" />

A Foreshadowing of Judgment, Part 3: The Fruitless Fig Tree

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Mar 28, 1999

Matthew 21:18-22

Download Audio

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to take them in hand and turn with me to Matthew, chapter 21. So far in Matthew 21, we have seen Jesus kingship clearly set forth in His triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. And then in verses 12 through 17, we have seen His judgment against Israel, that has a form of worship and religion but denies the power thereof. And so He brings judgment in the cleansing of the temple, in verses 12 through 17.

And that theme of judgment, not only immediate judgment, but the foreshadowing of judgment to come continues here in Matthew, chapter 21, verses 18 through 22. So let’s turn to God’s holy word and hear it:

"Now in the morning, when He returned to the city, He became hungry. And seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it, and found nothing on it except leaves only; and He said to it, ‘No longer shall thee ever be any fruit from you.’ And at once the fig tree withered. And seeing this, the disciples marveled, saying, ‘How did the fig tree wither at once?’ And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, if you have faith, and do not doubt, you shall not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it shall happen. ‘And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.’" Thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s look to Him in prayer.

Our Father, we do love You and we praise You for Your word and we ask that You would enable our hearts to be bowed before You, receiving it reverently, recognizing that it is the authoritative word of God, and by Your Spirit that our hearts would receive and become obedient unto the truth spoken therein. We ask, O Lord, that You would search us out and see if there be any unclean thing in us and minister the truth to us by Your spirit and the word. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

The burden of Jesus’ ministry at this point was to make it clear that the division that was taking place in Jerusalem, was between those who accepted His claims as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and those who rejected those claims, or those who were apathetic about those claims. The division that was occurring this very week in Jerusalem, the Passover week, was both expected by Him and explicable. In other words, Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that He was not taken by surprise. That He was a point of controversy amongst the people in Jerusalem. He was not taken by surprise that many opposed Him even while others embraced Him. And He also wanted the disciples to understand that there was a reason for that and that He understood that reason. In fact, one of the things that He is going to teach us in this passage is at the heart of the reason. Behind the actions of these people rejecting Christ — you remember many in these who were chanting "Hosanna to the Son of David" on Sunday would only a few days later be crying "Crucify Him, crucify Him." And Jesus is going to explain, among other things in this passage, that one of the reasons they did that was the problem of hypocrisy. They looked on the outside as if they loved God. But in their hearts they were far from Him. Jesus wants the disciples to know that that’s what is behind what is going to happen to Him in large measure in this week to come.

I. Christ punishes pretended piety.

In fact there are two great themes in this passage. There is Jesus’ rebuke of religious hypocrisy and there are Jesus’ words about faith for His disciples. And I’d like to look at those two things with you. If you direct your attention first to verses 18 and 19, you’ll see here Jesus address the issue of religious hypocrisy. If I could put this in a phrase, I might say it this way. Jesus is dealing in verses 18 and 19 with apparently fruitful fruitlessness. Now I know that’s a mouthful, but hear what I’m after there. He’s dealing with those who look like they’re fruitful, but who are in fact fruitless. That’s the very picture of the fig tree. It looks like it has fruit. It has leaves on it, and we’ll talk about that in a moment. But in fact it doesn’t have fruit. So it looks one way, but it is another. So He is dealing with the problem of apparently fruitful fruitlessness or to say it more simply, he’s dealing with hypocrisy. Because hypocrisy looks one way on the outside but another way on the inside. So we learn here in verses 18 and 19 that Christ punishes pretended piety. Jesus already had critiqued those who pretend to be godly previously in His ministry. And here again He is doing the same thing.

Now let me say in passing that Mark makes it clear to us that the event recorded here in Matthew 21, verses 18 through 23 actually occurred over two days. Jesus had spent Sunday night in Bethany, and then came back into Jerusalem on Monday morning. As He was coming into town He passed the fig tree, He had the exchange, He cursed the fig tree and it was the next morning, on Tuesday morning, as they were coming back in, that the disciples noticed that the tree had withered. So Mark gives us a chronological account.

Matthew gives us a topical account. And I want you to understand how in God’s wisdom both of those accounts enable us to see certain aspects of the truth that we would not have seen unless God had recorded it that way. Matthew is simply shortening the account and giving us an abbreviated version. There’s no conflict between what Matthew says and what Mark said. You will notice, for instance, that Matthew is very, very vague about telling you the timeframe or using terms that specify exactly when things happen. That is because Matthew wants you to focus on one thing: the immediacy of the withering of this tree. He wants to show you a picture of the quickness of the judgment of God that is about to come against unbelieving Israel. It would be a matter of only years from the time that Jesus said these words to the time that Matthew wrote them down, to the time that Israel itself would be destroyed. And Jerusalem in particular would be savagely destroyed and burned and the people of Jerusalem would be driven out by the occupying Romans. God’s judgment was going to come quickly against unbelieving Israel. And Matthew, the way he records this story, emphasizes the swiftness of that judgment.

Now perhaps it would help us to record exactly what happened in the story to review it briefly. On Monday morning early, the Monday morning of Passover week, after Jesus the day before had entered on the donkey’s foal, on Monday morning early, perhaps before 6:00 in the morning, Jesus and His disciples left Bethany and they started making their way back to Jerusalem. Now on his way, Jesus spotted a leafy fig tree. He was hungry. He had perhaps not had any breakfast, and that fig tree gave Him hope of the opportunity of having a little breakfast before He got into the city of Jerusalem. Now fig trees are very common in the Bible, and they are very common in Palestine. Fig trees are mentioned in the Old Testament and in the New. They were used both for shade trees and for food. And they were very common in Palestine. But, it was not fig season. Normally the ripe figs were not on the tree until June, and this was a couple of months before. Nevertheless, there were trees with leaves that had small green figs on them. Usually the way it happens was if you saw a tree with green leaves it was an indication it already had fruit. Because on some of these trees, actually the figs, these green figs would sprout first, and then the leaves would come on the tree. So when Jesus saw this tree with all the foliage, the fig tree with the foliage, He thought, ‘Hmmm, there may be some fruit on that tree that I can partake of.’ It looked like it had fruit. But when He inspected it, though it looked fruitful, it looked promising, it in fact had no fruit whatsoever. Then Jesus does something extraordinary. Something that He has never done before. He curses one of His own creations. He curses that tree and He calls on it never again to bear fruit. And in the context of that He has this exchange with the disciples. The next morning as He and the disciples are passing by again into Jerusalem they noticed that the tree has completely withered, and they are absolutely amazed. And so this conversation begins as to the meaning of what Jesus had done.

Now understand that this miracle is a stern warning, and it is the only time that Jesus used His miraculous powers to curse. Jesus is judging Israel’s hypocrisy here. Don Carson says this: "The point was that the tree by its leaves announced that it was bearing fruit, when in fact it was not — the cursing of the tree became a model that pronounces judgment on religious hypocrites — people who make a show of piety but who bear no genuine fruit of piety." And J.C. Ryle comments on this unique action of Jesus, when he says: "This is an instance almost without parallel in our Lord’s ministry; it is almost the only occasion on which we find Him making one of His creatures suffer, in order to teach a spiritual truth. The fig tree, full of leaves, but barren of fruit, was a striking emblem of the Jewish church, when our Lord was on the earth. It had no grace, no faith, no love, no humility, no spirituality, no real holiness, no willingness to receive its Messiah — never was there a picture so literally fulfilled."

And this theme of Jesus’ judgment against those who were hypocritical, those who look on the outside one way and on the inside another, is not a new thing. For instance, if you will turn back with me to Matthew, chapter 6, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, you will remember that at least three times Jesus addresses this problem of hypocrisy. For instance, in Matthew, chapter 6, verse 2, He says when you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogue that they may be honored by men. So Jesus here says when you give gifts for the relief of the poor, mercy gifts, don’t give them in such a way as to attract the attention of everyone so that your whole purpose is to get people to praise you. But He doesn’t stop there. He goes on in verse 5 and He says, "When you pray you are not to be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners in order to be seen by men." And then again, if you look at verse 16, He says, "And when you fast do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full." Over and over, Jesus in the gospel of Matthew criticizes those who practice their religion for the main purpose of being esteemed by men rather than being in fellowship with God.

And so specifically here, Jesus is criticizing Jerusalem and her religious leaders. They appeared to be fruitful, but they were not. So Jesus here in this parable — in this story, in this event of the fig tree shows their future destruction. William Hendriksen says this. "The pretentious fig tree had its counterpart in the temple. There was bustling, religious activity there, but no sincerity and truth. Jesus was thus predicting the downfall of unfruitful Israel. Just as the cleansing of the temple was a symbolic denunciation of the Messiah, of the worship of the old Israel, so the withering of the fig tree was a symbolic denunciation by Him of the Jewish nation as the privileged people of God."

Jesus is bringing a strong charge against His Own people, but I think you need to understand as well that this passage is just as much for us today as it was for the people to whom Jesus first spoke it. For there is a danger of false religion in all of us. And this passage reminds us that Christ judges and will judge religious hypocrisy. False religion - those who attempt to look one way on the outside, when in fact on the inside they are different. We must read this passage as a direct warning to us. Hypocrisy, you see, results when two things are going on in a person’s heart. Hypocrisy results when a person cares more about what other people think about them than what God thinks about them. And hypocrisy occurs when people are more concerned about their loss of reputation than they are for the loss of their souls. And when those two things happen together in a person, it is a very dangerous thing. Because, in short, a person who is a hypocrite is more concerned about prestige than character. In fact, a person who is a hypocrite uses character, feigned character, simply as a means to an end. What they really want is to be esteemed by other people or not to be shamed. But they do not want to be close to God. And so Jesus brings a dire warning against them. They feign character in order to get what they really want, and what they really want is the applause of men. And Jesus wants us to understand how hypocrisy is a danger to our souls. Hypocrisy does not want to be shamed, and it wants to be liked and respected. And so it will hide certain sins of the heart so that no one will bring a reproach and so that you will be popular. But the more and more you hide that sin without confessing it or repenting of it, the more and more a wall is built in the heart until you become impervious to repentance and repentance is the very instrument of salvation in this case.

And Jesus is so concerned about hypocrisy because the longer we practice hypocrisy, the more we make ourselves unsusceptible to repentance. And it is repenting of our sins, confessing that we do have things to be ashamed about, confessing that we have been wrong in the sight of others and of God. It is precisely that, that is the word and way of salvation for us. It’s when we’re honest with ourselves there that the glory of the Lord’s mercy is revealed. But as long as we attempt to hide our sin, and to pretend like it’s not there and to act like we’re something that we’re not, the more we are endangering our own souls. In short, the more concerned we are about our prestige rather than our character, the more in danger we are of losing everything. All Christ’s miracles were wrought for the good of men, but this one was for the terror and punishment of His enemies in order to show that all judgment has been committed to Him, and that He is not only able to save us, but He is also able to destroy those who are hypocrites. And so He gives us a specimen of His power, His wrath, and His curse in this passage.

Now Paul warns us about this, too. He warns us in Romans, chapter 11. You remember he said that those of us who were Gentile Christians should not gloat because so many in Israel had rejected Jesus. In fact, in Romans, chapter 11 he compares us to an olive tree, and branches that have been grafted in unnaturally to that olive tree, and he says, ‘Look, if the natural branches have been pruned off, if they’ve been cut off, don’t you gloat. Because if you don’t believe, you, too, will be cut off from the olive tree.’ And so Paul warns us against fruitlessness and hypocrisy in the Christian life. J.C. Ryle says this: "Is not every fruitless branch of Christ’s visible Church in awful danger of becoming a withered fig tree? Let us remember this. Let us beware of church pride; let us not be high minded, but fear." And he goes on to say: "So long as a man is content with the mere leaves of religion, with a name to love while he is yet dead, and a form of godliness without the power, so long his soul is in peril. Fruit, fruit, the fruit of the Spirit is the only sure proof that we are savingly united to Christ, and in the way to heaven."

Do we know that fruit of the spirit in our own lives? Do we long to be like Christ, the character that Christ is working in His people, something which we desire for itself and for the communion that it gives us, or is it simply something that we want to pretend like we have so that we will be highly thought of in the community and the church. This passage is warning us about just that.

II. Christ's disciples must realize the power of faith and prayer in the Christian life.

One other thing I’d like you to see in this passage. If you’d look at verses 20 through 23. Here Jesus gives a statement, a challenge, about the power of faith to the disciples. And He makes it clear that His disciples must realize the power of faith and prayer in the Christian life. According to Matthew, one of the things that the disciples fixated on when they saw this miracle was the rapidity of the tree’s withering. They were impressed that it happened so soon. One night, and the tree was completely withered.

This miracle struck them with amazement we are told in verse 20, and so they inquired how this had come about. How had this been done? And I want you to notice Jesus’ answer. Jesus’ answer was one word. Faith. That’s how it was done. When the disciples questioned Him how had it withered so soon, he points out that in the supernatural world ordinary time processes are often irrelevant. And so this miracle was an acting out of what happens when we trust in the Lord’s word, when we believe His promises. And Jesus goes on to tell the disciples, He says, ‘If you think this is impressive, let me just tell you that if you trust in the Lord and do not doubt, you can command this mountain to be thrown into the sea.’ Very likely that as Jesus was telling the disciples that, they were standing on the Mt. of Olives and from its slopes they could look all the way down to the Dead Sea and they could see the hills around. And so it would have been a very graphic picture of the ability of God to do the impossible by faith. This mind-boggling example of difficulty, the mountains being removed and put into the sea is an illustration that would have been vivid to the disciples.

Let me say in passing, that very often faith healers will go to this text and they will use it to reinforce their ‘name it and claim it’ theology. This is the idea will be that if you really want that Cadillac, if you’ll just believe hard enough, you’ll get that Cadillac from the Lord. But that’s not what the Lord is saying here. The Lord is speaking very clearly of the Lord doing that which is impossible in accordance with His will. Isn’t it interesting that two things are mentioned here, both faith and prayer. Now we know that prayer is the lifting up of our desires in accordance with the will of God.

And so when He says if you believe, and he also speaks of prayer, He’s reminding us that He’s speaking about believing the Lord for things that He has promised in His word. And the Lord does not promise all of us health and wealth. And He doesn’t promise that He’s a giant ‘genie in the sky’ for whom we can simply have faith hard enough and get anything out of Him that we so desire. No, this passage is designed to show that there is no task that is in harmony with God’s will that is impossible for those who believe and pray. The disciples needed to know that, especially in these days to come. Jesus had promised that He was coming to establish a kingdom that would never end, and the disciples were going to see their Lord nailed to a cross. Now at that time they needed to know that God’s word was not going to be thwarted, even though the Son of God was nailed to a tree and laid in a tomb. And so how important it was that He instruct the disciples to believe God’s word and not doubt, no matter what.

Now I don’t know what burdens you’ve come bringing yourselves today. But I do know this. If the disciples could trust God in the hour of Jesus’ trial, that God was going to do what Jesus had said that He was going to do. Then we can trust God no matter what circumstance we are in. May He give us the grace to do so. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the truth of Your word and we thank You for Your promises, and we ask that You would help us to believe the promises of those words and to lift up our prayers in Jesus’ name, Amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.