In my ongoing study of the Gospel of Mark with a friend, I came across the very interesting—and for some perplexing—account of Jesus’ causing the fruitless fig tree to wither. If we had attempted to interpret the passage on its own apart from the context, we would have been confused and would have misconstrued the text. Fortunately, though, we have been studying the second gospel consecutively from its very first chapter, so we have been able to see how the passage fits into the immediately surrounding text. The passage reads:

On the next day, when they had left Bethany, He became hungry. Seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And His disciples were listening. (Mark 11:12–14, NASB)

The initial reaction to this text might be to ask: Wasn’t it petty and mean-spirited of Jesus to curse the fig tree just because he was hungry and it had no fruit? After all, the text says that it was not the season for figs, so it wasn’t even the tree’s fault. That would be similar to a farmer chopping down an apple tree in his orchard and burning it to ashes just because it didn’t bear fruit in the middle of winter. So what are we to make of this passage? Precisely this: The tree’s fruitlessness results in divine judgment, and similarly people who claim the name of Christ but don’t bear fruit will also come under stern judgment.
Lest anyone think I am imposing this interpretation on the passage, let’s consult the context to see if this was really Mark’s intention. It is noteworthy that this particular account of the fig tree is only the first half of a mini-story about the cursed plant. The second part occurs later in Mark 11:19–26:

When evening came, they would go out of the city. As they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. Being reminded, Peter said to Him, “Rabbi, look, the fig tree which You cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered saying to them, “Have faith in God. Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. [But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.] (NASB)

Many would stop at Jesus’ exhortation to “have faith in God,” laying the matter to rest and concluding the work of interpretation at that point. “Ah,” they might say, “This is the intention of the passage. Jesus was teaching his disciples about the power of faith.” And indeed they would be correct in that interpretation. If they stopped there, however, they would miss another important teaching that Mark wanted to convey. To avoid missing it, we need to look at even more of the context. When we do, we see that this passage is like two pieces of bread forming a textual sandwich. If you will, the bottom piece is Jesus’ act of cursing the fig tree in vv. 12–14, and the top piece is the latter event when Jesus and the apostles see the tree withered. Sandwiched in between is the account of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. That account reads as follows:

Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL THE NATIONS’? But you have made it a ROBBERS’ DEN.” The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching. (Mark 11:15–18, NASB)

Mark could have presented an empty sandwich, giving us the two pieces of bread (the cursing of the fig tree and the disciples’ later discovery of its barren condition) in one continuous, flowing text without interpolating the temple account in between; but instead he chose to insert this account of Israel’s religious corruption right into the middle of the fig tree account. Thus, the outline of the events is as follows:

1. Jesus curses the fig tree upon noticing it has no fruit. (vv. 12–14)
2. Jesus judges the moneymakers in the temple. (vv. 15–18 )
3. Jesus and his disciples leave the city and notice the withered fig tree. (vv. 19–26)

This is more than just a chronological account of the day’s events, for there is a striking similarity between Jesus’ actions in the temple and his cursing of the fig tree, so much so that it is more than mere coincidence. Both events portray the Lord pronouncing judgment upon something that should have produced fruit but had failed to do so. Isaiah 5:1–7 comes to mind:

1 Let me sing now for my well-beloved
A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard.
My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill.
2 He dug it all around, removed its stones,
And planted it with the choicest vine
And He built a tower in the middle of it
And also hewed out a wine vat in it;
Then He expected it to produce good grapes,
But it produced only worthless ones.
3 “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge between Me and My vineyard.
4 “What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it?
Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?
5 “So now let Me tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard:
I will remove its hedge and it will be consumed;
I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground.
6 “I will lay it waste;
It will not be pruned or hoed,
But briars and thorns will come up
I will also charge the clouds to rain no rain on it.”
7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel
And the men of Judah His delightful plant
Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;
For righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress. (NASB)

The similarity of this song of the vineyard to the passage in Mark 11 is too strong to be ignored. The metaphor is different, but the underlying truth is the same: God created something to produce fruit, but when it failed to do so, he judged it severely.

In what is perhaps the most frightening passage in the New Testament, we find a similar parable—that of ground that produces only thorns and thistles:

For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned. (Hebrews 6:7–8, NASB)

Like the Isaiah and Mark passages, fruitlessness ends up in judgment. More than that, the judgment for fruitlessness goes beyond mere rebuke. God does not slap the wrists of those who fail to live up to their purpose of bearing fruit; he condemns them to bear no fruit at all in the future, barring them from any possibility of producing anything useful, culminating in destruction. This may sound severe, but scripture affirms it over and over again. Paul clearly affirmed God’s severity toward those who fell (Rom. 11:22, 1 Corinthians 10:1–10), warning us not to crave evil.

The application to our lives is sobering indeed: When the Master of the vineyard comes to us looking for fruit in our lives, will he find anything useful? God does not give salvation frivolously or for no purpose. He desires—and demands—fruit in our lives. Are our lives dominated by selfishness, lack of self-control, lust, greed, envy, worldliness, dishonesty, lack of love for God and neighbor or other sins, or are we growing more like Christ with spiritual fruit abounding? Woe to us if we produce nothing useful for the Master of the vineyard, who might just take away the kingdom of God from us and give it to others who will produce its fruit (Matthew 21:43).

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