Jesus and the Fig Tree

by Britt Gillette


Throughout the centuries, people have longed to know which generation will witness the return of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, the answer to that question appeared in the form of a fig tree nearly two thousand years ago.

Jesus Curses the Fig Tree

Both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell the following story of Jesus and His encounter with that fig tree:

"In the morning, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, he was hungry, and he noticed a fig tree beside the road. He went over to see if there were any figs on it, but there were only leaves. Then he said to it, 'May you never bear fruit again!' And immediately the fig tree withered up. The disciples were amazed when they saw this and asked, 'How did the fig tree wither so quickly?' Then Jesus told them, 'I assure you, if you have faith and don't doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, 'May God lift you up and throw you into the sea,' and it will happen. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer" (Matthew 21:18-22, NLT).

Although not spoken to His disciples in the form of a parable, this story about the fig tree and its lack of fruit strikes at the heart of the gospel message.

The Meaning of the Curse

The disappointment of Jesus with the fig tree is an extremely significant event. At first glance, one might think Jesus is merely upset with an actual tree that failed to feed Him when He was hungry. But the fig tree and its fruit play a much larger role. They are symbols of the nation of Israel and its faith.

In Jeremiah 24, the people of Israel are compared to figs, both good and rotten. When Jesus cursed the fig tree, He symbolically placed a curse on Israel. The reason for the curse is straightforward. The fig tree (Israel) failed to bear fruit (faith), even though its leaves indicate it was in season (the appointed time for the coming of the Messiah). Due to its lack of fruit, the fig tree withered. Likewise, Israel's lack of faith when presented with her Messiah led to her eventual destruction at the hands of the Romans in ad 70.

What Is Good Fruit?

Jesus cursed the fig tree because of its refusal to bear fruit, and in so doing, He makes it clear that He expects His followers to bear fruit as well—and not just any kind of fruit, but, specifically, good fruit.

If Jesus expects us to bear good fruit, it's essential to know what constitutes good fruit in the first place. What is good fruit? And how do we bear it? Paul defines "good fruit" in his letters to the Galatians and the Philippians:

"But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23, NLT).

This is the fruit we should produce: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Why? Because ultimately, the good fruit we bear comes from faith in Jesus Christ:

"May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation--those good things that are produced in your life by Jesus Christ--for this will bring much glory and praise to God" (Philippians 1:11, NLT).

Good fruit should never be confused with the world's definition of good works. Good fruit is born in the heart and blossoms outward into the world. Its only motive is Jesus Christ. But good works as defined by the world can have many motives, sometimes even evil motives. Yet, no matter how justified we feel in our own eyes, God will always measure our inner motives, never our outward deeds. Placing our trust and faith in Jesus Christ will inevitably produce the good fruits Paul mentioned in his letter to the Galatians. When we exhibit these good fruits, the world will witness through our lives the glory that is Jesus Christ.

Good Fruit vs. Bad Fruit

To make sure we're producing good fruit and not bad fruit, we need to know how to tell the difference. Before He placed the curse on the fig tree, Jesus warned His disciples to beware of false prophets and teachers. In fact, He used fruit as a metaphor for identifying the righteous from the evil, explaining that if a tree doesn't bear fruit, it will be chopped down and thrown into the fire:

 

"Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep, but are really wolves that will tear you apart. You can detect them by the way they act, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit. You don't pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles. A healthy tree produces good fruit, and an unhealthy tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can't produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can't produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, the way to identify a tree or a person is by the kind of fruit that is produced" (Matthew 7:15-20, NLT).

A good tree will bear good fruit, and a bad tree will produce rotten fruit. Therefore, you can always identify the righteous and the evil based on what they produce.

God's great commandment is to believe in the one He has sent. Those who do will bear good fruit as a natural result. This is because Jesus is the branch on which all good fruit grows, and His righteous branch can't help but bear good fruit. Long ago, the prophet Isaiah identified the Messiah as the branch of Jesse:

"Out of the stump of David's family will grow a shoot--yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root" (Isaiah 11:1, NLT).

If the generation that rejected Jesus had instead made Him the basis of their faith, the very root of their spiritual sustenance, then they would have borne good fruit that is pleasing to the Lord.

So what do good fruit, bad fruit, and a barren fig tree have to do with the timing of the Second Coming of Christ? To find out, we must first understand why the fig tree had to wither.

The Withered Fig Tree

Why did the fig tree have to wither in the first place? Why did the generation which witnessed the birth of Christ lack faith in God's promise of the coming Messiah? They committed to memory the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, and they knew the exact year in which the Messiah would appear in Jerusalem. Yet, because they lacked faith, they failed to recognize the time of His Coming. As a result, an entire generation failed to produce fruit for the Messiah. But why?

Although the Jews didn't plan to reject the Messiah, God did have a plan. His plan was to spread the salvation of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. Israel's lack of faith was integral to this process, providing the catalyst for God to offer this salvation to the Gentiles as well. As a result, the salvation God had previously reserved for the Jews alone was offered to the entire world:

 

"For since the Jews' rejection meant that God offered salvation to the rest of the world, how much more wonderful their acceptance will be. It will be life for those who were dead! And since Abraham and the other patriarchs were holy, their children will also be holy. For if the roots of the tree are holy, the branches will be, too. But some of these branches from Abraham's tree, some of the Jews, have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, were grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in God's rich nourishment of his special olive tree. But you must be careful not to brag about being grafted in to replace the branches that were broken off. Remember, you are just a branch, not the root. 'Well,' you may say, 'those branches were broken off to make room for me.' Yes, but remember—those branches, the Jews, were broken off because they didn't believe God, and you are there because you do believe. Don't think highly of yourself, but fear what could happen. For if God did not spare the branches he put there in the first place, he won't spare you either. Notice how God is both kind and severe. He is severe to those who disobeyed, but kind to you as you continue to trust in his kindness. But if you stop trusting, you also will be cut off. And if the Jews turn from their unbelief, God will graft them back into the tree again. He has the power to do it. For if God was willing to take you who were, by nature, branches from a wild olive tree and graft you into his own good tree—a very unusual thing to do—he will be far more eager to graft the Jews back into the tree where they belong" (Romans 11:15-24, NLT).

When Israel rejected Jesus Christ, she opened the door to salvation for the Gentiles. But God never forgot His promise to Israel, and He promises the day will come when Israel will fully embrace the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

A Second Chance for Israel

Just as Paul stated in his letter to the Romans, the Lord hasn't forgotten Israel. She will have one more chance to bear fruit for her Messiah, and this opportunity is the key to understanding the hour of Christ's return. Jesus illustrates this when He tells a parable about a planted fig tree:

 

"Then Jesus used this illustration: 'A man planted a fig tree in his garden and came again and again to see if there was any fruit on it, but he was always disappointed. Finally, he said to his gardener, "I've waited three years, and there hasn't been a single fig! Cut it down. It's taking up space we can use for something else." The gardener answered, "Give it one more chance. Leave it another year, and I'll give it special attention and plenty of fertilizer. If we get figs next year, fine. If not, you can cut it down."'" (Luke 13:6-9, NLT).

For three years, Jesus spread His message throughout Israel, performing miracles, exhibiting unprecedented knowledge of the Scriptures and offering ample evidence of His claim to be the long-awaited Messiah. Yet despite three years of testimony, Israel refused to believe in the one who was sent.

According to this parable, Israel will get one more year with "special attention and plenty of fertilizer." If she still fails to bear fruit, she will be cut down (destroyed).

As Jesus reveals, Israel will be given a final chance to exhibit faith in Him in the last days, just prior to His glorious appearing. To do so, Israel must first become a nation once again, a miraculous feat that took place in May 1948. The reestablishment of Israel as a nation is the foremost sign to our generation that Christ's return is imminent. And that's why the fig tree is the key to understanding which generation will witness His Second Coming. Through the nation of Israel, God has given the world a sign that is impossible to ignore. Nevertheless, most of the world has chosen to ignore it.

The Sign of Our Generation

In the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24), Jesus revealed to His disciples that the primary sign of the end of the age and His soon return would be the restoration of Israel as a nation. However, He didn't plainly say so. Instead, He once again used the fig tree as a metaphor for the nation of Israel:

 

"Now learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its buds become tender and its leaves begin to sprout, you know without being told that summer is near. Just so, when you see the events I've described beginning to happen, you can know his return is very near, right at the door. I assure you, this generation will not pass from the scene before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will remain forever" (Matthew 24:32-35, NLT).

The fig tree is Israel. It's been six decades since Israel was once again declared a nation against all worldly odds. In Matthew 24, Jesus promises that the generation that witnesses the reestablishment of Israel will not die off until the end of the age comes to pass. Given the Bible's impeccable track record, we have every reason to expect His imminent return. Jesus will return soon, within our generation, and a wise person will prepare accordingly.

Just as the time of His first coming was clearly revealed to the previous generation, the season of His return has been clearly revealed to ours. The previous generation was unprepared for His arrival. Ours should be watching with a patient and enduring faith, fully confident in the glory we are about to witness. Christ is coming. The fig tree is in bloom, and ours is the generation.

Britt Gillette is founder of BrittGillette.Com, a website examining the relationship between Bible prophecy and emerging trends in technology. For more information or to sign up for his email alerts, please visit http://www.brittgillette.com.