Apologetics, Christian Living, Church, Culture & Society, Faith, Theology

Lessons from a Fig Tree

“And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: 13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. 14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.” –Mark 11:12-14

“And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. 21 And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. –Mark 111:20, 21

Mark’s account of the Perean Ministry has ended. The Lord has accomplished much by attending to the sick and needy. He has taught many wonderful truths, and has performed many mighty miracles. Now, at this point, led by the Holy Spirit, John Mark begins the narrative of the Week of Passion. Chapters 11-15 will convey what Jesus did during the final week of His life. The Resurrection, chapter 16, will follow this narrative.

Chapter 10 described what Christ did when He was going out of Jericho, (10:46-52). Two blind men were made to see. From Jericho the Lord and His disciples were going to Jerusalem (10:32, 33). They were able to travel as far as Bethany, about 2 miles from the Holy City (John 11:18) before the Sabbath began at Sunset on Friday.

After enjoying the traditional day of rest with friends, Jesus attended a special supper prepared Saturday evening in the home of Simon the Leper (Mark 14:3-9). On the next day, Sunday, the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem took place, after which He returned to Bethany.

On Monday as Jesus was going to Jerusalem from Bethany, the second time in two days, an incident with a Fig Tree took place.  According to the memory of Matthew, Jesus was casually walking along the dusty road when He saw a Fig Tree “by the side of the road.”

The Fig Tree caught the attention of the eye because there was something unusual—it had leaves when it was not seasonal. Normally the smaller figs, growing from the sprouts of the previous year, begin to appear at the end of March and are ripe in May or June. The later, and much larger figs that develop on the new or spring shoots, are gathered from August to October (William Hendriksen).

Mark records that Jesus went (to see) if He could find something on the Fig Tree. When the Lord drew near the tree it was obvious that only the leaves had appeared, there was no fruit. Jesus was hungry, and there was no food to satisfy His hunger.

With this touch, the Church is reminded how thoroughly human Christ is. As Emanuel, God with us, Jesus is close to us, even to the point of becoming hungry at times. These were the days of humiliation, which Jesus endured for the sake of His people (2 Cor. 8:9; Gal. 3:13; Phil. 2:8). In all matters that we experience, the Bible teaches Christ experienced them as well. “Hast thou been hungry, child of mine? I too, have needed bread.”

Upon considering this narrative, the question has arisen as to whether or not the Lord was surprised at finding no fruit on the Fig Tree. Was He not omniscient? Did he not know there would be no fruit on the tree.

An adequate response is not easy, for we are in the presence of a great mystery. The present passage seems to imply that the Master would at times gather information in ways similar to ours. At other times, His knowledge was wholly supernatural (cf. Mark 2:8; 5:32; 9:33, 34; 10:33, 34; 14:32).

The danger is to exalt one facet of Christ above the other. In the early church, so great was belief in the divinity of Jesus, that His true humanity was in danger of being dismissed. The apostle John had to warn that anyone teaching Jesus had not come in the flesh was an anti-Christ (1 John 4:3).

“And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.” –1 John 4:3

The church of the 21st century has another challenge, and that is not to dismiss the divinity of Christ. Modern theology teaches young seminarians to think of Christ only in terms of being a moral example, or having an ethical influence upon society. Once this approach is taken, the historical Jesus of divine revelation is soon forgotten as well as His abiding influence.

In the John Heinz Museum on 13th Street in Pittsburgh, on the 5th floor, there is a photo exhibition detailing the struggles of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Prominent in the photos is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Underneath one poster is a caption that declares that Dr. King was influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948), which is true.

However, what was left out of the caption is that Dr. King was more influenced by Jesus Christ personally and that Ghandi himself was deeply influence by the teachings of the Lord. While not a Christian, Ghandi was educated in Europe to be a lawyer, and was very familiar with the Bible.

If you have seen the movie Gandhi, you know that his humble beginnings as a political force started when he was thrown off a train in Africa for sitting in first class when “coloreds” were not allowed to do so. That night he slept in the cold. Remembering the words of Christ, “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” –Matthew 5:39

Gandhi adopted the principles of non-violent resistance. He would not yield to force, nor would he use force on others. The larger point is this. There is a concerted effort to dismiss the power of Christ over people. Far better is the Scriptural presentation of Jesus as both human and divine. The Christ of the gospels is the One who knew hunger—and yet controlled nature.

When Jesus saw the Fig Tree had only leaves and no fruit He pronounced a curse upon the tree saying, “Never again may anyone eat.”

This was not a peevish response to the present situation. Rather, the explanation for the curse lies deeper in a spiritual understanding. The Lord often seized a particular moment to teach a valuable lesson of life. Once, while speaking to a large crowd during the season when lilies were in bloom, Jesus pointed to the flowers and said,

“And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: 29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? 31 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? Or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? 32(For after all these things do the Gentiles seek 🙂 for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things” (Matt. 5:28-32).

Here was an opportunity to teach a spiritual truth from the life and death of a Fig Tree. The lesson is easy enough to comprehend: pretentious religion brings forth a divine curse.

The pretentious but barren Fig Tree was a fitting emblem of national Israel (Luke 13:6-9; Isa. 5) in spiritual matters. Religious Israel appeared to bear much spiritual fruit, but upon close examination, it was barren.

One illustration of the barrenness of religious Israel, was the fact that for 3 and ½ years the Messiah had been ministering in the midst of the nation, but had not been officially recognize by the priests nor sincerely embraced by the general population. In John 6:66 we read when Jesus taught hard sayings “many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with him.”

Another illustration of the religious barrenness of Israel, was the exaltation of the rules of men over the Law of God. The constant complaint of the Pharisees and scribes against Jesus, is that He would not honor certain traditions. For example, Jesus did not always ceremoniously wash His hands before eating. He healed people on the Sabbath. And when His disciples walked through a field of corn on the Sabbath, and picked some corn to eat the kernels, the Lord did not rebuke them.

The reason Jesus did not honor the traditions of men, was because He kept the Law of God perfectly. It was the Law which was holy, just, and good, not the laws of men. And yet, the Scriptures were often set aside to force individuals to live up to a code of conduct which was neither reasonable, nor right.

A third line of evidence revealing the barrenness of spiritual Israel, was the way the people could be persuaded to be for Christ, and then against Him. It is the tragedy of the human heart that it can turn in an instant to destroy a relationship, and righteousness.

On a lovely Sunday morning, multitudes of the people of Palestine cried out,

“Hosanna! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest!”—Mark 11:9-10

Five days later, most of the same people were crying out, “Kill Him! Kill Him!”

By cursing the Fig Tree, Jesus was condemning unfruitful spiritual Israel that was busy in religious activity, but had no vital righteousness. Even as Jesus spoke, there was much buying and selling going on in the Temple area, as preparations were being made for the Passover.

How ironic it was, that, while the people moved to embrace the shadowy meaning of the Passover rituals, the Substance was in their midst. The lamb the people would eat, typified the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world—“Behold the Lamb”, said John.

People looked, but did not truly see the Messiah. People paused to consider what the Miracle Worker from Nazareth might do, then they returned to the market place and to their religion unchanged.

By cursing the Fig Tree, Jesus condemned not only the spiritual unfruitfulness of ancient Israel but also all forms of religious behavior that is barren upon close inspection. And oh what a tragedy it is whenever a false appearance is exposed.

Americans were collectively shocked, when, in 2001, it was reported that a trusted FBI agent named Robert Hanssen had been selling secrets to the Russians for 25 years. What the mass media reported over and over was how well the agent had fooled so many people and for such a long time.

The story was told of a person who appeared to be a faithful husband, a devoted patriot, and a religious church leader.

But it was all a lie. And when officials drew near, when there was to be a close examination, the lies and deceptions were suddenly exposed.

Now, why do people act religiously, without any corresponding reality? Several reasons may be noted.

First, some people are religiously inclined because they are in a religious culture. Cain is certainly an example of this. From the moment that Eve laid her eyes on Cain she loved him. Cain was taught right and wrong, and he was taught to worship at an appointed time, and with a specific sacrifice. But murder was in the heart of Cain, for he was jealous of his brother Abel. When it appeared that the offering of Abel was acceptable to the Lord and his was not, Cain slit the throat of his brother which was absorbed into the ground (1 John 3:12).

Second, some people are religiously inclined, because they intellectually comprehend the value of moral principles. The most pagan of all people perceive that there is wisdom in not killing, stealing, cheating, coveting, or committing adultery. There can be an intellectual understanding of the value of external religion.

Third, there are individuals who are religiously inclined because of secret motives. Religion is a means to achieve another goal. Many a businessperson has united with a local church in order to make new contacts, or appear respectable in the community. Young people have been known to attend church services in search of a date or mate. Sometime a spouse will attend church to please their mate. Some people are lonely and are looking for social contact. Such motives do not result in true spiritual fruit.

So what is the spiritual fruit that should be found upon close inspection?

First, true spiritual fruit will include truth. Truth is not relative. Truth is truth. Truth is what the Bible says it is. Truth is Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus said “I am the Way the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). In Christ there is doctrinal truth, or accurate information about the way of salvation, about God, and about eternal matters. In Christ there is moral truth, or integrity. Jesus was neither liar nor lunatic. He is the Son of God, conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of a virgin. In Christ there is intellectual truth. There is no need to wonder, or to question.

Second, true spiritual fruit includes sincerity. The Bible says that God is looking for people to worship Him, in truth and in sincerity. The most honorable form of worship is the heart that wants to be under the sound of the gospel, in fellowship with others of like mind and faith, and rejoices at the opportunities to express the spiritual dynamics of the soul.

Third, true spiritual fruit yields love for others. Jesus said in John 13:34 “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.”

Fourth, true spiritual fruit will display the outworking of the Holy Spirit. Gal 5:22-23 explains. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”

The message concludes with this warning: there is danger in a pretentious religion. It will only elicit a certain, and fearful, divine judgment. May the Lord grant us to be spiritually fruitful and not barren all the days of our lives. Amen.

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