The Fig Tree


By Stephen Terry

And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away.”  Matthew 21:19


For many this text from Matthew is problematic.  Why should Jesus curse a fig tree for not having figs?  Isn’t this a little harsh?  Where is the gentle Jesus, meek and mild?  Isn’t Jesus all about healing and mercy?


With His union of the human and the divine, Jesus is the most complex person in the Bible.  Often what appears on the surface with Jesus is not the whole story.  What appeared as simple stories about shepherds and sheep were actually indictments against the way the religious rulers of His day treated the common people.  Stories about laborers and earnings were not about labor and management but about trust and faith.  So, too, this illustration about the fig tree is so much more than it appears on the surface.


As the verse says, the fig tree had leaves.  When a fig tree produces figs, the fruit is produced before the leaves.  You can see this here in Spokane at the Manito Greenhouse.  They have a fig there, and you can actually see how the leaves do not come until the figs have sprouted from the limb.  Seeing a tree covered with shiny green leaves then would have caused anyone familiar with fig trees both in Jesus’ day and now to expect tasty figs.  This tree had none.  This is so unusual that it begs the question.  Why was this fig tree barren?


We might speculate that it needed watering, fertilizer, or was planted where it could not get enough sun.  But the fact that it had the expected leaves and appeared healthy enough to have figs causes us to look for other reasons.  Perhaps the answer can be found in John 11.


Jesus close friend, Lazarus, became mortally ill.  In verse four, Jesus reveals that this illness is for the purpose of bringing glory to God.  While the story of the fig tree is hard for us to understand, it is no harder than it was for Mary and Martha to see the death of their brother, knowing that Jesus had the power to prevent it.  This also seemed out of character for Jesus to those who had known Him well.  Jesus purposely delayed His coming until after Lazarus had died.  Eventually, Jesus arrived and raised Lazarus from the dead which was a great miracle.  But perhaps an even greater miracle was that Mary and Martha still came to Him in love and worship even after their brother had died, not knowing that they were about to see Jesus raise him from the dead.  Afterwards in verse 40, Jesus reminds Martha that this was all to glorify God.


If we bring this principle back to Matthew 21 and make the assumption that this was the fig tree’s purpose, to glorify God, then perhaps Jesus, actions do not seem so harsh, at least no harsher than delaying His coming when Lazarus was sick.  The fig tree then becomes more than simply a random tree that Jesus happened to encounter.


Any orchardist will tell you that it is common practice concerning fruit trees that if they do not produce fruit they should be removed and replaced with trees that do.  You can read about this in Luke, chapter 13:


And He began telling this parable: "A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, 'Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?' And he answered and said to him, 'Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'"  Luke 13: 6-9


This fig tree in this parable would seem to have been like the one Jesus encountered.  The man looked for figs so apparently it must have had leaves also.  No figs were found.  His reaction was like the reaction of Jesus.  The parable makes it clear that the vineyard-keeper wants to do everything he can to help the tree bear fruit and begs for a little more time.  The fig tree has no ability to ask for more time.  Its only hope is the mercy of the vineyard owner.  The parable does not tell us if the extra time is granted. 


The owner, the one who planted the fig tree, certainly has a right to expect fruit from it.  It would be the unusual person who would plant a fruit tree and then say, “I don’t care if it ever produces any fruit.”  That is usually why a fruit tree is selected in the first place, the hope of future fruit.  In this sense, a failure to produce fruit might be seen as a betrayal of the trust that the planter has placed in his tree.


The prophet Jeremiah tells us that we are trees and that those who have a relationship with God will be fruitful.


"Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD
         And whose trust is the LORD.
"For he will be like a tree planted by the water,
         That extends its roots by a stream
         And will not fear when the heat comes;
         But its leaves will be green,
         And it will not be anxious in a year of drought
         Nor cease to yield fruit.


Jeremiah 17:7-8


We are trees of God’s planting.  He will provide all of our needs, and we in turn will yield fruit.  Our leaves will be green and we will be free of fear and anxiety.  All of this is from trees in a relationship with God.  If anyone of these is missing, it would call our relationship with God into question.  The fig tree Jesus came to displayed the green leaves that would seem to indicate a relationship with God, but it had no fruit.


Men and women can put every effort into putting forth green leaves to look like a faithful follower of Jesus, but if there is no fruit, they are not in a relationship with Him.  However, we cannot make ourselves bear fruit in order to be in a relationship with Him, but more on that later.  First lets look at what the fruit is.  Why does a fruit tree produce fruit?


Some might say that a fruit tree produces fruit so that men might eat it and be nourished and be glad.  While all of that is true to some extent, it is focused on why we want a fruit tree to produce fruit.  The fruit tree has an entirely different reason for producing fruit.  It’s to make more fruit trees.  The fruit falls to the ground and decays leaving the seeds, or the creatures who eat the fruit scatter the seeds where they travel, and in time more fruit trees will sprout.  Going back to Jeremiah 17 then, will reveal that the man or woman in relationship to Jesus will not cease producing more people like themselves in relationship to Jesus.  This would eventually fill the earth with fruitful trees as Habakkuk wrote:

"For the earth will be filled
         With the knowledge of the glory of the LORD,
         As the waters cover the sea.”


Habakkuk 2:14


A tree that fails to bear fruit places a road block across this process and ends the line of fruit bearing trees with itself.  If a relationship with Jesus brings life then a tree that fails to bear fruit fails to bring that life to everyone that it might have influenced to grow into a relationship with Him.  In this sense, Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree in Matthew 21 was only giving to that tree the same result it was bringing to others.  This is a lesson for all of us.  While time may be delayed while the vineyard-keeper digs and fertilizes us to bring us to fruitfulness, eventually we will be judged on whether we are fruitful or not.


This brings us back to my earlier thought about producing fruit.  Now that we know the importance of producing fruit, all we need to do is go out and win people for Jesus, right? Wrong.  As Morris Venden has often pointed out, “You cannot bear apples to be an apple tree, you bear apples because you are an apple tree.”


In other words, we don’t bear fruit by trying to bear fruit, we bear fruit because we have a relationship with Jesus.  So all we need to do is work on a relationship with Jesus, right?  Wrong.  The only thing we need to do is to give ourselves to Him and trust Him to build that relationship and to work in our lives.  This is not a one time event.  Every day, hour by hour, we must continually give ourselves to Him.  He in turn will provide the experiences, the digging and the fertilizer, that will bring growth and eventually fruit.


We also need to understand that when we give Him our lives in this way, we must also give Him the timetable for that growth.  It does no good for the fruit tree to say in the spring, “Where is my fruit? I must not be a fruit tree. I have only flowers.”  We all know how silly it would be for the tree to say this, because God has not made trees to produce their fruit in the spring.  In the same way, we must allow God to unfold our growth in the way that He knows is best for our lives.  We are not to become frustrated that the progress is not what we wished, but instead continue to surrender hour by hour to Him and allow Him to take care of the rest.  God can be trusted to complete a good work in us.  God does not fail. 


Won’t you decide with me today, to give your life to Jesus to nurture you as one of His beautiful trees and to produce the fruit He intended?  He is waiting to give you everything you need.