Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

159. The Withered Fig Tree (Matt. 21:18-22; Mark 11 :12-14, 20-26)*

Next morning (Tuesday) Jesus and the twelve returned to Jerusalem from Bethany early. Presumably Jesus, still sickened by the bitter paradox of Monday's experience and by the entrenched evils he had witnessed in the temple court, had gone to his bed fasting; and now, in the morning, prayer and Scriptures had been more important than food. It may well be that in any case he had had no opportunity to break his fast, for Matthew's word "lodged" (21 :17) really means "bivouacked". This would imply that the comfort and plenty of the home of Lazarus had not been available to him (because of the arrival of many other Passover pilgrims? or because his presence in the house might mean a threat of danger to the family he loved?). So now, as he approached Jerusalem, he was hungry.

No fruit!

There, by the wayside, at a distance in the Kidron valley, where there was shelter from the winter cold and no lack of underground water to nourish the roots, stood a fine-looking fig tree. So Jesus came to it, hoping to find fruit to appease his hunger.

The expectation was not unreasonable, even though it was springtime, and figs are not gathered till the end of the summer; for the small immature figs, according to Pliny reckoned a great delicacy, come early, even before the foliage.

Since Passover is March-April, the Bible text is adequate evidence here: "Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; the fig tree putteth forth her green figs; and the vines are in blossom" (S.of S. 2:11-13).

This raises a problem. Why then does Mark add: "for the time of figs was not yet," as though in extenuation of the disappointment, for it was the time of green figs. There are two possible answers. Either the phrase is inserted in explanation of the words: "if haply he might find anything thereon" (a few old figs from the previous season?); or with an eye to the eloquent meaning of the acted parable, clearly discerned in later days, was Mark making a sad sardonic comment on the spiritual condition of his people?: "the time of bringing forth fruit to Christ was, alas, not yet."

There is also the further problem or the Lord's unawareness of the tree's fruitlessness. It seems strange that he who so often was able to exercise such a marvellous superhuman knowledge was apparently so humanly limited in a simple thing like this. The alternative, also not without its difficulties, is that Jesus pretended hunger and pretended an expectation of fruit because from the first moment he saw the symbolic power of the entire episode. Or did this side of the experience dawn on him only as his eye searched the boughs in vain?

Certainly this depressing aspect of the fig-tree symbolism dominated the Lord's mind as he went round the tree, hoping against hope that on some branch, near or remote, there might be a sign of fruit. But no! So Jesus "answered" it. Here is Mark's plain intimation that the entire transaction is to be seen as an acted parable.

The fig-tree nation

He spoke a quiet prayer in solemn tones of reprobation—but it was about the fig-tree nation of Israel that he really spoke (see Notes): "May no man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever." Mark's addition: "and his disciples heard," suggests that the Lord's commination was a quietly-spoken prayer. It probably implies also that they were horrified by what they heard. The words were an expression of his bitter disappointment at the nation's deliberate refusal to yield him the loyalty it owed. Here, then, was the continuation in acted parable of the earlier parable of the fig tree: "Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well; but if not, after that thou shalt cut it down" (see Study 131).

No fruit, "forever"! Some find difficulty in the dramatic finality of this phrase. How to reconcile with "the "receiving again" of Israel, foretold in so many Scriptures? Perhaps there was designed ambiguity in the words which are really: "for the age"-"until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled." Much more likely, he was emphasizing that even when Israel is restored to favour it will be on the basis of individual repentance, not national privilege? The days of God's rich blessing on Israel simply because it is a nation descended from Abraham are gone for ever.

Next day

Later that day as the party returned to Bethany there was no opportunity—because of darkness (Mk.11 :19) or a different route?—to observe the effects of this solemn curse. So it was next morning (Wednesday) when the disciples stared with amazement at the effect of what seemed to be their Master's unexampled exercise of destructive power.

Matthew puts the two parts of the episode together, so that his record reads as though curse and commentary belong to the same day. This disregard of strict chronological sequence is characteristic of the gospels, especially o( Matthew and Luke, when a higher purpose is to be served by readjustment.

The sight of the tree impressed the disciples greatly. "Master," cried Peter, "behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away." Other disciples heard the curse invoked, but only Peter was alert for its fulfilment. Today, with blessing pronounced and impending, there is a similar situation.

Some of the twelve, finding cause and effect hard to accept, asked: "How is it so speedily caused to wither?'—as who should say: 'This cannot really be our Master's work. He doesn't do miracles of that sort.' But they were wrong. Moses and Elijah both asserted the holiness of God at the cost of many lives; and disciples had been willing to do the same (Lk.9 :54). hot Jesus only by the death of swine, and now of a tree. Yet even in its death, comments Wordsworth, "this barren fig tree... bears fruit for ever in the garden of Holy Scripture by the warning it gives."

It must have been an awe-inspiring sight-in the glory of Spring a tree rich in foliage now dried up from the roots . So it is to be pictured with only a few dried withered leaves, and they ready to fall, with every branch brittle with rottenness, and the bole itself dry and cracked, its bark flaking off. The symbolism here is not difficult. What had now happened foretold that very soon the root of Israel, the Law of Moses, would dry up, being made of no effect through the sacrifice of Christ and by the destruction of the temple in A.D.70. And of course the root dried up because the ground (the Land of Israel) in which it grew was now cursed (cp. Mal.4:1).

Old Testament anticipation

There are Old Testament prophecies of this solemn act of judgment expressing not only portentous reprobation but also a hope-inspiring alternative:

"Woe is me! for I am as when they have gathered the summer fruits... there is no cluster to eat: my soul desireth the first-ripe fig" (Mic.7:l; the entire chapter makes probably the finest, most complete, Messianic prophecy in the Bible). Israel's true fruit would have been to own that they had no fruit for God.

"Ephraim (=fruitful!) is smitten, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit... My God will cast them away, because they did not hearken unto him: and they shall be wanderers among the nations"(Hos. 9:10,16,17).

"Their root shall be as rottenness, and their blossom shall go up as dust: because they have cast away the law of the Lord of Hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel" (ls.5:24).

"I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green tree in its native soil (RV). I passed by (RVm), and lo, he was not, yea, I sought him but he could not be found" (Ps.37:35,36).

"I the Lord . . . have dried up the green tree, and made the dry tree to flourish" (Ez. 17:24).

"He shall grow up before him as a root out of a dry ground "(ls.53:2).

"I am the root and the offspring of David" (Rev.22:16).

"If the root be holy, so also are the branches" (Rom. 11:16).
Jesus was not yet done with the figure of the fig tree. Next day on the near-by Mount of Olives after a prophecy loaded with tragedy he spoke briefly of the fig tree coming to life again and impressing witnesses with its abundant promise (Mt.24 :32); yet once again the emphasis is on leaves—no mention of fruit. And today, marvellously true to the type, Israel surpasses the world in self-reliant achievement but does not even know the meaning of faith toward God.

Faith to move a mountain

The Lord's answer to the uninhibited astonishment of his disciples was not a little enigmatic. At first consideration his further comment seems to have had little to do with the matter in hand. "Have faith in God," he said. "For (he went on) verily I say unto you, if ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say to this mountain, Be thou removed, and bethou cast into the sea, it shall be done."

Taken literally the words are childish as well as completely inconsequential. Any explanation which does not link them directly with the cursing of the fig tree deserves suspicion. In truth, every word here and in the rest of this discourse has to be read with reference to the impending conflict between the gospel and Judaism.

Jesus assumed that his followers had by now seen the point of his cursing of the fig tree. Then, "Have faith in God" meant: "Do not let the Almighty's inevitable reprobation of Israel unsettle your faith in His righteous purposes." After all, these disciples were Jews, nationalistic Jews through and through, and the meaning of their Lord's acted parable was about equivalent to a prophecy in London or Washington that the whole of western civilisation will be handed over to Black Power, or the domination of Islam.

"This mountain" was Zion, the mountain of the temple and the Law. At that time it seemed beyond the bounds of credibility that any follower of Christ might ever desire an end to Judaism. Yet within twenty years the massive counter-attack launched by Pharisaism and the bigots of the Mosaic Law who had wormed their way into the ecclesia (Gal.2 :4), made Judaism a far more dangerous enemy of the early church than Rome showed signs of being. So this would be the meaning with which Paul talked about having faith to remove mountains (1 Cor. 13 :2).

This elimination of the bitter hostility of Judaism from the path of the gospel duly came about, but only at last when the early church had the faith to believe that this was the will of God and that according to the prophecies of Christ and the Old Testament there was no doubt that it must and would come to pass. But only if there were someone to fulfil the role of this "whosoever." (Mk. 11:23). Until Peter, urged on by heavenly vision, made his journey from Joppa to Caesarea (Acts 10), none of the apostles dared to attempt this venturesome operation. And in due time the Judaist mountain was cast into the Gentile sea, the temple on mount Zion crashed in apocalyptic ruin, thus strengthening Christian faith with its testimony to the truth of Christ (cp. Ps.46 :2; and contrast Mic.4:l).

The lesson of faith

The Lord continued to emphasize faith as the answer to all the needs of the early church: "Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire (specially, regarding the preaching of the gospel) when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them." On the face of it this was an exhortation to self-hypnosis, a flying in the face of all common sense and experience; for if a man. really believes that his need is already answered ("receive" is actually past tense in the Greek), where is the point in praying for God's help regarding it?

To make sense of these words, it is necessary to strip them of the pronouns, which the AV has in italics, and to restore that past tense: "Believe that ye did receive, and ye shall have." Read thus this dictum becomes a strong recommendation to build on ones' spiritual experience. Look back and see heaven's waymarks in your path—those evident answers to prayer, those indisputable tokens of God's providence—and on the solid foundation of these experiences build an unshakable faith that in present need your prayer will have its best possible answer.

Jesus meant this general principle to be the saving of the early church, especially in its struggle to evolve an effective Christ-like policy in combatting the pressures of Judaistic prejudice ceaselessly at work within the church as well as from without. Hence the massive emphasis on the prayer of faith in the Acts of the Apostles and in the epistles of Paul.

But another needful qualification for the blessing of God's Providence was, and is, a forgiving spirit: "And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses." In their primary reference these words were a reminder that nothing so effectively stops the ears of Almighty God as does bitterness against one's fellows, even though they be implacable enemies. Constantly persecuted by hostile Jews and ceaselessly harried by all kinds of underhand scheming, the early brethren surely had grounds enough for detestation and even full-blooded hatred of their adversaries. Yet in the spirit of this commandment Stephen died praying: "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge."

It is, of course, a principle of widest possible scope: "If ye have anything against any man, forgive . . .," for "if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses." No principle could be simpler, nor more palpably right, than this. Yet there are examples enough of those mature in Christ who nevertheless have been known to behave as though the words were never spoken.

It is also a paradox extraordinarily difficult of resolution how to hate with a perfect hatred those who are known to be hateful to God, whilst at the same time extending forgiveness with all the sincerity of one's soul for despite personally and undeservedly endured.

Without a simple faith that God knows best and that He is fully in control of this world of His, a wholesome fulfilment of Christ's law of forgiveness is hardly possible.

Notes: Mk. 11:12-14, 20-26

Fig tree, a symbol of Israel: Consider: Jer.24 :l-8; Hos.9 :10,16; ls.28 :4 RV; 34 :2,4,8; Rev.6:13; Lk.13:6-9; 17:6;19 :6; Mic.7:1RV; Gen.3 :7,21; Jn.1 :48,50; Mt.24 :32(Study 140). In Mt. "one fig tree," a Hebraism for an outstanding fig tree; it emphasizes Israel's uniqueness.

Nothing but leaves, which now, as in Eden, were an inadequate covering for sin. Here also is commentary on the real value of the plaudits of the Triumphal Entry. M.
No man. In Gk. an emphatic double negative.
The fig tree . . . withered away. Contrast Ps.l :3, and Ezekiel's prophecy of the vine of Israel: 17:9,10,24. In Mt.: "How soon ... !" might imply: "Lord, you didn't give it much of a chance, did you?'
Have faith in God The Gk. is unusual: Have faith of God-which could well be a familiar Hebraism for: Have great faith. Either way, it can also be read as implying: 'even when Jewish opposition to the Faith becomes a serious problem.'
This mountain... cast into the sea. Another meaning is suggested by Zech. 14.-4: Not judgement on Judaism, but the lord's personal return as Messiah.
What things soever ye desire, when ye pray . . . Fruit on the Jewish fig tree? An end to virulent persecution by ,. Jewry?

Believe that ye did receive. How often Holy Scripture insists on this as an integral ingredient of elementary godliness! e.g. Dt.l :31; ch.2; 7:18; Ps.34 :l-7; 37 : 25; 22 :4; 106 :13; 2 Tim.3 :11; 2 Cor.1 :10; Gen.50:20; 2 Sam. 17:37; 2 Sam. 4:9; 2 Kgs. 1:13; Mt. 16:8,9; Mk. 8:16-21; Jn.2 :22; 12:16; 16:4.
When ye stand praying. Jer. 18 :20 is specially relevant; but consider also 1 Kgs.8 :14,22 (the dedication of a new temple), and Neh.9 :4 (repentance of wayward Israel). Tertullian says that the early church stood for prayer on Sundays and during the forty days after Easter.
The textual reasons for omitting this verse (as RV etc.) are quite inadequate.

Previous Index Next