American’s knowledge of figs is generally limited to Fig Newtons, so some knowledge of fig trees is especially helpful here. But before we get on that highway I want to emphasize the sense in which I use “helpful.” You don’t need to be an expert on ancient customs and practices to read your Bible. If you carefully read your text, and have a thorough knowledge of Scripture you can read with confidence. You will make greater strides in understanding if you steep your mind in the Old Testament rather than a book about old customs. Nevertheless, such knowledge can be helpful.
It is March/April. A fig may be putting out leaves at this time and if there are leaves it is certain that there is an early, edible fruit bud. This bud will fall off and the better fruit will be ripe in June. This is why Mark says that it “was not the season for figs (Mark 11:13).” This is why Jesus didn’t go to another tree. This tree was an early bloomer, it stood out. Jesus is on the highway to Jerusalem and Figgy’s Diner had a light flashing “open.” Jesus pulls off the highway, but the doors are locked and the place is desolate. This tree flirts fruit, but only gives leaves. R.T. France comments, “Its precocious show of foliage promised, but did not provide.”
That information is helpful, but much more helpful are texts like this:
Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season, I saw your fathers. But they came to Baal-peor and consecrated themselves to the thing of shame, and became detestable like the thing they loved. Ephraim’s glory shall fly away like a bird— no birth, no pregnancy, no conception! Even if they bring up children, I will bereave them till none is left. Woe to them when I depart from them! Ephraim, as I have seen, was like a young palm planted in a meadow; but Ephraim must lead his children out to slaughter. Give them, O Lord— what will you give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts. Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal; there I began to hate them. Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house. I will love them no more; all their princes are rebels. Ephraim is stricken; their root is dried up; they shall bear no fruit. Even though they give birth, I will put their beloved children to death. —Hosea 9:10-16 (ESV)
The fig tree is often a metaphor for Israel. Fruit is expected, but Israel proves fruitless. John the Baptizer said “even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees (Luke 3:9).” Jesus is the lumberjack. This miracle is the only miracle of judgment, of cursing, we see Jesus do, and it plops itself right here after Jesus purges the temple, and before he has a showdown with the priests. The point? There are lots of leaves, but no fruit, so the axe is coming down.
Are you a “Christian” of leafy show? Like Adam and Eve do you try to hide behind leaves of your own making? Church attendance, Bible study, small group participation, zestful singing, being involved in lots of Christian activities and programs can be nothing more than leafy show. How do you know if you are producing bitter leaves or sweet fruit? Here is a question to help you answer that question; do you approach things like prayer, Bible study, the worship gathering, as leaves to show, or streams to tap your roots into? Do you say of the things listed above, “I do…,” or “I need…”?