And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, [Jesus] hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs.
And he answered and said unto it, “No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever.”
And his disciples heard it (Mark 11:12-14).
The long-awaited time had come. Jesus of Nazareth, believed by many to be the Messiah, the Christ of God, had entered Jerusalem in triumph (cf. Mark 11:1-11). He will soon strike at the heart of the religious power structure in Jerusalem by cleansing the Temple of its moneychangers and merchants (Mark 11:15-19). And what do we find in the middle of these great events? Jesus’ rebuke of a fig tree.
It seems rather anticlimactic. Why does Mark interrupt the grand story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem by telling us about this fig tree?
It may help to understand a bit about the situation. Even in Jerusalem, late March or early April is a bit early for figs to be ready. Most of the trees would not even have their leaves yet. But this fig tree did have its leaves– and when a fig tree has its leaves, it is indicating that it has its fruit hidden underneath. This particular fig tree, however, was false– perhaps it was a different subspecies, or perhaps it was a young tree– for it exposed leaves but had no fruit within it. Highly disappointed, Jesus curses the tree because it made a presentation without its substance.
That may be the clue to understanding the importance of this interaction. Mark very well may have us to understand that there is more to this story than just a fig tree.
The fig tree may represent the Jews and the Judaism of the day. Fig trees are good, and figs are good. Fruitless fig trees that have no leaves are understandable, but what cannot be tolerated is the fig tree that has leaves but no fruit. Thus it is with Israel in Jesus’ day, especially the religious authorities, the chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. It was a good thing to be a Jew and to be a part of the covenant with God. It would be understandable if a Jew were learning his faith or recognized in humility how much further he had to go. But to have the outward appearance of religion without its substance– its fruit– was intolerable. And that was precisely what Jesus saw in the Judaism of His day!
Soon after these events He would excoriate the Pharisees for being whitewashed tombs– pretty on the exterior, but full of dead men’s bones inside (cf. Matthew 23:27). They worry about keeping dishes clean, but inwardly are defiled (Matthew 23:25-26). On the exterior their religiosity is beyond a doubt; inwardly they remain unconverted and sinful. There is little hope for such people; they are, like the fig tree, cursed, never to provide fruit for mankind again.
We would do well to learn the lesson of the fig tree and avoid “fig tree religion.” We know from experience and statistics that the vast majority of the people around us in America believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. Most people would claim to be Christians. A lot of those people attempt to maintain the exterior of goodness and piety– they seek to look like the “good people” of society, and yet inwardly they may remain unconverted and sinful. Such a faith cannot save (Matthew 7:21-23)!
It is one thing to be as a fig tree without fruit and without leaves– had this fig tree been as such, Jesus would have likely just passed it by. Therefore, it is one thing for people in our society to be sinners and recognize that they are sinners. Such is actually the first step in coming to a real knowledge of the truth (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8). Jesus, after all, came to save sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13).
The real danger comes from providing the pretense of righteousness and/or religiosity without any substantive fruit. These are the “righteous” of Matthew 9:11-13, those who certainly think they are healthy and sound and profitable but really are not. They are self-deceived, and self-deception is the hardest kind of deception to overcome (Galatians 6:3, James 1:22-25, 1 John 1:8). As long as they remain in that condition, nothing can be done for them or with them (cf. Revelation 3:14-22)!
But what of ourselves? Who are we? Are we fig trees without leaves and without fruit? Then let us grow in knowledge and faith to maturity, showing fruit for the Lord (Hebrews 5:14, 2 Peter 3:18). Do we have leaves and fruit, believing in God and obeying Him? Well and good; let us abound all the more (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). Or are we the fig tree with leaves but no fruit, having the pretense of religion but not the substantive fruit thereof? We must always be on guard against this danger, considering ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 6:4). If we find ourselves in this condition, we must immediately repent, and work to show the fruit that is in keeping with that repentance (1 John 2:3-6)!
Therefore we can see that the story of the fig tree is quite appropriate in its context. Jesus is about to encounter the superficial piety of the Judaism entrenched in Jerusalem, and it will be cursed. Let us not fall into the same trap, and let us both show leaves and bear fruit for God!
Ethan R. Longhenry