The Gospels of Matthew and Mark both tell the story of how Jesus cursed a fig tree which had no fruit just outside of Jerusalem. Both accounts are examples of the importance of the biblical and cultural context in understanding the words and deeds attributed to Jesus. The account in Matthew 21 is compressed to the essential details, so we will examine Mark’s fuller account of the cursed tree:
“The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, 'May no one ever eat fruit from you again.' And his disciples heard him say it …. [the story continues with Jesus cleansing the temple] … In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, 'Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!' 'Have faith in God,' Jesus answered. 'Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours'” (Mark 11:12-14, 11:20-24).
Viewed without thought, Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree might seem like a petulant response to his disappointment – which is difficult to understand as Mark tell us that it was “not the season for figs” (vs. 13b). But this fact suggests that Jesus did not expect to find figs on the tree, but had chosen to use it to teach the disciples something.
Jesus knew full well that the Hebrew prophets frequently used the fig tree as a symbol of ancient Judah (see, for example, Jeremiah 29:17, Hosea 2:12, Hosea 9:10). Of particular importance, Jeremiah 8 talks of the sins of Jerusalem and especially its religious leaders using this same imagery, then pronounces a judgment against them: “‘I will take away their harvest, declares the Lord… There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them” (Jeremiah 8:13).
This passage of scripture may well be what Jesus had in mind in using the fig tree on the outskirts of Jerusalem as a symbol of the city and its religious leaders. If this is so, Jesus clearly used the opportunity to provide a visual implementation of the prophecy – a warning of impending destruction and the judgment that, in terms of Jerusalem’s religion, “What I have given them will be taken from them.” When we remember that Mark brackets the narrative of the cleansing of the temple with the two halves of the fig tree story, we see that a connection between the degenerate temple system (having “leaves,” but no “fruit”) and the fruitless fig tree begs to be made. This understanding also fits with Jesus’ parable, given earlier, of the barren fig tree which would be destroyed (Luke 13:6-9).
One further detail of the account ties to this same apparent symbolism behind the story. Mark reports that when the disciples asked Jesus about the tree that had withered, He replied, “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them” (Mark 11:23). But what do mountains have to do with the tree, or with Jerusalem if that was the symbolic identity of the tree?
Once again Jesus, and many of His hearers, knew that the Hebrew Bible uses mountains as symbols of nations or cities (Isaiah 2:2). It also uses the concept of throwing something into the sea as a symbol of destruction (Exodus 15:1, etc.). These ideas continue to be found in the New Testament and come together in Revelation 8:8 with the “… great mountain cast into the sea,” and Revelation 18:21 “And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, ‘Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.’”
Notice that rather than a totally unrelated image of faith moving mountains, Jesus said “…if anyone says to this mountain” (Mark 11:23, emphasis added), showing that he was likely speaking symbolically of the Jewish nation, if not the physical Temple Mount, rather than any generic “mountain.”
It is clear then that Jesus foretold the doom of the fruitless fig tree not in personal petulance, but as a graphic way of foretelling the coming destruction of the Jewish nation and its religious system – a prediction that saw tragic reality within a few decades in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. That Jesus used the miracle of the cursed tree to teach a lesson of faith is also clear – it was a lesson He had also given elsewhere (Luke 13:6-9) – but a full understanding of the story of the cursing and destruction of the fig tree includes a specific historical prophecy as well as a timeless lesson in faith itself.