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The Life of Jesus - Series 11: Episode 3

The cursing of the fig tree

| Martin Charlesworth
Mark 11:12-14
Mark 11:20-25
Matthew 21:18-22

Mentioned in the last episode, the cursed fig tree dies by the next day causing Peter to comment. Jesus uses the event to teach about prayer. Prayers to move the obstacles to the Kingdom of God are encouraged.

Mentioned in the last episode, the cursed fig tree dies by the next day causing Peter to comment. Jesus uses the event to teach about prayer. Prayers to move the obstacles to the Kingdom of God are encouraged.


Hello, and welcome to Series 11 and Episode 3, in which we study ‘Jesus Cursing the Fig Tree’.

Introduction and Recap

If you were with us in the last episode, you'll know that the first part of this story took place then, and the second part of the story completes it, and is the one we're going to study this time. We're going to put those two together, so it's an advantage to have listened to the last episode. But for those who haven't, I will summarise the situation for you anyway. In the life of Jesus, this is the time when he's in the city of Jerusalem for what we call Passion Week, the last week of his life, which starts with Palm Sunday, the Triumphal Entry, which we looked at two episodes ago. Before then, we had the long journey to Jerusalem, which we described in great detail and took several series to discuss, because there's a huge amount of material during that time. We're now reaching a climax in the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities of Israel. That conflict comes about because they rejected his claim to be the Jewish Messiah coming to bring a new covenant, to bring deliverance, to bring salvation to the people.

Jesus, quite deliberately, is using this final visit to Jerusalem to create a conflict, a challenge, which will provoke them to take action against him. This is all under the sovereignty of God. Jesus already knows that it's necessary for him to suffer, to be tried in their court, to be handed over to the Romans, to die as a substitutionary, sacrificial atonement for people, and then to rise again from the dead. We'll look at the details of all that in forthcoming episodes. We're now in the early part of this week. We've seen the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, two episodes ago, on Palm Sunday, the Sunday at the beginning of the week, and we've seen the incredible way that the crowds were so excited about Jesus coming into the city. They've been waiting in anticipation; his reputation in the country has been growing all the time, and he didn't come to Jerusalem very often. He's certainly not been to Jerusalem in this kind of context before. He normally comes rather discreetly and quietly to one of the religious festivals, and that's recorded on several occasions in John's Gospel. But this time it's very public and very powerful. He's just raised Lazarus from the dead in the nearby village of Bethany, which is the village that Jesus is staying in, during the course of the first half of this week - going in and out of the city every day. That created a sensation. Large crowds have been travelling in because it's the Jewish Passover Feast. These are things that we discussed in the last couple of episodes, to set the context for what is going on.

In the last episode, we looked at the events of Monday, the following day. Jesus had come into the city in triumph, crowds gathered around him, then he left the city and went back to Bethany on Sunday evening. On Monday, he came in to the city again and the main event of the last episode was Jesus' visit to the Temple courts, the big social area where people gathered outside the central courts of the Temple, where the sacrificial system and the religious observances were taking place. There was a large area for socialising and gathering, which people were allowed to go to, called the Temple courts. In the last episode, we saw Jesus going there and going into the trading market that the priests had set up, and this was for the purpose of money changing between the Temple currency and the Roman currency, and also for selling animals suitable for sacrificing to pilgrims and worshippers. In the last episode, Jesus comes in and he very decisively turns over the tables, disrupts the market, stops people moving around with their merchandise, and basically brings the whole trading to a halt for a period of time, which could have gone on several hours. The implication of the text in Mark's Gospel is that it took some time. Because of the amazement of the crowds, and the huge numbers of people supporting him, the authorities were not able to take any action against him at that time. That was the main event of our last episode.

The Journey from Bethany to Jerusalem

However, something happened on the way in from Bethany to Jerusalem, which forms the basis for some remarkable teaching which we're going to look at in this episode. Let me recount briefly what happened before. Bethany, where Jesus was staying with his disciples, was just a few kilometres outside the city and within walking distance, maybe 3 kilometres, or something like that, and Jesus was walking in and out every day. As he walked in to the city of Jerusalem on the Monday, for the second time, the day after the Triumphal Entry, we read in the accounts, particularly in Mark because Mark's account is the fullest account, (Matthew has the same story but he compresses the narrative, somewhat). We're going to continue to follow Mark's account in this episode.

Mark tells us that Jesus, when he left Bethany, was hungry and he wanted something extra to eat. As he was thinking about that, he saw a fig tree on the side of the road, on the road between Bethany and Jerusalem. He approached the tree, because he saw it had leaves on the tree, and we discussed last time the fact that this particular time of year, March and April, the leaves on the fig trees would be beginning to show. Presumably this one was showing early and was advanced in the production of leaves, and the figs would follow, usually around June but it often gets little miniature figs, early figs, in the earlier period. If the tree demonstrated an early showing of leaves, that's the implication. That's what most commentators think lies behind what happened next, because Jesus looked for figs, even though it wasn't the season for mature figs in June, he wanted the early ones. But there weren't any on the tree. So, he said to the tree a form of curse, by saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” to quote the words from Mark 11:14. Matthew then comments that the tree began to wither immediately from that moment.

That happened as they were travelling on the Monday. They went into the city of Jerusalem and other things happened in the Temple. Let me read that section first for you, because that's the event which forms the basis for an extended commentary and teaching which focuses on the themes of prayer and faith. That's what we want to talk about in this episode, because some very remarkable things are said by Jesus concerning prayer and faith, and God's miraculous power that follows that faith. Let's first of all, re-read the actual moments when Jesus encountered the fig tree and cursed it. This is from Mark 11: 12 - 14

‘The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.’

Mark 11:12-14, NIV

Peter's Reaction to The Withered Tree

Now we need to move on to the second part of this story which happens a little bit later. We move forward in Mark 11: 20 - 25, which shows us what happens the following day.

‘In the morning,’ (that's the Tuesday morning) ‘as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from its roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”’

Mark 11:20-25, NIV

The fig tree becomes the symbol of some important teaching. We discussed in the last episode that in one sense the fig tree could be seen as a symbol of the nation of Israel, and I gave some biblical reasons why we can say that and that the nation of Israel was going to wither away under God's judgement. That's one line of thought that's probably relevant to the context. But here Jesus moves in a completely different direction. He uses the event that happened, to teach about prayer. This is not the first time that he's used an event to teach people about prayer. In the morning, when they passed the tree, Peter clearly remembered what had happened the previous day and drew Jesus' attention to this tree. He said, ‘Look! you cursed it; it's withered, it's sort of flopped to the ground, it's faded away, it's died overnight, literally.’ Peter was surprised. Peter was intrigued. Peter was often on the front foot and said things quickly that he noticed and felt. Here's another example of Peter's temperament. He draws Jesus' attention to the fig tree, withered, fruitless, dead. Jesus turns this situation into an opportunity to teach on faith. What Peter had noticed is that Jesus' command to the tree had led to an instant result. Verse 14 “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” A command, and it withered, straightaway. And by the next day it was dead.

Faith in God

Let's think about what Jesus teaches. This is very challenging teaching. This provokes us and draws us to think about our relationship with God, and our understanding of prayer, and how God moves in prayer. This is a very stimulating passage for us. “Have faith in God.” When Jesus says, “Have faith in God,’ he's not talking about mental assent, believing certain doctrines, nodding when someone is preaching in the church. He's talking about something that comes right from the heart. Having a living trust in God in everyday life, for everything that happens; his sovereignty and his control over our lives; his desire to intervene in our lives; and his love for us. The fact that we're in a covenant relationship with him; the fact that we are forgiven by him; the fact that we live with the power of the Holy Spirit within us; and he wants to do things in our lives on a daily basis. These are the vivid realities that Jesus had in mind when he says, “Have faith in God”.

Obstacles to the Kingdom

Then he goes on and he makes a very important statement here:

“Anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.”

Mark 11:23, NIV

He's saying that the authority he has, believers will also inherit, as they follow in his footsteps. But what are the mountains? That's a very important question for interpretation. A mountain, in general terms, is an opposition, something that stands in your way. You're walking along the road and you come to a mountain. It's an obstacle. It's a problem. It's a challenge. Getting over that mountain is particularly difficult. I would describe the mountains here probably as obstacles, and specifically obstacles to the advance of the Kingdom of God. When many people teach on this passage and if they're influenced by faith teaching, and prosperity teaching, they will describe the mountains, in their interpretation, as obstacles to your personal happiness or fulfilment, with the focus being on the individual person, and the teaching being that God wants Christian believers to be fulfilled, happy, healthy, wealthy, secure in their lives. I don't believe that's what Jesus had in mind at all in this context. The obstacles here are to the advance of the Kingdom of God. The whole of Jesus' teaching up unto this point about discipleship is not about individual, personal fulfilment and satisfaction and happiness. It's about us giving our lives for a greater cause, giving our lives for the Kingdom of God, orientating our lives to being servants of Christ: willing to suffer; willing to serve; and willing to pay a cost to serve him because we're absolutely sure it's the right thing to do, and we're absolutely confident of our eternal destiny, and we're absolutely sure of eternal rewards in heaven, treasures in heaven, as Jesus often says. That's the perspective.

The cultural perspective with which you come to this text will affect your interpretation of it. I'm suggesting to us that these mountains are related to the advance of the Kingdom of God, the things that God wants to do. We are being given authority in prayer to overcome some of these obstacles. There's similar teaching in Matthew 17: 20, when an obstacle was being overcome. There was a boy who had seizures and the disciples were unable to heal him. Jesus came to help them and heal the boy and then he concludes with the following statement in Matthew's version, Matthew 17: 20, the disciples say,

“Why couldn't we drive out that the evil spirit in this case?” and he said, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”’

Matthew 17:20

Notice again the expression ‘this mountain’, a metaphorical description of what? Something - an obstacle to personal fulfilment and happiness? No. An obstacle to the advance of the Kingdom, a demonic force that is resisting the power of Christ. That's what a mountain is in that context, and therefore it makes sense here to think of the mountain, the metaphor of the mountain, as an obstacle to the advance of the Kingdom of God. He's saying, ‘trust God, have a deep faith’.

Right Relationships

He's also saying, ‘get your relationships right,’ particularly, avoiding falling into the trap and the sin of unforgiveness. He's unambiguous about that. Whenever you stand praying,

“if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Mark 11:25, NIV

It's interesting that several times Jesus directly connects unforgiveness as a problem with difficulty in prayer. He's challenging us to a life of prayer where we identify the obstacles to the Kingdom of God in our situation, and where we respond with profound faith, with prayers of certainty, based on the faith and declaration of what we believe God is going to do in a particular situation. We're going to have to look at the details of how this works out and get behind the text to understand it. Interestingly though, the timing of the moving of the mountain is not stated here. Is it going to happen instantaneously? Is it going to happen gradually? Is it going to happen in the long term? Could be any of those. It requires faith. Mountains may not move immediately.

Jesus' Teaching on Prayer

I want to contextualise this very challenging teaching with some wider observations about Jesus' teaching on prayer in other places, to give a little bit more background and make more sense of the passage. It's interesting that in the Lord's Prayer, first of all, the focus is on this prayer Matthew 6: 10:

‘“your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”’

Matthew 6:10, NIV

Again, do you notice that the focus of prayer is on God's Kingdom? It's true that later on in the Lord's Prayer we can ask him for our daily bread, our actual needs we can bring before him, rightly and legitimately and he will respond to our prayers for our needs for certain. But of greater priority is ‘your Kingdom come’. Also, elsewhere, the issue of forgiveness is prioritised. Matthew 6: 12 - 15 is interesting, still in the Lord's Prayer, where it says, in verse 12,

‘“forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.”’ And then in verse 14, ‘“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”’

Matthew 6:12-15, NIV

We see again, the connection between forgiveness and powerful praying. This is one reason why some Christians don't experience powerful praying, because there are areas of unforgiveness in their lives. If that's you, can I suggest to you - this is a great opportunity, as you're listening to this episode and responding to it, to bring to God those things that you still need to forgive others. This is a hard thing to do. It's sometimes extremely hard and painful, but it is the will of God for your blessing, for you to release other people from your judgement. Hand that judgement over to him and then you'll experience a greater sense of closeness to the living God, and a greater sense of being able to pray with authority.

Another thing that we need to add in to this particular passage, is the theme of persistence. We've come across this time and again. For example, Matthew 7: 7 - 11

‘“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.”’

Matthew 7:7, NIV

Then it goes on with examples of how that works out. The asking, the seeking, and the knocking are continuous activities, keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking on the door of heaven.


I want to add one other perspective, before we try and bring this to a conclusion, and try to make it as practical as we can. In Romans 8: 26 onwards, Paul describes the process of prayer as he understood it, based on a clear perspective on the work of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus doesn't say in Mark 11 but does say elsewhere, for example in John chapters 14, 15 and 16, is that the Holy Spirit is going to be the dynamic power that helps us to pray, and to serve God, and to move authoritatively. Paul has the same perspective in these verses here, where he says in Romans 8:26:

‘In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes with us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God's people in accordance with the will of God.’

Romans 8:26-27, NIV

Paul introduces the idea here that we don't always know how to pray effectively, but the Spirit helps us, the Spirit interprets for us the will of God, and works deep within us because he's living within each believer, and he will orientate you towards the priority of God's Kingdom in your life, and in your situation, and give you confidence to pray for the fulfilment of those things, and the overcoming of obstacles that relate to your life, your situation, and the things that God has called you to do. This is very helpful for us, because it makes more sense of understanding what on earth could these mountains be? I've described them as obstacles to the advance of the Kingdom of God. But what are those obstacles? Well, they're different in every person's situation; they're different in every culture; they're different in every family situation; they're different in every church situation. But the Holy Spirit will help us to understand. Are there demonic forces putting obstacles in our way? Are there human situations that are impossible to resolve and extremely difficult? Are there sicknesses that are standing in the way of God's purposes? Is there lack of financial provision that just means it's impossible to function effectively as a Christian? There are all sorts of possibilities of what these obstacles might be. Is there persecution that threatens to close down the witness of the Church? Whatever those obstacles are, Jesus says, by having faith in God, and Paul says, with the Holy Spirit helping you to understand, we can identify those obstacles and we can start praying for God to deal with them in his own way and to remove them so that the Kingdom of God can keep advancing.

How is he going to do that? We don't always know. Sometimes his answers to our prayers are a little bit different from what we expect. When is he going to do it? We don't know. I've already mentioned that the issue of timing is not clear from this particular teaching. In the case of the fig tree, the timing was immediate. The case of the authority and the power of Jesus, things happened, generally speaking, immediately. We're learning about exercising that authority, and God operates in a large time span. Sometimes we pray for the things that we know God wants to happen in and through us, and we'll do it for many years, for 5 to 10, 15 or 20 years before we see the breakthrough.

Jesus is encouraging us in my final reflections here, to take a very active view of prayer, to be very alive in our faith. Paul encourages us in Romans 8, and elsewhere, to be very aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit's direction concerning the things that God wants to do in our lives, and in our situations, which may be different from what we first thought. Let's take encouragement from this passage, remembering not to interpret it as a basis for some personal fulfilment and comfort. But let's remember to interpret it as a guide towards dealing with the obstacles to the advance of the Kingdom of God in our lives, and in our situations.

After we finish this episode, read it again. Go back to the cursing of the fig tree, and see how amazingly Jesus turns this little incident into a story that teaches us many things. We're given power in prayer. My own testimony is that I've focused on a life of regular and faithful prayer, on the basis of believing that these Scriptures like this, and a number of others, are absolutely key to me functioning effectively as a Christian believer. These Scriptures are key for you too. I'm encouraging you to take hold of this text in a fresh and a new way. Read it again, and ask the Lord what the application is in your life. What are the obstacles? What are the mountains that you should be asking God to deal with? He'll give you guidance and he'll give you faith, and you'll see some great breakthroughs.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How do you know when you have forgiven someone?
  • Discipleship
    1. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the ‘mountains’ or obstacles to your spiritual life.Take time to pray for the difficulties to be removed.
    2. What does God want you to have faith for?
    3. If you find something is no longer stopping prayer but still hurts, does that mean you haven't forgiven?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What does Jesus mean by ‘mountains’? Give examples of ‘mountains’.
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