Why Did Jesus “Curse” the Fig Tree?
“Can you explain the case where Jesus ‘cursed’ a fig tree? There are several things about this that are hard to understand. Did Christ have a right to ’curse’a tree? What is the meaning of ‘curse’? Since the tree was apparently destroyed, did he destroy property that did not belong to him? Some people say that this shows that Jesus made mistakes just like everyone else.”
The conclusion that “some people” draw regarding this incident is quite misdirected and is the result of a lack of understanding of what was involved in this episode near the end of Christ’s ministry.
The situation involving the “cursed” fig tree is recorded in two places in the Gospel records — Matthew 21:18-19; 20-22 and Mark 11:12-14; 20-25. We will introduce Mark’s version for the purpose of this discussion.
“And on the morrow, when they had come out of Bethany, he [Jesus] hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if perhaps 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 [will] eat fruit from you from now on — for ever.’ And his disciples heard it . . .And as they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance said unto him, ‘Rabbi, behold, the fig tree that you cursed is withered away’” (Mk. 11:12-14; 20-21).
For brevity’s sake, we have taken the two references that refer directly to this event in Mark’s Gospel, and combined them. We are omitting verses 15-19, which provide some transitional information that occurred between the two successive days that are related to this scene. Likewise, we are stopping short of the Savior’s subsequent discussion of this matter, as recorded in verses 22-25. We will analyze this controversial text in the following segments.
(1) The term “cursed” is used only once in the two New Testament records of this incident. On the second day, as Christ and his disciples passed by the tree, en route to Jerusalem, it was noticed that the fig tree was completely dead. This compelled Peter, who was speaking on behalf of the others as well (cf. Mt. 21:20), to comment: “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.” (v. 21).
It should be noted first that the term “curse” is not used in biblical parlance in the modern sense of profanity. Rather, a “curse” was a pronouncement of judgment upon a person or object (cf. Mt. 25:41). In this case, there was a command miracle by which Christ spoke words that would cause this tree to die. It was not a purposeless act of intemperance. It represented a strong object-lesson that the disciples needed to learn (and numerous others since that time as well).
(1) As to the charge that Jesus destroyed that which was not his, several things must be noted.
First, it cannot be established that the tree had an owner. Matthew observes that it was growing “by the wayside” (Mt. 21:19). It therefore may have been a “volunteer” tree, as such are known in any land. It is worthy of notation that Peter did not rebuke the Lord for destroying another’s property, even though the impetuous apostle was not reticent to admonish his Master when he felt the circumstance warranted such (cf. Mt. 16:22).
Second, W.M. Thompson, a scholar eminently familiar with Palestinean customs, pointed out that it was common for travelers to pick fruit from road-side trees, or from any tree that was not enclosed; there was no censure associated with such (The Land and the Book, London: Thomas Nelson, 1863, p. 350).
Third, it must be emphasized that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He himself possesses the nature of deity (Jn. 1:1; 10:30; 20:28). As deity, therefore, the earth and its fullness are his (Psa. 24:1). He has the sovereign right to use the elements of creation to accomplish those higher goals which man, limited in his knowledge, may not perceive at a given moment in time. And that includes the destruction of a tree, or even a herd of swine (cf. Mk. 5:13). No man has the right to say of him, “What doest thou?” (Dan. 4:35; cf. Rom. 11:33-36).
(2) In order to put this situation into sharper focus, the student needs to examine the meaning behind this action by Christ. When the Lord first saw the tree, he was yet “afar off.” He could only discern that it had leaves (v. 13).
One must conclude that this circumstance reveals that though he was deity, Jesus did not exercise the full range of his divine powers constantly; he did not know the details regarding this tree until he was in close proximity (v. 13b).
When the Savior arrived at the tree, he observed a curious thing — the fig tree was fruitless. Of what significance is this?
Alfred Edersheim has called attention to the fact that “in Palestine the fruit appears before the leaves . . .” (The Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947, Vol. II, p. 374; emp. WJ). Thus, to see a leafed fig tree (even at an unseasonable time — v. 13b), warranted the assumption that there would be fruit on the tree. But this tree was an oddity; the leaves were there, but it was fruitless. This phenomenon, therefore, served as a perfect “visual aid” for an important lesson that the Savior wished to teach.
Centuries earlier, the Hebrew nation had been separated from the pagan peoples of antiquity to serve in a special role in the divine economy. In the days of Moses, the people of “Israel” were designated as Jehovah’s “firstborn” (Ex. 4:22), i.e., they were granted a priority status. God thus said to Pharoah, who held Israel captive, “let my people go” (Ex. 5:1).
Across the centuries, however, the Israelite people frequently rebelled against their Creator. Isaiah once characterized the situation in the following fashion. “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isa. 1:3). Read the prophet’s stirring rebuke of a wicked nation that refused to be governed by the Sovereign of the Universe (Isa. 5:1ff).
While there were occasional periods of spiritual revival among the Hebrews (as in the days of Josiah, a good king – see 2 Kgs. 22-23), the tragic fact is, the nation was on a gradual, degenerative slide — a path of apostasy that would culminate with the blood-thirsty cry, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Lk. 23:21). The Jewish people, through the influence they exerted upon the Roman authorities (see Mt. 20:19; Acts 2:23), had Jesus killed. They murdered the very Messiah for whom they had waited across the centuries (see Mt. 21:33ff). Though they had enjoyed every conceivable spiritual advantage, they had become, for the most part, an utterly renegade nation.
In the symbolism of the Scriptures, a fruitless, withered tree was worthy of nothing more than being cut down (cf. Psa. 90:6; Hos. 9:16). “Withering” was a symbol of imminent death (Joel 1:12). In the blasting of this fruitless fig tree, the Son of God was suggesting this:
(1) The nation, as a political entity, had become a worthless mechanism in the sacred scheme of things. It thus was worthy of nothing but destruction.
(2) That destruction would shortly come (within forty years — A.D. 66-70) with the invasion of the land by the Roman armies (cf. Mt. 22:7ff; 24:15ff).
(3) The punishment would be complete and final; the “tree” would be dead from the very “roots” (Mk. 11:20).
There was a very good reason why Jesus Christ acted as he did on this occasion. It was not an impulsive act, it was not a misguided, irresponsible gesture. It was a deliberate, highly instructive warning. Unfortunately, the lesson conveyed has been lost upon the minds of many.
Note: This episode is a deadly refutation of the false notion that there will be a revival of the old nation of Israel in the “end times” — as advocated by dispensationalists and premillennialists. For futher study, see our article, “God and the Nation of Israel”.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.