Anybody who has spent time reading the Bible probably knows that it’s full of uplifting stories and verses, helpful wisdom and guidance, and overall, the beautiful promise of hope through Jesus. But there are also some pretty strange things in there. One story that I always used to think was weird is about Jesus cursing a fig tree. As told in the book of Mark, it goes like this:
The next morning as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. He noticed a fig tree in full leaf a little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. Then Jesus said to the tree, “May no one ever eat your fruit again!” And the disciples heard him say it.
Mark 11:12-14 (NLT)
The story continues a few verses later:
The next morning as they passed by the fig tree he had cursed, the disciples noticed it had withered from the roots up. Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, “Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!”
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours. But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”
Mark 11:20-25 (NLT)
What on earth is that all about? Aside from the basic strangeness of Jesus cursing a tree, it doesn’t really seem fair. As the verse clearly states, it was too early in the season for fruit. So why was Jesus so angry about it having no fruit? And when his disciple made a comment about it, why did he seem to change the subject instead of explaining his reasoning? At first, I was stumped. So I did a little bit of research, and I discovered that apparently, fig trees (at least in this area and at this time in history) would produce fruit first and leaves afterward. In other words, a fig tree “in full leaf” would be expected to have fruit, despite being out of season. Jesus was clearly disapproving of this poser fig tree, displaying its leaves proudly without having any fruit to show for it. And like all of Jesus’ parables, he told this one with a deeper meaning in mind.
My interpretation is that the tree was a symbol for people who call themselves Christians but have nothing to show for it. Many people decide to accept that Jesus died for them (which is a miracle in itself!), but sadly they stop there. They don’t continue to seek God and pursue his will for their lives. They have the leaves— their salvation through Jesus and the title of “Christian,” and perhaps even regular church attendance— but they aren’t bearing fruit. Their faith isn’t continuing to grow and their lives don’t show Jesus’ love to others. The Fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—are nowhere to be found in the lives of these Christians. They are the fruitless fig trees.
This same story is told again, slightly differently, in the book of Matthew. Here, Jesus makes it clear that there is a vital connection between bearing fruit (literally for the tree, and figuratively for his followers) and faith:
Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 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. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
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. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
Matthew 21:18-22 (NIV)
At first it may seem like Jesus is avoiding the question and changing the subject. But this is simply Jesus’ way of teaching his disciples. Often in the Bible he performs a miracle, and then gives a mini-speech about a seemingly unrelated, but important, concept. In reality, though, the two things are intricately related. We can see how that’s true in this case. Jesus is showing us that when we call ourselves his followers without bearing fruit (think of the fruits of the spirit), we are not living up to our full potential and we cannot be useful to him. That’s not to say that that he’s going to take back our salvation (he never will) or that he’s going to curse us; it just means that we won’t get to see the full extent of what he wants to do in and through our lives. We won’t get to feed hungry people with our delicious fruit. Instead, we’ll just be leafy and useless.
When we have faith, however, and continuously pursue Jesus, we can bear much fruit. We can live abundant lives with bodies that are whole and healed, families that are safe and provided for, and a passion for living and loving with Jesus by our sides.
This is God’s vision for our lives, presented in this passage in the book of John:
(Jesus is speaking)
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
John 15:5-8 (NIV)
Our fruitful and abundant lives are not only a gift from God, they are designed for his glory. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again; as followers of Jesus, we should be better. We should have better lives, and we should be doing more good in the world, compared to all of the non-believers out there. That should be how the world identifies us— by our fruitfulness. That fruitfulness comes naturally when we seek God and allow him to change us.
The fruitful life is a life full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It’s a life lived in complete surrender to God, trusting him to take care of your every need. It’s a life in which we see the desires of our heart become reality, because we follow an amazing, loving God who promises to give us all of this and more. And ultimately, it’s a life lived for the glory of God. That is the kind of life that I want, and Jesus is bringing me into it step by step, every day.