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“The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard him say it.”—Mark 11:12–14 (NIV)
Today’s passage records one of the most interesting and unique things Jesus did in the New Testament. According to Bible scholars, this is the only time we ever read about Jesus performing a miracle of destruction rather than healing or multiplying—and it carried with it a rather sobering message for the Jews in Jerusalem that we would be wise to pay attention to as well.
As Jesus and His disciples left Bethany, it’s important to note their destination—the city of Jerusalem. In yesterday’s passage, we saw Jesus ride into Jerusalem and be met with praise and adoration, but we’re also told He “entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve” (Mark 11:11 NIV). Now, as they head back to Jerusalem where Jesus will ultimately make a whip and clear the temple of the moneychangers who were extorting the poor (which we’ll read about tomorrow), He sees a fig tree in the distance with leaves on it that gave the appearance of having figs, even though it wasn’t in season. After finding none, He pronounces a curse on the fruitless tree. Why?
In his commentary on Mark 11, Peter Pett notes that this entire passage in Mark is telling one story using the fig tree as a metaphor. “The symbolism of the fig tree is clear,” he writes. “It represented Jerusalem and its false worship, outwardly promising much and making a great show, but inwardly fruitless. It was now cursed and would be allowed to wither and die, which, as Jesus will make clear in chapter 13, is also the destiny of the Temple.”
In other words, this isn’t a story of Jesus randomly cursing a tree because He was hungry and couldn’t eat (in today’s terms we’d call that being “hangry”). It’s ultimately about appearances or “false advertising,” as Bible commentator David Guzik puts it. “The tree was cursed for its pretense of leaves, not for its lack of fruit,” he explains. “Like Israel in the days of Jesus, it had the outward form but no fruit. In this picture, Jesus warned Israel—and us—of God’s displeasure when we have the appearance of fruit but not the fruit itself. God isn’t pleased when His people are all leaves and no fruit.”
Personally, I interpret this story as a warning against legalism as well, which is all about trying to manufacture a form of godliness by following rules and religious traditions and putting up appearances. Legalism can never produce the fruit of the Spirit—only He can do that as we seek Him earnestly and put away false pretenses.
Pause: What strikes you as unique about this passage of Scripture, and what do you think God wants to say to you through it?
Practice: Ask a trusted friend or family member what people see when they encounter you: leaves or fruit?
Pray: Father, help me to put aside all appearances of fruit today and repent of all the ways I’ve tried to manufacture holiness in my own strength. I invite You to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in me that only You can produce as I remain in You, the true vine. Amen.
Rob Nieminen is a seasoned writer and editor who has written devotionals for Calvary since 2015. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, FL. He serves in the Worship Ministry at Calvary Boynton Beach and is an avid reader, an erratic golfer, and an aspiring photographer who loves to cook and spend time with his family.