Barren Fig Tree - Fruitless Temple

SYNOPSIS - The cursing of a barren fig tree symbolized the coming destruction of the Temple because of the fruitlessness of the nation - Mark 11:12-29.

Fruitless Tree - Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Uns
Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unslash
The gospel of Mark divides the story of the barren fig tree into two sections with the account of the “cleansing” of the Temple sandwiched between them. This literary arrangement demonstrates the two episodes are linked.  The fruitlessness and the cursing of the fig tree communicate things about the spiritual state and destiny of the Temple in Jerusalem. Both actions foreshadowed the coming destruction of the Temple (Mark 13:1-3).
  • (Mark 11:12-14) - “And on the morrow, they having departed from Bethany, he hungered, and having seen a fig tree from afar having leaves, he came if perhaps he might find anything on it, and, having come to it, he found nothing except leaves for it was not the season of figs. And having answered, he said to it, ‘No longer from you will anyone eat fruit unto the Age [to come].’ And his disciples were listening” (Parallel passageMatthew 21:18-19).
These two events occurred in the spring when figs were NOT in season.  Figs ripened in late summer, however, in the spring fig-trees sprouted leaves and edible green knops known as paggim (Hebrew).  When Jesus saw the tree sprouting green foliage, he most likely expected to find paggim to eat.

The appearance of the knops indicated a fig tree would produce fully formed fruit in the summer.  The lack of any in the spring meant a tree would not produce the expected figs when the “season” arrived. The display of green leaves gave the impression the fig tree was in the process of bearing fruit; however, closer inspection proved otherwise.

Several Old Testament prophets used the image of the fig tree to symbolize judgment on the nation of Israel (Isaiah 34:4, Jeremiah 29:17, Hosea 2:12, 9:10, Joel 1:7, Micah 7:1).  Most noteworthy is Jeremiah 8:13:
  • I will surely remove them, declares Yahweh; there will be no grapes on the vine and no figs on the fig tree, and the leaf shall wither and what I have given them shall pass away.”
The cursing of the fig tree symbolized impending judgment on the Temple. Outwardly, it appeared fruitful, just like the fig tree sprouting green leaves. However, behind the façade, Israel had failed to produce the required fruit. Jesus used the fig tree to symbolize Israel under judgment, which is indicated further by his analogy of a budding fig tree in his later discourse when he predicted the destruction of the Temple - (Mark 13:28).

The Fruitless Temple
  • (Mark 11:15-19) - “And they come into Jerusalem.  And, having entered into the Temple, he began to cast out those selling and those buying in the Temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those selling the doves. And he was not allowing that any should carry a vessel through the Temple. And he was teaching and saying to them, ‘Is it not written that, MY HOUSE WILL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER TO ALL THE NATIONS?  Yet you have made it A DEN OF BRIGANDS.’ And the chief priests and the scribes heard and they were seeking how they might destroy him, for they were fearful of him for the whole multitude was astounded at his teaching.  And whenever evening came, he was departing outside the city” (Parallel passages: Matthew 21:12-17Luke 19:45-46John 2:13-17).
The moneychangers operated inside the Court of the Gentiles, the largest section of Herod’s Temple and the only section where uncircumcised Gentiles were allowed.  At the time of this event, the opening of the Court to the moneychangers was a recent innovation.

Some ancient sources claim this practice began in A.D. 30 and was likely authorized by Caiaphas the high priest. The exchange of money and the animal trade for sacrifices provided the Temple with significant revenues. The function of the moneychangers was to exchange various forms of foreign currency for shekels since the Law required the Temple Tax to be paid in shekels (Exodus 30:13-16).

The action by Jesus was not a protest about commercialism in the Temple but against the barriers to Gentile participation in the worship of Yahweh. He drove out both those buying and selling animals. Further, the observation that Jesus prevented people from carrying “vessels” through the court points to something more than a protest about profiteering.

The Court of the Gentiles was the only part of the Temple where non-Jews could worship the God of Israel, which would have been hindered by the activities of the moneychangers. Secular and rabbinic sources indicate that commerce in animals involved an enormous number of beasts during the major pilgrimage feasts.

That Jesus took action while in the Court of the Gentiles, and that he alluded to a clause from Isaiah 56:8, demonstrate the issue of Gentile participation was at the heart of his symbolic act. The Temple authorities may have been profiting from this trade, but they did so at the expense of Gentile participation in prayer and worship at only part of the Temple where they were allowed by law to be (“MY HOUSE WILL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER TO ALL THE NATIONS”).

The intended reference when Jesus prevented anyone from carrying a vessel through the Temple is unclear.  Some commentators take it to mean that he stopped individuals from using the Court of the Gentiles as a thoroughfare; however, it seems unlikely that Jews at this time would use their Temple so callously, especially with Passover approaching.

The Greek word rendered “vessel” is skeuos, which is often used in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament for sacred objects and vessels employed in the sacrificial system. If so, this indicates further that Jesus brought a halt to some of the sacrificial activities, at least for a short period (e.g., Leviticus 8:10).

The Court of the Gentiles was a large area. His actions could not have cleared out the whole court even if only for a brief period of time.  That there was no immediate reaction mounted against him by the Temple police demonstrates further the limited effect of this action. However, the disturbance was large enough to attract the attention of the Sanhedrin (Mark 11:27-28).

Regardless of how much Jesus disrupted Temple activities, this was an act that symbolized the rejection of the Temple cult by Yahweh for its failure to produce the required fruit; especially the inclusion of the Gentiles. He focused his prophetic action on the Temple leadership when he protested how its leaders had made it into “a den of brigands.”

World Map - Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash
Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

While there may be an implied critique of profiteering, Jesus did not use the normal Greek word for “thief” or “robber,” that is, kleptés. Instead, he used léstés or “brigand.” This was a judicial pronouncement against the Temple, and especially on the Sanhedrin.  The next story in Mark makes this more explicit (
Matthew 24:43, Mark 11:27-33).

Jesus quoted two different Old Testament passages as part of his prophetic pronouncement. Note carefully the references to “my mountain” from the book of Isaiah, and to Judah being “cast out” from Jeremiah:
  • (Isaiah 56:3-8) - “…And as for the sons of the foreigner who have joined themselves unto Yahweh to wait upon him and to love the name of Yahweh, to become his for servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath lest he profane it, and who lays firm hold on my covenant, surely I will bring them into my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer, their ascending–offerings and their sacrifices being accepted upon mine altar, for MY HOUSE A HOUSE OF PRAYER SHALL BE CALLED FOR ALL THE PEOPLES!’ Declares my Lord, Yahweh, who is gathering the outcasts of Israel: Yet others will I gather unto him besides his own gathered ones.”
  • (Jeremiah 7:8-15) - “Lo! You on your part are trusting in false words to no profit!  Are you to steal, commit murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom you have not known; and will you then come in and stand before me in this house whereon my Name has been called, and say, ‘We have set ourselves free for the purpose of committing all these abominations?’  A DEN OF ROBBERS has this house on which my Name has been called become in your own eyes? I also, lo, I have seen it, declares Yahweh.  For go I pray you unto my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my Name to dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel!  Now therefore because you have done all these deeds, declares Yahweh, and though I spoke unto you betimes speaking, yet you hearkened not and though I cried unto you, yet you answered not.  Therefore will I do to the house whereon my Name has been called, wherein you are trusting, even to the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, just as I did unto Shiloh; and will cast you out from before me, just as I have cast out all your brethren, all the seed of Ephraim.”
The passage from Isaiah refers to eunuchs and Gentiles that, under the old covenant, were not allowed to participate fully in the Temple worship rituals. A time would come when Yahweh had purposed to make them full participants in the covenant community. It was always His intention to make his Temple a place of worship for all people regardless of ethnicity or ceremonial uncleanness (castration made one ceremonially unfit).

This prophecy was fulfilled originally by Babylonian Empire when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple and removed its vessels to the temple of his god in the city of Babylon.  In the passage from Jeremiah, Yahweh reminded Judah of the judgment that had already befallen the northern kingdom of Israel when God “cast out” the seed of Ephraim.  In the same way, He was about “to cast out” Judah (Daniel 1:1-2).

That the Temple authorities were angered and began to plot the destruction of Jesus demonstrated that they took his actions seriously. At this point, Jesus still had some popularity with the multitudes.

This action did not amount to a “cleansing” of the Temple. Instead, it was a symbolic act representing the rejection of the Temple by God unless Israel began to produce the necessary fruit. What Jesus portrayed was not the future restoration of the Temple but its demise.

The Withered Fig Tree

By prefacing his next remarks with the words, “Amen, I am declaring to you,” Jesus invested them with ultimate authority and pronounced their enduring validity.

The description of the fig tree as “withered from its roots” demonstrated its coming total destruction - Never again would it produce fruit or foliage. It also echoes the earlier Parable of the Sower in which some seed fell on the stony ground and “withered” because it had “no root” (Mark 4:5-6).
  • (Mark 11:20-26) - “And, passing by early, they saw the fig-tree, withered from its roots; and, put in mind, Peter saith unto him—Rabbi! see! the fig-tree which thou didst curse, is withered. And, answering, Jesus saith unto them—Have faith in God. Verily, I say unto you—Whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be lifted up, and cast into the sea, and shall not doubt in his heart but shall believe that, what he speaketh, cometh to pass, it shall be his. For this cause, I say unto you—All things, whatsoever ye are praying for and asking, believe that ye have received, and they shall be yours. And, when ye stand praying, forgive, if aught ye have against any,—that, your Father also, who is in the heavens, may forgive you your offences” (Parallel passage:  Matthew 21:19-22).
A parable from Luke 13:1-10 is conceptually parallel. Jesus was “teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath” when certain men brought him news about some Galileans who had been killed by Pontius Pilate. Jesus responded - “Suppose that these Galileans were sinners beyond all the Galileans because they suffered these things? No, I tell you, except you all repent, you shall perish in like manner.” Though enigmatic, this warning alluded to the future destruction of the Jewish nation by the Romans (“in like manner”).
The cursing of the fig tree concerns the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple for their fruitlessness. The problem was that, despite the flourishing foliage, the “fig tree” remained fruitless.
Jesus did not refer to just any mountain but to “this mountain.” The Greek demonstrative pronoun is most emphatic. This was not simply a generic statement about how faith brings about answers to prayer. A very specific mountain was in view. The allusion earlier to Isaiah 56:3-8 would bring to mind the reference of Yahweh to “my holy mountain.”

The mountain Jesus had in mind was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a mountain about to be “removed” in judgment (Mark 13:1-3). Likewise, the passage from Jeremiah 7:8-15 described how Yahweh would “cast out” Judah, just as He had previously “cast out” the northern kingdom.

Jesus was the one declaring to “this” mountain - “Be removed and cast into the sea!” In view was the impending judgment on the Temple, which was symbolized by his actions in the Court of the Gentiles and the cursing of the barren fig tree.

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