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The Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree – repent or perish

The parable of the fig tree

The Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree – repent or perish. Have you heard of the parable of the fruitless fig tree? Do you know why “repent or perish” is in the title along with the name of the parable? If not, you’re probably not alone. You see, the parable of the fruitless fig tree is kind of “hidden” under a section titled “Repent or Perish” in the 1984 NIV.

The Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree - repent or perish is article #5 in the series: Parables of Jesus. Click button to view titles for entire series
The parable of the fig tree

When you read it, the concept of the tree without fruit and the warning of repent or perish makes sense.

Well, it should make sense to Christians.

However, I believe there’s more to it than we might think.

It sounds fruitless-fig-tree focused. But what if we look at a larger view? Look at a context beyond just the one passage. It’s 9 verses. Three paragraphs.

However, having said that, it’s also part of Luke’s Gospel. It’s something Jesus said. And, it’s a parable. Therefore, we must be on the lookout for the deeper meaning. Something beyond one little fig tree. Beyond something like the image of that one tree, surrounded by dirt and scrub brush.

What’s the connection between the Fruitless Fig Tree and repent or perish?

So let’s take a look at the passage the NIV titled Repent or Perish.

Repent or Perish

Lk 13:1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Lk 13:6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

Lk 13:8 “ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ”

OK, so the repent or perish part is fairly obvious. At least it should be. It feels like, these days, we want to feel like there’s no need to repent of anything. The common refrain is that God loves me, God made me the way I am, so I’m perfect just the way I am and you hate me if you think any differently.

However, that kind of thinking ignores so much of what the Bible says. It ignores the fall, where Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden. It even ignores the fact that Jesus died for our sins. If we’re perfect the way we are, then why did Jesus have to die? Obviously, at least it should be obvious to a Christian, we aren’t perfect the way we are. We need to change, transform in church-speak, into people who are more Christ-like.

Why is the Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree under Repent or Perish?

At first, it seems very reasonable to put the Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree under the heading of Repent or Perish. After all, both are about life and death. The fig tree is going to die if it isn’t taken care of. And if we don’t repent, we will die spiritually, and therefore end up someplace not called Heaven after we die physically.

It makes sense.

And yet, this is a parable. There is a deeper meaning than the obvious one that the tree is going to be removed if it doesn’t grow. Any ideas about what the deeper meaning is?

Why is the caretaker in this parable?

We read this parable. We can’t miss the fig tree. And we pay attention to the fact that the landowner wants the tree removed if it doesn’t produce fruit. The parallels are always talked about when this parable comes up.

  • The landowner represents God
  • The tree represents us.
  • But do we ever think about the caretaker?

Who is that caretaker? Have you ever even thought about it?

Now that you are thinking about it – who do you think the caretaker is? There’s a certain logic to thinking that if the landowner is God and we’re the tree, then the caretaker must be Jesus. Maybe the Holy Spirit? Some might even think about the Pastor of their church.

You know what? I don’t think so. At least, not entirely.

Here’s something else to think about. Why do we assume that we are the tree?

If there’s anything about our normal assumptions about this parable, it’s the belief that we are the tree!

Why should Christians assume we are the tree in this parable?

If we truly are a follower of Jesus, we are not the tree. We cannot possibly be the tree. That should raise at least two questions.

  • If not us, then who does the fruitless fig tree represent?
  • If we’re not the fig tree, then where are we in the parable?

Think about it. If we’re not the tree, then someone else must be. And if we’re not the tree, then we must be someone/something in the parable. Otherwise, why would Jesus tell the Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree? What’s the point of a parable about repent or perish, which obviously applies to us, if we’re not in the parable?

How do we know Christians, true followers of Jesus, are not the fruitless fig tree?

You might wonder, why did I add that qualifier, true followers of Jesus, in the heading

Not everyone who calls themselves Christians are actually following Jesus

Before getting into why true Christians cannot be the tree, let me make something clear. Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is truly a follower of Jesus. Anyone can call themselves a Christian. But there’s plenty of evidence in the Bible that many who claim to be “Christian” are not. To them, Jesus will say the words at the end of the passage below. It just happens to be, probably not by coincidence, another passage about a tree and the lack of fruit from that tree.

A Tree and Its Fruit

Mt 7:15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Mt 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

So what I’m talking about here are the people who truly try to follow Jesus, and are known by Him because of that.

Back to the true follower of Jesus cannot be the fig tree

So, why is it that true followers of Jesus cannot be the fruitless fig tree? Well, here’s a passage from 1 Peter that explains it nicely.

Praise to God for a Living Hope

1Pe 1:3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

You see, if we are saved, as the true follower of Jesus is, then we can’t be represented by a fruitless tree that’s going to be cut down if it doesn’t respond to the treatments from the caretaker.

So then who does the fruitless fig tree represent?

Rather, the fruitless fid tree appears to represent those who claim to be Christians, but really aren’t. Really? It’s not all non-believers?

I don’t believe it is non-believers who don’t even claim to be Christians. Here’s why.

Be fruitful or be cut down (13:6–9)

Here, Jesus is referring to those who have been blessed yet are fruitless. Like a barren fig tree, no fruit had been found for three years. The landowner was angry and wanted it cut down (13:7).
Some see this parable as referring to the nation of Israel. The keeper is the Lord Jesus, and the landowner God the Father. The keeper intercedes for the tree (see Heb. 7:24, 25), promising to do all he can to make it fruitful. We must ask whether we are fruitful in serving the Lord, or we just ‘use up’ his gifts to us, remaining barren. [1] Childress, G. (2006). Opening up Luke’s Gospel (p. 124). Day One Publications.

So the landowner represents God. The landowner knows when it’s time for a fig tree to bear fruit. He certainly wouldn’t expect any tree to bear fruit if it wasn’t the right season for that kind of fruit.

By the same token, God knows who claims to be a believer and who doesn’t. Further, God knows the time by which someone who claims to be a believer should have borne fruit. So the person who claims to be Christian but has borne no fruit, represented by the fruitless fig tree that is in season, is noticed by God. God calls this to the attention of the caretaker. The caretaker tells God he will nurture the tree to see if it will bear fruit.

Therefore, again, the true follower of Jesus who is bearing fruit cannot be that fruitless fig tree. It must be someone who’s “in season”, someone who claims to be following Jesus, but actually doesn’t.

Who is the caretaker in the parable of the fruitless fig tree?

Now, we’re left with one outstanding question. Who is the caretaker in The Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree?

Here’s a hint. If you believe you’re a true follower of Jesus, and if you know you’ve borne fruit, where are you in this parable?

And here’s the answer – you are the caretaker! The true follower of Jesus is the one who God, represented by the landowner, speaks to about the fruitless fig tree that represents the person who thinks they’re following Jesus but really isn’t.

Huh? When did God ever talk to you about nurturing someone to maybe help them bear fruit?

It’s a two-part communication, in a way.

The Great Commission – the first part of our communication with God about the fruitless fig tree

The Great Commission

Mt 28:16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said,All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

We probably look at The Great Commission as being a command for us to reach out to non-believers.

But let’s consider this portion of what Jesus said: teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

The teaching has to begin before someone gets baptized. Say what?

What does The Great Commission say about baptism and teaching?

Yes, The Great Commission talks about baptism before teaching. But does that mean Jesus intended for us to baptize people and then begin teaching them about Him? Really, that makes no sense. How can someone promise to follow Jesus before they know anything about them? As a disciple of Jesus, how can we ask someone to do that? Teaching must begin first. And then, after baptism, teaching continues. Learning continues, forever.

So that’s the first part of our communication with God about the scenario in the Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree.

The Great Commission – the second part of our communication with God about the fruitless fig tree

Yes, The Great Commission is also the second part of our two-part communication with God related to The Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree.

Where does it say that? How about right here: And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

And what’s that got to do with anything? We aren’t left alone. Not for anything. Including performing The Great Commission. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a new believer, which we’ll see in the Parable of the Sower, or someone who at least thinks they’ve begun the journey but, for whatever reason, has still borne no fruit, as we see in the current parable about a fig tree with no fruit.

How is Jesus with us to help teach others about Him?

Jesus Promises The Holy Spirit

Jn 14:15 “If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”

Jn 14:22 Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

Jn 14:23 Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

Jn 14:25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Jn 14:28 “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 29 I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. 30 I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me, 31 but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.
“Come now; let us leave.”

That’s how. When Jesus was walking the earth, He could only be with a very limited number of people at one time. He didn’t have Zoom or any other internet app. But through the person of the Holy Spirit, Jesus can do all of the above things with/for all of His followers – and all at the same time.

So that’s the second part of our communication with God about the scenario in the Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree.

Conclusion – The Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree – repent or perish

Hopefully, you can see now how anyone/everyone who truly follows Jesus should have some role in nurturing someone who is in the position of the fruitless fig tree.

The concept is certainly in The Great Commission. It’s in this parable. And many others things Jesus said, taught, and provided examples for us through His own life.

What about the repent or perish?

Well, as alluded to earlier, for those who truly follow Jesus, the repent or perish isn’t about us/them. We’ve already done that.

Therefore, the repent or perish is directly intended for someone else. Someone who’s not even trying to follow Jesus. Or someone who maybe thinks they are, but aren’t on the right path, and need some correction.

Having said that, repent or perish is indirectly meant for the true follower of Jesus as well. As I said, not that we have to repent or perish – we’ve already repented and are saved. However, we do have a role to play in helping someone else repent or perish. Yes, the Great Commission, yet again.

One result from our playing a supporting role in spreading the Gospel, with the Holy Spirit doing the actual change of heart, is that if the person does accept Jesus and follows Him, then that person will repent during the process. And therefore, that person will not perish.

Just in case we think it’s not really necessary to “do” anything other than “believe”, check this out.

Faith and Deeds

Jas 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Jas 2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

Jas 2:20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

Jas 2:25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

If everyone claims to have faith, but does nothing as a result of that faith, then no one will be saved. No one will repent. And all will perish.

We should want to spread the word of the salvation we’ve received. Not by force, but in the way Jesus taught and by the examples of His own life. And one of those is caring for those who are represented by the fruitless fig tree.

Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay


1  Childress, G. (2006). Opening up Luke’s Gospel (p. 124). Day One Publications.
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The Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree – repent or perish


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