Anti-Christian philosophers often misuse today’s passage to defame Jesus and deny that He is God incarnate. How can a good man curse an “innocent” fig tree? they ask. And, if Jesus is omniscient, why does He expect figs when it is not fig season (Matt. 21:18–19; Mark 11:12–14)?
These objections are easily answered. First, Christ, as God the Son, has de facto authority over His creation and the sovereign right to do with it what He wills. Jesus, therefore, can curse the fig tree if He so desires. Second, understanding what it means for figs to be in season shows us how Jesus can expect fruit when it is not fig season. During springtime, Palestinian fig trees begin producing taksh — Arabic for immature, edible figs. Ripe, sweet figs are harvested in the summer, the season for figs to which Mark’s gospel refers. Lush foliage signals that taksh are present; thus, Jesus rightly expects fruit when He combs through the leaves; yet appearances are deceiving in this case.
Our Savior’s malediction does more than just express His righteous anger at the lack of figs. As John Calvin comments, Christ intends “to present in this tree an outward sign of the end which awaits hypocrites, and at the same time to expose the emptiness and folly of their ostentation.” Jesus curses the fig tree in the context of His teaching on hypocrisy: He casts out temple merchants who exploit others while claiming to serve God (Matt. 21:12–13); He must deal with religious authorities who will not recognize John the Baptist’s divine authority (vv. 23–27); He tells a parable that condemns those who pledge service but then do nothing (vv. 28–32). Moreover, the Old Testament sometimes speaks of covenant-breaking Israel as a barren fig tree (Hos. 2:12; Mic. 7:1–6). Christ’s curse is a foreshadowing of what will happen to hypocrites — those Israelites who, like the fig trees with leaves, promise fruit but fail to deliver.
This lesson escapes the Twelve, who are more amazed at the speed with which Jesus’ words come true (Matt. 21:20). Christ does not focus in on hypocrisy; that will come later (vv. 28–32). Instead, He teaches on prayer, informing His followers that believing prayer can accomplish great things (vv. 21–22).
Matthew Henry writes, “The fruit of fig trees may justly be expected from those who have the leaves. Christ looks for the power of religion from those who make profession of it.” The cursing of the fig tree is a sobering reminder of just how much the Lord hates hypocrisy. As Christians we must live consistently with what we say we believe. An unbelieving world is watching us; therefore, let it only see those who practice what they preach.
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