Commentaries generally agree that fig trees in the area of Palestine produce fruit for much of the year, if they bear at all. Unlike most trees, the fig tree first produces its fruit and afterward its leaves (see Song of Solomon 2:13). The immature fruit, though green and hard, is considered edible if one is sufficiently in need. It was not out of the way for Jesus to look for fruit in March since the tree was shrouded with luxuriant green leaves, making a show of being a worthy tree. But when Jesus found nothing on the tree, He used it as an example to teach His disciples — and us — some spiritual principles. Seeing the tree was obviously worthless as a fruit bearer — not just at that time of year but all seasons — He had no compunction about cursing and killing it as an object lesson for all.
First, with a tree having leaves but not figs, an element of deception is involved. Secondly this incident teaches that the outward appearance and show is not what counts with God. What counts is production of fruit (Luke 13:3-9; Galatians 5:22-23). It matters not how much we profess to be Christians if we bear no fruit. And the rapid drying up of the fig tree pictures how we will likewise be cursed and die, if we are found to be barren at the time Christ calls for an accounting.
In Luke 13:6-7 (Revised Standard Version), Jesus expressed the principle this way: “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, ‘Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down.’ ” Then the vinedresser prevailed on him to leave the tree for one more year, to cultivate around it, and to fertilize it, to see if finally it might possibly bear fruit, “but if not, you can cut it down.”
The parable shows the long-suffering of God, and His willingness to give every possible aid. But finally His allotted time for production comes to an end.
Though the fig tree, like the olive and the vine, was a symbol of the Judaean commonwealth, which was about to be cut down, verses 1 to 5 make it clear that Jesus meant the lesson to apply also to each individual.
John the baptizer also told the Pharisees and Sadducees: “Bear fruit that befits repentance … Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:8,10, RSV).