The explanation of the symbolism of the fig leaf begins in the book of Matthew.
Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. 19 And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. 20 And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away! (Matthew 21:18-20)
At first glance this is one of the more perplexing sections of Scripture. Why would Jesus Christ - God on earth and creator of all things good - curse the fig tree. You can tell by the language that this is historical record, not parable. What does it mean?
The purpose of the fig leaf
The fig tree was created by God to give pleasure and satisfy hunger. And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food (Genesis 2.9). The fig tree was intended to nourish.
Cataclysm and the fig leaf
The first mention of the fig leaf is connected with the most terrible cataclysm in all of history.
And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. 8 And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3.7-9)
Suddenly Adam and Eve knew they were naked. So they took something good and used it in the service of a lie. And then they hid themselves from the presence of the LORD. Shame and fear multiply sin.
The fig leaf as a symbol of the fall of man
We cannot conceive of the depth of the loss suffered by our Beloved Maker at this terrible moment when Adam fell. The good world He had created was was ruined. The perfect communion He enjoyed with His beloved children was severed.
Fig leaves are a symbol of the fall.
The shame of nakedness
The shame of nakedness is deeply wired into human beings. Our first parents - Adam and Eve - never knew fear before they ate the forbidden fruit. Now like guilty children everywhere they scurried to find something - anything - to make them feel safe again. They chose the fig leaf, and clothing was born. Since that day one of the greatest humiliations for a human being is to be forced to be naked in public.
So shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives, young and old, **naked and barefoot, even with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.** (Isaiah 20:4)
French women accused of collaborating with the Germans, stripped down to their underwear, some with heads shaved, as part of their public humiliation. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images). 1945
The fig tree as Israel
The fig tree is used as a figure of the people of Israel in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Jeremiah 24.1-8, Hosea 9.10, Luke 13.6-9). The people of Israel were called out of the world to be a distinct people. A good part of the law - when followed - creates separation. The people of God are always meant to be strangers to the world. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1.5) The nations of the earth hate those that are different than themselves. This comes from the curse of Babel. God wants His people to follow Him in all their attitudes and behaviors. He does not want people to adopt the values and mimic the habits of the pagans and unsaved amongst whom they live.
It’s easy to condemn “the hardness of Old Testament Israel” for not obeying God. But how is the church today doing? Are we keeping separate from the world?
Israel - a people holy and precious to God
Many in the nation of Israel loved God and obeyed Him. They are holy and precious to God. Think of the faith of Abraham, Ruth, Naomi, David and so many others. Israel gave the world justice and morality. Israel brought forth the saviour of the world, Jesus Christ the righteous.
One faith, one people
The righteousness of Abraham is the same as the righteousness of Paul. The righteousness of Paul is the same as the righteousness of every true believer today. An Israelite indeed - whether Jewish or Gentile - has faith in Christ. Through this faith he is made right with God.
And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness. (Genesis 15.6).
The fig leaf in Mark’s Gospel - nothing but leaves
And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; (Mark 11.13)
God seeks communion with His people. As hard as it may be to believe, God wants a relationship with His redeemed. He (Jesus) came unto his own, and his own received him not. (John 1:11)
Some of Israel believed, and still do. Think of Mary and Joseph and the apostles. All were of Israel. But as a whole, all Jesus found in Israel were fig leaves - people seeking to cover themselves with their own good deeds. Such people have no need of communion with God. They are very happy with their own selves. And they better be. For they will have all eternity to get to know themselves better.
For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. (Romans 10:3)
God’s response to fig leaf righteousness
Just as Jesus cast Adam and Eve out of Eden, so he casts out anyone who makes their own righteousness or teaches others to do so. All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64.6).
And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; 16 And would not suffer that any man should carry [any] vessel through the temple. 17 And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves.
Astonished at Jesus’s doctrine
If you are astonished at this, you are not alone. So were the people of Israel at the temple (Mark 11.18b). But the corporate religious leaders - pastors, priests and businessmen - had a very different reaction.
And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: (Mark 11.18a)
Not much has changed in 2000 years.
The way of the fig leaf is cursed forever
(Jesus) said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away.
Soon after this Christ chose to suffer his crucifixion. At the moment of Christ’s death, the cloth separating the holy of holies in the temple was ripped in two. This graphically showed the permanent end of the sacrifical system as a means to approach God. With Christ’s sinless life, atoning death and resurrection, the Edenic communion between God and His people is restored. The accomplished work of God on behalf of his elect has been completed.
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2.9-10)
Who are the saved Paul is speaking of in this passage? Every person who believes in the work of Jesus Christ alone for their reconciliation with God.
The symbolism of the fig leaf
You are an eternal, unique creation of God, made for never ending communion with Him. And you are born under God’s wrath. A symbol of that curse is the fig leaf.
Relationship with God
Before you can have any relationship with God, His wrath against you must be removed. It can only be taken away through faith in the vicarious death and obedient life of Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, the only begotten Son of the Father.
Justification by faith means that you trust completely in the way God has provided, in the lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Thereafter you keep seeking to live a life for God, having Him as your greatest joy and reward in this life and in the one to come.
"Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." (1 John 3:2) "Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3)
It is finished
At the end of time, when the last person to be saved will have been saved, and when the rest have been cast away into an eternity of suffering apart from God, the world will be remade.
God’s people will again walk with Him without shame. There will be no need for a fig leaf - no need for works righteousness (Revelation 21.27) All that kind of thing will have been destroyed, along with those who trust in it.
In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree [were] for the healing of the nations. 3 And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: 4 And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads." (Revelation 22:2-4)
Even so come soon, Lord Jesus. Amen
Image credit Mary Derrick.