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One of the main callings of John the Baptist was to inspect the “tree” of Judah to see if it could or would bear fruit (Matt. 3:8-10; Luke 3:9). After he was executed by Herod, Jesus took up the task, and it appears that this inspection was to take place over a period of three or four years. So near the end of Jesus’ ministry, we read in Luke 13:6-9,
6 And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. 7 And he said to the vineyard keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year, too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; 9 and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down’.”
The fig tree of Judah had been fruitless for three years but was given an extra year of special care to see if it could be induced to bring forth the fruit of the Kingdom. The parable leaves the outcome uncertain, but there is no doubt that if it remained fruitless, the tree would be cut down.
Finally, in the week before Jesus’ crucifixion, He cursed a fruitless fig tree. We read in Matt. 21:18, 19,
18 Now in the morning, when He was returning to the city, He became hungry. 19 Seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it except leaves only; and He said to it, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.” And at once the fig tree withered.
This was the verdict in this matter of fruit inspection. It was the equivalent of “if not, cut it down” (Luke 13:9). It is clear that Judah had rejected Jesus as the Messiah and therefore could not bring forth the fruit of the Kingdom. More than that, it would NEVER bring forth fruit.
Jesus said in John 15:1, 4,
1 I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser… 4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.
Bearing fruit is fully dependent on whether or not we are attached to Jesus Christ. When Judah rejected Jesus (John 1:11), it became impossible for them to bear fruit.
The fig tree representing Judah had many leaves but no fruit. One cannot eat fig leaves. Leaves give a great show of life and righteousness, but this is not what God looks for. In fact, fig leaves have been a problem since Adam when they used fig leaves to cover themselves (Gen. 3:7). The meaning, as I see it, is that fig leaves are a false covering for sin that are based on the works of men, rather than faith in Christ.
Jesus later supplemented His teaching about this cursed fig tree in Matt. 24:32-34, saying,
32 Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; 33 so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.
When I was growing up, being raised in the church, I was taught that this prophecy was fulfilled in 1948 when the Jewish state was created. I believe this is correct. But no one seemed to notice that the cursed fig tree still had no fruit but only leaves. Everyone seemed to forget that the lack of fruit was the original reason for the curse.
This was not a prophecy for 70 A.D., because Judah as a nation did not even wither and “die” until then. 70 A.D. was not the time for the fig tree of Judah to come back to life. This was instead to be fulfilled centuries later in 1948, and it was a sign of “these things” taking place. What things? The events are identified in the previous verses about the tribulation and destruction of Jerusalem. While many of these things certainly took place in 70 A.D., the city was rebuilt, and therefore, another greater fulfillment must take place in order to fulfill the words of the prophet in Jer. 19:10, 11.
In other words, Jesus’ curse ensured that this “fig tree” would never bear fruit, but that it would indeed come back to life and put forth leaves. This may possibly be the fourth year in Luke 13:8. Whatever the case, this tree was to fare no better than the original tree that Jesus cursed. The Jewish state has again brought forth more leaves. This set up Jerusalem for its final destruction as prophesied in Jer. 19:10, 11.
We should emphasize at this point that this was a national prophecy. It did not mean that every individual would have to be under Jesus’ curse. Jesus had many followers in His first appearance who were indeed attached to the true Vine. Yet on a national scale, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).
It is the same today. There are many Jews who have attached themselves to the true Vine, and so they are exempt from the general curse upon the nation and the city. We should pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Israelis so that many more might be spared from the coming destruction. But it seems clear from Scripture that the national government and the city will not accept Jesus as the Messiah, nor will they bear fruit that might have spared them.