by Norm Olson

Q: Why did Christ curse the fig tree in Matthew 21:19?

A: This account is also found in Mark 11:11-14 and 19-26. A person is going to have trouble with this incident if he or she doesn’t get beyond the “poor little tree” that was cursed. Trees, plants, and fruit are not morally or spiritually responsible, so Christ was using this incident prophetically, symbolically, and educationally. Some people have a problem with this incident because Christ acted destructively instead of constructively, unlike other miracles when, for example, He restored life. After all, could not Christ have performed a miracle to make the tree bear fruit? He could have. But He had a different purpose here. We need to remember that Christ is the righteous judge as well as the Savior.

Other people have a problem with the fact that Christ saw from up close that the fig tree was unfruitful, when He supposedly knew all things. This problem is taken care of when we see how Christ was using this incident. Of course He could have known that the fig tree was barren. One Bible commentator used the word “staged” concerning this incident. The account says Christ was hungry, which was undoubtedly true, but He deliberately used the incident in a purposeful way.

Bible scholars have come up with several possible explanations concerning Christ’s meaning of this incident. More than one legitimate reason can exist. First, it was obvious that He was teaching His disciples. Verses 20-22 point out how He taught them concerning faith and prayer. When Christ cursed the fig tree, it happened. It was His will. They could rely on these realities in their future service for the Lord.

Second, many Bible scholars believe that the fig tree represented Israel. We need to see the time frame here; it was the last week of Christ’s public ministry among His people just before His crucifixion, and they had, as a whole, rejected Him (John 1:11, 12). Like the fig tree, which might have looked all right from a distance, they with their beautiful temple, religiosity, and rituals had leaves but no fruit. They were lifeless and powerless. The incident of the fig tree would fit with Luke 13:6-9 (parable of the barren fig tree), Luke 19:41-44 (Christ’s weeping over Jerusalem), and Matthew 21:28-23:39 (Christ’s evaluating Israel and her rejection of Him). The cursing of the fig tree showed coming judgment of Israel, including the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. (The instantaneous withering of the fig tree would show the quickness of severe judgment upon the nation.) Unbelieving Israel would then be fruitless-”blind”-until Christ’s restoration of her upon the Israelites’ accepting Him as their Messiah (Romans 11:25). Some Bible teachers see this judgment extended to apostate churches and individuals of this dispensation as well.

Critics of this view say there is no other example in Scripture of a fig tree used as a type of Israel, although passages like Jeremiah 8:13, Hosea 9:10, Joel 1:7, Micah 7:1, and Luke 13:6-9 seem to refute this suggestion. In Luke 13:6-9, Israel is the fig tree located in God’s vineyard, the world. God looked for fruit on the tree but didn’t find any. So He said to the vinedresser (Christ) that He had sought in vain for fruit from the tree for three years (the three years of Christ’s public ministry). In other words, the fig tree had had time to bear fruit, if it were going to do so. But it didn’t.

Critics also question how the fig tree/Israel analogy can be supported, with Israel’s becoming a nation again in 1948. But a possible answer is that the development of Israel’s national identity was initially political, not spiritual.

Those who deny God’s future program for Israel and say the church is now Israel explain the cursing of the fig tree to mean that Israel was to be done away with forever. We don’t accept that conclusion because of God’s unconditional promises to the nation, which remain to be fulfilled.

For a third possible explanation, we must go back to the fall of mankind into sin. After Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, “The eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings” (Genesis 3:7). Christ, the perfect Son of God, the second Adam, did not need a covering, as did fallen mankind. Therefore, the fig leaves were an “insult” to Him as He came upon the tree and cursed it, just before His death.

Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send your Bible questions to nolson@garbc.org, or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.