Israel in the days Jesus lived was a nation yearning for the greatness that had escaped it before the captivities in Assyria and Babylonia. The nation was so focused on winning its freedom and shaking off the dominion of Rome that it lost sight of spiritual things. In fact, its religious and civil leaders had become practiced actors. They acted as though they would remain loyal to Rome and gave lip service to the Roman government, but all the while they cursed the Romans and looked forward to the day they could rebel against them.
They were hypocrites spiritually, too. They acted like they loved God, but their pious demeanor was largely was just that — an act. They engaged in an outward show of holiness while flatly disobeying God whenever they chose. One could say that hypocrisy was the order of the day.
Mark chapter 11 chronicles the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, after which he returned to Bethany. The following day, Jesus left Bethany and was hungry (Mark 11:13). He saw a fig tree by the side of the road and went to see if there was fruit.
As soon as leaves appear on the fig tree, fruit begins to grow. It is common for some fruit to be available on the tree rather quickly. This tree was fully “leafed,” but there was no fruit. There should have been some kind of edible fruit, even if it was not mature. The fig tree is a little different that others, once it shows leaves and there is no fruit, it is unlikely to have any at all.
Jesus did something that many people have said was uncharacteristic of him. He said, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” (Mark 11:14 NASB). The tree immediately began to wither.
One commentator of this book wrote, “The story does not ring true. To be frank, the whole incident does not seem worthy of Jesus.” He ended his comments by writing, “there seems to be insuperable difficulties in taking it (the account) literally.” Many people just don’t believe the Bible is true, even if God says it is (2 Timothy 3:16).
Matthew helps answer the question. In Matthew 21:21, parallel to Mark 11, Jesus told his disciples a lesson about faith they needed to hear. That is the first and principal purpose of the action Jesus took. Faith must be genuine. It cannot wear a false face. Faith will stand the test. Hypocrisy will always fall flat.
The tree may be representative of Israel. The nation was proud of its promise, but was weak on fulfillment. The people should have welcomed the king when he came, but they rejected him. The entire nation was one that was willing to profess its love for God, but when it came to obeying God, it was weak, indeed.
Jesus had a disciple who was just like this. It was Peter. Peter assured Jesus he would surrender his life for the Lord, but Jesus told him that before the rooster crowed, Peter would deny him three times (John 13:38).
Peter was human. All of us are. What does your life say about what you believe?