6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 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?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” – Luke 13:6-9 ESV
At first glance, this parable appears completely out of place and irrelevant to the conversation Jesus had been having with the crowd. But the connection is found in verse 5:
“I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” – Luke 13:5 ESV
Immediately after addressing the subject of the future judgment, Jesus warned all those in His hearing of their universal need to repent. The murders of the Galileans by order of the Roman governor Pilate or the deaths of the “eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell” (Luke 13:4 ESV) had not been the result of sin. In fact, Jesus rejects the idea that the slaughtered “Galileans were worse sinners” or the Jews killed at the pool of Siloam “were worse offenders.”
As the living Word of God, Jesus was intimately familiar with the written word of God. He was steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures and drew from them regularly. And in this case, it seems likely that Jesus had in mind the words of Solomon as recorded in the book of Ecclesiastes.
Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV
And Solomon had been taught this truth by his own father, the great King David, who declared the universal sinfulness of mankind in one of his psalms.
Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.
– Psalm 143:2 ESV
Jesus had come to earth to settle the problem of man’s sin debt. As the apostle Paul would later put it:
For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” – Romans 3:10-11 ESV
In this passage, Paul is quoting from another psalm penned by King David.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is none who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one. – Psalm 14:1-3 ESV
Paul rightly concluded, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). And long before Paul had his Damascus Road experience, Jesus embraced the same unflattering, yet irrevocable truth. Every person on the planet was in need of repentance because they were stood guilty and condemned before a holy and righteous God. The whole reason Jesus had come to earth was to fulfill His Heavenly Father’s plan to provide redemption and release to all those who were held captive by sin and death. And that list included every single individual whether they were a Judean or a Galilean, a Pharisee or a prostitute, a Jew or a Gentile.
And to drive home His point, Jesus used a parable. He described a man who “had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none” (Luke 13:6 ESV). The story is a simple one involving the owner of a vineyard who, season after season, was disappointed to find one of his fig trees devoid of fruit. Despite his care and cultivation of the tree, it remained barren. In exasperation, the owner of the vineyard gave his gardener orders to cut the tree down.
“I’ve waited three years, and there hasn’t been a single fig! Cut it down. It’s just taking up space in the garden.” – Luke 13:7 NLT
The tree had been planted to produce figs. That was its sole purpose. But for three years, the tree had failed to deliver what the vineyard owner expected: Fruit. So, for its lack of fruitfulness, the tree was judged unworthy and unacceptable. Having failed to live up to its potential as a fig tree, the vineyard owner ordered its immediate removal. In his mind, the tree was simply taking up space.
But the gardener intervened. He begged the vineyard owner to give the tree one more season. During that time, he would do all he could to see that the tree received special attention and was given ample opportunity to fulfill its God-ordained purpose of bearing fruit. If the tree remained barren by the next season, the gardener agreed to cut it down.
“Sir, give it one more chance. Leave it another year, and I’ll give it special attention and plenty of fertilizer. If we get figs next year, fine. If not, then you can cut it down.” – Luke 13:8-9 NLT
Since the crowd to whom Jesus was speaking was made up primarily of Jews, His story about the fig tree would have been understood as a reference to Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures contain multiple references where the fig tree is used as a symbol for the nation of Israel.
Like grapes in the wilderness,
I found Israel.
Like the first fruit on the fig tree
in its first season,
I saw your fathers. – Hosea 9:10 ESV
The prophet Jeremiah recorded God’s indictment against the “fruitless” people of Israel.
“Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?
No, they were not at all ashamed;
they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among the fallen;
when I punish them, they shall be overthrown,
says the Lord.
When I would gather them, declares the Lord,
there are no grapes on the vine,
nor figs on the fig tree;
even the leaves are withered,
and what I gave them has passed away from them.” – Jeremiah 8:12-13 ESV
God had expected Israel to be fruitful but instead, they had repeatedly proven to be barren. Rather than produce the fruit of righteousness, they had delivered nothing but sin and shame. Season after season, God had patiently watched to see if His chosen people would produce the fruit for which they had been set apart. Through His law, the sacrificial system, and His prophets, God had continued to cultivate His people. He had repeatedly disciplined and pruned them. Like rain from heaven, He had poured out them His gracious mercies. And yet, they had produced nothing but disappointment and disobedience.
In this story, Jesus portrays Himself as the gardener. It’s no coincidence that He mentions the three years of fruitlessness. At this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus would have been well into the third year of His earthly ministry. He was nearing the end of His mission and was on His way to Jerusalem where He would sacrifice His life on the cross. But in the days remaining, He was going to continue to do all that He could to cultivate a remnant of God’s people so that they might bear fruit. It was for that purpose that Jesus had been sent by the Father. The people of Israel had proven themselves incapable of producing fruit on their own. So, Jesus was spending the last days of His earthly ministry cultivating the soil and fertilizing the fruitless tree of Israel so that it might one day produce the fruit of righteousness.
In the last months of His life, Jesus was pouring Himself into His disciples. He was preparing them for the inevitable end that was coming by unveiling the truth regarding the problem of sin and the need for repentance. The situation was far worse than they imagined. Israel’s fruitlessness had rendered it worthy of elimination. Everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, stood before God as sinners who deserved the full weight of His wrath and the full extent of His judgment. But Jesus had come to intercede on man’s behalf. As John the Baptist had put it, Jesus was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).
And ever since Jesus had begun His earthly ministry, He had proclaimed a single message:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” – Mark 1:15 ESV
He was the answer to humanity’s sin problem. He was the gardener who had come to cultivate the barren tree of Israel and restore its fruit-bearing capacity. But it would only happen through His death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus would die so that others might live. He would offer His life so that the spiritually dead and fruitless might be resurrected to new life. As the author of Hebrews put it: “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10 ESV).
And it would be during their celebration of the Passover meal, that Jesus would hold up a cup of wine and tell His disciples, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28 ESV).
Jesus had come to die. The success of His entire mission was based on His sacrificial death. It would be the key to Israel’s future fruitfulness. But even more than that, it would be the means by which God would restore a fallen and condemned humanity to a right relationship with Himself. Jesus was going to offer His life as a ransom for many. And long after Jesus had accomplished His mission and returned to His rightful place at His Father’s side in heaven, the apostle Peter would write:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. – 1 Peter 2:24-25 ESV
The Gardener gave His life so that the barren tree might produce the fruit of righteousness. And Paul provides us with a wonderful reminder of just what that fruit should look like.
I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God. – Philippians 1:9-11 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.