Jesus curses a fig tree and teaches the disciples that with faith, they can move mountains (Matthew 21:18 – 21:22).
After spending the night in Bethany, Jesus and the disciples travelled back to Jerusalem. Jesus was hungry. He saw a fig tree by the road and went up to it but found nothing except for leaves. He said to the tree, “May you never bear fruit again.” Immediately the tree withered.
When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. They asked, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?”
“If you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
What the story means to us today
The power of faith – what is faith and how to we strengthen our faith
Jesus explains that with faith, we can move mountains. Clearly the power of faith is enormous.
Hebrews 11:1 tells us that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Maintaining faith is hard. It’s not easy to believe in something you can’t touch or feel.
Just like practice makes things easier, the more you worship, study the Bible, and attend church, the stronger your faith becomes. These aspects of Christianity provide support for the development of our faith. Romans 10:17 confirms this when it tells us that “faith comes from hearing” the word of God. And as Jesus told the disciples, the immense power of faith is near limitless.
Additional thoughts and considerations
Science vs. Faith?
The Christian concept of faith is the single biggest conflict between religion and science, which is based on observation. Oddly however, even scientists recognize that faith is beneficial. Faith is not only advantageous to the emotional health of human beings, but as the prime contributor to what scientists refer to as “positive thinking”. Scientists have proven through numerous studies that thinking positively, believing in something regardless of the situation, improves the immune system, reduces anxiety, and increases happiness. Although scientists will never concede to calling it faith, their studies have proven faith is good.
A fruit tree that bears no fruit is destined to wither away and die
Jesus saw a tree with green leaves – a tree that most would presume offered fruit. But the tree only pretended to offer fruit. In truth, it bore nothing worthwhile. Useless, with no purpose, the tree’s destiny was to wither and die.
Some Christians exist in a manner similar to the fig tree. They pretend to bear fruit but in truth, have nothing of value to offer. Like the fig tree, they will ultimately wither away.
Why would Jesus curse a fig tree?
The story is one of the most surprising in the New Testament. After all, cursing a tree seems hateful – not what we would expect from Jesus.
This story is found only in Matthew and Mark – neither Luke nor John mention the incident. Although the lesson is the same in both books, Matthew’s version is condensed while Mark’s version is more detailed and reveals a few additional points about the cursing of the fig tree itself.
Mark 11:12 tells us that it was not unusual for the fig tree to have no fruit. It was too early in the season. Jesus was likely familiar with agriculture and would have surely known, even from a distance, that the tree would probably have no fruit on it. Mark does not say that Jesus cursed the tree but rather says that in response, Jesus said, “may no one ever eat fruit from you again”.
Matthew’s condensed summary of the events may have translated Jesu’s words that “no one eats from the tree again” into a more harsh-sounding “may you never bear fruit again”. This would seem plausible since Matthew’s version is more focused on the lesson than the event that transpired.
Ultimately, however, we have no means to know why Jesus cursed the tree. This should not cause us to lose sight of the lesson about faith that Jesus was teaching.
Is “faith” the “belief in God” or a heartfelt “belief that our prayer will be answered”? Can we pray for something evil?
Faith is mentioned often in Christianity, but what does it really mean? Is “faith” a heartfelt belief that our prayer will be answered? Or is “faith” the belief in God, a higher power, and an acknowledgement of our agreement to follow his will? In truth, faith is all of this and more.
Notice that Jesus does not say that faith and faith alone will allow us to receive what we ask for. Rather, Jesus says if we believe, we will receive what we ask for in prayer. This means we must (1) believe our request will be answered and (2) pray to God. This implies we must maintain not just a heartfelt belief that our prayer will be answered but also a steadfast belief in God. It naturally follows that if we believe our prayer will be answered and we believe in God, we will naturally be inclined to follow his will. Thus no “evil” prayer would or could be offered.
The differences between Matthew and Mark’s accounts of the incident
Mark’s version of events, as given in Mark 11:12 and Mark 11:20, is more detailed than Matthew’s. Mark says that Jesus told the tree, “may no one ever eat fruit from you again” and did not necessarily “curse” the tree. Mark also says an entire day transpired before the disciples saw the tree had withered. In Mark’s description of the events, he says Jesus first came across the fig tree on the way to Jerusalem. Then he and the disciples traveled to Jerusalem where Jesus drove the money changers from the temple. Mark tells us they left the city and the next day on their way back, the disciples saw the withered fig tree. Matthew however, provides a condensed description of the events and instead, focuses on the lesson, faith, that Jesus shared with the disciples.
Is the cursing of the fig tree a metaphor for the cursing of an unbelieving Jerusalem
Some theologians propose the cursing of the fig tree is a metaphor for the cursing of Jerusalem. The Jews, Jesus’ very own people, have failed to recognize who he truly is. They will not concede Jesus is the messiah despite being familiar with the conditions of his return to earth. This barren attitude is symbolized by the sterile fig tree which produces no fruit. In this light, the curse against the tree is a symbolic act of judgement against Jerusalem and its leaders.
The science and history behind the story
Fig tree seasons
Although Matthew does not mention it, Mark tells us that the tree was not yet in season. Fig trees in the area produced fruit before the leaves appeared or occasionally at the same time. Jesus was a native of the area and would have surely known, even from a distance, that the tree would not have fruit on it.
18 Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 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.
20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
21 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
The NET Bible
21:18 Now early in the morning, as he returned to the city, he was hungry. 21:19 After noticing a fig tree by the road he went to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. He said to it, “Never again will there be fruit from you!” And the fig tree withered at once. 21:20 When the disciples saw it they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” 21:21 Jesus answered them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 21:22 And whatever you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive.”
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
New King James Version
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?”
21 So 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.”
The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.
18–20 Early the next morning Jesus was returning to the city. He was hungry. Seeing a lone fig tree alongside the road, he approached it anticipating a breakfast of figs. When he got to the tree, there was nothing but fig leaves. He said, “No more figs from this tree—ever!” The fig tree withered on the spot, a dry stick. The disciples saw it happen. They rubbed their eyes, saying, “Did we really see this? A leafy tree one minute, a dry stick the next?”
21–22 But Jesus was matter-of-fact: “Yes—and if you embrace this kingdom life and don’t doubt God, you’ll not only do minor feats like I did to the fig tree, but also triumph over huge obstacles. This mountain, for instance, you’ll tell, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and it will jump. Absolutely everything, ranging from small to large, as you make it a part of your believing prayer, gets included as you lay hold of God.”
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
King James Version
18 Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. 19 And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. 20 And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away! 21 Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. 22 And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.