The Wednesday night prayer meeting and Bible study at my church was particularly excellent this week. My pastor, Bro. Lewis Humes, responded to a question from the week before about the passage in Mark where Jesus curses and withers a fig tree. The question was asking the reason for this, as it seems like there was little reason for it. Moreover, it seems like this action took away the provision of the tree in the future, maybe causing some particular people to have less to eat. He answered thus (my notes of course, not dictation):
The context of the passage in Mark 11 is this: Christ comes into Jerusalem for the last time (The triumphal entry – 11:1-11). Then we see him goo looking for figs on a fig tree even though figs were not in season, and finding none, curses the tree (11:12-14). Then the story breaks and Mark reports the temple cleansing scene in which Christ drives the money changers from the temple (11:15-19). Mark then picks the fig tree back up and relays the fact that it has withered at the curse of Christ (11:20-21).
Let’s look at the first fig section. Why did Christ go looking for figs on a tree even though scripture tells us that they were not in season? We know that Christ is in Jerusalem around the month of April (think Easter), and fig season is not until late June or July. Interestingly, in Israel there are often a select few fig trees that leaf out early in the spring and produce a first crop of figs. See Micah 7:1, Nahum 3:12, and Isaiah 28:4 for references to “first-ripe figs”. It was well known in Israel that when a fig tree leafed out in spring it often had an early crop of figs. So, Mark tells us that this particular tree was full of leaves when Christ saw it. Thus, it would be expected to have figs on it since it had the appearance of a tree that would. When Christ saw it He had every right to expect the figs to be there, and his disciples would have expected the same thing, because it had the right appearance to be bearing the fruit.
Then, Mark interrupts the fig tree story with the scene of Christ cleansing the temple, and then immediately finishes the fig tree story.What we need to recognize is that this particular structure is typical of Mark – the interruption of one story with another. This is sometimes called a “Markan Sandwich”, and is a tool he uses to shed light on the meat of the sandwich (the inner section). So, we can assume that the fig story is supposed to enlighten the temple story.
How does it do this? Well, let’s reflect. With the fig tree, Christ had every right to expect that it would be bearing figs because it appeared like a tree that would do so in the spring – being fully leafed out. When Christ went to the temple, He had every right to expect there to be spiritual figs from…whom? The people who had the appearance of spirituality: pharisees, sadducees, scribes, etc. These were men who walked around with all the garb of the super-spiritual, who prayed in public and devoted all their time and energy to learning the law perfectly, serving in the temple. However, Christ found them to be leafy trees with absolutely no fruit. They were using the temple as a “den of thieves”, a place to hide their extortion and robbery. They had no love and no faith, only legalism. So, we see the indictment that Christ has withered them just like he withered the fig tree. After this the gospel would go out from the Jews and be spread among the gentiles.
Christ wasn’t being petty or grumpy when he cursed the fig tree. He was using it as an object lesson of what he knew about the pharisees and Jewish elite, saying that since they bore no fruit in accordance with his expectation he would wither them.
Great stuff! I think we can see a couple of things that corroborate and extend this lesson.
First, in Matthew we see the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22:1-14. The basic story is this: a King plans a feast for the wedding of his son, and invites the proverbial “A-List”. However, when the time comes for the feast to be eaten the invited guests do not come, and further refuse to come when reminded of the feast. Rightly so, the King is enraged and send his army to destroy those who refused his invitation. Then, the King tells his servant to go get the people from the “Anyone-List”, and fills his feast hall with whoever will come to honor his son. Obviously, this is a parable of the Jews and gentiles in relation to God and Christ. The Jewish leaders are the ones who reject God’s Son, and God by proxy, and so their destruction is set. Then God goes out into all the world to bring even gentiles to his banquet feast. In the same way as the fig tree/temple cleansing story, God rejects those who are not faithfully loving to Him.
Secondly, I do not think it is a stretch to extend the lesson of this passage to us. We’ll do so in this way: if we call ourselves Christians and do things that makes us appear to be Christians (attend church, profess faith, act pious, wear crosses and fish, etc), then Christ has EVERY RIGHT to expect us to bear the spiritual fruit that should goes along with true faith. What is this fruit? Loving obedience, spiritual discipline, constantly growing closer to Him, evangelism, prayer, knowing the Word more and more deeply as we study it daily, loving one another (in a true, sacrificial, “considering others better than yourselves” sort of way). If Christ look at us and does not see this fruit, we receive that same sort of terrifying indictment that the pharisees did.
John the Baptist speaks to the pharisees this way in Matthew 3:8-10:
“8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And John speaks to us specifically in this way in John 15:5-6
“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.”
Did you catch that: “thrown into the fire“.
This is not a metaphor. This is a terrifying warning! If we do not bear the fruit of true faith then we will be condemned, punished, forsaken. What is obvious is this: if a person does NOT bear the spiritual fruit that Christ expects, he or she is NOT a Christian. You cannot say that you are a Christian and not show the evidence of that name. God has every right to expect figs from His people, and if a person does not live up to that expectation…that person will be cursed.
I pray that if you’re reading this you will realize the weight of this truth. If you have committed your life to Christ to love Him and serve Him after confessing your sin and asking for His forgiveness, I hope that you are bearing the figs that Christ expects. If you have not been obedient, REPENT today! Do not wait! Christ does not humor those who show no fruit. Return to Him and seek to be obedient to the Word, living up to the expectations it sets out of we who profess Christ as our Savior and Master.
If you have never declared yourself to be a servant of Christ, having never asked forgiveness of your sins and never committed your life to love and grow closer to Him, the warning for you is no better. Scripture tells us that there is only one name by which we can be saved: Jesus Christ! If you have not committed your life to love Him and obey His Word (the Bible), then you will be punished for eternity. But if you will admit your sin and believe that Christ IS God, and that He died and was brought to life for the evil you have done, and commit your life to be obedient to Him and live according to the Bible…then you WILL BE FORGIVEN, and you have a sure promise of being allowed to spend eternity with God, instead of eternity in punishment.
Do NOT wait! I beg that you would consider Christ and His love. Be free from the assurance of curse and punishment, and rejoice in the assurance of hope and love and eternity in paradise! Do not wait, I beg you!
May God bless you mightily. Blessed be the powerful name of Christ!