What the Fig?
Why did Jesus throw a tantrum in the temple and lash out at a fig tree?
Continuing in our journey through Matthew today, we’ll be returning to chapter 21.
Mike introduced this chapter last week, and as he mentioned, this is a pivotal, crucial moment in Jesus’s ministry. It’s a climax in the story…not necessarily the ultimate climax, but it’s climactic in the sense that there has been a lot of expectation, suspense, and tension leading up to Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem.
Mike covered up to verse 17, which includes the triumphal entry of Jesus arriving to Jerusalem, followed by his rampage through the temple, overturning tables and rebuking the merchants and money changers, and finally the children and the outcasts recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, while the chief priests and scribes were indignant.
In the next little section of verses, beginning in verse 18, we’ll find Jesus having a rather strange encounter with a fig tree. So, we’re going to talk about that fig tree today, but first it’s important to understand this fig tree narrative is told in the context of these other, preceding events in Matthew.
Now, again, Mike brought this up but bear in mind that the events described here are grouped together because they relate to each other thematically, and when viewed in context with each other, they help to explain each other.
The exact chronology is fuzzy, because the exact chronology is not what’s important, that’s not the point.
In fact, if you compare all four gospels, none of them lay these events out in the same order or in the same way.
In Matthew chapter 21, we have:
- Triumphal Entry
- Cleansing the Temple
- Barren Fig Tree Cursed and Withers
- Jesus’s Authority Challenged
- Triumphal Entry
- Barren Fig Tree Cursed
- Cleansing the Temple
- Fig Tree found Withered next morning
- Jesus’s Authority Challenged
- Triumphal Entry
- Lament over Jerusalem
- Cleansing the Temple
- Jesus’s Authority Challenged
Then we have John, who really just throws chronology completely out the window and does his own thing with it. John groups together narratives and teachings in order to reveal the rich, underlying theology, doing the work of patching together everything into a deeply meaningful account of the gospel. John tells us his eye witness account of Jesus, not as a chronological story, but by telling us the raw truth of who Christ is, the fulfillment of the Old Testament Messiah; the priest of a new covenant, prophet of and the King of the new creation.
The first chapter of John introduces the theological concept of Christ, and connects that concept to Jesus, validated through the prophet John the Baptist.
Chapter 2 then jumps into the narrative of Jesus beginning his ministry, and his first public miracle at the wedding in Cana.
The next story John tells after introducing Jesus’s ministry comes in verse 13, and it’s the story of Jesus turning tables in the temple:
John 2:13–21 CSB
13 The Jewish Passover was near, and so Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling oxen, sheep, and doves, and he also found the money changers sitting there. 15 After making a whip out of cords, he drove everyone out of the temple with their sheep and oxen. He also poured out the money changers’ coins and overturned the tables. 16 He told those who were selling doves, “Get these things out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!” 17 And his disciples remembered that it is written: Zeal for your house will consume me. 18 So the Jews replied to him, “What sign will you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days.” 20 Therefore the Jews said, “This temple took forty-six years to build, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
So, chronologically, we know these events took place closer to the end of his ministry, leading up to his death and resurrection. But John wants his readers to recognize the significance of this right up front, ahead of time. It’s almost like an intentional spoiler, a heads up as to who Jesus is and his intentions, to better understand everything else we read about Jesus in John’s gospel account.
You’ll also notice John throws another detail in here, a quote that we don’t get for another couple chapters in Matthew, but which John connects with Jesus’s confrontation with the Temple.
In response to the Jews’ demand for a sign of Jesus’s authority, Jesus says “Destroy this temple, and I’ll rebuild it in three days.”
John goes on to explain that he wasn’t referring to the physical building, the Jews’ beloved temple building in Jerusalem, but his own body, which they would brutally destroy, but which would be raised again in glory.
By telling this story right off the bat in chapter 2, John is dismantling for his readers the long-held, preconceived notions of who the Messiah is and what he came to do, and even the significance of the temple, before even getting any further into describing his ministry.
It’s just a different strategy, a different approach to explaining who Jesus is. Viewed all together, the gospel writers give us a beautiful, multi-faceted, multi-dimensional mosaic to explore, and by which we can come to continually know and appreciate Jesus more.
While John gives us this massive, shocking, spoiler of a truth right away, we can see through the slightly more chronological accounts of Matthew and Mark that this is a realization the disciples grasped only very gradually, and not even fully until after his resurrection.
When Jesus first arrives in Jerusalem, riding on a donkey like the kings of old, and met with palm leaves and praise, I can imagine his 12 closest disciples would have been elated! They’re surrounded by a whole crowd of Jesus followers, proclaiming him in no uncertain terms as their king!
This coming after a long, weary journey, and Jesus having made statements about his death and resurrection which confused and alarmed them. They probably weren’t sure how they would be received, there would be no real way of knowing. The priests and pharisees are out to get Jesus, and here they are arriving at the hot spot, the center of Jewish authority.
If a new King is to be established over Israel, and a new Kingdom established, then Jerusalem is where he would take his throne. And if God is to restore his presence with his people on earth, the temple in Jerusalem would be the epicenter of his Glory.
At least, that’s what most Jews assumed, based on the prophecies of the Messiah.
And here Jesus is, fulfilling prophecies like riding in on a donkey, as described in Zechariah, which Mike read last week.
The Jews are hailing the arrival of their long-awaited king. Mike covered a bunch of the Old Testament prophecies connecting to this idea of Jesus as King, which shows that the Jews’ recognizing him as king was not necessarily misplaced, it was just misunderstood.
So, I want to spend even a little more time on this idea of Jesus as king. One of the questions Mike left you with last week was “Who do you believe Jesus is?”
Who is the King?
The Jews who wanted Jesus to be their king believed him to be qualified by his lineage, as a descendant of the great King David. This is an accurate credential, though I would argue not the most important one. There were many kings in the line of David, a few decent but most terrible, and none of them were able to deliver on the promise of the Messiah.
So, the question I want to ask is: if Israel was looking for the ultimate king, who is that king?
Let’s look back a little further into Israel’s history of Kings.
Back in Exodus chapter 15, after God delivers Israel from Egypt, bringing them through the parted waters of the sea, and destroying Pharaoh’s army, the people sing a song of praise and worship to Yahweh.
You can find this in Exodus chapter 15. I won’t read the whole song, I just want to draw your attention to the very last line, the last verse of this song:
Exodus 15:18 LSB
18 “Yahweh shall reign forever and ever.”
That day, Israel declared Yahweh to be their God and King. Their king had defeated the king of Egypt and so shown himself more powerful than any other king they had ever seen before.
Later in Exodus, Yahweh would declare Israel to be a nation of priests, representatives of him, bearers of his name, to bring his presence and blessing not just to themselves but to the rest of the world. To all the nations, thus fulfilling Yahweh’s promise to Abraham. Then the whole world would know the blessing of having Yahweh as their God and King.
From the beginning, the true King of Israel was to be Yahweh, the king of kings, lord of lords, God of gods. They were set apart in this way.
God did appoint leaders…prophets and judges and authorities to help keep the peace and an organized, civil society. But the only ultimate authority, their only “king” originally was Yahweh himself.
But eventually, Israel demanded a human king, so they could be like everybody else: their neighbors, their friends, their enemies.
We see this fateful turn happen in 1 Samuel 12
1 Samuel 12:8–13 LSB
8 “When Jacob went into Egypt and your fathers cried out to Yahweh, then Yahweh sent Moses and Aaron who brought your fathers out of Egypt and settled them in this place. 9 “But they forgot Yahweh their God, so He sold them into the hand of Sisera, commander of the army of Hazor, and into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the king of Moab, and they fought against them. 10 “And they cried out to Yahweh and said, ‘We have sinned because we have forsaken Yahweh and have served the Baals and the Ashtaroth; but now deliver us from the hands of our enemies, and we will serve You.’ 11 “Then Yahweh sent Jerubbaal and Bedan and Jephthah and Samuel, and He delivered you from the hands of your enemies all around, so that you lived in security. 12 “But you saw that Nahash the king of the sons of Ammon came against you, and you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ although Yahweh your God was your king. 13 “So now, behold, the king whom you have chosen, whom you have asked for, and behold, Yahweh has set a king over you.
So, God granted them their demand for a king, and although he did allow many blessings to come to Israel through their kings, ultimately the sinfulness, corruption, pride, and dysfunction of their kings led them to their ruin.
Nevertheless, they did have a few kings who represented God well and led Israel well, at least for some part of their reign. The foremost being King David, who, despite having some fatal, sinful flaws, Yahweh still referred to as a man after his own heart.
Here are some of the ways David, the great King David spoke of Yahweh in his psalms:
Psalm 9:7–8 LSB
7 But Yahweh abides forever; He has established His throne for judgment, 8 And He will judge the world in righteousness; He will render justice for the peoples with equity.
Psalm 103:19 LSB
19 Yahweh has established His throne in the heavens, And His kingdom rules over all.
Psalm 29:10–11 LSB
10 Yahweh sat enthroned over the flood; Indeed, Yahweh sits as King forever. 11 Yahweh will give strength to His people; Yahweh will bless His people with peace.
Psalm 145:11–13 LSB
11 They shall speak of the glory of Your kingdom And talk of Your might; 12 To make known to the sons of men His mighty deeds And the glory of the majesty of His kingdom. 13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, And Your dominion endures from generation to every generation.
Even great King David recognized Yahweh as THE great king, and recognized Jerusalem as belonging to God.
You can find many more confessions of Yahweh’s ultimate kingship all throughout the Psalms.
Again, David wasn’t perfect, and was not without pride, but when he did sin he eventually humbled himself before God, repented, and accepted the consequences of his actions. So many other kings after him grew so full of pride they abandoned Yahweh altogether, and failed to recognized his sovereignty. They led the rest of Israel to do the same, resulting in ruin and exile.
Though they eventually returned from exile and were allowed to rebuild the temple, they were ever since, for generations upon generations, ruled by foreign kings, from Babylon to Rome.
All the while, the Jews are looking for the return of a human king to restore their kingdom and national sovereignty, while we can see in hindsight the only perfect king they ever had was Yahweh himself.
Here, in the person of Christ, we see the provision of both in one: Yahweh the perfect king, as a human in their midst.
And, at first he’s received well! But Jesus knows their misplaced expectations, and knows how quickly things will take a turn once his true intentions are revealed.
Turning over Tables
As illustrated by the “cleansing of the temple” narrative, Jesus wasn’t there to celebrate Jewish nationalism at their capital, or to bring glory and praise to their religious leaders at their temple.
In fact, he does quite the opposite. He expresses outrage at what he finds in the temple, and in every gospel account it’s a rather shocking description.
Luke is perhaps the most mild and vague:
Luke 19:45–46 CSB
45 He went into the temple and began to throw out those who were selling, 46 and he said, “It is written, my house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!”
But we know from the details others give that he “drove them out” by:
- Overturning tables.
- Overturning chairs.
- Pouring out bags of coins.
- Making a whip out of cords with which to drive them out.
Jesus, the peaceful guy who’s teaching is all about love, compassion, and humility, is anything but quiet when it comes to this scene. He makes a scene. He drew attention with his actions, and was clearly, visibly upset with what he found.
But he didn’t just throw a fit and then leave, did he?
He stayed in the temple and began to teach.
He was rebuking them, but it was corrective.
The scene he caused was intentional; it was to make a point.
This is a great example of seeing Jesus in his prophet role…he really puts his prophet hat on here.
God spoke often through prophets by having them cause a scene, do and say shocking things in order to get a point across.
Isaiah, one of the most influential of all the prophets, walked around Jerusalem naked and barefoot for three years, as commanded by God, just to make a point!
I think it’s important when considering this “outburst” by Jesus, that it wasn’t just blind fury, but rather a pointed, prophetic call to repentance, a call for attention to the rebuke and teachings that would then follow.
I think often when reading this passage, Jesus can come across as angry and spiteful.
Was he angry? Well, yes, I think we can characterize the emotion expressed here as angry, upset, distraught, horrified, and passionate. But it’s important to consider the motives behind these feelings.
God does get angry, but that is not a primary characteristic. It is possible to anger God, but that is not his default state. When he revealed himself to Moses on Sinai, the first way he described himself was this, in Exodus 34:
Exodus 34:6 LEB
6 And Yahweh passed over before him, and he proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh, God, who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding with loyal love and faithfulness,
Jesus, as the perfect image of God, can also be described in the same way. The primary emotion, or motivating factor behind any of Jesus’s actions at any given time was and is always love.
Jesus loves his people so deeply, that when he sees them failing to experience the presence of God and his blessings, in the one place they ought to have been, it breaks his heart! It upsets him! It angers him that these people have been so led astray, away from the Father, towards greed and corruption.
But it’s not just blind fury.
It’s angry, passionate, jealous love.
And it’s love for his people. His people being not just for the Jews, but for his fellow humans. For all humanity; the whole world.
This point is illustrated when we finally come to the infamous fig tree.
Has anybody else ever red this story of the fig tree and just thought “huh?” That just seems…weird…and rather uncharacteristic of Jesus, doesn’t it?
While neither Luke nor John mention the fig tree, both Matthew and Mark do, and both connect it to the triumphal entry and cleansing of the temple, regardless of the exact order of events, and whether or not the tree withered immediately or overnight. That’s not the point.
And while it may come across as confusing or even alarming to some readers, it holds iconic significance which punctuates the relationship between Israel and the Messiah, especially for those steeped in the prophets of the Old Testament.
Let’s read first Matthew’s description:
Matthew 21:18–22 CSB
18 Early in the morning, as he was returning to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a lone fig tree by the road, he went up to it and found nothing on it except leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” At once the fig tree withered. 20 When the disciples saw it, they were amazed and said, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” 21 Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you tell this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 And if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
Mark’s is very similar, just not quite as condensed, and most scholars expect this is the more precise order of events:
Mark 11:12–14 CSB
12 The next day when they went out from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree with leaves, he went to find out if there was anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And his disciples heard it.
[Cleansing Temple Narrative]
Mark 11:20–24 CSB
20 Early in the morning, as they were passing by, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 Jesus replied to them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, everything you pray and ask for—believe that you have received it and it will be yours.
So, another thing we learn from Mark that it wasn’t even the right season for the tree to be bearing fruit! So why does it seem like Jesus gets upset with the tree, even cursing it to death!? Seems a little unreasonable doesn’t it?
Well, Jesus would be well aware that figs weren’t in season. I don’t think Jesus was lashing out at this tree like a child...upset he didn’t get what he wanted because he was hangry.
No, I think Jesus recognized an opportunity for a demonstration, for teaching, for communicating, as he so often brilliantly did, by using the tree as a metaphor for Israel. And the best part about this, is he didn’t just pull this metaphor out of thin air. It was a perfect metaphor for him to use, because it should have been very familiar to his disciples, and to anyone familiar with the Hebrew scriptures.
Throughout the Old Testament, in particular the prophets, Israel is very frequently compared to either a fig tree, or a grape vine, because both of those are extremely common crops to have in that region of the world.
OT Precedent & Interpretation
So, Jesus is drawing upon a rich, deep precedent, thousands of years old, when he pulls out this metaphor. Here are just a few examples:
In Isaiah 34, God is pronouncing judgment against “the nations” in general:
Isaiah 34:4 LSB
4 And all the host of heaven will rot away, And the sky will be rolled up like a scroll; All their hosts will also wither away As a leaf withers from the vine, Or as one withers from the fig tree.In that context, the implication Jesus is making is that Israel is no better off than the rest of the nations, in that they will face Yahweh’s judgment for their sin.
In Jeremiah, we see similar language, this time directed specifically towards the people of Israel:
Jeremiah 8:13 LSB
13 “I will surely gather them up,” declares Yahweh; “There will be no grapes on the vine And no figs on the fig tree, And the leaf will wither; And what I have given them will pass away.”’”
Later in Jeremiah, the prophet has a vision of figs, in which Yahweh compares the righteous to good figs and the corrupt to rotten figs.
Jeremiah 24:5–8 LSB
5 “Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘Like these good figs, so I will recognize as good the exiles of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans. 6 ‘For I will set My eyes on them for good, and I will return them to this land; and I will build them up and not pull them down, and I will plant them and not uproot them. 7 ‘I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am Yahweh; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart. 8 ‘But like the rotten figs which cannot be eaten due to rottenness—indeed, thus says Yahweh—so I will give over Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials and the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land and the ones who inhabit the land of Egypt.
Again, comparing this passage to Jesus’s condemnation of the fig tree, the implication is that Israel had become so corrupt that it no longer produced any good fruit.
Here are a couple more short ones, just to drive home my point:
Hosea 2:12 CSB
12 I will devastate her vines and fig trees. She thinks that these are her wages that her lovers have given her. I will turn them into a thicket, and the wild animals will eat them.
Joel 1:6–7 CSB
6 For a nation has invaded my land, powerful and without number; its teeth are the teeth of a lion, and it has the fangs of a lioness. 7 It has devastated my grapevine and splintered my fig tree. It has stripped off its bark and thrown it away; its branches have turned white.
So, you see that the story of the fig tree in Matthew and Mark really isn’t just coming out of nowhere! It’s a direct hyperlink back to passages of condemnation over Israel and other nations for not following Yahweh.
So, the imagery, the metaphor makes sense. Jesus is illustrating Israel’s moral barrenness, and foreshadowing the coming judgment against Jerusalem and the temple.
But I want to emphasize again that this episode of Jesus cursing the tree still was not done out of spite, or even anger. I’m sure there was a mix of frustrating emotions going on at the time, but I think we can glean his primary sentiment towards Jerusalem from Luke, who records Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem as he approached:
Luke 19:41–44 CSB
41 As he approached and saw the city, he wept for it, 42 saying, “If you knew this day what would bring peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come on you when your enemies will build a barricade around you, surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you and your children among you to the ground, and they will not leave one stone on another in your midst, because you did not recognize the time when God visited you.”
I would say, based on this passage, Jesus’s primary sentiment towards Jerusalem was sorrow. Lament. His heart was broken. Because, again, the motive behind any and all of Jesus’s feelings, actions, or words, was always, first and foremost, love for humanity.
Out of his love, he was deeply sad. Out of his love, he was passionately angry. Out of his love, he was deeply hurt.
Out of his love, he was preparing to do the one thing that could save them from themselves: giving himself to them, so that they could finally see him for who he truly is.
Now, I don’t want to leave this passage without addressing verses 20-22, though weren’t not going to spend too much time on it.
I’m not sure if the disciples quite caught the underlying meaning of this event or not, because they seem more interested in the miracle itself, rather than the purpose and message of its illustration.
Instead of being like “Whoa! Are you calling out Jerusalem and Israel like the prophets did with this illustration of a fig tree?” Or even asking “Hey what does this mean?”
They’re like “WHOA HOW DID YOU DO THAT?!?”
They’re in awe of Jesus’s ability to cause a fig tree to wither. And I guess it’s easy for me to say, but I have to laugh because haven’t they seen him do enough more miraculous things, including showing his power over nature, throughout his ministry?
Nevertheless, patient as he is, Jesus simply responds with a gentle reminder of something he has already said previously in Matthew!
Remember, in chapter 17 he said something very similar:
Matthew 17:20 LSB
20 And He said to them, “Because of your little faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.
This time, he takes the example even a step further, essentially saying that with faith you can not only tell a mountain to move, but you can tell it to go jump in a lake!
Again, he’s using hyperbolic imagery to illustrate his point. I think Jesus is implying in this response that the disciples ought not be so surprised by the power of prayer, or of Jesus’s authority over creation, at this point in his ministry, after everything they have seen.
May they also understood the point he was making, maybe not, we’re not really told that. But for us, the reader, the connections are obvious, and the message is clear.
On one hand, there’s the immediate implication:
The linking of the symbolic miracle of judgment with the cleansing of the temple implies God’s imminent punishment of Israel by the destruction of the city and the temple.
But we also know that Jesus was preparing to be himself the fruit of redemption. The water of life that would allow life to spring forth among the barren nations and thus be spared judgment.
He, the true high priest and king, was preparing to give himself over to the “authorities” so that ultimately the whole world could be spared from withering away, so that even the very people who killed him could be offered forgiveness.
There may be times when we feel like a withered fig tree…like there’s not much fruit in our lives, like we are morally, spiritually barren. The good news is all we need to do is ask, and God has promised to fill us with his spirit and make us fruitful, as long as we are faithful to him and trust him…surrender to him so he can care for and tend to us so much better than we can on our own…then he will turn us into thriving bearers of his image, participating in true love in our relationships with Him and those around us.
There may be other times when some of us feel like we’re pretty fruity!
Like we’re doing pretty good! Like we have quite a few accomplishments, lots of good things we’ve done and are doing in our lives. Like we are thriving spiritually, in a close relationship with God and having a noticeably positive effect on those around us.
And that’s great! That’s a fantastic place to be! But that’s also a perfect time to do some honest inspection of your branches, of every aspect of your life, and humbly ask God to show you where any rotten fruit or dead branches may be…anything that you may need to cut out or otherwise adjust, because it has the potential of corrupting everything else you’ve done. Because in this life we will never be perfect, there’s always a guarantee of finding some room for improvement!
Most of us on any given day probably find ourselves somewhere in the middle of being totally withered and totally fruitful. The good news is that no matter where we are at in our walk with Jesus, as long as we put our faith in him and seek to follow him, his loving sacrifice has paid for our sins completely.
As we prepare to contemplate this sacrifice, that he would give his body and his blood to save his very enemies from themselves, let us do so with gratitude and humility. Jesus placed himself in our stead, took upon himself the burden of all humanity’s sin, so that even the most sinful, dreadful, fruitless, withered of us can find abundant life everlasting in him.