It is often said, “You can miss the forest for the trees.” The intent is that a person can get so caught up in the minutiae of something that they fail to see the larger purpose behind it. That is the case of the event which occurred on the last Monday and Tuesday of the life of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Matthew and Mark record this event for us. Matthew writes that as Jesus was entering the city of Jerusalem on the day after His triumphal entry (Matthew 21:17-18), it was morning and Jesus was hungry. He happens upon a fig tree that had leaves on it. Where there are leaves, there is fruit, right?
And so thought Jesus. Mark adds that it was not the season for figs, and it wasn’t (Mark 11:13). That is what would have made the fact that there were leaves and possibly fruit on the tree even more remarkable. However, Jesus, being hungry, investigated the tree in hopes of finding food. Upon approaching the tree, seeing the leaves and anticipating fruit, He begins to realize that there is no fruit on the tree. His disciples, of course, were right there with Him. In His human frustration, Jesus curses the tree saying, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you” (Matthew 21:19).
Matthew writes that the tree dried up immediately in front of the disciples.
Mark writes that it was the next day that they saw the tree withered (Mark 11:20-21). The assumption from this is the process began immediately, noticeably, and was completed and undeniable by the next morning.
The disciple’s reaction in both Matthew and Mark is crucial for looking above the tree in order to see the forest. They said, “How did the fig tree wither all at once?” Their question demonstrated their confusion about the immediate withering, and their spiritual dullness as to Christ’s power. Jesus replied that the disciples, in faith, can and will also do the very same things, even to the point of hyperbolically casting mountains into the sea by prayer (Matthew 21:21-22).
Both Matthew and Mark emphasize the faith of the disciples, soon to be recognized as apostles. Their faith, defined by Mark as “[believing in his heart] that what he says is going to happen,” is the crucial point at which things the apostles pray for occur or not. However, interestingly, Mark adds that Jesus also said something else crucial to prayer; forgiveness. He writes, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions” (Mark 11:25).
Necessary to prayer, to believing, and to displaying wondrous powers in the life of the apostles, will be forgiveness. Since we know that God does not hear the prayer of one in sin (Isaiah 1:15; cf. Psalm 17:1), to approach God in prayer and yet not having forgiven someone of their wrongs against them is going to render that prayer unanswerable.
So, it would seem, the “tree” is the power of Christ to wither a tree on command. The forest is responsibility to conduct their office prayerfully, and without a lack of forgiveness toward anyone.
However, in both Matthew and Mark, we are also privileged to look past both the trees and the forest in order to see the whole countryside of intent of our Lord to these men. Here is where it gets truly powerful! In both Matthew and Mark, Tuesday evening finds Jesus with His disciples sitting on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:3; Mark 13:3). The question is prompted by Jesus concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the sign of His coming. The answer is meant to instruct the disciples so that they would carry on His teaching in their own ministries.
However, in the center of this instruction, Jesus refers back to a “fig tree.” He said, “Now learn the parable from the fig tree…” (Matthew 24:32; Mark 13:28; cf. Luke 21:29-36). Jesus uses a fig tree as a metaphor for the imminence of His return. In the same way that you would expect summer to be near once you see leaves on the fig tree in Palestine, so also should you see My return near when you see the “powers of heaven shaken” (Mark 13:24-27), Jesus said. It is true that the reference to the fig tree seems a bit general and maybe even isolated as a simple example.
However, I believe that the cursing of the fig tree the previous morning and its completed withering that very morning of this discussion allowed for a very real image of the power of Christ in judgment upon, not only Jerusalem, but the nations of the world. The power over nature, the power that withered the fig tree, is the power Jesus will wield when He returns. The disciples must understand this. In fact, the entire discourse on the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is sprinkled with the admonition to remain faithful to Christ in the meantime.
From the moment the leaves bud to the appearance of summer, Jesus teaches the soon-to-be-apostles that they must remain faithful, believing. Be on the alert! Watch expectantly! Keep oil in your lamps! And teach others to do the same (Acts 2:42). For soon, the Lord will return with triumphant power to curse and to judge the world.