"And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, 'Let no fruit grow on you ever again.' Immediately the fig tree withered away" (Matt. 21:19). Mark's account mentions that "it was not the season for figs" (11:13). If this was the case, why then did Jesus speak against the tree? There seems to be two primary reasons why Jesus cursed this fig tree: (1) As a lesson against hypocrisy and (2) As a lesson regarding faith.
Fig trees were known for producing fruit before their leaves, and once the leaves were fully developed, generally the fruit was edible. Thus, this tree hypocritically promised much fruit with its show of leaves, yet it was barren. Although it was not the season for figs, it certainly was not the season for fig leaves either! This tree was a disappointment to any who came to it expecting fruit.
The disciples had heard Jesus curse the fig tree (cf. Mark 11:21). He spoke the words for their benefit (as is seen the next day when He teaches them a related lesson). The tree began to wither immediately though the disciples did not notice such until the next morning (cf. Mark 11:20,21).
Although the lesson against hypocrisy seems very clear, the only lesson explicitly mentioned in the inspired text pertains strictly to the faith of the disciples (which is elaborated upon later). Some scholars have made comparisons between the hypocrisy of this fig tree and that of the Jews. The fig tree, with its show of leaves, promised much fruit, but it was unproductive. The Jews, as professed worshippers of God, had all the outward signs of godliness, but they were barren of the fruits of righteousness. They, like this fig tree, would be destroyed when God's patience expired (cf. Luke 13:6-9). Although it seems reasonable to suggest that Jesus' cursing of this tree is a type of His destruction of Jerusalem, one should always hesitate to apply any Bible passage in a way that is not even hinted at in the text. If one does such (as I have here), he should definitely refrain from being dogmatic.
We will continue studying this narrative in our next lesson.