Why did Jesus curse a fig tree when He saw that it bore no fruit? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Mark, examining Christ’s judgment against the religious hypocrisy of Israel and the warning this presents for us today.
We will continue this morning with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Mark. I’m going to be reading from chapter 11, beginning at verse 12, and I’m only going to read through verse 21 this morning. That’s Mark 11:12–21, and I’d like the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.
Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.”
And His disciples heard it.
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. And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. 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.’”
And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him, for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching. When evening had come, He went out of the city.
Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away.”
This is the Word of God in truth. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Teach us, O God, in this hour that lesson that our Lord would have His disciples learn from the cursing of the fig tree, that we may tremble before the seriousness and severity of His judgment. For we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Jesus’ Perplexing Reaction
The passage that I just read to you is one that has vexed scholars over the centuries because, on the surface, it seems that Jesus overreacts to this poor, innocent fig tree for not bearing figs when it wasn’t even the season for figs. The late Bertrand Russell, who wrote a book attacking Christianity called Why I Am Not a Christian, included this narrative as one of his reasons for repudiating Christianity. He said this incident displays Jesus as a man who expresses vindictive fury to an innocent plant, manifesting behavior that is not conducive or consistent with even a righteous man, let alone the Son of God.
Even Christian scholars who are more sanguine in their evaluation of Jesus are perplexed by this story. Some say that this incident represents a terrific waste of supernatural power, and it challenges our thinking to imagine why Jesus reacts in such a manner. This narrative records the only miracle in the New Testament involving a miracle of destruction. We need to look at it a little more closely and see what is going on.
We read: “The next day when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. But when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.” Thereupon when Jesus found only leaves, no figs, He cursed the fig tree, saying, “Let no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
Those who believe in the sinlessness of Jesus and in the inspiration of the New Testament text have come to the defense of our Lord and tried to explain this somewhat bizarre incident in terms of the dimensions of growing figs. The fig season is in the fall in Palestine, yet in the spring, the fig trees that are dormant will send out little knobs or buds of what are called paggim. These paggim are not real figs, but they are the subsurface for producing figs. After these little knobs have been set forth, a growth of foliage follows from it, and weary and hungry travelers from time to time might pluck these paggim from the fig trees and eat them. Even though they are not fully developed figs, they are edible.
So, the commentators say that what happened in this text was that these knobs that should have been present were not present, so Jesus was angry because there were leaves but no budding paggim. I don’t think that’s the answer either. This morning, if you’ve been worried about this text all your life, I hope to solve the mystery for you.
In Full Bloom, but Barren
One of the special treats that I had in seminary, of which there were few, was having the opportunity to take a course from a man in his mid eighties at the time, who was one of the most distinguished archeologists of the twentieth century. Dr. James Kelso had been an associate of William Foxwell Albright, who was to archeology what Einstein was to physics in the twentieth century, and an associate of John Bright. I had an elective course in the customs and geography of Palestine from Dr. Kelso, who was perhaps the greatest living expert on the customs of that nation.
When we looked at this text, Dr. Kelso explained it this way: in Palestine there is a clearly defined season for figs, and most species of figs grow within that season. However, there were a few rare species of fig trees that bore fruit out of the normal fig season. He said the final test of whether one could expect figs from a fig tree was not the time of year but whether the foliage of the tree was in full bloom.
So, Jesus, knowing the customs and culture of Palestine even better than Dr. Kelso, saw this fig tree in full bloom, which would clearly indicate that figs—not just paggim and little knobs, but real figs—would be present on it. He turned aside to satisfy His hunger from these figs. But instead of finding an exotic fig tree bearing delicious figs out of season, He found a tree that was barren.
An Object Lesson on Hypocrisy
Why did Jesus curse the fig tree? Jesus, among other things, was a prophet, and one of the most graphic forms of prophetic communication we find in the Old Testament was object lessons. The prophet would take something from nature or something from ordinary use, as Amos did with a plumb line, and use that object to communicate the truth of God. In this text, Jesus found an object that displayed the sin of hypocrisy. It had all the outward appearance of fruit, but it was empty. It was barren.
If you follow the teaching of Jesus through His earthly ministry, you can see the severity with which our Lord regularly denounced the sin of hypocrisy. This was His basic critique of the Pharisees of the day. How many times, particularly in Matthew’s gospel, do we hear Jesus saying: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites. You’re like whited sepulchers, beautiful, pristine on the outside, but inside filled with dead men’s bones. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, you clean the outside of the plate, but underneath it’s filled with filth”? On several occasions, Jesus chastened the religious leaders of His day for their show of spirituality, their show of righteousness, but with the absence of fruit.
Not All Sinners Are Hypocrites
That should be a lesson to us in our own day. Several years ago, when our friend Archie Parrish was the international director of Evangelism Explosion, he asked me to write a book to help his workers in that field because they had compiled the responses that people gave to the diagnostic questions of the Christian faith over decades, and they compiled the top ten objections that people raised against Christianity. Archie came to me and asked, “Would you write a book giving an answer to these top ten objections?” So, I did.
The title of the book was simply Objections Answered. One of the top ten objections that they discovered in their ministry over the years was the objection that the church is filled with hypocrites. Because people were watching the lives of church members throughout the week, they were turned off from Christianity and said, “Christians are hypocrites.” One friend of mine, when he heard the complaint that the church is filled with hypocrites, responded by saying, “There’s always room for one more.”
This is the problem, dear friends: the church is full of sinners. In fact, I don’t know of any other organization in the world that requires that you be a sinner to join it, but the church is an organization of sinners. This is where our logic gets a little muddled. All hypocrites are sinners, but not all sinners are hypocrites. Let me say it again. All hypocrites are sinners, but not all sinners are hypocrites. Hypocrisy is one of many sins. It’s unfair of our critics to say, “So-and-so is a professing Christian, and we saw him sin during the week; therefore, he’s a hypocrite.” Not necessarily so.
If I claim not to do something and then you see me do it, then I’m guilty of hypocrisy. So, we need to draw that clear distinction. However, having said that in defense of Christians who, by their fallen nature, continue to sin even after embracing the Savior, we still need to be very careful to avoid the pernicious sin of hypocrisy. Paul himself was aware of this when he said, “The gentiles blaspheme because of us.” They see us talking the talk and not walking the walk.
Be Patient With One Another
The other side of this coin is something that we in the church need to be quite sensitive to. Why is it that sometimes we feel like we must pretend that we’ve achieved a higher level of sanctification than we really have? Because we create pressure in the church. We create a level of expectation for Christians. We assume that they are going to behave at a certain level of purity, which in many cases is completely unrealistic. We know that conversion does not cure all our sin, and that the process of sanctification is something that takes our entire lives.
There are no two people in this room this morning who are at the same point in their spiritual growth. There are no two people in this room this morning who came into the Christian faith with the exact same amount of baggage from the world. That’s why we are called to be patient with one another and to have the kind of love that covers a multitude of sins.
Yes, the church must discipline when gross and heinous sin manifests itself in our midst, when public scandal besmirches the dignity of the church; but in the meantime, we’re a fellowship of sinners. As one person said, we are one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. I don’t usually like Christian bumper stickers, but I like the one that says, “God is not finished with me yet.” Let’s not pressure each other to become play actors and pretend we’re more pious than we are.
Jesus Provoked to Anger
The point that Jesus makes in this text is not so much addressing the problem of hypocrisy within His church. Rather, there’s a direct link between the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple. That’s why Mark interjects the cleansing of the temple between the cursing and then the discovery of the death of the fig tree the following day.
Let’s look at what happens in the temple: “So they came to Jerusalem, and 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.”
I believe it was on Christmas day that Fox News had a particular presentation on religion in America, and a very famous preacher was featured in this program. I watched this preacher, and he was saying with great gusto and great emphasis: “I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what you’ve done or who you’ve done it with. God is not angry with you.” I finally found a formula for how to have a fifteen-thousand-member church. All I have to do is tell people, “It doesn’t matter what you do, you never have to worry about the wrath of God.” But I can’t find that in my Bible. We do provoke God to anger. We see that the people of Jesus’ day provoked our Lord to righteous indignation. He came into the temple, the house of God, and was furious with what He found there. He cared what these people were doing.
The Sanhedrin Extorts the Gentiles
Think about the Herodian temple, one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was divided into four parts: the court of the gentiles, which was the largest part; the court of the women; the court of the Jews; and the holy of holies. The court of the gentiles was the largest part of the temple complex. It was 500 by 350 yards. Think about five football fields by three and a half football fields. The space of the temple of the court of the gentiles occupied thirty-five acres. That’s a big church, thirty-five acres just for one quarter of the building.
The Sadducees and the Sanhedrin had turned the court of the gentiles into a stockyard for commercial purposes. One of the most lucrative sources of revenue for the Sanhedrin was the sale of animals for sacrifice. You can imagine that on the occasion for the celebration of Passover, which was a feast of obligation for every Jew, the Jews streamed into Jerusalem from all quarters of the ancient world, from all the provinces.
When they came for Passover, they had two problems. One was that they weren’t going to travel great distances carrying a sheep for the sacrifice. It was much more convenient for them to buy that sheep after they arrived in Jerusalem, so that they could prepare it for Passover. The other problem they had was that if they wanted to buy these animals in Jerusalem, they were using currency that was not in use in Jerusalem. It was like when we go abroad and have to exchange our dollars for euros. Whenever we exchange our dollars for euros, there’s always some kind of tariff added to that process of money changing.
When the pilgrim came to Jerusalem, he had to buy an animal, but he didn’t have the right kind of money to buy the animal. The first thing he had to do was go to the money changing tables, exchange his money for Jerusalem’s money, then go and buy the animals. The animals were sold for a premium because the people needed them, and the exchange rates were extortionary.
So, here was the church, the exquisite building of the temple that had been dedicated to the glory of God, and Jesus said: “My Father’s house was built to be a house of prayer, and you’ve turned it into a den of thieves. The whole purpose of My church has been warped and distorted and turned into corruption.” Our Lord, as the other gospels tell us, made a whip of cords, kicked over the tables, and drove the money changers and the animals out of the temple, cleansing it.
A House of Prayer for All Nations
Notice what else Jesus says, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.’” This incident doesn’t take place in the holy of holies. It doesn’t take place in the Jewish segment of the temple. It doesn’t take place in the women’s court. It takes place in the court of the gentiles. The court of the gentiles was part of the structure of the temple because, way back at the time of Abraham, God called Abraham to be a blessing to all the nations. Israel had the mission of proclaiming the truth of God, not just to themselves, but to all people.
In the design of the temple, there was a place for non-Jews to congregate. It was on the outer edges, to be sure, but it was still included in the church of God. In popular Jewish expectancy, the Jews, who hated the gentiles, had the hope that when the Messiah would come, He would cleanse the temple of all gentiles and get rid of them once and for all. But when Jesus came, He cleansed the temple for the gentiles. This place is for people—not for sheep, not for goats, not for rams.
In the year AD 66, during the coming of the Roman armies against Jerusalem, the Jewish historian Josephus said that 255,000 lambs were slaughtered in Jerusalem during the Passover. Can you imagine that? Do you see what a huge enterprise was going on there? But Jesus said, “The temple is barren.” On the morrow, when He went back towards Bethany, the disciples saw that the tree Jesus had cursed had shriveled up at its roots. It had been cursed, and it was worthy only of being cast into the fire. It would never bring forth fruit again. The only possible use of it would be for firewood.
Do you see the connection? The object lesson of the tree regards Israel, and the symbol of the Old Testament for Israel was “God’s fig tree.” Now, the fig tree is cursed, and so is the nation, because the heart of their worship was an exercise in hypocrisy. He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let him hear.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.