Mark 11:12-26 / Matthew 21:18-22
18 Now in the morning, as He returned to the city, He was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away. 20 And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither away so soon?” 21So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
A miracle is defined as an event that transcends and interrupts natural processes and serves as sign and explanation of the divinity of Christ or as a stamp and imprimatur confirming the Prophetic / Apostolic witness whose ministry is to point to Christ. By this definition miracles have ceased with the close of the New Testament canon.
Of course what is going on in this pericope is not merely a matter of Jesus being irrationally put off with a non-producing fig tree. This much teaches us that the Scripture are not always to be taken literally. There is a good deal going on here that goes beyond Jesus being angry that his hunger was not satisfied by figs.
In order to understand what is transpiring here one needs to remember a larger context.
Luke’s Gospel, in an account that was approximately a year prior to this miracle we find Jesus giving a parable,
Luke 13:6 He also spoke this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 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 [b]use up the ground?’ 8 But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. 9 [c]And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’ ”
At this point we have to identify who it is that the proverbial fig tree represents. Scripture itself gives us the answer.
In Hosea 9:10, Nahum, 3:12, and Zechariah 3:10 we find fig trees and / or figs serving as a symbol for National Israel. This combined with the Luke passage as well as the immediate context (which we will turn to next) convinces us that as Jesus curses this fig tree what is in point of fact happening is that Jesus is cursing National Israel, from whom, up until this point, there was a reasonable expectation, give God’s care and patience, to find fruit – repentance and deeds consistent with God’s law and so in keeping with repentance.
It seems an immediate fruit that was expected was the honoring of God’s name which the Jews were dishonoring as seen in the immediate context with the Temple cleansing episode. A nation producing fruit in keeping with repentance would never have turned the worship of God into a “fleece the dumb sheep” opportunity.
Mark 11:15 So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 16 And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. 17 Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ ”
National Israel, who was supposed to produce fruit in keeping with repentance, instead is turning the name of the thrice Holy God into a commodity, and so God is made to be a a being that people sniff at and mock. Israel is a fig tree who is all leaves and no fruit. Israel is all pretense and no reality. Israel is not what it was set aside to be and so now, like the fig tree, Israel has an anathema pronounced over it that is (and this is significant) eternal. The Lord Christ says to National Israel, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Jesus issues a maledictory oath and if we are to take it seriously, this means that National Israel, in 2020 (and beyond), can in no way produce fruit. National Israel, like the fig tree is a withered reprobate dead tree – and that forever.
Before we tease this out let us go on a brief bunny trail to explain a seeming inconsistency. Matthew’s account tells us that Jesus was hungry and strongly implies that Jesus decided to satisfy His hunger by snacking on a fig tree. However Mark’s account of the cursing tells us plainly that it was not the season for figs. So, if Jesus knew it was not the season for figs then why did he expect to find figs and why, upon not finding figs in a season when there were supposed to be figs, did he curse the fig tree? Upon investigation of the habits of fig trees in Palestine we find that fig trees will bud prior to leafing and that the this budding represents small figs that can be consumed before the fig tree leafs and then later produce full grown figs. The small figs guarantee the later appearance of future normal figs. Apparently, the tree that Jesus cursed was transitioning between budding and leaving and on that tree were no tiny figs that were promissory of later normal figs. In other language we might say that the fig tree with its sterile leaves was all hat and no cattle.
So, summarizing, Jesus, on the day following His triumphant entry (Palm Sunday) turns aside to satisfy His hunger by consuming some early figs. Finding only leaves, Jesus pronounces malediction upon the fig tree that it might never produce fruit again. By examining the context, both remote (Hosea 9:10, Nahum, 3:12, Zechariah 3:10 Luke 13) and immediate (Matthew 21 – Cleansing of the Temple), we understand that the Fig tree represents National Israel and the lack of fruit represents that, despite the intense agricultural care for said tree, it is good for only show but not for sustenance. Mark 7:6 gives us a Scriptural summary,
6 He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:
‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far from Me.
A.) This maledictory oath against Israel fits well with the Partial Preterist understanding that when Jesus returns in AD 70 He finalizes divorce proceedings against National Israel which was essentially promised in the passage under consideration. If Israel will never produce fruit again then it is salt that is only good to be trodden upon. Matthew 21 represents divorce papers filed while AD 70 represents divorce papers served. God is done with National Israel as His people. National Israel are no longer the people of God.
B.) If this is accurate then those who keep insisting that National Israel remains the people of God are practicing what we might call a “Replacement theology.” God in Christ has declared that National Israel is to be eternally fruitless, confirmed that declaration by pulling down its Temple and scattering the survivors to the wind in AD 70, and then referred to phony Israel as a “Synagogue of Satan,” and yet Evangelicals dare contend in the face of all of this that National Israel remains “the people of God?”
Codicil – All because God is done with National Israel as a redemptive agent doesn’t mean that individual sons and daughters of Israel will not know the joy of salvation that is provided in Christ alone. However, said sons of Israel will have to be grafted into Christ as belonging to other covenanted nations.
C.) If this interpretation is correct then this by necessity dismisses Anglo-Israelism as an interpretive option. It is difficult to see how we can fit both the eternal character of the maledictory oath of Jesus against National Israel while at the same time insisting that God still has promises to fulfill to scattered Caucasian Israel.
D.) When the maledictory oath of Jesus is read in tandem with the later self-maledictory oath of Israel in Matthew 27,
24When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but that instead a riot was breaking out, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “You bear the responsibility.”25All the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
one can only conclude that National Israel owns the curse as pronounced by Jesus just a few days earlier. The blood of Jesus does remain upon National Israel and its seed. The fig tree remains cursed.
Remember, this is a people who boldly screamed, “We have no other King but Caesar.”
A.) Since it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God and since judgment always begins with the household of God we, as the Church, as well as those who belong to covenanted nations should be mindful to make our lives characteristically one of ongoing repentance.
B.) This passage reminds us that there are often people who are part of the covenanted people who do not have the essence of the covenant. Not all who profess Christ, posses Christ.
C.) As we are a people who are described as “zealous for good works,” our ongoing repentance still must be characterized as having fruit that is in keeping with that repentance.
D.) We can rejoice that indeed God is producing in us, by the Holy Spirit, fruit in keeping with repentance. We need not to panic over this issue. We must remember how patient God is. What we have looked at here took centuries to arrive at. God was patient with Israel over and over again and He will be patient with us. We must not forget that God is long-suffering towards His people and will not always chide them. We must remember that if we have a heart to repent then God will receive us. When God is done with a people the desire to repent is removed and their hearts are hardened so that the very reality of their unwillingness to repent is a sign that God has cast them off. |
Still, lamp-stands can be removed for a generation or longer in light of fruitlessness.
E.) The Church in the West – as well as many covenanted nations in the West – have been given so many blessings by God in Christ. We need to recall that to whom much is given, much is required. Let us fervently pray that we would once again be a repentant and so fruitful people.
Qualification – Romans 11
Following Vos, we must allow that it is possible that Jesus, when He offered a maledictory oath against Israel that the “you” that was being applied (may YOU never produce fruit again) is referring only to the “you” of that generation of Israel. This understanding would see this generation of National Israel as a branch that was dead which could yet be made alive again in future generations by being grafted back into the olive tree. However, I would say that the self-maledictory oath taken by Israel does somewhat mitigate against this interpretation.