Why did Jesus cause the fig tree to wither and die, as described in Matthew 21:18-19?
This event is actually quite significant in God’s program and dealings with Israel, in view of the fact that God had taught His nation in the past that various aspects of their national existence were likened by Him unto some particular trees. The fig tree was one of those trees. It, along with 3 other trees, were used by God to represent and describe four aspects of Israel’s national existence and experience.
Now there is a lot that could be said about this, and in truth there is a lot that first needs to be understood from Genesis to Malachi in order to fully appreciate all that is represented and signified not only by the Lord’s action of cursing the fig tree, but also the references He makes to the other trees. However, the following brief comments should help provide you with the gist of the issue.
Of the four aspects of Israel’s national existence and experience, the fig tree, (in accordance with man’s use of it in the Garden of Eden), represented Israel’s religious life. That religious life, however, was doomed to failure seeing it was rooted in the performance system of their own works resident in the Law covenant that they had signed with God. As such it rejected the issue of being dealt with by God on the basis of His grace. Their religious life would produce and bring forth fruit, but it would be fruit that God’s Holiness, Righteousness, and Justice could not, and would not, accept. It would be just like the fig tree Adam and his wife used in the garden. God wouldn’t accept it.
As Israel’s religious life pursued the grace-rejecting course of the Law contract, it eventually developed into the completely vain religious system God declared it to be in Isaiah’s day. Later, through Jeremiah, God likened it and its participants unto “vile figs, that cannot be eaten, they are so evil,” and He promised that He would treat them accordingly. And, indeed, He began to do so in Jeremiah’s day.
However, it would be in the Lord’s day of wrath, (the final installment in God’s program with Israel during which He would purge His nation of all its religious unrighteous element), that God would finally cut down the fig tree of Israel’s vain religious system and give it to the fire to be burned.
When the Lord Jesus Christ was on the earth in Israel as recorded in the Gospel accounts, He was just as Paul declares in Romans 15:8. He “was a minister of the circumcision, for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers.” One of those promises He confirmed was the promised destruction of Israel’s vain, “vile fig” producing, religious system. God the Father promised its destruction, and God the Son confirmed it when He came.
Therefore, when the Lord’s three year ministry was drawing to its conclusion, and the prophesied time of purging wrath was just around the corner on Israel’s time-schedule, the Lord performed the significant gesture of cursing the fig tree in the presence of His disciples. The fig tree of Israel’s vain religious system was set to be judged and destroyed, and the Lord’s gesture confirmed the reality of that.
— Keith R. Blades