There are several elements to understanding this unexpected passage. To begin, the Lord Jesus knew that His words would be viewed as controversial. Second, the word sword is figurative, not literal. The Lord was not saying He would bring war; rather, He would bring division. Third, the context is about family relations, not different nations. Faith in Jesus as the Messiah would bring division to families: “For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother” (Matt. 10:35).
Finally, this passage is predictive, not prescriptive. It foresees that faith in Jesus will divide families but does not demand that it do so. For example, my own faith in Jesus caused my father to disown me despite my desire to maintain our relationship. But I could not restore a relationship with him without giving up my faith in Jesus. Jesus called me to love Him even more than my own father (Matt. 10:37).
The answer to this surprising action is found in the horticultural background of fig trees in the land of Israel. Typically, the fruit on a fig tree precedes the leaves. The passage says that the tree was in leaf, so it would have been natural to find unripe fruit on it. These figs would not be as flavorful as ripe figs but they were still edible. By having leaves with no fruit, the tree demonstrated that it was barren. So it was entirely appropriate for it to wither at Jesus’ command since it would never bear fruit.
But there was an additional purpose to be derived from this cursing of the fig tree. Immediately after the Lord Jesus cursed the fig tree, He went to the temple and cast out the money changers for their hypocrisy. The fig tree represented the danger of religious hypocrisy. To show off great religiosity (to be in leaf) without the genuine fruit of faith will lead to condemnation. It was not selfish and vindictive to curse the fig tree. The Lord Jesus was removing a barren, worthless tree and giving a valuable lesson to His followers about religious hypocrisy at the same time.
Matthew makes it clear that the Lord Jesus was born while Herod ruled. He died in 4 B.C., so most Bible students surmise that the Lord Jesus was born a year or two earlier, sometime between 6 B.C. and early 4 B.C. Matthew and Luke both place the birth of the Lord Jesus near the end of the reign of Herod. So the Lord Jesus was born somewhere between 6 and 4 B.C.
Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, records that Quirinius became governor after the Romans removed Herod’s son, Archelaus, as king in A.D. 6, and he carried out a census (or registration) of his entire domain early in his governorship (see Luke 2:1–3). On the surface this appears to contradict Matthew’s account. A good explanation is to translate Luke 2:2 in a slightly different way. The key word is proton, translated “first,” as in “This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” When this word is used adverbially, it can mean “before.” That’s the way it was used in John 15:18, when the Lord Jesus said that the world “hated me first.” Luke’s point was that the Lord Jesus was born during a census, requiring Joseph and Mary to travel to their familial town; but this census is not to be confused with the more well known census conducted ten years later by Quirinius. Luke’s desire to be precise (see Luke 1:3–4) caused him to differentiate the census at the birth of Jesus from the later one.