The Purpose of Jesus' Most Perplexing Miracle
By my count, the gospels and the first chapter of Acts record 40 miracles performed by Jesus during His earthly life, beginning with His incarnation and ending with His ascension.
The most perplexing of these miracles, by far, is the story of Jesus cursing the figure tree, recorded in Matthew 21:18-22 and Mark 11:12-24. Here is Mark’s version of it:
“On the following day, 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.’ … As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.”
On the surface, it makes no sense to me why Jesus would kill a tree for failing to bear fruit out of season. But I believe if we explore the meaning of this miracle more, it will become a transformative miracle, helping us see the purpose of everything Jesus continues to do in our world.
Jesus’ curse of a fruit tree had multiple layers of meaning. Jesus did not merely judge the tree just to judge but for a very specific reason: to condemn a lack of fruitfulness. More specifically, to condemn a hypocritical, deceptive lack of fruitfulness—symbolized by a tree with leaves but no fruit. Even more specifically, to condemn people that deceptively fail to produce fruit, so that they would turn in faith to Jesus to work through them to bear fruit.
Fruitfulness is an image that runs throughout the Bible, literally from start to finish. Let me take you on a brief tour:
· In Genesis 1, God creates “fruit trees bearing fruit” (Gen. 1:11). He then creates men and women, who He commands to be “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). And what will give the men and women the energy they need to carry out this worldwide mission? The fruit of trees. “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food” (Gen. 1:29).
· As we know, men and women failed to be fruitful. Adam and Eve sinned and were ejected from God’s garden of fruit-bearing trees (Gen. 3:2, 24). The first “fruit” Adam and Eve produced, their son Cain, ended up killing his brother–the direct opposite of God’s command to multiply and fill the earth. Soon, all people had become exceedingly sinful, except for Noah (Gen. 6:5-8). So God judged the earth with the Flood. Afterwards, he reiterated His original command to Noah and his family, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1). But again, men and women failed. They halted their filling of the earth and decided to build the tower of Babel to glorify themselves, rather than God (Gen. 11:4). This brought another judgment from God, which dispersed people all over the earth (Gen. 11:7-8). After that, God formed his special relationship with Abraham, the father of the Israelites. God promised Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).
· Likewise, God repeatedly called the Israelites to be fruitful as well—and judged them for failing at it. Greg Lanier, a professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, gave a good summary of all the previous mentions of the ancient Israelites as a tree that received a curse from God.
“Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is described as God’s vineyard, tree, or planting (Judges 9:8–15; Isa. 3:14; 5:1–7; Jer. 12:10; Ezek. 17:2–10; 19:10–14). … This foundational metaphor for Israel’s spiritual health vividly blooms in the prophetic era. The time had come for God’s people to yield fruit that would bless the world (Isa. 27:6). Several times the prophets describe God as inspecting Israel for “early figs,” as a sign of spiritual fruitfulness (Mic. 7:1; Jer. 8:13; Hos. 9:10–17)—but he finds “no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.” So in two exiles (Assyrian and Babylonian), God pours out the curse of barrenness (Hos. 9:16), and Israel becomes a rotten fig (Jer. 29:17). But all is not lost. God promises to one day replant Israel and produce healthy figs from her again (Joel 2:22; Amos 9:14; Mic. 4:4; Zech. 8:12; Ezek. 36:8). With this web of background images, light bulbs would’ve immediately gone on in the minds of Jesus’s disciples as he re-enacted Israel’s history by cursing the fig tree.”
· Shortly after cursing the fig tree, when Jesus and His disciples had entered Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus applied the tree/planting/vineyard metaphor directly to Himself. “I am the vine, and my Father is the vinedresser,” Jesus says in John 15:1, when he is speaking to the disciples in the Upper Room, where they are celebrating Passover. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16).
· John, who as a young man witnessed and recorded Jesus’ words, late in his life saw a vision of Jesus—the sacrificed Lamb of Passover—reigning over the new heaven and new earth. And he once again saw a tree with fruit. In the very last chapter of the Bible, John wrote, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:1-2).
So from beginning to end, God likens people to trees (or vines or plantings) and calls on them to produce fruit—fruit that extends a blessing throughout the earth and its “nations.” Fruitfulness is the goal at both the creation of the world and its consummation. It is the purpose of both the formation of God’s chosen people and their redemption.
What Kind of Fruit?
So what kind of fruit does God want us to produce? Certainly not just figs. Common answers are that fruit for a Christian means 1) having children, fulfilling God’s first command to “be fruitful and multiply,” 2) sharing the gospel of Jesus to bring in a harvest” of converts to Christianity, and 3) fruit of the Spirit, the list of Christian virtues in Galatians 5:22. Those are all correct answers, yet incomplete.
To understand the full scope of the fruitfulness God wants, must go back to the very beginning—and what Jesus commanded Adam and Eve. God told them to be fruitful—and no matter how many times they and their descendants failed—God kept coming back to the theme of fruitfulness. The answer, as I’ve described before, is that God created men and women to create and grow communities of selfless love. These communities of selfless love are the fruit He created us to produce.
God is a community—three persons in one being—which we see obliquely indicated by the words, “Let us make” in Gen. 1:26. God, at His core, is a relational God. By making people in His image, God makes them to be relational, continually creating and growing communities. When only the first man had been created but not yet the first woman, God declared, “It is not good that man should be alone.”
The first community was a married couple. Gen. 2:25 describes the first man and woman as “the man and his wife.” Elsewhere, the Bible has lots to say about marriage. Husbands and wives are commanded to form communities of selfless love. The Apostle Peter tells wives and husbands to love each other selflessly—wives submitting to husbands and husbands honoring wives—under the rule of God and His Son Jesus (1 Pet. 2:25-3:7). Peter brackets his comments on marriage with commands to servants under masters (i.e., employees working for employers) and then to "all of you" in the church. We are all to submit to one another and serve one another, inside the church and outside it. The church is to be a community marked by selfless love (John 13:34-35). But so are our communities outside the church, including our working communities.
The Bible begins with a community of two people in a garden but ends by describing an entire city—a massive community—where God and His people dwell together. In Revelation 21, the Apostle John saw a vision of “the new heaven and the new earth,” when death and pain and crying will be no more.
In between these two bookends—from the community of a single couple in the garden to the dense and developed community in the city—Jesus Himself calls His followers to form communities of selfless love. Right before His death, Jesus called His 12 disciples together one last time and delivered His final, most vital, instructions to them. What did He say in that moment? He gave them one new commandment to follow—to love others as He did. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
The Apostle John, who captured those words of Jesus, later described love this way: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has this world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or in talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18).
Jesus laid down His life for others in love, and He now promises that if we follow Him, he will give us that same kind of love for others. Not only that, He promises that He is using all the ways we as individuals serve others–in our jobs, in our homes, in our neighborhoods–to produce the kind of fruit He created us to produce: building and sustaining communities of love all around the world.
Does this sound far-fetched? Impossible? It should. But Jesus, after cursing the fig tree, taught this lesson to His disciples: “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”