Cursing the Fig Tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21)

After the Triumphal entry, Jesus returns to Bethany for the evening.  As he is approaching Jerusalem the next morning, he sees a fig tree and expects to find a bit of fruit to eat, but there is none.  Jesus then pronounces a curse on the fig tree, telling it that it will no longer bear fruit

What is the meaning of the cursing of the fig tree?  This is a symbolic action, dealing with more than a tree that doesn’t bear fruit.  The context supplies the clue, Jesus enters the temple and condemns it as a den of thieves, setting up the conflict stories as he teaches in the temple.

The fig tree is barren, a frequent symbol in the Old Testament  of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Isa 28:4, for example), or God’s judgment (Jer 7:20, Ho 9:15-16).  The most likely allusion is to Isaiah 6.  There, the prophet describes Judah as a tree that will be cut down, but a remnant will remain (Isa 6:13).  Judah would fall, but a tiny remnant will remain.  Jesus has already quoted Isa 6 to describe his teaching in parables, so it is not a surprise that he would enact a parable with this fig tree based on Isaiah 6.

Jesus is looking for fruit in a place he has every right to find fruit, but does not find it. In the same way, he came to the nation looking for fruit, but did not find any.  The religious establishment is a barren fig tree that is about to be cut off.  Where did Jesus have every right to find a fruitful religious heart in Israel – the temple.  Mark inserted the Temple demonstration into the narrative of the fig-tree to bring out the theological point of the Fig Tree sign.

On the third day after the curse is pronounced (and after the events in the temple), the disciples see the tree and note that it is dead – withered from the roots up.  There are a number of Old Testament allusions here (Ho 9:16, Job 18:16, 28:9, 31:12, Ezek 19:9 ).  The nation has gone past the point of no-return, they have rejected the Messiah.

But is there a “righteous remnant” as was the case in Isaiah 6:13?  There are two ways of looking at this.  First, we could read this as a curse upon Israel as a whole.  They will no longer be God’s people and they are about to be replaced by the church.  This is possible, but it seems to me to be theologically driven.  Obviously from this side of the events it appears that the church replaced Israel, this parable talks about Israel being “cursed”, so it must predict the coming church.  I would like to avoid this as anachronistic – Jesus is saying something about his ministry at that moment in history.

A second, better way to look at the meaning of this parabolic action is to see the religious establishment as “under the curse” and that they are being replaced by Jesus’ disciples.  This is why Mark inserts the Temple demonstration into his “Markan Sandwich,” he is point to the meaning of the curse of the fig tree.  Jesus came to his own people and they have rejected him.  He created a new Israel with twelve disciples (twelve tribes) who will receive the promised New Covenant.

18 thoughts on “Cursing the Fig Tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21)

  1. First off, let me say that I am very excited to talk about the cursing of the fig tree. Why? I’m not positively sure, besides the fact that it’s one of the occurrences that is so overlooked and under appreciated.

    The lack of fruit on the fig tree did not “surprise” Jesus. He knew before he even got there that there would be no fruit, and that He would curse it, etc. However, I like the point that He had every right to curse it. (1)Because He is God and (2) because he expected fruit, but there was none. It is easy to view this text as relating to Christians and their sometimes “lack of fruit”–and it often is related that way– but God will not curse men simply because they are not producing fruit, because then our salvation rests on our shoulders and what we do to acquire it, not on Jesus’ death on the cross.

    The subtle analogy to the temple is excellent. Jesus came looking for fruit from the temple, but found none. He simply was exposed to hypocrisy, arrogance and deceit. This is a clear defense to God’s right to extend His plan through the disciples, the place He would seemingly be leastlikely to find fruit.

    • Well, Joe Johnson, I’m glad that you are excited to talk about this topic. Yes, Jesus was not surprised at all when He came to the fig tree and did not see any fruit on it. It is kind of hard to wrap your head around because Jesus new that it was a bad tree; yet He still curses it. If Jesus new that the tree was going to be bad, then how could He have expected it to have fruit? There maybe times in our lives where we do have a bad season and not producing any fruit. However, if we have truly accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, He will always replenish us.
      When Jesus went to the temple, He found a lot of withered up trees. I take it that Jesus’ disciples were there with Him in the temple. Of all the places that should not be all withered up, the temple should not have been one of them.

      • At first Jesus finds a fig tree that does not have fruit, so Christ curses it. Blomberg says, “That the second miracle of destruction in the Gospels is clearly filled with symbolism. Mark deliberately sandwiches the two parts of its narrative around the story of the “temple cleansing”” (368). Both of these happenings are to be interpreted together. In Micah 7:1; Jemimah 8:13 the land that is not producing any trees stands for judgment against Israel. In Luke 13:6-9, the tree was threatened by destruction was a parable that Jesus told. With both of those combined, the parable was used to show what will happen to the Jewish nation that is current. Faith is a related point that is being taught in Mark 11:22-25. There is also a symbolism of the Mount of Olives being split in two (Zech14:4); with the withered fig tree and the related incident in the temple, Jesus is calling His disciples to trust in His promises that a new world order replacing the temple is imminent. There is more than one way to look at at this parable.

    • I think this is an exciting parabolic action too, in fact, it really explains the Temple Protest and everything else that happens in the final week of Jesus’ ministry. Including the Parables of the Tenants and the Wedding Banquet. Jesus is replacing Israel with his disciples, the Temple with his body.

  2. Honestly, this is a passage I have not thought much about before this post. I think it is interesting that so much of the talk I have heard about this passage does not take into account the context. Blomberg calls this, “the second miracle of destruction in the Gospels” (Blomberg 368). The symbolism of Jesus actions and the trees condition foreshadows his actions in the temple and its conditions. The repetition of themes here shows their great importance. Jesus stresses their condition upon His arrival and then acts.

    I wonder what the disciples thought about this? Did they get the big picture here? Why did Jesus repeat this message two different ways?

    • My guess is that the disciples did not appreciate the miracle until after the resurrection, and maybe not until it becomes obvious that there are more gentiles coming to faith in Christ than Jews. Maybe the full impact of the miracle was felt after AD 70?

  3. I must say I am with Anna on this one as with probably most everyone else; we have not spent too much time thinking about the cursing of the fig tree before today. I definitely would not know what the passage’s meaning was if it was just by itself. Taking into account that the curse is part of a “Markan Sandwich”, it is obvious that it is dealing with the “imminent doom of the current Jewish nation if it does not repent (368). To answer Anna’s question I don’t believe that the disciples understood the bigger picture just yet. After last week’s reading it just seemed to me that the disciples were just a little slow at understanding some things (Mark 8:33). I don’t blame them because I know I probably couldn’t figure out what Jesus was talking about when alluding to a dead fig tree. Although they might have missed the point at this point, they do understand the bigger picture after Christ’s death and resurrection and they transformed the 12 disciples into today’s 2 billion Christians. Amazing!!!

  4. When looking at the cursing of the fig tree, I had never before looked at it as being for the “religious establishment” of the time. This seems to make a lot of sense. Also something that I am coming to realize is the purposeful positioning by the authors of certain events to reveal their significance and meaning. Blomberg says that Mark, “deliberately sandwiches the two parts of its narrative around the story of the ‘temple cleansing’ (vv. 15-19). The two events are meant to be interpreted together” (317). Also I have found it interesting how much Jewish symbolism lies within the gospels, such as the fact that the fig was a symbol from the new testament related to judgment on Israel. Jeremiah 8:13 says, “I will take away their harvest, declares the Lord. There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them.”

  5. I wonder what the world would have thought if Jesus did a miracle involving telling a mountain to “Go, throw yourself into the sea” like He talks about in Mark 11:23 in addition to the miracle of making the fig tree wither to fulfill the old testament.
    To the question: “I wonder what the disciples thought about this?” referring to the disciples understanding of the foreshadowing Jesus and his displeasure with the people in the temple. The disciples must have noticed what Jesus was saying through the action that he took, because they took note that the tree was withered on the third day according to Mark’s gospel. It is a safe bet that the disciples didn’t totally understand all that was going on in this instance, but they took notice.
    The Isaiah 6:13 passage reminds me of the children’s story where a person who is trying to survive has the choice of taking the top half of the banana tree or the stump of the banana tree to get food from. The person is supposed to pick the stump because it might sprout new branches while the tree part with the bananas can’t grow any new bananas for later. The stump of the tree can produce another tree and therefore more fruit someday, but it takes a while. Is this out of line with the passage when it is talking about “But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” (Isaiah 6:13).

  6. I like what Professor Long has to say about this parabolic event. He says that this could be translated as the “religious establishment as “under the curse” and the new establishment will be started by His (Jesus’) closest followers. I find it interesting that the disciples are so surprised by this event but yet the entire cursing of the fig tree thing is going to pertain to them as the first church gets established.
    I also find it really interesting how Jesus responds to the whole thing. He gives His disciples simple instructions, “Have faith in God.” (Mark 11:22) He doesn’t tell them, ‘go and do a bunch of rituals and say all these certain prayers so that you don’t end up like this fig tree’ but instead He just says “have faith in God.”

  7. I also agree with Anna and Greg. I haven’t really heard anything about this passage until now. What Anna stated by Blomberg on page 368, “the second miracle of destruction in the gospels”, it’s funny that I haven’t heard of it since it was the second miracle of destruction. I would probably take out of context the passage and read it totally wrong becuase what P.Long wrote, I thought it meant something else. Jesus had earlier told a parable that goes along with one in Mark in Luke 13:6-9 which states “Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil? ‘Sir’, the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'”

  8. As Joe Johnson points out, this passage about the fig tree that does not bear fruit is usually associated with Christians who do not bear fruit by growing in their relationship with Christ and spread the Gospel to others. When I have read this passage before, that is usually what I think of right off the bat, but then I remember that Jesus curses the fig tree for not bearing fruit, but I do not believe that God would curse us for not bearing fruit. He has already taken on our sins and died of the cross so that we may be saved. What really struck me was what Joe J said about this, “but God will not curse men simply because they are not producing fruit, because then our salvation rests on our shoulders and what we do to acquire it, not on Jesus’ death on the cross.” This really makes me re-think the whole passage. Pointing out that it is a Markan sandwich really helps me to take in the entire context and realize what exactly Jesus is trying to say here.

  9. I would say that both would work but like you said the first one is theologically driven and a little more of a stretch then the second one. The second one fits in better with the context of what is happening in Mark and the book. I believe that this story is making a goid point of showing us that Jesus went and was rejected by his people and that because of it he has cursed them and has started new with his twelve. He knows they are faithful and with follow him. So, they are a good base to start the new church.

  10. It doesn’t take much to realize that the author was very intentional about the relationship between the cursing of the fig tree and the subsequent condemnation of the temple. So it is very difficult for me to admit that when reading into this further, I feel like I have a hard time with accepting all sides of this analogy. For instance, since the fig tree was cursed for its failure to bear fruit, what does this say about either the destiny of Israel, or the redemption of an individuals sin. Is there a “point of no return” for either of these two? If there really exists the righteous remnant, then how significant was it for Jesus to officially mark the rejection of the Messiah?

    I definitely favor thinking that the curse is directed toward the religious establishment. The motivations they had developed for interpreting the scriptures the way the did simply did not produce anything for the Kingdom of God. I feel better with something like “selfish religon” withering from the roots up.

  11. I have never given much thought to this passage, other than trying to apply it to my world today. I have never taken an in-depth look at it from the point of the original audience. When we read the Bible, we often find the disciples confused at what Jesus is saying. It is easy for us to mock them, and think of them as “dumb”, because we understand what Jesus was saying to them. I put myself in Peter’s position in this scene with the fig tree and I finally understand why they were always so confused. Peter: Jesus that tree you cursed is dead! (Should it have been a surprise?) Jesus: “Have faith in God.” To the disciples the act of the fig tree probably didn’t have any kind of deep meaning. Little did the disciples know how much this story with the fig tree actually pertained to them.

    “When He reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs”, (Mark 11:13b). People have mentioned that Jesus expected there to be fruit on this tree, but did He? It was not the season for figs, and Jesus was no idiot (because He is God) so I don’t think He expected there to be fruit at all. I’m not saying that this takes away from the deeper meaning of His dealing with the tree, but I’m just adding something to talk about, because I myself don’t fully understand this passage.

  12. I honestly did not put much thought into this parabolic even of Jesus cursing the fig tree in Mark 11 prior to this post and the reading of Blomberg. I think this even however is pretty interesting. When Jesus came up to the fig tre he cursed it because it did not have any fruit. Although Jesus expected there to be fruit for him to eat, I do not think he was at all surprised at the lack of fruit on the tree.

    When Jesus cursed the fig tree, his disciples were very surprised. I thought this was interesting Because this event applied directly to them as the first church was being established. I do not think however that God curses Christians for not bearing fruit because if that’s the case then our salvation rests on our shoulders and what we do to obtain it.

  13. I started researching on this passage when I had to lead a talk based on Jesus’ miracles. I read and read through this particular passage several times and read all the thoughts above. And what I understand from “When Jesus came up to the fig tre he cursed it because it did not have any fruit. ” is that it is a prophecy about what will happen to all human race when Jesus will come the second time. When he will come and see that we all are Christians in our outward appearance and not in soul and in the relationship with Him or we don’t bear the fruit of glorifying His name, we will wither from the roots.

  14. “what will happen to all human race when Jesus will come the second time”

    I think this is a fine analogy, but in the context I think the Vineyard parable is the important clue, since the Owner of the Vineyard expected to receive the fruit of the vineyard when he sent his son, thus God sending Jesus to Israel. The curse on the fig tree says that they tree will not bear fruit until “the end of the age,” so this is the time between his comings.

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