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Why did Jesus curse the fig tree? By Babatunde Olugboji

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Why did Jesus curse the fig tree? By Babatunde Olugboji 

The cursing of the fig tree by Jesus often evokes incredulity among Bible scholars, and this week, we will be examining this ‘miracle’ in Matthew 21. The Bible says in Jerusalem, Jesus being hungry, inspected a fig tree, found nothing but leaves, and cursed the tree, saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the tree immediately withered (Matthew 21:18–19). Why did Jesus, the Messiah who usually handed out blessings curse the tree? 

The key explanation was that “it was not the season for figs” (Mark 11:13) but it was much more than that. In those days, fig trees produced leaves at the time of the Passover and small fruits did appear, which would later ripen. These fruits were said to be unripe but slightly edible. The leaves promised fruit on the tree, but it’s barrenness made it an object lesson.

In the Old Testament, the prophets used the fig as a symbol of Israel in its fruitlessness. Prophet Micah (Micah 7:1–2) lamented that he came to gather fruit from the vineyard but found no grapes and “no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.” Micah thereafter explained the metaphor: “The godly has perished from the earth,” and the land is full of violence, not the justice he craves. As he cursed the fig tree, Jesus, our high priest, functioned like a prophet who presented symbolic acts of judgment as a call to repentance (Jeremiah 19:1–11).

When Jesus judged the fig tree, He foretold judgment not on all Israelites but on those who, like the luxuriantly leafy but fruitless tree, appeared to be alive but are barren (Matthew 13:22). Jesus had earlier inspected the temple and found it wanting. The spectacle of worship -the priests, the music, the sacrifices, the gleaming buildings -was grand but fruitless. Its leaders bar Gentiles from worship and plot the murder of their king. Truly, it had become a cave of rebels against God, their religious exhibition notwithstanding.

When the tree withered, the perplexed disciples asked: “How did the fig tree wither at once?” (Matthew 21:20).  A more obvious question could have been why, not how, but the disciples often misunderstood their master’s message (See Matthew 19:27; 20:21). He perceived that they were interested in having similar powers and answered them in a way that redirected their focus in a manner that encouraged them to place their trust in God: “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt.” Faith, a well discussed topic in the NT, means trusting God leads to salvation, but here it was an enabling power. By faith a disciple can “say to this mountain, be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ [and] it will happen” (Matthew 21:21).

Based on the foregoing, the presence of a fruitful fig tree was considered to be a symbol of blessing and prosperity for the nation of Israel. Likewise, the fruitlessness, absence or death of a fig tree would symbolize judgment and rejection. Symbolically, the fig tree represented the dead spiritual state of Israel, who while very religious outwardly with all the sacrifices and ceremonies, were spiritually barren because of their sins. 

By cleansing the Temple and cursing the fig tree, causing it to wither and die, Jesus was pronouncing his coming judgment of Israel and demonstrating his power to carry it out. The lesson of the fig tree is that we should bear spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23), not just give an appearance of religiosity. God judges fruitlessness and expects that those who have a relationship with him will “bear much fruit” (John 15:5-8).

Have a great week!

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