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Jeffrey Crabtree: Commentators divide over the significance of this miracle. Hagner (33B:604) says this miracle can only be understood as anticipation of national Israel’s soon demise and the temple’s soon destruction. Walvoord (159-160) thinks this cursing of the fig tree had nothing to do with Israel and was only about faith and miracles, nothing more.

It seems probable, however, that the fig tree incident fits in with the theme of the cleansing of the temple and the challenge to Jesus’ authority (Carson, Matthew 444-445). Both were about hypocrisy. Jesus’ condemnation of the tree for its barrenness, when it looked like it should have had at least some fruit, was a sign of judgment against Jerusalem’s spiritual hypocrisy and barrenness (Lk. 13:6-9). If this is the right understanding, Jerusalem and all Israel were facing severe judgment for their hypocrisy (23:38; 24:2, 15-22) and spiritual barrenness (v. 43; 23:3; Hagner 33B:605).

Stanley Saunders: But the surprising, hyperbolic, and even abrasive character of this action should help us identify it as a prophetic sign-act, delivered not in response to Jesus’ hunger but for the sake of Jesus’ disciples and directed against the “fruitlessness” of the Jerusalem leaders. The story interrupts the flow of Jesus’ conflicts with the Jewish authorities in the temple (cf. 21:14–16 and 21:23–27) precisely in order to comment upon them. . .

Throughout Matthew fruit symbolizes appropriate responses to the proclamation of God’s reign; it signifies human actions that are commensurate with God’s mercy, presence, and healing power (cf. 3:8; 3:10; 7:16–20; 12:33), and with the harvest that Jesus is gathering (cf. 21:41, 43). The sweet fruit of a fig tree is a symbol of God’s blessing (Num. 29:5; Deut. 8:7–8).

Stu Weber: In the preceding passage, the king had pronounced judgment on Israel and its leaders for their idolatrous behavior (21:12-13). With the fig tree, Jesus acted out a parable or “mini-drama” to illustrate the reality of Israel’s fruitlessness and its doom. Just as the leaves of the fig tree advertised fruit, so the Jewish leaders claimed to be fulfilling God’s purpose. However, the advertising was a lie. Under the “leaves” of their showy religion (6:1-18; 15:8-9) their hearts were barren and unbelieving. They had missed their opportunity to repent and to bear true fruit, and so the king pronounced their judgment. There would be no more opportunities for these hypocrites—they would never bear fruit but would die through the judgment of God.

Grant Osborne: Two primary themes are linked together because both flow out of the authority and spiritual power of Jesus.

(1)  The cursing of the fig tree is a parabolic enactment of the judgment Israel will soon face because the people have rejected God’s Messiah and defiled his house, the temple.

(2)  Jesus promises that his followers will share his authority through prayer—with faith the disciple taps into the same power source as Jesus did.


A.  (:18) Occasion for the Miracle

Now in the morning, when He returned to the city, He became hungry.

B.  (:19) Cursing of the Fig Tree

  1. Show without Substance

And seeing a lone fig tree by the road,

He came to it, and found nothing on it except leaves only;

R. T. France: By speaking of “a single fig tree” rather than just “a fig tree” Matthew probably intends to alert the reader that this tree, perhaps standing on its own, was unlike others which at that season would not have fully developed leaves. Its precocious show of foliage promised, but did not provide, the fruit which normally came with the leaves.

William Barclay: But it is the fig tree’s habit of fruit-bearing which is relevant here. The fig tree is unique in that it bears two full crops in the year. The first is borne on the old wood. Quite early in the year, little green knobs appear at the end of the branches. They are called paggim, and they will one day be the figs. These fruit buds come in April, but they are quite inedible. Bit by bit, the leaves and the flowers open out, and another unique thing about the fig is that it is in full fruit and full leaf and full flower all at the same time; that happens by June. No fig tree ever bore fruit in April; that is far too early. The process is then repeated with the new wood; and the second crop comes in September.

The strangest thing about this story is twofold.

  • First, it tells of a fig tree in full leaf in April. Jesus was at Jerusalem for the Passover; the Passover fell on 15th April; and this incident happened a week before.
  • The second thing is that Jesus looked for figs on a tree where no figs could possibly be; and Mark says: ‘for it was not the season for figs’ (Mark 11:13).

The difficulty of this story is not so much a difficulty of possibility. It is a moral difficulty; and it is twofold.

  • First, we see Jesus cursing a fig tree for not doing what it was not able to do. The tree could not have borne fruit in the second week of April, and yet we see Jesus destroying it for not doing that very thing.
  • Second, we see Jesus using his miraculous powers for his own ends. That is precisely what in the temptations in the wilderness he determined never to do. He would not turn stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger.

The plain truth is this – if we had read of anyone else cursing a fig tree for not bearing figs in April, we would have said it was an act of ill-tempered petulance, springing from personal disappointment. In Jesus, that is inconceivable; therefore there must be some explanation. What is it?  . . .

Lessons: Uselessness invites disaster, and profession of faith without practice is doomed.

  1. Severe Curse

and He said to it, ‘No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.’

Donald Hagner: The surprising curse (note esp. εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, “forever,” with the connotation of final judgment), its harshness, and the immediate withering of the tree disclose that what occurs here is a prophetic sign that points beyond itself to a far more grievous kind of barrenness.

  1. Sudden Withering

And at once the fig tree withered.


Stanley Saunders: Prayer coupled with “faith” creates a social space in which God’s power is manifest, thereby providing an alternative to the temple, which has been controlled by those who produce no fruit. Prayer and faith are at the heart of God’s alternative temple; they are the locus of God’s presence and power, the means by which God will produce fruit in the disciples.

Richard Gardner: Jesus’ miracle is a sign not only of judgment, but of the power available to disciples through prayer (cf. 7:7-11; 18:19; John 14:13-14), prayer that expresses an unwavering confidence in God (cf. Luke 17:5-6). Up to now, the faith of Jesus’ followers has been hesitant and shaky, little faith (cf. 14:31; 17:14-20). If that faith becomes firm and articulate, however, the disciples will be able to do even more amazing things than Jesus has just done.

A.  (:20) Curiosity Regarding the Rapid Withering of the Cursed Fig Tree

And seeing this, the disciples marveled, saying, ‘How did the fig tree wither at once?’

R. T. France: Their words here, as in 8:27, imply that Jesus’ power is unique, which will make it all the more remarkable when he goes on to suggest that they too can do what he has done.

Daniel Doriani: So the fig tree withered immediately. We expect the disciples to ask why Jesus cursed the tree. Instead they ask how he did it. “When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. ‘How did the fig tree wither so quickly?’ they asked” (Matt. 21:20). As so often, the Twelve partially miss the main point, focusing on the wrong thing. They were thinking, “That was amazing. How did you do that? Can you teach us to do it too? It could be useful to curse and destroy from time to time.”

B.  (:21-22) Connection between Power and Prayer of Faith

And Jesus answered and said to them,

  1. (:21b)  Prospect of Exercising Such Power

Truly I say to you, if you have faith, and do not doubt, you shall not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain,

‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it shall happen.

Jeffrey Crabtree: Moving mountains (v. 21) is hyperbole (1 Cor. 13:2) and speaks of doing very difficult things (17:20; Zech. 4:6-9) that might seem impossible.

R. T. France: The “faith” which receives answers to prayer is characterized by practical confidence in God’s power and willingness to respond. In view of what has been said in 18:19–20, it should also be noted that the verbs in these verses are all plural; the promise of effective prayer is made to the united praying community rather than to the private interest of the individual.

Stu Weber: The necessary ingredient was faith (taking God at his word), which the disciples lacked. Jesus clarified his meaning by mentioning the opposite of faith—doubt. . .

Jesus meant us to assume that mountain-moving faith should not be exercised in such frivolous ways as rearranging the earth. In fact, faith cannot be exercised in any way except according to God’s will. It is not the faith which moves mountains, but the power of God in response to the expression of faith. True faith is always in keeping with God’s will and is based on intimacy with God and an understanding of his heart and will.

Daniel Doriani: As Jesus traveled from Bethany to Jerusalem, he stood in sight of the Mount of Olives and Mount Zion, the temple mount. When he spoke of a mountain, therefore, Jesus had to mean the temple mount. That is the mountain they should want to move, not physically, but spiritually. Faith alone can move the mountain where dead religion flourishes. As Jesus told his disciples that faith can move the temple mountain, he reinforced the lesson of the fig tree. By faith we can move the temple mountain, the mountain that is all show and no substance, into the sea.

Grant Osborne: “Doubt” (διακρίνομαι) refers not to a certainty that God will give anything one asks (see on v. 22) but rather to a “divided mind” that trusts God only partway and is centered more on self. Bruner says, “Doubt, in Jesus’ teaching, is the decision to live as if God does not exist, and for disciples of Jesus this decision is disloyal. (In French, the word for doubt is defiance.)” . . .

Furthermore, faith is much more than a power that infuses our prayer life. Primarily, it is a perspective on life, a lifestyle that centers on God and immerses one’s self in God. Faith is a way of thinking in which God is everything, the sphere within which we live, and this type of prayer is not just intercessory, a prayer life centered on getting God to do things for us. It is more a constant desire to do things for God, and such a life has great power because it centers on doing things for God. This is a true life of faith.

  1. (:22)  Principle of Seeking God’s Will via Believing Prayer

And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.

Charles Swindoll: Where does a knowledge of God’s will come from, so we know that what we pray will be answered? Colossians 1:9 gives us a hint: “We have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Such knowledge of God’s will is a work of divine wisdom, which necessarily comes from the Spirit. As we learn and live the Spirit-breathed Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16), we will be equipped to pray according to His will.

David Turner: The fig tree incident also shows that Jesus’s disciples still need to develop faith that God will answer prayer. Jesus has previously rebuked their “little faith” (6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20). Here their faith is challenged again in a context connected with the temple, which is called “a house of prayer for all nations” (Isa. 56:7; Matt. 21:13).