Fig Trees and Faith Lessons

Sermon by Billy Dempsey on May 29, 2016

Mark 11:12-14, 20-25

Let me invite you to take your copy of the Scriptures. We’ll look at Mark chapter 11 verses 12 to 14 and then move to verses 20 through 25. It’s always a privilege to fill this pulpit. It’s a great honor because I know who’s been here before me. It’s a great honor to be here, not only serving here, but in this pulpit today. Before we go to God’s Word, let’s go to God Himself in prayer.

Father, be our Teacher. Send Your Spirit to teach us the truths that You would have for us today. Help our hearts to be good soil to receive this Word implanted and to go from here producing fruit – thirty, sixty, a hundred fold. So help us indeed to hear Your Word this day and to be fed by You. Thank You, Father. You indeed are a Good Shepherd and You feed us from Your rich table of delights with Your own presence and Your own truth. We wait for You now. We make our prayer in Jesus’ name and for His sake. Amen.

Mark 11 beginning with verse 12:

“On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.”

Now moving to verse 20:

“As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.’”

All men are like grass and all their glory is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, the Word of our God stands forever.

What a strange event in the life and in the ministry of Jesus, at least from our perspective. Why would you curse a fig tree that had no figs because it wasn’t the season for figs? What’s going on here, Jesus? What are you doing? We’re accustomed to Jesus teaching in parables. We read them and we study them and we gather those truths that He’s laid out there in those pithy stories. This, I believe, is a visible parable. He’s not teaching in words but He’s teaching in actions some truths that are very important for Him for His disciples to gather. Let’s put this scene in its context and that will help us some.

This is Monday morning following the first day of the week when Jesus has entered Jerusalem in what we call the triumphal entry. And the crowds have lined the street. “Hosanna, to the Son of David! Blessed be the name of the Lord!” It’s been a marvelous moment in the life and ministry of Jesus, a moment of acclamation, a moment of acceptance, a moment for His disciples who would perhaps be thinking, “Ah, the corner has turned and now we’re going to see some of these things that we’ve been expecting out of this Messiah once we recognize Him to be such,” and so they don’t understand what’s coming later in the week. Jesus does. Jesus recognizes that that praise will turn to jeering and to hooting, that those “Hosannas” will become “Crucify Him! Give us Barabbas!” by the end of the week. He recognizes that and He’s tried to prepare His disciples for that eventuality and at this point they are not grasping it. And so, they walk to Jerusalem. Remember, they’re staying outside of Jerusalem in Bethany and perhaps some on the Mount of Olives at night going into Jerusalem every day for teaching, mostly in the precincts of the temple. So this Monday, He’s headed to the temple from Bethany. He will cleanse the temple because all of that available space for Gentiles to come pray at the temple is taken up with the cattle stalls and the places where you could buy lambs and the tables of the money changers. You see, Jesus knows what He’s going to find.

And so He takes His disciples to this fig tree. No doubt He was interested in finding something to eat, I think He probably knew there was nothing there. They didn’t! And He found a fig tree in leaf. Well that still doesn’t help us with the fig tree, does it? Except that you’ve got to understand that the variety of figs that grow in Palestine, you get two pickings, you get two harvests. You get an early harvest that grows off of last year’s shoot. And guess when it comes? It comes with the leaf. So seeing a fig tree in full leaf in Palestine, that variety of fig trees, you expect to find figs. And they’re small and pithy. Later, in the summer, through the summer, you have the large, wonderful figs that we think of that you’d go to the market and find and they come and they harvest it in August and early September and so it’s not the season for those figs. Remember, this is the spring. It’s the season for the old growth figs, the small, pithy ones. Except they’re not there. Jesus takes His disciples and they’re expecting to find the same thing too, figs, except they’re not there. Jesus’ condemnation is swift and unmistakable. “May no one eat fruit from you again.” Because if that fig tree bears no figs now, it will not bear any later. It’s barren for the season. Jesus says, “You’re barren from now on.”

What’s His point? He’s taking His disciples to Jerusalem, to the temple, and there they’ll find a temple in full bore of activity preparing for the Passover that takes place at the end of that week. And so the temple is bustling with religious activity and people buying and selling for the purpose of sacrifices. People come to Jerusalem from all over the Roman world. Jerusalem is four, perhaps five times its normal population this week for people coming to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. And so they’re not going to bring from whatever point of the compass they travel from their sacrifice; they’re going to buy their sacrifice there. And so the zealous businessmen have set up their stalls and their money changing tables right there at the temple. How convenient is that? “This is all about the sacrifice. Surely we want to make it as easy as possible for people to make their sacrifice. And we’ve got to pay the temple tax. We’re not going to take your Roman denarii for the temple tax. We don’t take Gentile money here for temple tax. You change that into the temple shekel and we’ll accept that. Surely we want that to be convenient.” Jesus finds a lot of religious activity but no faith.

  1. What Does it Mean to Have Biblical Faith?

I think this passage is all about two things. It’s all about, “What does it mean to have Biblical faith? What does it mean to exercise Biblical faith?” And right here, Jesus is stressing, “What does it mean to have Biblical faith?” And what it means, what is the fruit of Biblical faith, is not religious activity for religious activity’s sake? The fruit of Biblical faith is responsiveness to the truth of God, responsiveness to the Word of God. That’s the fruit of Biblical faith! That’s how we know we’re in possession of Biblical faith because it changes us, because the Word of God changes us. The Word of God implants itself within us and makes us different – we think differently, we value differently, we decide differently, we have different priorities, we have a different focus. As the truth of God makes its home in us and establishes itself and sets its roots in our hearts, we, in time, become different people motivated by different things, different desires, different goals, different perceptions of what’s real and what’s valuable than what we started with. That’s a responsiveness to the truth of God, to the Word of God, that is the indicator that faith is present. What Jesus sees and what His disciples see is a bustling religious activity, and yet when they encounter the living Word of God Himself, they reject Him. They reject Him!

And in fact, the chief priests and the scribes, if you look toward the end of the section regarding the cleansing of the temple, are plotting for ways to kill Him because they are afraid of Him. Here’s the living Word of God and they recognize there’s something unique about Him, there’s something different, and it frightens them. And rather than turn in repentance and faith - there’s fruit, there’s fruit – rather than turn in repentance and faith, they’re busily plotting how to do away with Him.

The Fruit of Real Faith

What is the fruit of real faith? It is responsiveness to the truth of God. I think the fig tree pushes us, calls upon us to ask ourselves, “What is the quality of my faith? Is it a faith that’s fruitful or is it a faith that’s just leafy? Does it just look good and do I look good to the people watching me, busily going about my Bible studies, busily going about this religious activity, busily going about that religious activity, showing up in all the right places where Christian people are supposed to show up?” And yet, does that profession of faith produce fruit? Are there things that you and I do, can look at, and say, “I do this not because it’s necessarily comfortable but because as my Savior Jesus has called me to it”? Does the Gospel make a mark in our marriages? Does the Gospel make a mark in our relationship with our spouse? Does our spouse know us as someone who can say, “I was wrong; I’m sorry. You were right”? Does our spouse know us as someone who can repent when we’re wrong? That’s a Gospel fruit! Do our children know us as parents who have concern not just about where they end up in life, but how they get there and the kind of young men and young women they’ll be when they get there? And to that end, “I want to pack God’s truth in your mind and in your heart.” Do our children know us as that kind of parent who loved them wholly and want them to be presented before the Lord as young men and young women who trust Christ? Or do they know us as the kind of parents who are saying, “Get the grades so you can get the scholarship so you can get the education so you can get the job”? Is that what they hear from us?
 

You see, the Gospel, real faith, Biblical faith, fruity faith makes that kind of change and that kind of difference so then our priorities are marked differently. We work with people. Do the people with whom we work know us as people, maybe they can’t identify the difference but they recognize there’s something different about us because we’re motivated by difference things? It’s not just the bottom line; it’s not just the calls that get made. It’s not just the level of productivity. All those things have to happen in a business, no doubt, but there’s a wider concern, a deeper concern. “How’s your family? How’s your husband’s new job working out? How’s your daughter in college? How is she doing?” There’s a wider and a deeper concern. “How are your parents?” That’s the kind of concern that’s the fruit of a Gospel-driven mentality about who we work with and why we work. That’s the fruit of a faith that’s wider and deeper and higher than just today. That’s the fruit of a faith that comes about because Jesus has captured us, has captured us for Himself and is remaking us.

You see, the Gospel doesn’t leave us alone. The Gospel shapes us and changes us and makes us different people. That’s the point that Jesus is wanting His disciples to see. Don’t be fooled by all the religious activity out there. It’s leaf! It’s leaf! It’s not fruit! And leaf will not stand the judgment; fruit will. So we have to ask ourselves, and let’s make this admission to one another here this morning, it’s just really easy to shift from making fruit to making leaves. Let’s just admit that. It’s hard to make fruit; fruit’s costly. It’s hard to love my wife like Jesus loves the church. It’s hard to love my children self-forgetfully and self-sacrificially. It’s easy when they do what I want them to do. They don’t often do that! It’s easy to make leaves; it’s another thing to make fruit. You and I easily make a transition from making fruit to making leaves. Let’s be on guard. Let’s recognize that. That’s what Jesus is telling His disciples. Here were the people of God who had all the revelation of God. They had so much, and what are they doing? They’re forsaking fruit and making leaves. And He’s saying it won’t withstand the judgment. Think of His later teaching in the temple on the temple precincts as the disciples are admiring all the beautiful buildings of the temple and He’s saying, “Not one stone will be left upon another. Not one stone will be left.” Forty years later it happened just as Jesus said because leaf will not stand the judgment. Fruit will!

II. What Does it Mean to Exercise a Biblical Faith?

Let’s go to the other thing that I believe Jesus is teaching in this passage. What does it mean to exercise a Biblical faith? If a Biblical faith is fruitful and fruitful in responsiveness to God and in works of faithfulness, what does it mean to exercise a Biblical faith? And I’m really looking at the next day. Jesus and His disciples go back to Bethany that Monday evening, they’re returning to Jerusalem the next morning, Tuesday morning, and Peter looks and sees the fig tree, or they all look and see the fig tree perhaps; Peter is the one who remarks. He says, “Rabbit, look! The true that You cursed is withered to the roots.” It’s kind of like he’s saying, “Oh wow! Would You look at that, Jesus!” And Jesus’ response is, “Have faith in God. Have faith in God.” What’s Jesus telling us about the nature or how we exercise faith?
 

Well, Biblical faith is childlike. When He says to Peter, “Have faith in God,” He’s saying, “Trust this person. Trust this person.” How do we know this person? It’s not a person we make up. It’s not a person we imagine. It’s not a person we can kind of daydream about. He’s already told us who He is. How do we know God? We know Him through the Scriptures. We know Him by what He’s said about Himself. For Jesus to say to Peter and the rest of His disciples, “Have faith in God,” He’s also saying, “Go and find out who God is. Go and find out what His character is. Go and find out what His promises are. Go and find out what He loves and what He hates. And know to trust Him. Know He’s trustworthy.” Jesus is talking about a personal confidence in God’s actions because they rise from His character. We have no idea who to trust until we know His character and we find His character in His Word. Jesus is pushing us toward the Scripture. Calvin makes an interesting comment right here. He says, “The Spirit must hold all of our affections by the bridle of the Word of God and bring them into obedience.” You know what Calvin is saying? “We’ll make God out to be who we want Him to be unless we pay attention to what He’s told us about Himself.” Jesus is saying, “Have faith in God. Find out who God is.”

Biblical Faith is Simple

It’s simple, really. Jesus is saying the exercise of Biblical faith is simple. First, know who you’re trusting. Know who you’re having confidence in, and believe Him. Look what Jesus says. He says, “I say to you, whoever says to the mountain” – here’s one of Jesus’ exaggerating expressions – “’Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done to him.” Biblical faith is a believing faith. It’s a childlike faith. What do children do? Children believe because they trust. They trust in the one who is promising them and so they believe. You and I trust in the one who is promising us – what are His promises? We find out what His promises are, we find out what His character is, and we believe, we rest in Him. We rest on His Word.

Biblical Faith is Aggressive

Jesus would say that Biblical faith is aggressive. He would tell us to expect. He would tell us to expect. Look at verse 24. “I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” He’s telling us to expect, not doubt; to ask in prayer. How do we pray? Well it’s a question mark until, again, we go back to the Scripture and we learn how to pray from what God has said about prayer. We learn how to pray from not only what God has said about Himself but what God shows us in the prayers of His people recorded there. And so it’s the Scriptures, once again, that not only teach us who God is but teach us how to approach Him, teach us how to pray to Him. We don’t know how to pray until God’s Word has taught us to pray. Jesus’ model prayer, The Lord’s Prayer, is a marvelous example. There are hundreds of other prayers in the Scriptures that teach us how to pray, teach us how to approach God and what to ask for. We need that! We don’t know how to pray until the Scriptures have taught us how to pray. Jesus says, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, expect it, expect it.”

A Believing Heart is a Forgiving Heart

And finally He says a believing heart is a forgiving heart. Did you catch this? Verse 25, Jesus says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses,” and exact, almost copy of what He says in his two-verse commentary at the end of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew chapter 6. A believing heart is a forgiving heart. Why is that? Because if we believe the doorway through which we passed was a doorway in which we were convinced that sin has ruined us, that sin has broken us, that there is a canyon so deep in our souls that we can’t see the bottom of it, that sin has ruined us from head to toe, from intention to action, from inside out, and that we need a Savior, that we need someone who can come along beside us and make us new. That’s what God does. That’s what He does in the Gospel. He makes us new! He makes us different! He restores what sin has broken and renews, begins the process of renewing the shattered image of Himself in us by conforming us to the image of His Son. It’s in that process as we recognize that truth about ourselves, then we become sinned against and we forgive sinners because we know what it’s like to be forgiven as sinners.

Forgive as You Have Been Forgiven

If we’ve never believed, if we’ve never passed through that doorway, if we’ve never embraced our sin and said, “Oh God, save me by the work of Your Son!” then we don’t know that we’re a sinner and we can’t forgive the sinner who sins against us. Let me encourage us to examine our hearts. Is there wrath, is there un-forgiveness, are there things that we are holding against other people that they’ve done to us, they’ve said about us, positions they’ve put us in that we’re not willing to forgive, we’ve not let go of, we nourish those hurts? We’ve got reason to ask if our heart is a believing heart because a believing heart forgives. That’s exactly what Jesus is saying right here. When you’re praying, “Forgive,” if you hold off against someone. Forgive so the Lord forgives you. Paul says in Colossians chapter 3, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” A believing heart is a forgiving heart. If yours is not a forgiving heart, you’ve got reason to ask if it’s a believing heart. Because I’ve been forgiven and I didn’t deserve it, I can give forgiveness to those who don’t deserve it also.

One final point. We’re praying, we’re asking, we’re believing, we’re having faith in God as Jesus is talking about it – what if God says, “No”? What if God says, “No”? Tomorrow’s Memorial Day and we will remember and thank God for those in our military who gave their lives to secure and maintain our freedoms. How many of them do you suppose might have been praying for their own safety from destruction, might have been praying for their own deliverance, and yet God said, “No”? Was their faith useless? What about Jesus in the Garden, collapsed in prayer before His Father with the weight of what was about to take place? “Father, if it be Your will, let this cup pass from Me. Yet,” He said, “not My will but Yours be done.” It wasn’t His Father’s will. God said, “No.” God said, “No.”

What do we do when God says, “No”? One thing is this; we remember that what Jesus is giving us here is not a formula to guarantee that we can get the result we’re looking for. We’re dealing with a person; we’re dealing with a person whose actions are good because they rise from the goodness of His character. The point is not to get what we want out of God. The point is to know Him! The point is to know Him and to pursue Him and to be found pursuing Him in the times of great joy and great gladness and in the times of deep sorrow. Remember David’s quote from Psalm 23, “passing through the valley of the shadow of death, and yet You are with me. Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” That valley of the shadow of death is a place we all go through from time to time when God says, “No!” We yearn for Him to say, “Yes,” but He says, “No!” And yet in that deep, dark place, He is with us and we know Him, we see Him, we experience His support and we are grateful for the grace that He shows us. We see the promises of His Word in those deep, dark places, those hard places, those places we don’t want to go to. And we know Him because He’s there and we know Him better as we come out of them. And we have to say that, “Yes, God’s ‘No’ is as good as His ‘Yes.’ God’s ‘No’ is as good as His ‘Yes’ because in His ‘No,’ I know Him. In His ‘No,’ I’ve learned to love Him. In His ‘No,’ I’ve found Him closer, more deeply aware of Him than ever in all the ‘Yeses.’” And somewhere along the way He becomes our pursuit, He becomes our goal, He becomes our joy and not the things we want from Him.

That’s what Jesus, I believe, is pushing us toward. That’s why He started in that section where He started – “Have faith in God.” Do we know who He is? Are we willing to pursue Him in His Word to find out who He is? Do we trust Christ? Do we trust Christ? Is Christ where our faith is so that what we have is a faith that produces fruit and not just leaf? Let’s go to the Lord in prayer!

Father, thank You that You’ve spoken so plainly to us, given us likewise a visible parable. Now go with us. Help us to think through these standards. Help us to think through this reality of Biblical faith. Is it ours? Does it produce fruit? Father, push us to examine our hearts and examine our lives and push us towards the cross not just once, but daily, where Jesus has claimed us for Himself. Now bless us and go with us. We make our prayer in Jesus’ name, amen.

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