The desolation of a barren life. A burned over area shows no signs of life.
The Desolation of the Barren

Is my life as barren as the fig tree Jesus cursed in Mark 11? Because he found it unfruitful, Jesus uttered words that withered it completely. To the roots.

As we continue our study of the Gospel of Mark, perhaps the above question begins to trouble you. Personally, I’ve been gripped by that image all week.

Not long ago Mark and I finished a two year Bible study on the Gospel of John with some dear friends who don’t know the Lord. There was no apparent fruit. To our knowledge, no one repented and believed in the Savior — well, one seemed to, but appears to be stillborn. I am grieved. I’m also asking, is this the kind of 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?

Barren or Unseasonable Fruit?

We have one fruit tree in our yard, a tangerine tree. Because it didn’t produce at all the first year we lived here, we wondered if it was barren. However, the following year the fruit was abundant. I came to recognize that the tree operates on a two year cycle. Small harvests alternating with big ones. I just went outside to check. This year will be very 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

In my current situation I have been interpreting fruitfulness as people coming to faith through my witness, but Keller’s explanation gives me a different picture of fruit–“delicious nodules.” Jesus is looking for a transformed life that shows (and speaks) his gospel in tasty ways. The fruit of the Spirit–Jesus being formed in me–draws people into gospel conversations where I can point them to the One they see in me, whom they also need to see for themselves.

Growth without fruit was a sign of decay.

Tim Keller

Not only does this explanation clarify the fig tree, it also seems to fit with the next scene–which interrupts the drama of the barren fig tree–the temple cleansing scene. Jesus’s words and actions make it clear 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.

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.

Another Look at the Cursed Tree

Jesus’ words to the disciples the next day perplex me. On the day before they had seen him curse the tree and cleanse the temple. Today the withered tree stands before them as proof of Jesus’ power to judge. But 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 the barren with greater barrenness?

Let’s 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 after this, Jesus 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.”

Surprised by Fruit

We moved away and 20 years later returned to the city where we’d led that Gospel of John study. As I was walking into a shop, a woman stopped me. “Remember me? Remember that Bible study you and your husband led? Long story short, my husband finally left me and in the midst of the heartache, I believed in the Jesus I saw through that study. I’m so glad I bumped into you…Thank you!”

Jesus makes us fruitful.

Find more Gospel of Mark posts here.

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