Why did Jesus curse the fig tree?

The gospels of Matthew and Mark (Matthew 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14, 20-24) recount a surprising event in the life of Jesus. The day after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem Jesus returned to the city. As He walked along the road on His way back into town Jesus became hungry. He saw a fig tree alongside the road, but it had no figs. Finding the tree empty, Jesus cursed it, saying, “Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever.” By the next morning the fig tree was withered. The gospel of Mark adds a troubling detail, “for the time of figs was not yet.”

Apparently, Jesus was angered by a fig tree that had no figs on it despite figs not being in season. He got so mad he cursed the tree. What is going on? Why did Jesus act like this? Some consider this account to be proof Jesus was not perfect. He was hungry, maybe his blood sugar was a little low, and he lashed out in unreasonable anger against an innocent tree.  Those committed to the Biblical doctrine that Jesus was without sin cannot accept this explanation.

Jesus’ actions toward the fig tree are not directly explained in the Bible. To understand what Jesus is doing, the reader must consider the circumstances surrounding this event. Jesus cursed the fig tree the day after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He was on His way to cleanse the temple of religious extortioners. Jesus walked past the fig tree, into Jerusalem and into the temple. In the temple He began to throw out the money changers. The chief priests and scribes began to dispute with Jesus. This led to some of Jesus’ strongest rebukes of scribes and Pharisees. He warned them, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus then told numerous parables of the dangers of refusing the Son of God. He says in Matthew 21:43, “Therefore I say unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” 

The cursing of the fig tree is believed by many, including myself, to be a warning to the Jews. Though these events took place before figs can normally expect to be ripe, the nature of fig trees is such that they begin to bear fruit before leaves are formed. A mature fig tree covered in leaves can rightly be expected to bear fruit. Jesus was not acting unreasonably in expecting figs on a tree covered in leaves. The absence of fruit was indication the tree was not healthy. Likewise, Israel had all the appearance of being spiritually healthy. The Jews of Jesus’ day read Scriptures, kept the outward forms of the law, observed Sabbath days and celebrated the feasts. Despite appearances the nation of Israel was not spiritually healthy. Israel was spiritually barren. The nation was on the verge of rejecting their Messiah and crucifying their Savior. Jesus’ actions towards the fig tree can be understood as a picture of what would happen to Israel for their refusal to believe Jesus. The cursing of the fig tree was one of many warnings to Israel of Divine judgment for their rejection of Jesus.

The next day the disciples marvelled at the death of the fig tree. Jesus used the situation as an opportunity to teach His disciples a lesson on faith. He promised them if they would have faith and believe Him without doubting, they would have the power to do much more than cause a fig tree to wither and die. They would have power to do mighty things for God. They would have whatever they prayed for. The lesson Jesus teaches His followers from the fig tree is the mighty power of God that works through and for His believing people.