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What is the Meaning of the Parable of the Fig Tree?

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Have you ever wondered about the meaning of the parable of the fig tree?

As Christians, we often think and speak of the wonderful grace of God, his kindness, His mercy, and His unconditional love, but while we are aware of it, we have a tendency to let the wrath of God go unspoken like that little piece of food that we drop and just kick under the stove instead of picking it up and throwing it away.

While knowing God, our Heavenly Father, is like a warm fuzzy hug, we are not called to stay dormant in that state of comfort. We are called to preach the gospel to the nations, make disciples, and show Jesus’ love in our daily lives even when the world fights against it; the things that make knowing God a constant, sometimes gut-wrenching battle between our flesh and the Holy Spirit. 

image of figs on fig tree with the text the parable of the fig tree explained

Lucky for us, that graceful, kind, merciful, and unconditionally loving God has directly provided us with his word, the Holy Bible, full of teaching, conviction, and encouragement. It provides us the direction we need to stay on the path of righteousness and guides us back when we’re led astray by the distractions of the sinful world around us, as well as offering peace and comfort along the way. It is only through studying and meditating on God’s word that we can learn how to best navigate the difficult walk as the kingdom of God as we anxiously wait for Christ’s return. 

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”Psalm 119:105 (ESV)

One of the most common ways God teaches us in his word is through Jesus’ telling of many brief parables. In this article, we will dig into the parable of the barren fig tree, one of the most interesting parables found in the word of God, as a multi-faceted teaching from Jesus Christ.

We will first explore the historical context of the telling of the parable; then, we will see the relationships between God, Jesus, and ourselves that will serve as a testament to God’s abundant grace and mercy, as well as a resounding call to repentance. Lastly, we will answer the question that the disciples asked Jesus after almost every parable: so what does this mean for us? 

What is the parable of the fig tree? 

“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

Luke 13:6-9 (ESV)

The parable of the fig tree, found in chapter 13 of Luke’s gospel, tells a short story of a vineyard owner, a vinedresser or gardener, and a barren fig tree. The owner of the vineyard goes out into the vineyard in search of the fruit of the fig tree. He sees that the tree has not bore any fruit, as has been the case for three years. Irritated, the vineyard owner asks his vinedresser, whose purpose is to take care of the vineyard, to cut the tree down as it is just uselessly taking up space in the vineyard.

The vinedresser asks him to give the fig tree another year, one more chance, and he will “dig around it” (Luke 13:8) to ensure that it will bear fruit come harvest time next year. If it has still not bore any fruit, he will cut it down as the owner of the vineyard originally ordered. 

Upon reading it for the first time, this parable is a bit confusing. Why does the vinedresser care about the unproductive tree that has not lived up to its purpose in so long? Why would he not just cut it down as he was told and move on to something more worthwhile? That being said, let’s dive into the context and symbolism to unveil the object lesson. 

The three pieces of the story of the fig tree have clear symbolic significance. Looking at who is represented in the characters, everything begins to become more clear. The vineyard owner represents God as the Creator and Judge. The vinedresser, or vineyard keeper, portrays Jesus as the ultimate atonement. And lastly, the barren tree represents us, followers of Jesus who were once dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1).

Why was the parable told? 

At the time that Jesus told this short parable of the fig tree, both Jesus and John the Baptist had spent three years, the same time period mentioned in the parable, journeying through the nation of Israel, proclaiming to the Jews the dire need for repentance, but to no avail.

The Jewish people of Israel, in their religious arrogance and strict ties to the law of God (which is a good thing when applied correctly to the New Testament), noted throughout Jesus’ time on Earth, were deeply offended by this call to repentance, and ended up rejecting their very own Messiah, deciding to stick only to the teachings of the old testament. Thus, it was not at all unjust for God, as the vineyard owner, to pull up the fruitless tree that Israel had proved itself to be and cast away any hope of repentance from their ongoing sin.

image of figs on tree for the post on what is the meaning of the parable of the fig tree

What should we learn from the parable?

Context and history are of utmost importance when reading and studying God’s word, but we must also understand what God is telling us as modern-day Christians trying to walk righteously in a world of evil. To find out what God wants us to learn from the parable of the fig tree, let’s first look at the relationship between God as the owner of the vineyard and ourselves as the tree.

Of course, we are God’s creation, made to bear his image. In this way, we are a tree planted in God’s vineyard. But when sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, it darkened our hearts. We are born sinners, immediately considered dead in that sin. This does not change our position as image bearers of God, however. So whenever God looks at us, separated from him due to our sin, not living up to the standards of his character, his wrath says “cut it down” (Luke 13:7). 

This is a painful read so far, and that is the point. Adding Jesus Christ as the vinedresser and compassionate gardener into the mix turns this dark and dreadful story into something beautiful. See, when the vinedresser is asked to cut down the barren tree, he intercedes in defense of the tree, though it is unworthy of such, and begs for a chance to redeem it to the vineyard owner.

What a magnificent representation of what Jesus has done for us. Dead in our sin, we are not worthy to be in God’s holy presence, so as the tree is cut down, we are eternally separated from God. But Jesus, the Son of Man and the perfect personification of God’s rich mercy and grace pierces our hearts with the Holy Spirit and covers us in his very own righteousness, as the keeper of the vineyard digs around and fertilizes the fruitless tree so that it may bear fruit in the next year. Because of this intercession, we are redeemed and given a chance to participate in the kingdom of God, living in the presence of our almighty Father. 

What wonderful news. What a manifestation of pure, unconditional love. This is where knowing God feels like that warm fuzzy hug. But again, we are not called to stay there. 

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So what does this mean for us? 

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)

Spread the good news! “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28: 19). 

Just as the Jewish people in biblical times were in deep, grave need of repentance, so is the world we are constantly surrounded by today. As seen above in the great commission, we, as Jesus’ modern disciples, are directly commanded by the word of God to spread the Gospel message, calling our neighbors near and far to repentance so that they, too, may bear the spiritual fruit they were originally intended to bear. As previously talked about, we like to talk about the nice, comforting things that come with following Jesus while leaving out the hard parts.

Because of this, those niceties become common knowledge that is easily ignored by the unbelieving world. But what is not common knowledge is the wrath of God in the judgment that is inevitably faced by each and every one of us. God was ready to uproot any hope for the Jews, and our lost friends and family, the whole world, will face the same fate. That is, unless Jesus pierces their hearts with the Holy Spirit and covers them in his righteousness, the ultimate intercession and redemption for the kingdom of God. 

The parable of the barren fig tree teaches us, God’s fruit trees, so many things in just a few sentences. It is a perfect summarization of God’s loving and merciful character, the imminent judgment that we all face as the second coming of Jesus nears with each day, and the sweet, sweet redemption from that judgment offered by Jesus Christ. It should not only remind us of our story of miraculous hope found in Jesus, the keeper of the vineyard, but it should place in us an urgent conviction to get up and share that story. 

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” 

John 15:18-20 (ESV)

Yes, rejection is inevitable, and it is discouraging, defeating, you name it. Jesus himself tells us, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you… if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:18-20). The Son of Man, the savior of the world, faced hardship daily, and therefore, so will we, but remember He is with us “always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 20). 

You may enjoy this video on the parable of the fig tree.

Or one of these recommended resources:

The Parable of the Fig Tree: Discerning the Signs That Herald Christ’s Return by Ryan Habbena 

Exploring and Applying the Parables of Jesus found in the Gospel of Luke by John Belham

The Good for Nothing Tree Hardcover – Picture Book by Amy-Jill Levine (Author), Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (Author), Annie Bowler (Illustrator)

ESV – “Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

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