Toward the beginning of Mark 11, Jesus goes to eat from a fig tree However, the fig tree has not bore any fruit and he curses it. Then, after clearing out the temple, Peter sees that the cursed fig tree is now withered. But why did Jesus curse the fig tree? Walter W. Wessel and Mark L. Strauss examined this passage in the revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary. They have some insight to bring, and we’ve shared the excerpt below.

OVERVIEW

The first three verses of this section form the second part of the story of the fig tree (11:12–14), which sandwiches the account of the cleansing of the temple. (For the theological significance of this “intercalation,” see Overview, 11:15–19.)

SCRIPTURE: MARK 11:20-25

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.’”

COMMENTARY ON WHY JESUS CURSED THE FIG TREE

Mark 11:20-21

The next morning (presumably Tuesday of Passion Week) Jesus and his disciples, on returning to Jerusalem from Bethany, again passed the fig tree. It was totally destroyed (“withered from the roots”). Jesus had predicted that no one would ever eat fruit from it again (v.14); and Peter, remembering what Jesus had said, called his attention to the withered tree (v.21). Jesus does not explicitly interpret the event, yet the meaning seems clear: Jesus’ predicted judgment on the temple will come to pass as surely as did his prediction that the fig tree would wither.

NOTE: Matthew refers to the cursing of the fig tree only after the cleansing of the temple and says the tree withered “at once” (Mt 21:19). These differences fit his tendency to abbreviate and condense episodes (cf. Mt 8:5–13; 9:18–26).

Mark 11:22

We have noted that the cursing of the fig tree is closely related to the cleansing of the temple, with both symbolizing God’s judgment against Israel. Yet oddly, Jesus does not make this connection explicit. Instead, in this verse and in the teaching that follows, he links the miracle of the fig tree’s destruction to the power of faith and prayer.

This feature suggests to some commentators that the sayings of vv.22–25 have no historical connection with what precedes and that Mark (or the tradition before them) has added them out of a misunderstanding of the symbolism of the fig tree’s destruction. While this is possible, it is more likely that Jesus took this opportunity to draw a second application from the miracle and that Mark (and Matthew, who follows him) has retained this application.

Jesus uses the incident of the fig tree to teach critical lessons on faith and prayer. The source of the power for performing the miracle is God. He must be the object of our faith.

NOTE: The variant reading that inserts εἰ (ei, “if”) before ἔχετε (echete, “you have”) has rather strong MS support. But it is probably not original, for (1) the solemn “I tell you the truth” is never preceded by a conditional clause, and (2) the introductory “if” probably arose by assimilation to the saying in Luke 17:6 (cf. Mt 21:21).

Mark 11:23

As with previous pronouncements of Jesus, this one is preceded by the solemn introductory formula “I tell you the truth” — a way of indicating its importance. Since Jesus was standing on the Mount of Olives, from which the Dead Sea can be seen on a clear day, he may have been referring specifically to that mountain. Of course, the image of throwing a mountain into the sea is figurative for something that is humanly impossible (Zec 4:7). Jesus is saying that the greatest possible difficulties can be removed when a person has faith (cf. Jas 1:6). A similar image of the power of faith to move mountains appears in the saying concerning the mustard seed in Matthew 17:20 (cf. Lk 17:6).

Mark 11:24

There is a close connection between the kind of faith Jesus speaks of here and prayer. E. Stauffer (New Testament Theology [London: SCM, 1955], 169) clearly brings out this connection: “The ‘faith’ of Mark 11:23f. is a faith that prays. . . . Prayer is the source of its power, and the means of its strength — God’s omnipotence is its sole assurance, and God’s sovereignty its only restriction.” Jesus elsewhere affirms the unlimited power of prayer to accomplish results (Mt 7:7; 18:19; Lk 11:9).

Mark 11:25

Admittedly the transition between v.24 and v.25 is abrupt (with v.24 speaking of faith, v.25 of forgiveness). Still there is a connection. To be effective, prayer must be offered in faith — faith in the all-powerful God, who works miracles. But it must be offered in the spirit of forgiveness. Faith and the willingness to forgive are the two conditions of efficacious prayer. Matthew omits this verse, perhaps because of the abrupt change in subject or because he has provided a parallel saying in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:14), immediately following the Lord’s Prayer.

Mark 11:26

This verse does not occur in the NIV or most other modern versions because it is not found in the best and most ancient MSS of the NT. It represents an insertion from Matthew 6:15.

EXPOSITOR’S BIBLE COMMENTARY – REVISED

In 2012, Zondervan released an update to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Revised Series now includes the work of 56 different authors – 30 of whom are new. Scholarly and accessible, EBC-R reflects the best work from world-class scholars including D. A. Carson, George Guthrie, John Walton, and Andreas Köstenberger. This series contains 13 volumes.

Take a look inside the Expositor’s Bible Commentary or see which version is best for you. Then, add it to your Olive Tree library and start learning!

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