In the Bible Jesus Christ often performed miracles and they were always beneficent. He hasn’t performed a single miracle to punish anyone before.
However, at one point in the Bible, Jesus cursed the fig tree and with just one word made it withered. That’s what the Gospel says about it:
“Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, ‘May you never bear fruit again!’ Immediately the tree withered.” (Matthew 21:18-22).
Today, we will explore this question in more detail and provide some insight into why Jesus may have chosen to curse the fig tree.
Did Jesus Curse The Tree Just Because There Was no Fruit on it?
The essence of this story is much deeper. In His sermons Jesus often used parables to convey complex truths to the ordinary people in a language familiar to them.
He often relied on everyday realities understandable to people, which, moreover, were often religious symbols for Jews.
For example, in the Old Testament Israel is called “the vineyard of the Lord” and “the fig tree“. This tree also symbolized well-being, prosperity and God’s blessing to the Israeli people and it was the leaves of the fig tree that Adam and Eve covered themselves after the fall.
And yet the expression “to live under a vineyard and a fig tree” meant to have peace and prosperity (2 Kings 18:31; 1 Kings 4:25; Zechariah 3:10; Micah 4:4).
In ancient Israel the healing properties of the fig tree were also highly valued, so it was also considered a symbol of wisdom. However, Christ makes it clear that after the coming of God to earth, such Jewish symbols lose their meaning if the people of Israel reject the new truths.
It’s also worth noting that this wasn’t the first time that Christ mentioned the fig tree.
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The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
About six months before, Christ had told the following parable:
“A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the soil?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down” (Luke 13:6-9).
Most of the saint interpreters of the Gospel believe that this parable implies a kind of dialogue between the persons of the Trinity – God the Father (the owner of the vineyard) and the incarnate Son of God (the vintner) about the fate of the Old Testament Israel, represented in the image of a fig tree.
For three years the fig tree (Israel) cannot bear fruit. Why exactly three years? That’s how long Jesus preached to the Israelites before he told this parable. And although the fig tree (the Jewish people) doesn’t bear fruit, the merciful God fully believes that a person can come to his senses, so He gives people time.
For the last time Christ speaks of a fig tree on the Mount of Olives, a few days before the execution on Calvary.
Mark the Evangelist adds a striking detail to Matthew: Jesus came to the tree, although “it was not the season for figs” (Mark 11:13).
Jesus went to the tree in search of fruit, and of course He knew that at this time of the year the fruits weren’t yet ripe, but one could expect that at least they would be found unripe on a green fig tree.
To His disappointment, Christ didn’t find even unripe fruits, just as He didn’t see at least a minimal attempt to realize the eternal truths by the majority of the people of Israel.
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But What Kind of Fruit was the Fig Tree Supposed to Bear?
The whole point of the Old Testament is to prepare people to meet the Messiah, who would cleanse Israel of sin.
However, by the time of Jesus’ preaching, this deliverance was often understood very simplistically, not as deliverance from the power of sin, but as achieving political independence from the Roman Empire.
Therefore, most of the religious leaders of Judea didn’t recognize and didn’t accept the One they and their ancestors had been waiting for. Repentant conversion to God and faith in salvation through Jesus Christ – this is the fruit that the Lord was waiting for from the Jews.
The people of God weren’t ready to meet the Messiah. People were waiting for God to be majestic and formidable, but Jesus, who entered Jerusalem on a donkey, didn’t respond to worldly ideas about the Savior.
But God still believed that the people of Israel could bear fruit. When the Lord came to the tree, only this one unlike other fig trees was covered with leaves. Just like among all the peoples of the ancient world only the Israelites had a revealed religion, the Law and the prophets – they knew what fruit the Lord expected from them.
For the rest of the nations the time of fruiting hasn’t yet come, so God expected fruits first of all from the people of Israel. But God discovered that the fig tree was simply misleading, deceiving the traveler with its beauty. So imaginary piety didn’t save people who refused to believe in the Savior, in other words they didn’t bear any fruit.
What Jesus Said
In the parable of the fig tree mentioned earlier, Jesus asks God the Father not to cut down the tree, to give people a chance, he continues to “cultivate” the tree, but anticipating his imminent death on the cross and seeing the stubborn unbelief of the leaders of Israel, he passes sentence on it.
Despite the apparent beauty (beautiful and magnificent divine services continued to be performed in the Jerusalem Temple), after the coming of the God-Man to earth, the Jews couldn’t accept the new truth, and the meaning both in such rituals and in their beauty became absolutely useless.
The form of God’s judgment was again figurative, but this time the parable was made not in words, but in actions (It already happened in the Old Testament, for example the prophet Jeremiah (the book of the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 27) and Ezekiel (the book of the prophet Ezekiel, chapters 4 and 12) used this form of preaching).
Christ didn’t punish the disbelieving Jews, but only showed them their prospects if they didn’t repent, because the beauty of the fig tree that didn’t bear fruit couldn’t save the tree.
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The Warning From Jesus
This warning became a reality forty years later, in the year 70, when Emperor Vespasian brutally suppressed the Jewish uprising, almost completely ruined Jerusalem and destroyed even the nominal statehood of the Jews.
The terrible curse was so strong not because of irritation and anger, but because the Lord wanted to prevent the impending tragedy, so that even in his curses God showed love for people.
The proof that the curse was pronounced without anger is the following fact:
“Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.” (Мark 11: 21-24).
Christ says that nothing is impossible for a faith free from doubt. Therefore, in prayer it’s necessary to ask for everything with faith.
But, as the evangelist Mark notes: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
The Lord’s words didn’t differ from his deeds, so it becomes obvious that he cursed the fig tree without any anger. He forgave the Jews who crucified him. And, therefore, the withering of the fig tree was a purely symbolic matter – as a sign of the Divine power of Christ, the Son of God.
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The Fig Tree As A Symbol
Historically, the curse of the fig tree is a symbol of Christ’s rejection of those religious leaders of Judea who rejected him.
But Holy Scripture isn’t an archive of highly moral sermons. Everything that Christ did, He continues to do to this day, as he did two thousand years ago, sometimes he meets barren fig trees on his way.
Only now they are covered with leaves not of the Old Testament, but of the New Testament commandments. The learned formally commandments didn’t change the human heart. Condemning the Jews to desolation, the Lord foretold that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce its fruit” (Matthew 21:43).
This “new nation” is now Christians. That’s why the gospel story about the curse of the barren fig tree serves as a non-historical and timeless reminder to all generations of Christians that any person can be in the place of a barren plant.
Christ shows that the fig tree no longer represents the Old Testament symbols: if people don’t recognize the new truths, then the fig tree becomes a symbol of rejection of God, lack of faith, imaginary piety and false beauty.
God doesn’t force the fig tree to have fruits, since every person has free will, Jesus simply walks away from the fig tree, indicating its joyless future.
What The Church Fathers Say
Trying to understand the meaning of the Bible, people should turn to interpretation. The main authority in the interpretation of the Bible are the Fathers of the Church, who confirm the truth of the above interpretation and bring some details:
Saint Ephrem the Syrian is surprised at this: “Why did this sweet Benefactor, who everywhere showed much in small things and fullness in shortcomings, orders the fig tree to wither? “
And Saint Ephraim answers: “Christ performed many miracles, but still was crucified. Because of this, some people might suspect that His strength had been depleted. In order to prevent this, with the help of a soulless plant, which He dried up, He showed that by the word He could also destroy His crucifixes.
As he later said: Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? ” (Matthew 26:52-53).
Thus, we can conclude that by cursing the plant Christ not only showed the future of those people who don’t have fruits in their faith, but also once again demonstrated to people that he is the true God and even before his physical death doesn’t lose the power to work miracles.
Saint Anthony the Great also agrees with Saint Ephraim: “The Lord cursed and dried up the plant for a reason. He wanted to instruct the God-fearing people of the Jews that He could act imperiously, but, as a merciful one, He did not want this. “
Saint Macarius the Great writes: “After all, if having come to a fig tree to eat, and not finding fruit on it, the Lord awarded it a punishment and the tree immediately withered, then how much more terrible is the punishment to the soul, in which the fruit of determination and the customs of righteousness will not be found for food to the Lord!” – Thus, the saint confirms the opinion that the fig tree becomes a symbol of a person who couldn’t achieve results from his faith, seeing the truth in front of him.
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Therefore, it can be concluded that the curse of the fig tree has three functions:
1) Christ shows that after the coming of God to earth the old truths and symbols have lost their meaning and become negative if a person doesn’t accept the new truths.
2) Christ also makes it clear what kind of future those people who have no results from their faith will have.
3) Christ once again confirms with his miracle that He is the true God and can perform any miracle even before execution, as He forgives His murderers and makes everything with love.
CharalamposCharalampos is an Orthodox Christian who wants to help others learn about Christianity. His main goal is to help people understand the Bible and how to apply its teachings in their everyday lives. He also enjoys spending time with his family, playing sports, and hiking.
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