Scripture: In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” Matthew 21:18-22 ESV
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Observation: Recapping yesterday’s Daily Focus (click here to read), after Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem, he went straight to the temple. Seeing all the money-changers crowding the outer Court of the Internationals, Jesus zealously drives them out of the temple, declaring they had violated his Father’s house of prayer. Having created space, he healed the blind and lame while children echoed their parents’ words from his earlier procession: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Meanwhile, the jealous religious leaders question why he did not silence the children’s praises. But Jesus counters whether they had never read David’s psalm, where he declares the majesty of Yahweh (8:1) and adds that from the mouth of babies and infants, he establishes strength to still the enemy (Psalms 8:2, click here to read). Jesus rightfully implies that it is praise that proceeds from children’s mouths that hush enemies. And, indeed, his enemies are silenced. So Jesus walks out of the temple and heads to his lodging in Bethany.
Today’s reading begins on day two (Monday) of these last five days before Jesus’ crucifixion. Here, after the intense altercation with the powerful money-changers and religious leaders the day before, Jesus rises early and leads his disciples back to Jerusalem into the fray of spiritual warfare. Along the way, feeling hungry, he sees a green fig tree that has not yet borne fruit. So he curses it, and it whithers. The disciples marvel and ask how it happened. Jesus seizes the moment and reviews his earlier teaching on faith (Matthew 17:20, click here to read), employs the same hyperbole of being able to move mountains, and reminds them that they can only count on answered prayer if offered in faith.
Takeaway: This passage is found here and in Mark (Luke and John make no mention). Mark splits it into two parts, with Jesus cursing the fig tree on Monday (Mark 11:12-14, click here to read) and the disciples noting its withered state the following morning (Mark 11:20-26, click here to read). Following his thematic approach, Matthew condenses the story without providing a timeline for when the disciples saw its withered condition. Mark also tells us that it was not the season for figs, but, as noted in Tuesday’s Daily Focus (click here to read), Bethany also goes by the name Bethphage, which in Hebrew means: “house of the early fig.” So perhaps figs in this region did bear fruit around Passover. Moreover, when fig trees produce leaves (as in this story), they usually bear fruit simultaneously.
So this tree becomes a meaningful object lesson from nature to parallel Israel’s spiritual state, echoing Hosea’s prophecy that likens Israel to the first fruit on the fig tree (i.e., chosen by God), who has since turned away from God and is stricken with dried roots that bear no fruit (Hosea 9:10-17, click here to read). As theologian Michael Wilkins rightfully concludes, “Now that Israel, especially represented by its religious leadership, has perverted the temple practices and has not repented at the appearance of Jesus Messiah proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, Israel is being judged by God” (NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, pp.693–694).
But how do we understand what may seem like an unnecessary harmful act against nature? Jesus did not impetuously act out of anger but sent a clear message that when any element of our fallen world does not function according to its intended purpose, outside of Christ’s soon redemptive work of salvation, it will lead to certain death. The fig tree, unable to bear fruit, will not reproduce and eventually decompose. Jesus merely sped the process to imprint an essential truth in his disciples’ memories: If they intend to fulfill their life purpose and calling, they must bear fruit lest they, too, face unmitigated judgment.
Our takeaway? It’s the same. If we profess to be Christians, we must submit to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, who prunes and promotes growth in us that bears the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). The good news is that God initiates. He has pursued us and covered us in the righteousness of his Son. And he and the Son have given us the Holy Spirit, who guides and strengthens us when we fill withered and useless, only to discover that all that manure we have sloshed through has produced fruit. It’s good news for our weary souls: our Lord takes us from withering to welfare.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you and your Son for making it possible for us to bear fruit and for your Holy Spirit who takes us through the process. We confess, however, that we struggle to stay connected to your Son our Vine when pruned. So would you please help us cooperate with your Holy Spirit and persevere through the dry seasons, connected to your Son through heartfelt prayer, fellowship with fruit-bearing believers, and your Word so that we might grow from withering to welfare? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling