In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry.And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?
We are in a section of Matthew’s Gospel that I have titled “The King’s Final Break with Judaism,” and we should be aware of how this is unfolding by now. We have had two symbolic actions: 1) the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in which the Lord presented himself as Israel’s true King, knowing that he would be rejected by both the leaders and the masses of the people; and 2) the cleansing of the temple, which would be no more permanent now than it had proved to be the first time. In the verses we come to now we have a third symbolic action: the cursing and withering of the fig tree.
In the Old Testament Israel is often compared to a fig tree or a vine, and judgment on Israel is compared to its destruction (see Psalm 105:33; Jeremiah 8:13; Hosea 2:12; 9: 10-16; Micah 7:11-6). Jesus had used this image himself in a parable recorded in Luke 13:6-9. In that story, at an earlier point in his ministry, Jesus told about a fig tree that was not producing fruit which the owner was therefore going to cut down. “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?” he said (v.7).
A servant pleaded for it. “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down” (v.9). It should be obvious that the fruitless fig tree represents the barren religion of Israel as Jesus found it during the three years of his ministry and that its destruction represents God’s impending judgment on it.
Similarly, in Matthew 21, Jesus has found the religion of Israel to be barren. Its leaders have turned the temple from “a house of prayer” into a “den of robbers” (v.13). Jesus has been rejected as king, and the time for judgment has come, which is why Jesus cursed the fig tree, saying, “May you never bear fruit again,” and why the fig tree withers. The cursing 0f the fig tree is a powerful symbolic action.
It is also a warning to us of how God views any religion that does not produce genuine spiritual fruit. As John A. Broadus wrote, “That withered fig tree stands as one of the most conspicuous objects in sacred history, an object lesson forever.”1
Some explanation will be helpful. I know nothing about fig trees (and very little about any other kind of tree), but the commentators say that fig trees first produce green figs, which are not very good at this stage but are still edible, and then green leaves immediately after that. Later in the year the figs ripen and are normally picked and eaten then. The problem here is that a tree in leaf advertises that it has fruit, however green it may be, and that this tree had no fruit at all. It was a case of false advertising, which Jesus used as an illustration of hypocrisy in religion.
What a great problem this is—profession without practice! And what a disaster! It has been a problem all through biblical history. It had been the case in Israel. On the day before the prophet Ezekiel learned of the fall of the city of Jerusalem to the Babylonians the Lord appeared to him to explain why this was happening, and the explanation was in terms of the people’s empty profession. God told Ezekiel, “Your countrymen are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.’ My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument as well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice” (Ezek. 33:30-32). God was telling Ezekiel that Jerusalem was destroyed the first time because the people wanted merely to be entertained by God’s words but did not want to obey the instructions.
Isaiah said the same thing in words Jesus referred to in Matthew 15:8-9.
And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
Jesus used this verse to reprove those Pharisees and teachers of the law who made a profession of adhering strictly to God’s words when actually they were obeying only their own regulations. Jesus called them “hypocrites” (v. 7) and “blind guides” (v. 14).
This point is made again and again in Matthew. We have it several times in the Sermon on the Mount: “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men” (Matthew 6:2); “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street comers, to be seen by men” (Matthew 6:5); “And when you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting” (Matthew 6:16); and “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).
In chapter 22, when the Pharisees lay plans to trap him in his words, Jesus replies, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” (v.18). Then, in the very next chapter, he pronounces a devastating series of woes or judgments on them (Matthew 23:1-39). That chapter ends with the words, “Your house is left to you desolate” (v.38), which is what Jesus was pointing to by the withering of the fig tree in chapter 21.
1John A. Broadus, Commentary on Matthew