Mark 11: Have I Been Cursed for Barrenness?

I’ve been gripped this week by the picture of the fig tree, withered to the roots. Is my life barren, fruitless?


Not long ago Mark and I finished a two year Bible study on John with some dear friends who don’t know the Lord. There is no apparent fruit. No one has repented and believed in the Savior — well, one did, but appears to be stillborn. I am grieved. I’m also asking, is this the barrenness Jesus judged when he cursed the tree and cleansed the temple?

If not, what does the passage mean? Is there good news here for us?

Fruit out of season

We have one fruit tree in our yard, a tangerine tree. It didn’t produce at all the first year we lived here, but the next year the fruit was abundant. I’ve come to recognize a two year cycle. Small harvests alternating with big ones. I just went outside to check. This year will be fruitful. How do I know? Lots of little white flowers, just getting ready to pop open. In a week the air will be fragrant with promise.

Tim Keller explains why Jesus expected fruit on the fig tree out of season:

Middle Eastern fig trees bore two kinds of fruit. As the leaves were starting to come in the spring, before the figs came, the branches bore little nodules, which were abundant and very good to eat. Travelers liked to pick them off and eat them as they made their journey. If you found a fig tree that had begun to sprout leaves but had none of these delicious nodules, you would know that something was wrong. It might look okay from a distance because the leaves had emerged, but if it had no nodules it was diseased or maybe even dying inside. Growth without fruit was a sign of decay.

Fragrance precedes fruit

I was interpreting the fruit God looks for in my life as people coming to faith through my witness, but Keller’s explanation makes me think the fruit Jesus was looking for is a transformed life that shows (and speaks) the gospel in tasty ways. The fruit of the Spirit, Jesus being formed in me, draws people into those conversations where I can point them to the one they see in me and need to see for themselves.

This explanation seems to fit with the scene that interrupts the drama of the fig tree, the temple cleansing scene. Jesus makes it clear in Mark 11 that God cares about those who are outside the faith. He wants true believers’ lives to be like the outer court or front porch to his presence. Our lives are to be literally fragrant with the welcoming presence of Christ, including the pungent smell of his sacrifice, bringing continuous cleansing from sin.

Our perfection is not our witness, his is. The sweet savor of Christ is the smell of forgiveness.

But what about the cursed tree?

Jesus’ words to the disciples the next day perplex me. The day before they had seen him curse the tree and cleanse the temple. The withered tree stands before them as proof of Jesus’ power to judge. Now he tells them “Have faith in God” and talks about tossing mountains into the sea. Is he telling them to go around cursing fig trees by faith? Judging barrenness?

Take another look at the tree, withered away to its roots by the curse of God. This isn’t us. It’s Jesus.

He redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. Galatians 3:13

A few days later he would hang on the cross, under the curse of God, until he was withered away to his roots. The curse was not for us. It was for him.

You and I, who have believed in Christ, are trees that cannot be cursed because another has born our curse. Because of him we cannot be barren. Now our part is to bring the sweet fragrance of Christ’s death and life into our world. And when we see mountains of unbelief still standing in the lives of our friends, Jesus calls us not to give up on them, but to “have faith in God…ask in prayer…believe…and forgive.”

I hope you’re as encouraged as I am.



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