Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus cursing a fig tree, and although there are similarities, scholars suggest that the incidents are not identical. The tree in Matthew withered immediately, but the other tree in Mark withered overnight. Differences are not being emphasized here, but the lessons offered by Jesus are certainly worthy of deep consideration. In both Gospels, Jesus taught the powerful law of believing. In both Gospels, the fig tree represented Israel, fruitless and cursed for rejecting their Messiah.
“The Barren Fig Tree” was published over 60 years ago by W. M. Christie, a Church of Scotland minister in Palestine under the British mandatory regime. He wrote, “Toward the end of March the leaves begin to appear, and in about a week the foliage coating is complete. Coincident with this, and sometimes even before, there appears quite a crop of small knobs, not the real figs, but a kind of early forerunner. They grow to the size of green almonds, in which condition they are eaten by peasants and others when hungry. When they come to their own indefinite maturity they drop off.” Their appearance is an indication of the fully formed fig about six weeks later. Mark says “it was not the season for figs.” If the leaves appeared without these little buds, there would be no fruit. When Jesus found “nothing but leaves,” He knew that it was going to be a fruitless fig tree.
The Matthew 21:18-22 record starts in the morning, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem. He was hungry, and “seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, ‘Let no fruit grow on you ever again.’ Immediately the fig tree withered away.” The disciples saw it die on the spot right before their eyes and were awestruck. They asked Jesus, “How did the fig tree wither away so soon?” Jesus taught them that real faith gets real results. “If you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
In the Mark 11 account (12-14, 20-25) Jesus was on His way into Jerusalem from Bethany. “And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, ‘Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.’ And His disciples heard it.” They went into Jerusalem, where they spent the day, and left at evening to return to Bethany. The next day, as Jesus and His disciples were again coming into Jerusalem, they saw the fig tree Jesus had cursed the day before. It was dried up from the roots. Only Peter commented here, and said, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away.”
Jesus taught them. “Have faith in God. [Have the faith of God] For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.”
Mark adds two verses of teaching that is not in Matthew’s narrative. “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” Jesus tied together forgiveness with an effective prayer and faith life, and revealed unforgiveness as an obstacle to answered prayers and powerful faith.
God designed mankind to be productive with a Godly purpose, starting with the people of Israel. The fig trees had foliage and looked good from a distance, but could bear no fruit. Israel, too, had lots of outward religion, but lacked the genuine inner faith to produce fruit. Israel’s failure to accept the Son of God was their final undoing, symbolized by the unfruitful fig trees, which withered at His words. The fundamental and priceless lessons Jesus taught His disciples may have been at Israel’s expense but have been life-changing truths for true believers ever since.