them who they were, rather than what they would have thought about themselves.  This was not always good for them to hear.

How can we be sure that this is, actually, a blessing?  Look at what it says in verse 28, “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him.”

How does that work when we say, “Bless You, LORD!”  Can we define to God who He is?  Certainly not!  However, we can define to ourselves who He is.

What is a curse?

As an opposite to blessings, a curse is declaring a change in who, or what, you are.  We can see this in action in the following verses in the bible: 

  • Genesis 3:14, God cursed the serpent, defining that he would forever after crawl on his belly.
  • Genesis 3:17,  God cursed the ground, defining that, from that time onwards, through painful toil, you will eat food from it.

With that understanding in our minds of what a curse is, let’s take a closer look at the fig tree and what Jesus said to it.  The curse in Matthew 21:19 was, “May you never bear fruit again!”  Since the purpose of a fig tree is to bear fruit, you can see that, as it could no longer bear fruit, it died; or possibly, it died so that it could never bear fruit.  

What did the fig tree represent?

As we can clearly see the outcome of that curse on the actual fig tree, the question remains, what did the fig tree represent in the parable?  We can know what God thought about Israel when we read Hosea 9:10 — “When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your ancestors, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree.”

This gives rise to a misunderstanding.    Charles Ryrie (1925-2016) put it, “The curse of the tree is illustrative of the rejection of Israel.”  Whilst this can, in one way, be understood as an illustration of Israel’s rejection.  It cannot be interpreted as leading to destroy the Jewish nation as it did the fig tree.  

God’s word to Abram was very clear.  In Genesis 12:2-3 He said, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  Obviously, God cannot curse Himself, or go against what He has said.  In Genesis 17, God changed his name to Abraham and said, “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” 

A better understanding of what is happening in the parable of the fig tree can be found in Jeremiah’s vision of Israel — Jeremiah 24.  God showed Jeremiah two baskets of figs in front of the temple and asked Jeremiah what he saw.  He answered, “Figs.”  “Good ones and bad ones.”

There are both good figs and bad figs, and God's plan was to deal with them differently.  God’s plan for the good figs was defined in Jeremiah 24:7 — My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land.  I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them.  God’s plan for the bad figs was defined in Jeremiah 24:10 — I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are destroyed from the land.

In a place where fig trees were plentiful, this may explain why Jesus cursed this particular one.  It was in front of the temple.

Who did it represent?

So then, who do the two baskets of figs represent?  It is likely that the baskets of figs relate to a stark contrast between King David and Jereboam, son of Nebat.  David was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22) and was the epitome of worship to God.  In contrast, Jereboam was the worst of the worst.  All the kings after him (18 in all, over 228 years — 953BC - 731BC) departed not from all the sins of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin.

We can find the story of Jereboam in the first book of Kings, chapters 11-14.  It shows how: 

  • Jereboam rebelled against Solomon.  1 Kings 11:26-40
  • God tore Israel apart.  1 Kings 11:29-33.
  • Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites.  He instituted a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. This he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made. And at Bethel he also installed priests at the high places he had made.  On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing, he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings.  1 Kings 12:31-33.
  • The prophetic word against Jereboam and Israel can be read in 1 Kings 14:14-16:  “The Lord will raise up for himself a king over Israel who will cut off the family of Jeroboam”
  • The sins of Jeroboam led to exile in Assyria.  2 Kings 17:22-23.
  • The sins of Jeroboam were not worshipping God but Idols; two golden calves  1 Kings 12:28.
  • Jeroboam rejected the priests and appointed his own.  2 Chronicles 11:14-15,


In conclusion 

What was the focus of Jesus cursing the fig tree?  

When Jesus came to the temple, He fulfilled prophecy (Zechariah 9:9 and 1 Kings 14:14) being welcomed as King by the people.  In addition to that, He fulfilled God’s judgement of Jereboam, which can be read in Amos 7:9, where God said, with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.  Who is that sword?  None other than Jesus Himself.  The sword of the spirit is the word of God.  Ephesians 6:17.