Impressive But Barren
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
The cursing of the fig tree may at first glance seem an odd thing for Jesus to do. It doesn’t jive with other things He did. To a casual reader it can seem illogical.
But once its significance is understood, it makes perfect sense. The cursing of the tree was symbolic, not vindictive. Jesus was not throwing a temper tantrum. He was not angry at the tree, or punishing it. Its failure was not its own choosing.
It is a sermon prop forever foreboding what happens to fruitless religion. As a conspicuous, “dead dead” monument to spiritual barrenness, it pictures not only Judaism, but also all shallow religiosity, including much seen in Christianity today.
Matt. 21:18 (Holman) Early in the morning, As He was returning to the city,
He was hungry.
This story shows the incarnation in microcosm. Jesus is 100% God, 100% man. We see both here. In a span of moments, He showed weakness and power. Being human, He was poor, hungry, homeless. Being God, He commanded nature.
Matt. 21:19a Seeing a lone fig tree by the road,. . .
The tree, being on public land, was common property. Figs were known as the poor man’s fruit, because they grew in abundance in Israel. There were usually figs nearby, available for eating. The common people were grateful for the food.
Fig trees were also valued for their shade. They reached 20 feet tall, with a branch-spread of 30 feet. Their food and shade caused them to be included in one of Israel’s favorite pictures of peace; “each man will sit under his grapevine and under his fig tree with no one to frighten him” (Micah 4:4). George Washington loved this verse. It was his desire, but duty always called him away from his wish.
Matt. 21:19b . . .He went up to it and found nothing on it except leaves.
This tree gave shade, but this was not what Jesus needed. Having no figs, it disappointed. Fig trees put on fruit before leaves. The tree should have had figs, but for some reason didn’t. It failed by being not only being barren, but also false.
Impressive, but barren—like Israel. Gentiles were also barren, but gave no pretense of being otherwise. Israel had the temple, priests, knowledge of YHWH, Holy Scripture, Messiah, Abraham’s seed. It was the religion of the living God.
Judaism had a lush display of leaves. I hasten to say, nothing is wrong with leaves. We do want to look appealing, to draw people’s attention to us and Jesus. But this attraction is useless if people who are drawn to us are not helped once they investigate us more closely. This was the tree’s downfall. Being conspicuous and alone, it caught every passerby’s attention, but as they drew near, it disappointed.
Matt. 21:19c And He said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!”
Jesus used the tree to make a point. We can almost see Him putting His hand on the tree, saying, “You exemplify what’s going on here.” He was sad, not mad.
It was a sermon prop. Had Jesus cut it down to build a house to warm cold bodies, or provide firewood for cold hands, no one would think Him testy. He used it to warm cold hearts, an act more important than warming cold hands and bodies.
He left the tree as it was. Bearing no fruit, it bore fruit no more. Makes me want to gasp. “Oh God, help us. Give us growth and progress, not stagnation. Father, don’t leave us as we are. More yet has to be done. Keep us in the arena.” If we don’t continue being ever more fruitful for Jesus, the result is disaster . . .
Matt. 21:19d At once the fig tree withered.
Let every dead tree be a warning to us forever, teaching us a moral lesson of utmost importance. Spiritual barrenness and unproductivity summon catastrophe.
This dreaded demise can happen almost imperceptibly. This tree withered silently. It did not groan out a warning. We must proactively do self-examination.
Individuals can become withered trees. When Jesus cursed the tree, Judas was standing nearby. He saw the miracle, but was unaffected by it. His own life would soon demonstrate the ugly results of an impressive but barren life. One of the worst curses that can befall us is to hear, “Bear fruit no more.” The old story says two men were standing by a casket. One asked, “How will we fill his vacancy?” The other replied, “He didn’t leave a vacancy.” It is possible to live a lifetime, and not leave behind an important vacancy. Pastor Earl Tharp once asked a dying lady if she was afraid to die. She replied, “Not afraid to die, just ashamed.”
One of life’s highest blessings is to be fruitful. A family once had on its signet ring the image of a tree bearing fruit. When the patriarch was asked to give a final blessing, his last word was, “Fruitful.” Amen. Let it be our life’s desire too.
Nations can become withered trees. Israel, as a nation, had religiosity with no devotion; religious activity without help for sinners desperately needing God. Israel became the Lord’s worst hindrance, leading many astray, and taking up space that could have been used by something that would not only attract, but also help.
Israel forgot its purpose. From the first moment of God’s calling, Abraham’s seed was to be a spiritual blessing to nations (GN 12:3), to be, as it were, the light of the world, the salt of the earth, a city set on a hill, ones wooing others to come enjoy God. As Israel turned inward, casting off its purpose, God cast them off.
Let all the nations learn a painful lesson. Israel fell. The USA and all other nations can too. We are not as self-sufficient as we might think. Half of our USA counties are (Aug 2012) officially declared disaster zones due to our worst drought in 56 years. Half our corn crop, and a third of our soybeans, is rated poor to very poor. Three-fourths of our cattle acreage is in the blighted areas. It behooves us to be humble, to repent, and to cry out to Him who has for ages been our strength.
“Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (PR 14:34 KJV). The first part of this text is carved in the rotunda of our state (Missouri) capitol. The USA, when trying to build its culture around the Judeo-Christian tradition, forged a great, albeit imperfect, nation. I wonder, did our country maybe progress as far as human depravity will ever let a nation advance in this civic experiment? As we have discarded God’s ways, our culture has grown ever more despondent. Pain, sadness, and tragedy are increasing exponentially. Let every nation of Earth, including ours, beware the withered tree.
Churches can become withered trees. Judaism stumbled and fell. Christian denominations can too, as can individual churches. How sad to live in a time when our greatest need is revival, and yet see whole denominations that were founded in revival turning their backs on revival. Beware. The Church’s ever-westward march has left in its wake the ruins of many a church: Ephesus, Sardis, Carthage, Constantinople, Asia Minor. We have TV, Internet, beautiful buildings, adequate facilities, and an incredible location. We must be careful. Ever ask, is this Second Baptist Fig Tree planted on Battlefield Road putting on only leaves, or also figs?
The leaders of Judaism failed to acknowledge the obvious signals God tried to send them. Their greatest prophet, John the Baptist, told them to follow Jesus. The temple had to be cleansed twice, the High Priest tore his garment, the temple veil tore, and water in the six water pots turned to wine, picturing a new better day.
Dr. Jack Stanton, one of the best pulpiteers ever to grace a Missouri pulpit, would fancy a brand new bottle factory where the owners built sterling facilities, and bragged about their state of the art equipment, but never produced any bottles. Yet they were surprised when they went bankrupt. Stanton would say they needed to have asked and answered only one question, “Where are the bottles?” I think the same could be asked of churches, where are the God-changed lives, the converts?
Gandhi, during his early days in South Africa, attended church several times. He said the people did not strike him as religious. They were not devout, but were worldly-minded people going to Church for recreational socialization and due to habit. Gandhi decided there was nothing in Christianity he did not already possess.
Let our church and all others beware the cursed fig tree. We are responsible for our failures. Hear this loud and clear: in a given culture, if anyone is reaching the lost, then everyone can reach the lost, if willing to learn how. Many are advancing the Kingdom well in the USA. It is incumbent on us to learn from them.
This ability to learn and adjust is the great privilege and huge responsibility of having a free church in a free society. Many churches were able to blame their failure on being overrun by pagan armies, but we are free to be entrepreneurial, to try new solutions, and attempt new approaches. Thus, if we don’t take time to learn and practice what others can teach us, we are without excuse.