Holy Week #2: Lessons From a Fig Tree

I’m spending some time this week exploring the historical events in the life of Jesus leading up to our celebration of Easter. Today we find Jesus returning to the city of Jerusalem from Bethany where He had spent the night. On His way, He sees a fig tree, full of leaves, and inspects it for fruit. When it has none, Jesus curses the tree and it withers. At first glance this seems like unusual behavior from the Savior who is gentle and compassionate with sinners. There must be an important lesson for us to learn!

Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

Matthew 21:18-19

Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is described as having been planted by God – most often a vineyard but also as a tree. Fruit was a sign of right relationship with God, and the absence of fruit a sign of judgment.

  • Isaiah 27:6 “In days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit.”
  • Micah 7:1 “there is no cluster of grapes to eat, none of the early figs that I crave.”
  • Jeremiah 29:17 “I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten.”
  • Joel 2:21b-22 “Surely the Lord has done great things! The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches.

This idea of a plant that produces fruit illustrates well God’s purpose for Israel. We can trace through the prophets God’s desire for Israel to fill the world with fruit, God inspecting for early fruit, being judged and cursed as bad fruit, and then the promise again of good fruit in the final restoration!

[Jesus] intended to present in this tree an outward sign of the end which awaits hypocrites, and at the same time to expose the emptiness and folly of their ostentation.

John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke – Volume 3

In the immediate context of the fig tree withering, several events point to a lack of spiritual discernment. Jesus is building on his audience’s understanding of their scriptures to point out an important truth!

  • In the previous blog post, the crowd waving palm branches and shouting hosanna were an example of much action, much noise, but no fruit!
  • Jesus empties the temple of the money-changers who had made the sacrificial system into a money making scheme, a way to extort worshippers – demeaning the temple itself. Lots of action, much noise – same as a fig tree with a lot of leaves … but clearly no fruit!
  • The religious leaders question Jesus and He reminds them that they did not respond to John’s message. And then He angers them with the parable of the tenants who murder the servants, even the son. Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” Among the religious leaders, loud teaching, temple action, but again, no fruit!

The lesson is about bearing fruit, and a warning about hypocrisy. This warning about hypocrisy is serious. There are those who are professing God’s name who are not known by Him!

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 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 in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Matthew 7:21-23

The great thing about bearing fruit is that it only requires our being connected to, abiding in the vine, that is Jesus Himself! Just as a tree cannot produce fruit unless it is planted, fed, and watered so we cannot produce fruit unless we are planted firmly in Christ, fed by His Word, drinking in the Living water, nourished by the warmth of His grace.

Our personal lives can look like “in leaf.” Our leaves may look like those of a supermom, a winner, a perfect family, an A-team Christian with an overstuffed schedule of ministry activities. But the root may be withered. There may be no fruit of holiness and no intimacy with God. What’s worse—our leaves may even fool us. And our churches can do the same. A church’s leaves may look impressive: booming attendance, capital campaigns, clever pastors, impressive music. But what will the Lord find upon close inspection? Will he find only leaves? Or will he find figs, too?

Greg Lanier, Why Did Jesus Curse the Fig Tree?

God, you are the almighty one, the one who was and is and is to come. We ask that you search our hearts, know us today, remind us of our relationship with you. Allow your word to convict, cleanse, and renew us. May we live fruitful lives that bear the stamp of your image on all we do! Amen.

The church a garden is,
In which believers stand,
Like ornamental trees,
Planted by God’s own hand:
His spirit waters all their roots,
And every branch abounds with fruits.

But other trees there are,
In this enclosure grow;
Which, though they promise fair,
Have only leaves to show:
No fruits of grace are on them found,
They stand but cumberers of the ground.

If under means of grace,
No gracious fruit appear;
It is a dreadful case,
Tho’ God may long forbear;
At length he’ll strike the threaten’d blow
And lay the barren fig-tree low.

John Newton
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