Yesterday, in a continuation / extension of my series on “Passion Tuesday” (the events of the Tuesday before Christ’s crucifixion), I began looking at an event of the prior day — the cursing of the fig tree.
12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:
13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.
14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.
Yesterday, we looked at the Old Testament symbolism of the fig tree.
In the Old Testament, fruitful fig trees are symbolic of God’s faithful covenant blessings on his people as they dwell in fellowship with their God, obedient to Him and trusting Him. Unfruitful and withered fig trees symbolise just the opposite.
Today, we’ll go back a year earlier for more background to help us understand why the Lord Jesus cursed this fig tree.
1 There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
2 And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things?
3 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
4 Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?
5 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
6 He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none.
7 Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?
8 And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:
9 And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.
“Ye Shall ALL Likewise Perish”
A first glance might cause use to read the warnings of the first five verses of the chapter as being warnings for those particular individuals. A second glance tells us it goes beyond that. Yes, it is a warning for those people, but it is also a warning for a nation.
Jesus had been told of Galileans who had died a violent death, and He responded by referring to residents of Jerusalem who had also died suddenly and violently. Judea and Galilee were the two major Jewish centres, the areas where Jesus spent most of His ministry, and He addressed events affecting both.
His warning was stark — “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” He repeated the warning again. The use of “all likewise perish” in the context of both Judean and Galilean calamities has the appearance of a national warning — an appearance that was confirmed by the parable that follows.
We have to remember the Jewish context of Jesus’ interactions with Jewish hearers. The use of a fig tree not bearing fruit would bring to their minds the Old Testament Scriptures, and the fig tree as a symbol of God’s blessing, or judgment, on their nation.
A fig tree which does not bear fruit is worse than useless — its owner says it “cumbers the ground.” The point of the parable is that Israel is long past the time when it should have brought forth fruit and received God’s blessings. Now, it is just a hindrance, a dead weight, in the way.
Three Years / One Year
In a warmer Mediterranean climate like Israel, fig trees may bear fruit the first year, and most at least start to bear by the second year. Jesus tells of a fig tree with no fruit after three years, at least a year after it would be expected to bear fruit. The gardener suggests waiting one more year before destroying the tree.
The three years in the parable may not refer to a set time period, but it probably does, referring to the past three years of ministry in which the nation of Israel had been called to repentance, faith, and obedience in their Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christ’s earthly ministry probably lasted either three or four years. (I lean towards four). If three, the parable refers to a year of John the Baptist’s ministry and then two years of Christ’s. If Jesus’ ministry was four years, the parable refers to His first three years of ministry, calling the nation of Israel to Himself. Either way, the problem is the same — there was no fruit on Israel’s fig tree.
The parable, then, elaborated on the warning Jesus had just given. “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” The nation had one more year, one more year in which all would be done to prepare the soil, to provide an environment for growth and fruit, in which God’s Son would teach, work miracles, exhort, and warn. But if they would not bring forth fruit, they would no longer be allowed to “cumber the ground,” no longer remain in the way of those who would believe.
Previous: The Withered Fig Tree — Old Testament Symbolism
Next: The Withered Fig Tree — Nothing But Leaves
Series Summary with links to further articles: “Passion Tuesday” / Crucifixion Tuesday