Mark 11:12-14 – Cursing the Fig Tree

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 does not 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, Hos 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.

16 thoughts on “Mark 11:12-14 – Cursing the Fig Tree

  1. Good post. I have always found that part of scripture interesting. Could the curse of the fig tree have anything to do with Adam and Eve covering their nakedness with fig leaves? The fig leaves were man’s first attempt at hiding and concealing sin. Perhaps Jesus saw the tree and remembered back to that day in the garden when man first fell to sin?

    • Anything is possible, I suppose, but the emphasis is on a tree which could reasonably be expected to bear fruit but had none; Israel should have born some fruit during Jesus’ mission, but had now. So I suppose it is a parallel teaching to the parable of the Sower.

      A more interesting angle is Paul’s use of an Olive Tree in Romans 9-11. A similar metaphor is used there for the Gentiles and Israel.

  2. “Jesus is looking for fruit in a place he has every right to find fruit”

    Except the Mark account says, “it was not the season for figs.” So why would he expect to find fruit?

    • this is a classic problem with the text, the usual explanation is that he was looking either for unripened fruit or left-over fruit from the previous season. There is always a little fruit on a fig tree, no fruit at all would be unusual.

      Whether we would eat that kind of fruit or not is not the issue, only that there should be something there.

      • The phrase “it wasn’t fig season” was meant to deflect the curse away from the tree and toward the temple authorities. A paraphrase would be “it wasn’t fig season, but the people of God should always be fruitful when the Messiah is present”. Also Jesus’ subsequent rejection of the temple by turning over tables and stopping the proceedings for a few minutes could not provide the same weight and drama as a fig tree withered from its roots. Whatever God was doing, only He could do it. So the disciples needed to learn this lesson about trusting God to overcome any thing they encountered as a group that would hinder their mission and was impossible for them to remove on their own. Only trusting God in prayer could resolve the mountain in their way.

  3. I’m really glad you tied in that last point about Paul in Romans 9-11. I’ve wondered if there was a connection there for awhile. Could you build off that a little bit more?

    • Ben – maybe, but I need to let the connection percolate a little longer. I was challenged at the Summit (of which perhaps you have heard) to think more about the metaphor of the Olive Tree in Romans, while these two are different in nature, there is some overlap.

  4. This act of Jesus of destroying the fig tree is a parable in which Jesus is predicting the coming “judgment against Israel” (Strauss, 481). A fig tree that is not bearing fruit does not do any good, and neither does Israel if they are not bearing fruit. Jesus is looking for those that bear fruit, and He looks in the place that it should be, but it is not there. I do not think it is to say that these are not God’s chosen people anymore. It is more that they will now have to be judged with the rest of the world because they did not do what they were suppose to do. There will still be the remnant of Israel, which is found in the twelve. Maybe it is now that God has to search for good fruit in others, the gentiles? It is hard to comprehend that God even had a chosen people when He knew all along that they would fail Him. I guess that is something that is beyond human comprehension here on earth.

  5. The story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is one that I remember reading in the past but also one that I never really contemplated or took the time to discover its significance. P. Long, I found your implementation of the surrounding context dealing with the temple very helpful in my understanding of this passage. I am learning increasingly more through examples such as this how important context really is when attempting to interpret the original meaning of the Scriptures. Looking at the story immediately following the cursing of the fig tree- Jesus’ overturning of the tables in the temple- Jesus is rebuking the people for not doing what was commanded and expected of them. Similarly so, it seems that the fig tree is a symbolic representation of the nation of Israel and its unfaithfulness to what God expected of them- to bear fruit. I do not believe this passage to be a curse on Israel as a whole but rather a wake up call to get those back on track who were serious about following God. This idea comes from a passage in Romans that I recently had to do a hermeneutical examination of for another class. In Romans 11, Paul uses an illustration of an olive tree and speaks of branches being grafted in while others are removed. These grafted branches seem to represent the Gentiles while the removed branches are the Israelites. However, Paul makes an important note when speaking of the Israelites in verse 11 saying, “Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.” While I still have a difficult time understanding God having a specific chosen people as well as the process of that changing overtime to involve more people including the Gentiles, I believe that the specific example of the fig tree to be a representation of the people of Israel and their unfaithfulness, but to be a warning of the coming judgment and a call to action in order that they evaluate their actions rather than a curse that no longer allows them salvation. I don’t know that I understand the idea of the church or of any group of people replacing the nation of Israel. It doesn’t make sense to me that God would deal with a nation as a whole rather than as individual people or that others would replace someone’s spot in terms of salvation. If anyone has more insight on this or could help me to understand this concept better, that would be wonderful!

  6. Jeremiah 8:13 says, “When I would gather them, declares the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them” (ESV). John MacArthur says of the cursing, “Jesus cursed the tree for its misleading appearance that suggested great productivity without providing it. It should have been full of fruit, but was barren”. Jesus used the fig tree by the road as a divine object lesson about Israel’s hypocrisy and fruitlessness. There seems to be a conflict between Matthew and Mark’s account. In Matthew 21:19 it says that after Jesus withered the fig tree that “and the fig tree withered at once… (vs 21) When the disciples saw it they marveled”… In Mark, we are told that Jesus cursed the tree, the disciples heard him say it, but the discovery of the fig tree being withered was not discovered until the following day. So here we have conflicting accounts of the same event. I am not sure how to read this much less comment about. Perhaps it was a judgement on Israel or Jesus was upset that he was not able to get food? I know there has been a time or two when I went to the fridge my ice cream was gone. Did I curse? No. It would not have done any good.

  7. I had readand heard the to of this many times, but never reall thought to much about it. This artice was a huge enlightenment on why Jesus had cursed th fig tree. Not until i had did my reading and read this article did i relate the tree to the nation Israel. I do not undestad why he would curse the tre though. Was it to warn Israel or what was th purpose of this? I do not understand why he did this until i foud of what it represented, but im still as confsuded as Chris is.

  8. Why Jesus destroyed the fig tree. This is a symbolic action, dealing with more than a tree that does not 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.(P. Long) Jesus’ actions are often identified as a cleansing to remove defilement. Jesus restores the temple once again to “a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17) (Strauss 481). The fig tree is not bearing fruit so why would Jesus tend only to it, if there was other trees (Gentiles) that could be bearing fruit. It'[s another tree illustration but in Romans Paul speaks about being grafted in the tree. The New Living Translation says it the best, “But some of these branches from Abraham’s tree–some of the people of Israel–have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree”. Also you could even look at the new twelve tribes (Jesus’ disciples) as the replacement of the cursed people or Israel in a parabolic sense. The meaning of the cursing of the fig tree means more or less the decision not to spend all the time with something Israel which is continuously disobedient and rebellious. Jesus is putting stock in more than one item.

  9. I have always found this cursing of the fig tree, interesting. I guess I never really took the time to study it or learn more about it; it just confused me a little and I moved on. After reading this post it makes a lot more sense to me as to why Jesus would have done this, His reasoning and the meaning behind it all. Even just the correlation between the fig tree and Israel, both being barren and fruitless, is something that is seen in other areas of Scripture and teachings. Consistently, people are called to live a life that is fruitful and an example of God and what He does (Colossians 1:9-12). It also makes sense that Jesus looking to the fig tree and not finding any fruit would be compared to Israel. They were the nation chosen by God to bear His witness and follow Him, and yet they continued to live their lives in a way that did not produce fruit that was pleasing to Him. I like the idea of the second possibility that you mention, P. Long. Because of the people rejecting Jesus, He takes His ministry on a different route. He works with His twelve disciples directly instead of through the nation of Israel as a whole and their twelve tribes. And just as Audrey mentioned, when we are not doing anything that is bearing good fruit, how are we helping any? The only things that we do that are technically going to matter, are the things we do for God and that bear good fruit for Him.

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