Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 21:18-22

The cursing of the fig tree is a familiar yet problematic passage. At least for some it is problematic: why is Jesus cursing a poor fig tree? Why the temper tantrum and petulance? Does this not seem to fit in poorly with the Jesus we know in the rest of the gospels?

Atheists and other critics of the Bible are happy to point this out, and tell us that Jesus is throwing a temper tantrum here, and is hardly someone worth emulating or following. But this story is much more than what the critics imagine. The actual account reads as follows:

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. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

Several things can be said here. The fig tree incident must be seen along with the account of the cleansing of the temple. Indeed, that story immediately precedes the fig tree story here. Mark 11:12-26 also has the fig tree story, but in customary Markan style, the temple cleansing episode is sandwiched between accounts of the fig tree incident. Elsewhere I have discussed the temple episode: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/04/23/the-cleansing-of-the-temple/

Both episodes have to do with judgment on Israel. In the Old Testament Israel is at times referred to as a fig tree, with judgment on Israel often described in terms of the fig trees, as in Isaiah 28:4; Hosea 9:10; Psalm 105:33; Jeremiah 8:13; Micah 7:1-6, etc. So there is no question that this is a symbolic action involving the nation of Israel.

Indeed, it is an enacted parable. It is telling us that Israel, and especially its leadership, has failed to show any genuine spiritual fruit, and because of this, judgment must come. It has nothing to do with Jesus being cranky or impatient. It was yet another warning to Israel that their refusal to receive their Messiah meant judgment was coming.

As Michael Wilkins comments, “Just as the fig tree’s fruitfulness was a sign of its health, so fruitfulness was a sign of Israel’s faithfulness to the covenantal standards. Now that Israel, especially represented by its religious leadership, has perverted the temple practices and has not repented at the appearance of Jesus Messiah proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, Israel is being judged by God.”

So what we have here is nothing at all to do with a childish and temperamental Jesus, but a very important warning, acted out most graphically on this fig tree. Israel is in a very precarious position indeed, and is in need of an urgent wake-up call lest it be too late.

As D. A. Carson puts it, “The cursing of the fig tree is not so far out of character for Jesus as some would have us believe. The same Jesus exorcised demons so that two thousand pigs were drowned (8:28-34), drove the animals and money changers out of the temple precincts with a whip, and says not a little about the torments of hell.

“Perhaps the fact that the two punitive miracles – the swine and the fig tree – are not directed against men should teach us something of Jesus’ compassion. He who is to save his people from their sin and its consequences resorts to prophetic actions not directed against his people, in order to warn them of the binding power of the devil (the destruction of the swine) and of God’s enmity against all hypocritical piety (the cursing of the fig tree).”

Or as Wilkins remarks, “Jesus’ cursing the fig tree is not a fit of temper but a symbolic act, demonstrating that God’s creatures produce that for which they were created – to carry out God’s will, which means entering into a discipleship relationship with him and then demonstrating fruit from that relationship in a life of faith empowered by prayer.”

Israel, and especially its leaders, had been given much, but fruit was not forthcoming, so the only appropriate thing to do was to warn of imminent judgment. The continued rejection of Jesus, along with the continued rejection of the prophets of old, had shown just how far removed Israel had become from her intended purpose.

And lest we think what a pathetic lot ancient Israel was, we must also take heed here. Similar things can be said about the church today. Indeed, Jesus made it clear that if we are not bearing fruit, we are headed for similar judgment:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:5-6).

As James Montgomery Boice states, “This is also what will happen to every merely outward church, any gathering of people who show the green leaves of apparent spiritual prosperity but who fail to possess the fruit of the Spirit….

“Nothing is so obvious as the truth that religious words without spiritual fruit are worthless. Yet few things are so common. Ryle also wrote, ‘Open sin, and avowed unbelief, no doubt slay their thousands. But profession without practice slays its tens of thousands.’ If we belong to Jesus, we will produce spiritual fruit, and if we do not, we do not belong to him.”

So we too must pay careful attention here. If Israel of old can fail to measure up, so too can we. Thus this story serves as an important warning to us all.

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4 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 21:18-22”

  1. Thanks for pointing this out Bill. It’s easy to miss that the cursing of the fig tree incident is indeed a picture of judgment on the Jewish leadership. This event is also recorded in Matthew’s gospel and in fact the whole of his book can be read as an indictment against the Jewish rulers. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, also contrasts how the church should behave differently to the Scribes & Pharisees. These accounts are best understood corporately (i.e. the church should conduct itself completely differently to the Jewish establishment). Rightly does today’s church need to consider these things and heed the warnings.
    Sid Avery

  2. Thanks again Bill for drawing to our attention the story of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree, which is new to me. Jesus talks here of supernatural things that can be done that surpass our understanding and the need to have faith and not to doubt, requiring that leap of faith. He also said “My Father’s house has many rooms”. Does this mean different dimensions in space and time? We don’t know but anything is possible, just as we don’t know how we got here. The gospel or good news, as I understand it, is that God has a purpose for humankind which is to bring His Kingdom to earth and that His will shall be done, and rolled out, implemented with the help of worthy humans who have been chosen at the appointed time although prophecy warns of apocalyptic tribulations before that time.

    Albert Einstein, physicist, philosopher and agnostic, is quoted as saying there are two ways to live life: either as if every thing is a miracle or nothing is a miracle. It is easy for things to surpass my understanding but I see everything as a wondrous miracle starting from our lonely position on the Orion spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy and take comfort that there is a divine plan in play. It’s up to us – do we believe in Jesus, Son of the Father?

    Rachel Smith

  3. Jesus’ parable of the barren fig tree [Luke 13:6-9] surely serves as an excellent interpretative ‘sub-text’ to the later incident of His cursing of the fruitless fig tree – an incident which took place near a village called Bethphage, a name meaning something like “home/house of young figs” in Aramaic.

    John Wigg

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