On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of acclamation and then tossed the money-changers from the temple. God had appointed it as "a house of prayer," but its priests had made it "a den of robbers." Jesus spent the night in Bethany. As He returned the next morning, 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. (Matt. 21:18–19)
This is surprising. Until now, Jesus' miracles brought restoration. We cannot say that Jesus acted in frustration. Indeed, Mark 11:13 says, "It was not the season for figs." Still, a fruitful fig tree in the offseason would display small, semi-edible fruits that would later ripen. But this tree was entirely barren. When Jesus cursed it, He performed a symbolic act in the spirit of Jeremiah (Jer. 19:1–11). The fig tree symbolizes Israel. As the fig tree had leaves but no fruit, Israel had a temple, but no spiritual life. Its gleaming buildings teemed with robbery, hypocrisy, and dead ceremony.
Once the tree withered, we expect the disciples to ask why Jesus cursed it. Instead they ask how he did it (Matt. 21:20;). Jesus answered, "If you have faith and do not doubt," not only can they wither fig trees, they "can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done" (v. 21).
Notice, Jesus did not say faith moves "mountains." Rather faith moves "this mountain"—a rare phrase that refers to a particular mountain whenever it appears (Matt. 17:20, John 4:21). As Jesus returned to Jerusalem, He saw the temple mount. That mountain must be moved, not physically, but spiritually. Faith alone can move the mountain where dead religion flourishes. Jesus cursed a fig tree that represented Israel's show-withoutsubstance temple. They could hurl that into the sea, if they would pray in faith.
Let's not misconstrue the phrase "whatever you ask in prayer" (21:21–22). The Lord hears lawful prayers. The best prayer is for living faith, and dead religion is a great obstacle to it. So disciples should pray in faith that God would remove that obstacle. Indeed God did remove that mountain, so the church could grow.