Grace Bible Church Expository Sermon Notes
Jesus Curses the Nation for Fruitlessness
cf. Matt. 21:18-22 The Lords Day 5/4/97 PM
This brief paragraph contains one of the more puzzling acts of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is actually a symbolic indictment on the apostate nation of Israel. Remember this is building toward the Lords sufferings in Jerusalem and His ministry has increasingly come under criticism by the Jewish leaders.1 Here we discover: Jesus Cursing of the Fig Tree and Jesus Teaching His Disciples.2
Jesus Curses the Fig Tree for Fruitlessness
Matthew 21:18-19 Now in the morning, as He returned into the city, he was hungry. And when He saw a fig tree along the way, he came to it, and found nothing on it but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever. And presently the fig tree withered away.
In the land of Palestine the fig tree was greatly appreciated. Not only did it provide a good snack but comforting shade. It had became a symbol of the nation of Israel at peace. For example, when Jesus first saw Nathianiel...
...coming to Him, [He said to Philip] Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile. Nathaniel saith unto Him, How knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. (cf. John 1:47-48)
Evidently, Nathaniel was enjoying a peaceful time of meditation under his fig tree and Jesus, in His omnipresence "saw him." But secondly, the fig tree, had also became an emblem of the nation of Israel herself. When Jesus walked by, looking for figs and found only leaves, it illustrated that the nation was spiritual barren of fruit for the glory of God and only offered the leaves of the religious trappings.3 The Lord had just purified the temple, with its religious worship and now He rebukes the nations lack of spiritual fruit. Actually he did more than rebuke the nation, He symbolically cursed the nation.4 God had previously promised the covenant nation that if she obeyed he would bless her, but if she disobeyed He would curse the nation. Deuteronomy 28 is God uncluttered testimony to this curse.5 God would thoroughly curse the nation as Jesus does here, for her disobedience and lack of spiritual fruit. The nation was called to be distinct from all nations of the earth and bring forth fruit for God's glory, by impacting other nations evangelistically. But she had become a self-serving religious nation, barren of any impacting witness. The Pharisees were evangelistic, but unfortunately "they compassed sea and land to make one proselyte, and when they are found, they make them into twice the son of hell" as themselves. Instead of fruit, the nation offered only leaves and thorns! The purpose of the nation was to bring forth fruit for God's glory. At the giving of the Mosaic law or ten commandments, God said...
...if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. (cf. Exodus 19:5-6)
That is, if the nation obeyed, then she would be a kingdom of "priests" to the nations of the world, a distinct people. The greatest fruit a person or nation can produce is obedience to the will of God. But the nation didn't and she failed to impact the nations around her for the glory of God. I'm often reminded of the parable the Lord gives in Luke 13...
A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit on it, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this tree and find none. Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he, answering, said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I dig about it, and fertilize it; and if it bear fruit, well; and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down. (cf. Luke 13:6-9)
Jesus was explaining His search for three years, for spiritual fruit on the tree of the nation of Israel. During His three year ministry He only found leaves or the religious trappings of the nation. And in His absence, the nation would be given one more chance to bear fruit, as the Apostles preached for Israel to "repent" and bear fruit for God's glory, by embracing their Messiah. But unfortunately, the nation would refuse to repent and God would issue a final culminating judgment by sending the Romans to "cut it down" at the roots, i.e., Jerusalem herself would be destroyed and the Temple itself torn down. What Jesus was doing here as He cursed the fig tree was resurrecting that parable in the minds of His disciples. They knew He was referring to the nation and the time of her judgment was near at hand. But they were amazed at the physical manifestation of Jesus' object lesson, for we read next...
Jesus Teaches His Disciples on Prayer
Matthew 21:20-22 And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away! And Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also, if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea, it shall be done. And all things, whatever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.
Fig trees took months and years to die and no doubt would not show its decay for some time, but on the return journey into Jerusalem, the disciples noticed that the fig tree was "withered away" and Mark's Gospel adds, "they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots." (cf. Mark 11:20) No doubt the Apostles would immediately remember both the parable of Luke 13 and the cursing of the tree the night before. And notice, it was the root system, which would determine if fruit would be produced or not, was withered up suddenly. At the question of the disciples, Jesus took the opportunity to capture the teachable moment and teach a lesson on faith. But His lesson isn't a jump onto another spiritual truth, but connected with the rebuke of the nation for her lack of bearing fruit. You see, what the nation of Israel didn't have was "faith," in the sense of a commitment to her Messiah; she didn't have faith in God's Word that issued in obedience; and she only had the empty shell of religious duty, which would soon result in God's devastating judgment! As we discovered in Matthew 17, when Jesus referred to faith being able to "say unto this mountain, Be thou removed and cast into the sea, and it shall be done," He was reminding His Jewish disciples of a rabbinical proverb. The Jews referred to rabbis who could remove great difficulties by their answers, as "removing mountains." Nowhere in the four Gospels do we ever read of Jesus or the Apostles in the Book of Acts, ever rearranging the geographical landscape with their faith. Such a supernatural display was what the legalistic Pharisees wanted, in Matthew 16, but is not the issue here. Christians should keep in mind that we are called to bear fruit for the glory of God. Peter wrote 35 years later...
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a people of his own, that ye should show forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.(cf. 1 Pet.2:9)
Similar to what the nation of Israel was called to do but failed to do, so we are called to continually show forth the praises of God by lives lived in distinctive fruitfulness. The lack of fruit by Israel called for the curse of Christ and it's no different today. An outward show of religion, without genuine fruit for Gods glory, is an abomination before the Lord, i.e., under His angry curse!
Exploring the Bigger Picture
The Suffering Savior by F. W. Krummacher (Moody Press, 1978) is a classic devotional work on the events of Holy Week, written about 150 years ago by a popular German preacher.
The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971) is another historical and devotional work on Jesus final week (Part Two in the current 1 volume).
What Should We Do About this Passage?
- Application Recommendations -
It is easy to become self satisfied with an outward show of religion but not concentrate on the hard work of bringing forth fruit for the glory of God and the good of others.
Our children need to understand that a pleasant disposition, a friendly personality or even a desire to please ones parents, is not necessarily genuine spiritual fruit. It could be outward leaves.
Have you ever gone to share the Gospel to someone lost, with your discipleship partner? Being the human instruments to introduce someone to Christ is a central means of bearing fruit. cf. Rom. 1:13-16. And all Christians should be involved in aggressive evangelism.
. Context: After Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem, He did the unexpected. Instead of leading the crowds to the Fortress of Antonia and challenging the Roman government, He entered the Temple of God and cleaned house. To the Lord the government of the land was secondary to the worship of God and Jesus' anger blazed as He cast out those who had turned the house of God into a den of thieves. Then Jesus engaged in His final healing ministry within the temple Court of the Gentiles, meeting the needs of the "blind and lame." The children's praise was perfected as they cried "Hosanna to the Son of David," in contrast to the priests rage being kindled in opposition. Finally, verse 17 says, "And He left them, and went out of the city into Bethany; and he lodged there." No doubt spending the night with Lazareth, Mary and Martha His good friends.
2. John MacArthur points out that Jesus' "cleansing of the Temple and cursing of the fig tree were of special and monumental significant. The cleansing of the Temple was a denunciation of Israel's worship, and the cursing of the fig tree was a denunciation of Israel as a nation. Instead of overthrowing His nation's enemies as the people anticipated He might, the newly-acclaimed King denounced His own people." cf. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 16-23 (Moody Press, 1988), p. 276.
3. Fig trees in Israel bring forth fruit twice each year, in June and September. First the small buds appear (the Paggim) in April and again in July, finally forming into eatable figs in June and September. Jesus was seeking to teach a larger lesson for He knew "it was not the season for figs." (cf. Mark 11:13)
4. Just as the men sitting under their fig tree was a picture of peace and prosperity (cf. 1 Kings 4:25; Mich 4:4; Zechariah 3:10), likewise the wrath of God is pictured by the destruction of the fig tree. cf. Psalm 105:33; Jeremiah 8:13; Hosea 2:12.
5. Deut. 18:15-20 says, "If thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes which I command thee this day, that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee. Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field. Cursed shall be thy basket and thy kneading-trough. Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy cows, and the flocks of thy sheep. Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out. The Lord shall send upon thee cursing, vexation, and rebuke, in all that thou settest thine hand to do, until thou be destroyed, and until thou perish quickly, because of the wickedness of thy doing, whereby thou hast forsaken me."