"Lessons from a Fig Tree"
(Delivered Palm Sunday, March 16, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
I often marvel at God's providence when it comes to the preaching of His word. We've been studying together from the Gospel of Matthew, going passage by passage. And here we are today—on Palm Sunday—in the very section that concerns that great event. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that you and I cannot really understand God's perspective of what Palm Sunday is all about, unless we understand the very passage we will be looking at this morning.
After our Lord made His triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem, and after He cleansed the temple, and after He left to spend the evening in nearby Bethany, Matthew 21:18-22 tells us,
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For years, the only thing I knew about figs was that they were the main ingredient in "Fig Newtons". I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this; but I hadn't ever even tasted a real fig before until just a couple of years ago—not one that wasn't already in a "Newton", anyway. And I liked it so much I ate several in a row!
I did a little research into 'fig-trees' in the Bible; and what I found was fascinating. Just from a practical standpoint, fig-trees were pleasurable things. The fruit of the fig-tree was good and sweet; and so people would often go to a fig-tree to sit back, relax, and reflect while munching away at a fig (John 1:48). In a way, you could almost think of meeting under a fig-tree as the biblical equivalent of meeting at a Starbucks.
Fig-trees were symbolic of prosperity (Deut. 8:8; Hab. 3:17; Hag. 2:19), pleasure (Judges 9:11), and security (1 Kings 4:25; 2 Kings 18:31; Isaiah 36:16; Joel 2:22; Nah. 3:12) in the land of Israel. When the people of Israel would see the fig-trees putting forth the early "green figs", they looked at it warm-heartedly as a sign that springtime had come (Song 2:13).
It's not surprising, then, that the Bible uses the fruit of the fig-tree as a symbol of Israel. God says, "I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your fathers as the firstfruits on the fig tree in its season" (Hosea 9:8). God even gave the prophet Jeremiah a vision of the remnant people of Judah as a basket of either good ripe figs, or figs so rotten they couldn't be eaten (Jer. 24:1-10).
And so, it's a sign of judgment upon Israel when God warns that He is going to strike the fruit of the fig tree. In Jeremiah 8:13, He says, "'I will surely consume them' says the LORD. 'No grapes shall be on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree, and the leaf shall fade; and the things I have given them shall pass away from them'" (Jeremiah 8:13; see also Joel 1:11-12).
All of this is important to understand; because in this morning's passage, our Lord 'acts-out' a parable concerning Israel; and He uses a symbol that would have been readily-understood by the people of Israel: a fig-tree.
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Stop and think of what preceded this “living parable”. At the very beginning of our Lord's earthly ministry, He came to Jerusalem and into the temple on the Passover. And it was then that He cleansed the temple, for the first time, of those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and of the money changers that were doing business there. He drove them out, saying "Take these things away! Do not make My Father's house a house of merchandise" (John 2:16).
And now, near the very end of His earthly ministry just before the Passover three years later, He rides into Jerusalem in triumph on the foal of a colt. And entering in, He once again comes into the temple and cleanses it. He again drove out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; saying, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer.' but you have made it a den of thieves'" (Matthew 21:13).
Let that sink in. He cleansed the temple at the beginning of His earthly ministry on Passover; and then He cleansed it again at the end of His ministry on Passover three years later. With that in mind, I think it's very significant that Jesus once spoke this parable to the Jewish people:
The King had already once come to His temple; and He found that He had to clean it. He came again three years later, looking for fruit on His 'fig tree'; but still found none. He came expecting faith in Himself, and instead was greeted by the religious leaders with opposition and unbelief.
And the time of patience was coming to an end. The persistently barren fig tree is about to be cut down.
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Now; there are some very practical spiritual principles for us in this morning's passage. Look at it again with me; and let's learn together the lessons of the fig tree by the side of the road.
The first lesson our Lord sought to teach was that . . .
1. RELIGIOSITY MIXED WITH DISBELIEF IN JESUS LEADS TO SPIRITUAL BARRENNESS (vv. 18-19).
Matthew tells us that it was early in the morning that Jesus and His disciples were making their way back from Bethany to Jerusalem. And "as He returned to the city, He was hungry" (v. 18). Since they stayed at Bethany, it would be safe to assume that Jesus and His disciples spent the night at the home of His dear friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus. And if that's the case, you certainly would think that Martha would have made sure everyone was well-fed before they left. But for whatever reason, it seems that they made the journey without breakfast.
Perhaps Jesus' hunger was intentional. Perhaps it was so that He could teach this object lesson to His disciples. As they journeyed along toward the city, Jesus saw a fig tree by the side of the road. The original language tells us that it was a "single" fig tree—all alone; which is perhaps what made it so easy to see. And what's more Jesus could see from a distance that it bore leaves. And if you were hungry, that was a very good sign.
Apparently, fig trees in that part of the world produced a sort of early "fig" in the springtime—a small one that came before the leaves began to grow. They weren't as big and juicy as the later figs would be; but they were still very tasty. (As someone suggested to me recently, a good name for them might have been “figlets”.) And so, Jesus came to the fig tree—covered with the promise of fruit—expecting to be able to pick some of these smaller “figlets” and satisfy His hunger.
But Matthew tells us that, when He came to the tree, "He found nothing on it but leaves" (v. 19). It had all the promise of fruitfulness—all the appearance of bearing something He desired. But on closer examination, it had only the outward appearance of 'fruitfulness' . . . and bore none of the fruit.
I believe that Jesus, at that moment, was illustrating a prophetic word from the Old Testament. Back in the book of Micah, God has His prophet write these words concerning what God would expect from His people:
But on closer examination of Israel, the prophet writes,
Jesus came to His temple, expecting to find genuine fruits of faith from His people. Instead, He was greeted with unbelief, opposition, and the abuse of His Father's house. Oh, there was "religion", of course. In fact, there was "religion" all over the place. There were lots of offerings being made, and lots of Scriptures being recited, and lots of animals being purchased for sacrifice. The people were even being so careful about "religion" that they made sure that the coins of pagan nations was exchanged into money that would be acceptable to use in the temple. It was very, very religious. But all of the religion was nothing more than the mere outward "promise" of fruitfulness and nothing more. There was no real spiritual “fruit”. It was all "fig leaves"; but no "figs".
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When I thought of this, my mind went back to the first mention in the Bible of "fig leaves". Do you remember it? It was back in the book of Genesis; after Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden.
God had warned them not to eat of the tree that was in the midst of the garden; telling them, "[I]n the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 1:17). But they disobeyed God; and as soon as they sinned, their relationship with God was broken. They became aware that they were naked before Him; and "they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings" (3:7). Fig leaves were not an acceptable covering for sin before a righteous and holy God; and so, as we read on, we find that He covered them in "tunics of skin" (v. 20). For there to be a tunic of “skin”, something had to die. A substitute had to shed blood in their place; and it was with the skin of the substitute that they were clothed.
But isn't it interesting that it was with the leaves of a fig tree that they sought to make themselves appear acceptable to God? You might say that "fig leaves" were symbolic of the first act of "man-made religion"—mere outward covering, but with a heart of sin underneath.
Our Lord was not impressed with the leaves on the tree—the mere promise of fruit. He hungered for the real thing from His people; but instead, He was met with mere religiosity—mere "fig leaves"—that cloaked a heart of disbelief in His identity and opposition to His authority.
Jesus then cursed the fig tree. He said, "Let no fruit grow on you ever again"; and we're told that "immediately the fig tree withered away" (v. 19). And I believe we should take this as a symbol of our Lord's condemnation on those Jewish leaders who rejected Him when He came to them. Theirs was the most privileged generation of all Jewish people. It was to them that the long-awaited King had come. And yet, they would not believe on Him. And so, their opportunity to bear fruit for Him was lost to them.
In verse 43, Jesus tells them, "Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it." And it was only a short time after that—within one generation's time, in fact—that the Roman Empire conquered Jerusalem; and the temple and the land was taken away from them.
I fear that many of us today seek to cloak a heart of unbelief toward the Lord. We try to behave religiously. We observe all the rules and regulations. We go to church regularly. We give to the poor. We pride ourselves on our clean living. And yet, we try to do it all without a dependent relationship on the Lord. The whole time long, all our religion is nothing more than a bunch of "fig leaves"—a mere outward promise of fruitfulness; but with none of the fruit our Lord truly wants to see from us. He looks but does not find that we have a genuine relationship with Him by faith. He looks but does not find that we confess our sinfulness, and place our trust solely upon the cross. He looks but does not find that we allow Him to progressively purify our lives of the things that displease Him. He looks but does not find that we obey Him out of a grateful heart of love toward Him. He looks but does not find that we trust Him daily as our Savior, Lord, and greatest Friend.
Mere religiosity without genuine faith in the Lord Jesus Christ may look good before men; but it greatly displeases the Lord. It produces nothing but spiritual barrenness! May it never be that our Lord examines us, finds nothing but the mere "leaves" of religiosity, and then has to say to us, "Let no fruit grow on you ever again"!
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Now; I believe that's the first great lesson we're to learn from the fig tree. It's the principle that was exhibited in Jesus' reaction to the temple when He entered into it: that religiosity combined with disbelieve in our Lord produces nothing that pleases our Lord—that it only leads to spiritual barrenness.
And that leads us to the reaction of the disciples to what they saw; and to the next lesson we're to learn, that . . .
2. A GENUINE, ABIDING FAITH IN JESUS IS WHAT LEADS TO SPIRITUAL FRUITFULNESS (vv. 20-22).
The disciples had a hard time learning the lessons of dependency upon the Lord. They had seen Him perform many miracles. By this time, they had even seen Him raise His dear friend Lazarus from the dead (John 11). But when they saw Him curse a fig tree, and then saw the fig tree wither and die afterwards, they marveled; saying, "How did the fig tree wither away so soon?" (v. 20).
It's tempting to shake our heads at the disciples, and wonder why it was that they just couldn't get it. Why would they be so amazed at the fig tree, when they had already seen our Lord perform far greater miracles than that? But then, in a way, I'm glad that they didn't get it; because you and I can now learn from the response they received from the Lord.
It's interesting that He didn't answer their question directly. Instead, it seems to me that the Lord told them something that they weren't expecting. He begins by saying "Assuredly, I say to you . . ."; which is always an indication that something very significant was about to be said, and that it should be received with all confidence as the absolute truth. Then, He said, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain [probably speaking of Mount Zion], ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
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What an amazing thing our Lord says! But it reminds me of a story I heard once about a lady who read those two verses, then looked out the window at a mountain off in the horizon. Staring at the mountain for a moment, she boldly spoke the command: "Be removed and be cast into the sea!"; and she stared some more. And when nothing happened, she finally sighed and said, "Well, I knew it wouldn't work."
Well; of course it wouldn't. Jesus isn't giving us some kind of "blank check" to do whatever we want independently from His Lordship! Did you notice that He specifies, "[I]f you have faith and do not doubt . . ."? What is it we're to have faith in? Obviously, we're to have faith in Him! What is it we're not to doubt? We're not to doubt His will expressed clearly in His word. It's all about Him! The promise He makes in this passage is NEVER something we're to try to claim in any other way than with complete, heartfelt, sincere, dependent faith on Him and in obedient trust in His word!
I believe that Jesus explained what is meant in this promise in John 15. There, He told his disciples,
The kind of faith our Lord wants from us is characterized by "abiding" in Him. It's the kind of faith in the Lord Jesus that recognizes that we draw our very life from Him, and cannot do anything apart from Him. And it involves an understanding of His revealed will through the holy Scriptures; and a commitment be completely yielded to that will without doubt or without wavering.
That's what it means to "have faith" and "not doubt". And if that's the case for us, Jesus goes on to adds this promise:
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So; here's two lessons our Lord would have us learn from the fig tree—and both lessons have to do with a vital faith in Jesus Christ.
First, the tree that is covered with leaves but is barren of fruit teaches us the barrenness of mere religion on the outside when there's unbelief in Jesus on the inside. Such unbelief in Jesus produces nothing.
Second, the promise of the Savior to the disciples teaches us that real fruitfulness is a product of genuine, living, personal, dependency upon Jesus Christ in faith. Such faith in Jesus brings glory to the Father.
As we celebrate His entry into Jerusalem on this day, let's make very sure that we are truly living in vital trust in Him! It the difference between barrenness and fruitfulness.
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