Jesus—His Life and Message: The Barren Fig Tree

January 12, 2021

by Peter Amsterdam

In the Gospels of both Matthew and Mark, we find an account of Jesus being hungry and hoping to pick some figs from a nearby tree.1 The focus here will be on the account in the book of Mark.

When they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.2

In the Gospel of Mark, this event takes place the day after Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the borrowed donkey.3 After that event, we read that he went out to Bethany with the twelve.4 The next day, Jesus and the disciples left Bethany and returned to Jerusalem. On their way into the capital city, Jesus was hungry.

Off in the distance, Jesus noticed that there was a fig tree and approached it in the hopes that it would have ripe figs ready to eat. Fig trees are one of the most common fruit trees in Israel, and have been since ancient times. When Moses sent spies into Canaan, figs were one of the fruits they brought back with them.5 Figs are mentioned throughout the Old Testament.

Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon.6

They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.7

Fear not, you beasts of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit; the fig tree and vine give their full yield.8

Jesus saw from some distance away that the tree had leaves, which indicated it might have edible fruit. Fig trees produce two crops—the earlier crop ripens from mid–May into June, while the second harvest, which is usually larger, ripens from the end of August into October.9 In this Gospel, this event is described as happening prior to Passover, which is usually in April, and which, as we are told, was not the season for figs. Jesus found the tree barren, with no fruit, only leaves.

And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”10

The story of the barren fig tree is interrupted in the Gospel of Mark by the arrival of Jesus and His disciples in Jerusalem.

They came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.11

The cleansing of the temple in the Gospel of Mark consists of three parts: (1) the cleansing itself; (2) Jesus’ teaching, in which He quotes from the Old Testament; and (3) the response of Jesus’ opponents. The temple was one of the most magnificent structures in the world at that time. The original temple, built by Solomon, was destroyed when Jerusalem was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, in 586 BC. The building of the second temple began in the time when Sheshbazzar was governor, in 538 BC. It was finished by Zerubbabel, who was the governor in 522 BC.

The second temple was expanded and significantly renovated and upgraded during the reign of the half-Jewish, half-Idumean Herod the Great. The upgrading was finished in about 20 BC. Before the renovation work on the temple began, Herod spent eight years stockpiling materials for the project. A workforce of over 10,000 men began the construction. Fifteen hundred specially trained priests were the only ones allowed to work in the innermost and holiest parts of the temple. It took 20 years to complete the building of the whole temple complex, though the temple itself was being used within three and a half years. The complete temple grounds consisted of about thirty-five acres (about fourteen hectares).

The perimeter of the temple contained a covered portico built with columns that were 35 feet high. The money changers and those who sold pigeons to be used as sacrifices were working in this portico. The money changers were there to exchange various currencies into Tyrian silver half-shekels, which was the only currency accepted as payment for the annual collection of the temple tax. This half-shekel tax was collected each year from every Jewish male who was 20 years or older. The exchange of currency during this time of Passover was perfectly legitimate. To exchange currency required a fee, and at the time the fee for exchanging currency was between 4 and 8 percent.

Jesus’ action in the temple was directed at those who were selling and those who were buying, along with those who were exchanging money, and the sellers of pigeons, which were the sacrifices offered by the poor. Jesus was not attacking the sacrificial system of the temple, but rather the buying and selling being carried on within the temple itself. These transactions could be, and often were, done elsewhere. They didn’t need to be done in the temple. Jesus also would not let anyone carry a vessel through the temple, meaning that He stopped those who were passing through the temple as a shortcut when they were carrying things. Jesus’ actions serve both as a symbolic act of cleansing, illustrating what should or should not be done in the temple, and as a prophetic act foretelling the coming of judgment upon the temple and upon the nation.12

He was teaching them and saying 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 den of robbers.”13

Here Jesus quoted from two Old Testament books. First, from the book of Isaiah.

“The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”14 

The second quotation comes from the book of Jeremiah.

Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.15

Jesus made the point that the temple was a sacred place for prayer and worship, and that the business of buying and selling within its grounds hindered this purpose. He pointed out that the temple leadership had made the temple a den of thieves, as they were profiting from the sale of sacrificial animals and the exchanging of money.

The chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.16

The chief priests included the high priest, the priest who would assume the role of high priest in case of an emergency, the retired high priests, the captain of the temple, and the temple treasurer. These men, along with a number of the scribes, continued to conspire together on how to do away with Jesus. The reason given for their wanting to kill Jesus was their fear of Him. They feared His popularity, and saw that the crowds were inspired by and attracted to His teachings. After these events, Jesus and His disciples left Jerusalem.

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God.”17

The following morning, when Jesus and His disciples passed by the fig tree that Jesus had cursed, Peter drew Jesus’ attention to the withered tree. Jesus’ curse had been fulfilled.

The placement in the Gospel’s timeline of Jesus’ cursing the fig tree, followed by His actions in the temple, and then the results of Jesus’ curse on the fig tree, was this Gospel writer’s way of saying that the Jewish temple and its leadership faced judgment and destruction if they didn’t change. The fig tree couldn’t yield anything edible, and therefore was judged. If the temple leadership wouldn’t do better, then they, like the fig tree, would also be judged and destroyed. This is exactly what happened in AD 70, when the Roman army captured the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the city and the temple.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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1 Matthew 21:18–22, Mark 11:12–14, 20–22.

2 Mark 11:12–14.

3 See “Entry into Jerusalem.”

4 Mark 11:11.

5 Numbers 13:23.

6 1 Kings 4:25.

7 Micah 4:4.

8 Joel 2:22.

9 Evans, World Biblical Commentary, 154.

10 Mark 11:14.

11 Mark 11:15–16.

12 Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 315–16.

13 Mark 11:17.

14 Isaiah 56:6–7.

15 Jeremiah 7:11.

16 Mark 11:18–19.

17 Mark 11:20–22.