Why Did Jesus Curse a Fig Tree? (Matthew 21)
This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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18In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. 20When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
ESV Expository Commentary
Three New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary.
Jesus as Lord and Judge
Passover is days away, and pilgrims stream into Jerusalem. Many have traveled from Galilee; they spontaneously hail Jesus as prophet and Son of David as they enter Jerusalem with him. After entering, Jesus visits the temple. As so often, Mark offers details that Matthew omits. Mark 11:11 notes how Jesus “looked around at everything” and then left the city with the Twelve, “as it was already late.” Whether “looking around” signifies a quick look or a thorough examination, Mark gives Jesus an evening to meditate before he purges the temple. If Mark suggests contemplation, Matthew describes direct action: Jesus enters, drives out the merchants, overturns their tables, and then explains himself: they have made God’s house into a “den of robbers” or, it could be translated, a “cave of insurrectionists” (Matt. 21:12–13).
Explanations are in order. First, currency exchange is not immoral. Travelers would seek to purchase animals for their sacrifices and feasts, and they had to convert their currency into the temple’s. The problem is not commerce per se but commerce in the temple precincts, as Jesus explains by quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
“Prayer” is synecdoche for public worship: the prayers, songs, teachings, and offerings of the temple. It is possible that the merchants overcharge, but Jesus drives out buyers and sellers, so malfeasance cannot be the sole issue. The problem is corruption of the temple’s purpose: the noise of commerce and animals prevents the silence that is the context for prayer, worship, and instruction. If rabbinic comments are accurate, Caiaphas the high priest had recently moved the sale of sacrificial animals from the valley near Jerusalem into the temple court reserved for Gentiles. This might account for the additional phrase in Mark 11:17: the temple is to be a “house of prayer for all the nations.”
The context of Jesus’ OT citations is essential. Isaiah 56 declares that no one— neither eunuch nor Gentile—should say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people” (Isa. 56:3). No, to those who hold to the covenant, the Lord says, “I will . . . make them joyful in my house of prayer; . . . for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:7). Whatever the logic of the temple commerce, it makes worship difficult for Gentiles and neglects Isaiah’s word. By citing Isaiah, Jesus implicitly claims that his action brings the messianic blessing predicted by the prophet. Further, Jesus’ “disruptive action” is necessary if the temple is to regain “its God-ordained purpose.”1
While the temple has ceased to be a house of prayer for the nations, it has become a “den of robbers” (Matt. 21:13). Scholars doubt that the problem is corruption among the money-changers, since (again) Jesus opposes both selling and buying, and there is no record of complaints against them.2 The merchants, with the priests’ approval, are certainly depriving Gentiles of their right to worship God. The phrase “den of robbers,” from Jeremiah 7, is instructive too. In context, the Lord excoriates Israel:
Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, . . . and go after other gods . . . then come and stand before me in this house . . . and say, ‘We are delivered!’— only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house . . . become a den of robbers in your eyes?” (Jer. 7:9–11)
In Jeremiah’s day, people sinned then shouted, “the temple of the Lord,” treating it as a talisman, as if it guaranteed God’s protection and favor (Jer. 7:4–7). Jeremiah and Jesus compare the Israelites to brigands who rob, kill, and follow idols, then retreat to the temple as if it were a safe cave or hideout. This wholly reverses the temple’s purpose.
Beyond that, lēstēs (“robber”) normally means insurrectionist, so Matthew’s phrase spēlaion lēstōn could sensibly be rendered “cave of rebels” or “cave of insurrectionists.” Tragically, the temple’s putative guardians rebel against God most of all. By excluding Gentiles from the temple, they show that for them the temple is a symbol of Israel more than it is a place of worship. The temple has become their “nationalist stronghold,” a haunt for nationalistic rebels.3
Luke understands the issue similarly, which is clear from his addition to the scene. In Luke 19:42–44, Jesus laments that Jerusalem does not know “the things that make for peace” and he predicts a crushing defeat at Rome’s hands. Jesus foresees that Israel’s nationalism, manifest here, will lead it to rebel against Rome and suffer devastation forty years later. Because they learn nothing from Jeremiah or Jesus, Jewish fighters will later choose the temple as their fortress, apparently hoping it will protect them. But that fantasy perverts the temple, and God will not honor it.4
By driving out the merchants and toppling their tables, Jesus asserts himself as the temple’s Lord and Judge. His denunciation is also prophetic, and the call to restore the temple to its proper role is priestly as well.
Jesus’ action reopens the temple to the blind and lame, and he heals them (Matt. 21:14). Leviticus appears to bar blind and lame priests from offering certain sacrifices. Some Jews want to bar the crippled from the temple altogether, but Jesus restores them to it. By driving out the merchants and welcoming the broken, Jesus expels those whom the authorities permit and permits those whom certain authorities expel.
The priests, possibly thunderstruck, turn on the children in the temple area who are shouting praise to Jesus. They ask, “Do you hear what these are saying?” (Matt. 21:15–16a). But Jesus defends the children: “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Matt. 21:16b). This is a citation of Psalm 8, which begins, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! . . . Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes” (Ps. 8:1–2). When Jesus asks, “Have you never read . . . ?” he means, “Have you never considered this correctly?” God ordains children to praise him. Since Jesus is Son of God and Son of Man, it is right for children to praise him.
The next morning, Jesus returns to Jerusalem. He is hungry, sees a fig tree in leaf, inspects it, finds nothing but leaves, and curses it, saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” Surprisingly, the tree withers immediately (Matt. 21:18–19). The OT has many miracles of judgment, but outside of this instance, Jesus’ miracles bring healing and grace.5
The cursing of the fig tree is symbolic. Matthew assumes his Jewish readers know, as Mark 11:13 points out, that “it was not the season for figs.” Fig trees produce leaves at the time of the Passover, and small fruits do appear, which will ripen later. These fruits are unripe but marginally edible. The leaves promise fruit on the tree, but its barrenness makes it an object lesson.
By driving out the merchants and toppling their tables, Jesus asserts himself as the temple’s Lord and Judge.
The prophets use the fig as a symbol of Israel in its fruitlessness. In Micah 7:1–2 the prophet laments that he came to glean fruit from vineyard and tree but found no grapes and “no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.” Micah explains the metaphor immediately: “The godly has perished from the earth,” and the land is full of violence, not the justice he craves. As he curses the fig tree, Jesus functions like a prophet who presents symbolic acts of judgment as calls to repentance (cf. Jer. 19:1–11).
When Jesus judges the fig tree, he foretells judgment not on all Israelites but on those who, like the luxuriantly leafy but fruitless tree, appear to be alive but are barren (Matt. 13:22). Jesus has just inspected the temple and found it wanting. The spectacle of worship—the priests, the music, the sacrifices, the gleaming buildings—is grand but fruitless. Its leaders bar Gentiles from worship and plot the murder of their king. Truly, it has become a cave of rebels against God, their show of religion notwithstanding.
When the tree withers, the disciples ask, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” (Matt. 21:20). We might expect them to ask why, not how, but the Twelve often attend to the wrong element of Jesus’ messages (cf. Matt. 19:27; 20:21). He detects an interest in attaining similar powers and answers them in a way that redirects their focus. He begins emphatically, “Truly, I say to you,” then promotes trust in God both positively, “if you have faith,” and negatively, “and do not doubt.” Faith, a common topic in the NT, is classically a trust in God that receives salvation, but here it is an enabling power. By faith a disciple can “say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ [and] it will happen” (Matt. 21:21).
Contrary to appearances, Jesus does not shift abruptly from judgment on Jerusalem to the power of prayer. The phrase “this mountain” appears twice outside this text and its parallel in Mark, and it refers to a particular mountain each time.6 As Jesus speaks, both the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount are visible. If he is referring to the Temple Mount, he is saying that faith can move the metaphorical mountain of vain religion. Prayer is powerful: “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” The phrase “if you have faith” prevents abuse; evil prayers have no power.
- Blomberg, “Matthew,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use, 67.
- Cf. Keener, Matthew, 497; Hagner, Matthew, 2:600; and Martin Goodman, State and Society in Roman Galilee, A.D. 132–212 (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1983), 57–59. Goodman reports that money-changers do not appear on rabbinic lists of “potentially villainous professions” (59).
- C. K. Barrett, “The House of Prayer and the Den of Thieves,” in Jesus und Paulus: Festschrift für Werner Georg Kümmel zum 70, ed. E. E. Ellis and E. Grässer (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978), 16–20.
- Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 413–420.
- After Jesus drives demons out of the Gadarene demoniac, they enter pigs, who drown themselves (Luke 8:26–33), but Luke attributes their death to demons, not Jesus.
- In Matthew 17:1–2, it is the Mount of Transfiguration. In John 4:21, it is Mount Gerizim, which loomed over the town where Jesus then stood (John 4:5).
This article is by Dan Doriani and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Matthew–Luke (Volume 8).
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