DUNCAN/The fruitless fig tree
If you have your Bibles in hand, I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew 21:18-22. The burden of Jesus’ ministry at this point was to make it clear that the division that was taking place in Jerusalem, was between those who accepted His claims as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and those who rejected those claims. The division that was occurring this Passover week in Jerusalem, was both expected by Him and explicable. In other words, Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that He was not taken by surprise. That He was a point of controversy amongst the people in Jerusalem. He was not taken by surprise that many opposed Him even while others embraced Him. And He also wanted the disciples to understand that there was a reason for that and He understood that reason. Jesus is going to explain, among other things in this passage, that one of the reasons was the problem of hypocrisy. They looked on the outside as if they loved God. But in their hearts, they were far from Him. Jesus wants the disciples to know what is behind what is going to happen to Him in this week to come. In this passage there are two things that I would like you to see. First, that Christ punishes pretended piety. Second, that Christ’s disciples must realize the power of faith and prayer in the Christian life.
I. Christ Punishes Pretended Piety
If you direct your attention first to verses 18 and 19, you’ll see here Jesus address the issue of religious hypocrisy. If I could put this in a phrase, I might say it this way. Jesus is dealing with apparently fruitful fruitlessness. Now I know that’s a mouthful, but hear what I’m after there. He’s dealing with those who look like they’re fruitful, but who are in fact fruitless. That’s the very picture of the fig tree. It looks like it has fruit. It has leaves on it, but in fact it doesn’t have fruit. He is dealing with the problem of apparently fruitful fruitlessness or to say it more simply, he’s dealing with hypocrisy. So, we learn here in verses 18 and 19 that Christ punishes pretended piety.
Now as he was on his way into Jerusalem, Jesus spotted a leafy fig tree. He was hungry. So, when Jesus saw this fig tree with all the foliage, He thought, ‘Hmmm, there may be some fruit on that tree that I can partake of.’ It looked like it had fruit. but when He inspected it, it in fact had no fruit whatsoever. Then Jesus does something extraordinary. Something that He has never done before. He curses one of His own creations. He curses that tree and He calls on it never again to bear fruit. The next morning as He and the disciples are passing by again into Jerusalem, they noticed that the tree has completely withered, and they are absolutely amazed. And so, this conversation begins as to the meaning of what Jesus had done.
Now understand that this miracle is a stern warning, and it is the only time that Jesus used His miraculous powers to curse. Jesus is judging Israel’s hypocrisy here. Specifically, Jesus is criticizing Jerusalem and her religious leaders. They appeared to be fruitful, but they were not. Jesus is bringing a strong charge against His Own people, but I think you need to understand as well that this passage is just as much for us today as it was for the people to whom Jesus first spoke it. For there is a danger of false religion in all of us. And this passage reminds us that Christ judges and will judge religious hypocrisy. False religion – those who attempt to look one way on the outside, when in fact on the inside they are different. We must read this passage as a direct warning to us. Hypocrisy results when a person cares more about what other people think about them than what God thinks about them. And hypocrisy occurs when people are more concerned about their loss of reputation than they are for the loss of their souls. Because, in short, a person who is a hypocrite is more concerned about prestige than character. Hypocrisy does not want to be shamed, and it wants to be liked and respected. And so, it will hide certain sins of the heart so that no one will bring a reproach and so that you will be popular. But the more and more you hide your sin without confessing it or repenting of it, the more and more a wall is built in the heart until you become impervious to repentance and repentance is the very instrument of salvation in this case.
Do we know that fruit of the spirit in our own lives? Do we long to be like Christ, the character that Christ is working in His people, something which we desire for itself and for the communion that it gives us, or is it simply something that we want to pretend like we have so that we will be highly thought of in the community and the church? This passage is warning us about just that.
II. Christ’s Disciples Must Realize the Power of Faith and Prayer in The Christian Life
One other thing I’d like you to see in this passage. If you’d look at verses 20-23. Here Jesus gives a statement, a challenge, about the power of faith to the disciples. And He makes it clear that His disciples must realize the power of faith and prayer in the Christian life. According to Matthew, one of the things that the disciples fixated on when they saw this miracle was the rapidity of the tree’s withering. They were impressed that it happened so soon. One night, and the tree was completely withered.
This passage is designed to show that there is no task that is in harmony with God’s will that is impossible for those who believe and pray. The disciples needed to know that, especially in these days to come. Jesus had promised that He was coming to establish a kingdom that would never end, and the disciples were going to see their Lord nailed to a cross. Now at that time they needed to know that God’s word was not going to be thwarted, even though the Son of God was nailed to a tree and laid in a tomb. And so how important it was that He instruct the disciples to believe God’s word and not doubt, no matter what.
Now I don’t know what burdens you’ve come bringing yourselves today. But I do know this. If the disciples could trust God in the hour of Jesus’ trial, that God was going to do what Jesus had said that He was going to do. Then we can trust God no matter what circumstance we are in. May He give us the grace to do so.