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This is the third symbolic act that Jesus performed after he arrived in the vicinity of Jerusalem. His entry into the city and the cleansing of the temple were the first two acts (Matthew 21.1-17).
Once again, I will try to highlight this episode from Jesus’ life with an imaginary observer, who has journeyed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Learning from Jesus and a Fig Tree
After both a joyful and a stressful day in Jerusalem, we all needed rest. I think we all were hungry when we awakened the next morning, and I was wondering where we would be able to get food to eat.
Apparently, Jesus was hungry, too. On the road back to Jerusalem, he noticed a fig tree, and was looking for the new fruit that appears early in the growing season. He moved the leaves looking all over the tree for a few figs, but there were none.
Then he said to the fig tree, “May no fruit ever come from you again!”
Right before our eyes, the fig tree withered at once. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had seen blind people regain their sight in an instant. I saw one man’s withered hand stretch out perfectly whole when Jesus told him to stretch it out.
I guess the reason why the fig tree startled me so much, was that Jesus never did anything for himself. Surely he wasn’t angry and cursed the fig tree out of irritation and hunger, was he? I knew better. The Jesus I had followed for a couple of months just wouldn’t do something like that.
I was glad when the disciples seemed to be wondering about this too. They didn’t ask him why he did it, but they did ask him how. They said, “How did the fig tree wither at once?”
Like so many other times, Jesus didn’t give us a straight forward answer. He always taught us in ways that made us think about his words long after he had spoken them. He did it this time, too.
Jesus answered and said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Matthew 21.18-22).
My stomach didn’t stop growling until we found something to eat in Jerusalem. However, I didn’t think too much about being hungry. I had other worries. My stomach was actually a little upset, as I thought about what sort of confrontation might take place with the authorities. I knew they were threatened by Jesus and very angry with him.
I also couldn’t stop thinking about what Jesus had said about prayer, faith and doubt. I wondered if he knew that I believed that he was the greatest person I had ever known, but sometimes I doubted. I was still trying to figure out why he created such a stir yesterday with the money changers and the other merchants.
— Fruit – Fruit often is an image for the kind of behavior that God desires from his people.
When John the Baptist conducted the baptism for repentance he said, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3.8).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said this about false prophets, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7.16). Good behavior or good fruit is the product of a inside condition, just as bad fruit or behavior is the product of a bad inside condition.
— Fig Tree – When fig trees put on their leaves, there are usually a few small figs that can be gathered before the main harvest in May.
Jeremiah used the image of a fig tree to describe both the good and rebellious aspects of Israel’s behavior (see Jeremiah 24.1-10).
This is what he said to those who had good fruit, that is good behavior. He said, “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart” (Jeremiah 24.7).
On the other hand, the bad fruit crowd received this message: “I will make them a horror, an evil thing, to all the kingdoms of the earth—a disgrace, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them” (Jeremiah 24.9).
— Withered – Jeremiah 8 (see verses 4-13) is particularly pertinent when we think about a nation that appears religious, but that lives in rebellion toward God’s instructions. Verses 12 and 13 below match up the nation’s rebellion and the lack of fruit on the fig tree.
“They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;
yet they were not at all ashamed,
they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among those who fall;
at the time when I punish them, they shall be overthrown,
says the Lord.
When I wanted to gather them, says the Lord,
there are no grapes on the vine,
nor figs on the fig tree;
even the leaves are withered,
and what I gave them has passed away from them.” (Jeremiah 8.12-13)
— The Meaning of the Three Acts – There were three symbolic acts that Jesus performed before the religious leaders, the Jerusalem crowd and the Galilean followers. He entered the the city as a peaceful Messiah, God’s anointed One who came to extend the effective reach of God’s power (Matthew 21.1-11).
Second, he judged a corrupt and dysfunctional religious system (Matthew 21.12-17).
When the fig tree withered at his word, he was using it to picture the end of the Temple (Matthew 21.18-20). In less than 40 years from the time Jesus spoke these words, the Temple would be destroyed by the Romans. Israel would not be a nation again until 1948.
— Faith and Doubt – Jesus often applauded faith of people. He spoke favorable about the faith of the Roman army officer (Matthew 8.10-11). Jesus forgave the sins and healed a paralytic, commenting on the faith of the people who carried him to Jesus (Matthew 9.2).
He told a woman with chronic health issues, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well” (Matthew 9.22). These and many other examples demonstrate the high value Jesus gave to our willingness to trust him.
At another time, Jesus said, “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17.20).
Doubt is best described by James as being double-minded. We trust God on one hand, but have another plan in reserve at the same time. James says this about a double-minded person. “The double-minded are unstable in every way, and must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1.7-8).
During World War II, some children of missionary parents attended a school on one of the Pacific islands. They told their instructor that they had prayed for God to remove the mountain that was blocking their view of the ocean. They had discovered this promise from Jesus in their Bible readings and decided to test it out.
Their teacher tried to explain to them that God didn’t work miracles for boys, so they could have an ocean-side view. They persisted in their belief.
Not too long after they prayed, the American military arrived with heavy equipment. They began leveling the mountain that obscured the boys’ view of the ocean to construct a landing strip for the war effort.
They boys had their prayer answered and received a daily view of the ocean. More than that, they became people of faith. All of the boys entered the ministry and were successful in the work of God.
Dear Jesus, is there anything in our lives that you want to have wither and die? May your will be done in that regard. Is there an area of faith you want to grow? Please help us. We bring to you our mountains today and ask that you take care of them.