My children recently became excited about limes when they learned they could sell limeade and make their riches. One day at my mother-in-law’s house, they found a large tray full of them. Large, richly green, beautiful limes—which they immediately started plundering. Jackpot.

Except they were plastic. A bowl full of limes holding out the promise of gallons of limeade, only decorative.

Many things can masquerade as the real thing but fail upon closer inspection. Jesus deals with this mismatch in a shocking episode in the Gospels: the cursing of the fig tree (Matt. 21:18–22; Mark 11:12–14, 20–25). In this inverted miracle we see precisely the stakes not only of failing to produce fruit, but of giving a fruitful impression and failing to back it up

Examining the Episode

Jesus enters Jerusalem amid exultation from the masses gathered for Passover. In the morning, as he travels from Bethany, he spots a fig tree “in leaf.” At this point in late spring, most fig trees haven’t developed mature fruit (Mark 11:13). But this particular tree draws Jesus’s attention because it already has a full covering of leaves. It’s an early bloomer. Its foliage signals that it should have early figs.

With that expectation, Jesus inspects the tree. He is immediately disappointed. All leaves, no fruit. All expectation, no satisfaction.

In a shocking turn, Jesus curses the tree and makes it wither from the roots, never to yield fruit again. We are taken aback; this seems stunningly out of character for Jesus, the child-welcomer, compassionate healer, and storm-calmer.

What should we learn from this peculiar scene?

On the surface, it’s an object lesson on the power of faithful prayer (Matt. 21:20–22). But more is going on behind the scenes. The fig tree cursing, an enacted parable of sorts, is also a sober warning for us today—in at least two ways.

1. Fruitlessness leads to judgment.

Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is described as God’s vineyard, tree, or planting (Judges 9:8–15; Isa. 3:14; 5:1–7; Jer. 12:10; Ezek. 17:2–10; 19:10–14). As any agrarian Israelite knew, the firstfruits of the harvest belong to God (Ex. 23:19; Neh. 10:35–37), which helps conceptualize their relationship to God: as his own special planting, they must yield spiritual fruit as his covenant people (Ps. 1:3; Jer. 17:8–10). Israel’s fruitfulness (literal or otherwise) is not the basis of their relationship with God, for it is God who gives fruitfulness (Deut. 7:13; 28:4). A lack of fruitfulness is a sign of God’s curse for their rebellion (Deut. 11:17).

This foundational metaphor for Israel’s spiritual health vividly blooms in the prophetic era. The time had come for God’s people to yield fruit that would bless the world (Isa. 27:6). Several times the prophets describe God as inspecting Israel for “early figs,” as a sign of spiritual fruitfulness (Mic. 7:1; Jer. 8:13; Hos. 9:10–17)—but he finds “no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.” So in two exiles (Assyrian and Babylonian), God pours out the curse of barrenness (Hos. 9:16), and Israel becomes a rotten fig (Jer. 29:17).

But all is not lost. God promises to one day replant Israel and produce healthy figs from her again (Joel 2:22; Amos 9:14; Mic. 4:4; Zech. 8:12; Ezek. 36:8).

With this web of background images, light bulbs would’ve immediately gone on in the minds of Jesus’s disciples as he re-enacted Israel’s history by cursing the fig tree.

Light bulbs would’ve immediately gone on in the minds of Jesus’s disciples as he reenacted Israel’s history by cursing the fig tree.

The fruitless fig tree draws us back to prior points in Jesus’s ministry, when God’s people were called to produce spiritual fruit (Matt. 3:8–10; 7:16–20; 13:8; Luke 3:7–9). Jesus has pursued the children of God with compassionate seriousness (Luke 13:34). And the Jewish crowds—gathering to celebrate God’s past act of redemption (Passover/exodus)—have just hailed Jesus as “king” while he leads a new exodus on a meaning-laden donkey (Zech. 9:9).

The eschatological restoration has arrived. Everything is lining up. Israel’s fruit will now be harvested; blessing will now pour forth. While the rest of the nations—the other fig trees—are not yet in season, this one tree is “in leaf.” And both Matthew and Mark, by “sandwiching” the fig tree episode, focus the lens on where it will all transpire: Jerusalem.

  • Matthew: Jerusalem → Fig tree → Jerusalem
  • Mark: Fig tree → Jerusalem → Fig tree

Except there’s no fruit. The fig tree, once again, has failed. The Passover celebration, the tumult, the crowds, the singing—it’s all a show. Jesus enters God’s house of prayer and finds it a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). Lots of action, lots of bustle, but no righteousness. Leaves, but no fruit.

So upon inspecting the fruitless tree, Jesus pours out divine judgment via two sign-acts: the future-pointing act of cursing the temple, and the enacted metaphor of cursing the tree.

2. Think about your own figs.

But all is not lost. When the disciples ask Jesus to explain what just transpired, he pivots and talks about prayer. Why? Though they do not yet fully understand, they will be the new caretakers of God’s people (Matt. 21:33–45). They will be instruments by which Israel is transformed—when the Jewish nucleus of Christ-followers extends branches worldwide and brings forth fruit from all nations (beginning in Acts). And, as Jesus teaches here, they will do this by the power of faithful prayer.

Thus the fig tree cursing is not just about historical Israel. It’s about us. It’s about all the people of God throughout time.

The fig tree cursing is not just about historical Israel. It’s about us.

The Old Testament expectation that God’s covenant people bear fruit did not wither on that road between Bethany and Jerusalem when that poor fig tree met its expeditious fate. In fact, the mandate that God’s people bear spiritual fruit has actually intensified in the new era, not weakened (John 4:36; 15:2–16; Rom. 1:13; 6:21; Gal. 5:22; Phil. 1:11; 4:17; Heb. 12:11; Jas. 3:17). Not to earn God’s gardening affection—but to yield that which he has (re)made us to do.

Soberingly, this passage does not just remind us that a Christian by definition must produce spiritual fruit (even if only small early figs). It’s also about the threat of and temptation toward false pretenses of fruit.

The fig tree, like the bustling temple courts during Passover, was putting on a good show. And that made it all the worse. It’s one thing to lack fruit out of season. It’s another thing to lack it while pretending you have it.

So let us be warned.

Our personal lives can look like “in leaf.” Our leaves may look like those of a supermom, a winner, a perfect family, an A-team Christian with an overstuffed schedule of ministry activities. But the root may be withered. There may be no fruit of holiness and no intimacy with God. What’s worse—our leaves may even fool us.

And our churches can do the same. A church’s leaves may look impressive: booming attendance, capital campaigns, clever pastors, impressive music. But what will the Lord find upon close inspection? Will he find only leaves? Or will he find figs, too?