Many people interpret this to mean that we can do whatever we want to through faith. I think a much more accurate way to look at it is that the Father can do through us whatever he wants to, if we live in the total dependence of trust in him. So we see, this is not a blank check for us to do whatever we want to do in prayer as long as we drum up enough faith to accomplish it. It isn’t about manufacturing faith, or a feeling of faith. It isn’t about believing really hard. It is about living in total dependence upon the Father.

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Download Matthew Part 74


Matthew #74. Matthew 21:18-22

18Early in the morning, as He was returning to the city, He was hungry. 19Seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He went up to it and found nothing on it except leaves. And He said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again! ” At once the fig tree withered.

20When the disciples saw it, they were amazed and said, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly? “

21Jesus answered them, “I assure you: If you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you tell this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22And if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matt 21:18-22, HCSB)

For me, this has always been one of the most troubling incidents in the life of Jesus. In the first place, it seems so arbitrary – almost like Jesus is throwing a fit because he didn’t get the fruit he wanted. In the second place, what Jesus says afterwards about faith and prayer seems so contrary to my own experience.

Let’s begin with the first issue. What was wrong with the fig tree? Why would Jesus be angry at it? We should know something about fig trees, before we proceed. In that area of the world, the fruit of the fig tree appears at just about the same time as the leaves. So, if one saw a fig tree in which the leaves were fully mature, one would expect to find figs on it. Matthew records, as does Mark, that this tree had leaves on it. If the tree was showing leaves, it ought also to have had fruit – at least the first, young fruit. However, this tree had leaves but no fruit at all. You might say, in a way, that the tree was deceptive. It wasn’t fulfilling the purpose for which it had been created, though in a sense, it was pretending to, by showing leaves.

The Bible tells us that not only did God create the earth, but he continues to actively sustain and uphold the cosmos. As Augustine said, “God is not a workman who, when he has completed his work, leaves it to itself and goes his way.” Jesus, as God-the-Son, is intimately involved with this ongoing sustaining of everything in the universe.

16For everything was created by Him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together. (Col 1:16-17, HCSB)

28And why do you worry about clothes? Learn how the wildflowers of the field grow: they don’t labor or spin thread. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these!
If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t He do much more for you — you of little faith? (Matt 6:28-30, HCSB)

1Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. 2In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son. God has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature, sustaining all things by His powerful word.
(Heb 1:1-3, HCSB)

So, you might say that one of the “jobs” of Jesus included even the little detail of checking on whether or not this fig tree bore fruit, as it was intended to. Jesus finds that here is a tree that is not maturing according to its created nature. For whatever reason, it is not fulfilling its purpose. And so Jesus, as sustainer of all creation, puts an end to it.

Now of course, the tree was not doing this consciously. So, is Jesus throwing a fit, like a spoiled child? I don’t think so. I think Jesus took this opportunity to create an object-lesson. He used the fig tree to demonstrate at least two things.

Remember the context of our passage. Just before this, Jesus was in the temple. He was very upset at how the temple no longer demonstrated the holiness of God. It was no longer serving the purpose for which it was originally intended. God’s people, Israel, were treating the temple like a marketplace. Last time, we looked at the verses which Jesus quoted from Jeremiah, and saw that one of the things upsetting him was the profound hypocrisy of the religious leaders. They thought they could live however they wanted, and then come to the temple and say “we are delivered!” God set aside the people of Israel to show his grace, holiness, and redemption to the world. But they were no longer serving that purpose. In some ways, perhaps they looked like they were still doing that, but they were not bearing any useful fruit. They were not serving the purpose for which Israel was created.

I believe that Jesus was thinking about the people of Israel, and the temple, when he withered the fig tree. Like the fig tree, they had leaves, but no fruit. They had the appearance of holiness, the appearance of following God’s will, but nothing truly useful or meaningful resulted from their activity. They were not fulfilling the mandate for which the people of Israel were created, when God spoke to Abram and said:

2I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Gen 12:2-3, HCSB)

At the time of Jesus, the people of Israel were not particularly interested in being a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. They were more interested in securing their own blessing. Jesus uses the fig tree as a warning. In fact, Luke records that at some point, Jesus even told a parable about a fig tree, and how it was doomed to destruction unless it bore fruit. In that parable, the fig tree is unquestionably the people of Israel. So here, Jesus acts out the parable. In fact, I think Jesus had in mind a prophecy from the prophet Micah:

1How sad for me! For I am like one who — when the summer fruit has been gathered after the gleaning of the grape harvest — finds no grape cluster to eat,

no early fig, which I crave.

2Godly people have vanished from the land;

there is no one upright among the people.

All of them wait in ambush to shed blood; they hunt each other with a net.

3Both hands are good at accomplishing evil: the official and the judge demand a bribe; when the powerful man communicates his evil desire, they plot it together.

4The best of them is like a brier; the most upright is worse than a hedge of thorns.

The day of your watchmen, the day of your punishment, is coming; at this time their panic is here. (Mic 7:1-4, HCSB)

Micah records that God was looking for good fruit from the people of Israel and found none. Instead of godly people, he found immorality, and he warns that punishment and destruction is coming as a result of their failure to bear the fruit which they were created to bear.

I believe all this matches up very well with the message of Matthew 21:12-17, which we considered last time. It is in fact, a continuation of the same theme. So the first reason Jesus withers the fig tree, is because it is an object lesson for the people of God. Lest we Christians start to feel smug, let’s remember that we are now the called people of God, and we are in this world to bring God’s blessing to all humankind. Like Israel, like the fig tree, God is hoping for fruit from us. Before you get too scared, however, remember that even bearing fruit is the result of God’s work in us. Jesus has already met the standard of perfection, and so we do not have to be perfect. What Jesus tells us, is that in order to bear fruit, we must remain connected to him:

4Remain in Me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me. 5“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me. (John 15:4-5, HCSB)

If we remain in Jesus, if we stay connected to him through reading the Bible, prayer, and fellowship with other believers, he will use us to bear fruit. I know that many Christians get discouraged about how little fruit they think are bearing, or what quality that fruit is. I don’t believe that we are called to judge our own fruit. We are called to remain connected to Jesus, and by doing that, to allow him to bear the fruit from us.

From time to time, I have had the wonderful experience of hearing from people about how God has used me to bless their lives. I am always deeply humbled and filled with joy, but above all, surprised, to hear these sorts of stories. God often works through us when we do not realize he is doing so. If we remain in Jesus, we will bear the fruit that he wants us to bear.

Now it seems to me that as usual, the disciples missed the main point of what Jesus was doing. I don’t think they connected the fig tree to the temple, or to Israel, or bearing spiritual fruit, until later on. What really got their attention at the time was the power of the miracle. So Jesus uses that to teach them something else, something about prayer and faith.

Now, I’ll be honest with you: these words of Jesus about prayer and faith trouble me, because they don’t necessarily reflect my experience. Not only that, but I see these words abused. Sometimes, I feel full of faith, and yet what I pray for does not come to pass. At other times I offer up a halfhearted, faithless prayer, and it is answered resoundingly exactly as I ask.

But I think that Jesus is talking about something much deeper here. He is talking about the kind of total dependence upon, and connection with, the Father that he has. Jesus didn’t curse the fig tree whimsically, it didn’t just occur to him to do. Every action of Jesus on earth proceeded from dependence and trust on the Father, not on his own divinity or idea:

5Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, 6who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. 7Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, 8He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8, HCSB)

Jesus was truly God. Even so, while he was on earth, none of his miracles were accomplished by his own power, or on his own initiative. He chose to live like Adam, who was created without sin. Only, unlike Adam, Jesus never did sin. And so while he was on earth, he was in continual, ongoing, complete dependence upon the Father. The miracles that he did were accomplished by the Father working through him, while Jesus trusted in him. You might say that Jesus came and lived and fulfilled his mission with both hands tied behind his back; specifically the “hands” of his own divine nature.

19Then Jesus replied, “I assure you: The Son is not able to do anything on His own, but only what He sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son also does these things in the same way. (John 5:19, HCSB)

36“But I have a greater testimony than John’s because of the works that the Father has given Me to accomplish. These very works I am doing testify about Me that the Father has sent Me. (John 5:36, HCSB)

27They did not know He was speaking to them about the Father. 28So Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing on My own. But just as the Father taught Me, I say these things. (John 8:27-28, HCSB)

I speak what I have seen in the presence of the Father
(John 8:38, HCSB)

32Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. Which of these works are you stoning Me for? “ (John 10:32, HCSB)

And so, when the disciples are amazed at the withering of the fig tree, Jesus is reminding them that it was accomplished by his trust and dependence upon the Father. It was not accomplished by Jesus’ divine nature, but by trust. Jesus chose not to use any power except that which is also available to any human being who trusts the Father.

This idea of close connection and total dependence upon the Father helps me as I seek to understand this passage. Jesus spoke to the fig tree, not because he was irritated with it, not because he felt like it, but because the Father wanted to wither it as an object lesson. In accomplishing this miracle, he was doing the will of the Father.

Many people interpret this to mean that we can do whatever we want to through faith. I think a much more accurate way to look at it is that the Father can do through us whatever he wants to, if we live in the total dependence of trust in him. So we see, this is not a blank check for us to do whatever we want to do in prayer as long as we drum up enough faith to accomplish it. It isn’t about manufacturing faith, or a feeling of faith. It isn’t about believing really hard. It is about living in total dependence upon the Father.

In other words, it isn’t about God answering our prayers to accomplish what we want, it is about us being used by God, to accomplish what he wants. In fact, we have here the same lesson as the one on fruit-bearing: that we must remain deeply connected to the Lord.

All right, let’s start thinking about this in our own lives. As a result of what you have received from God’s Word today, what do you think He is giving you to believe or do in the coming week?

Is he speaking to you about bearing fruit? Have you been holding out on him? Have you been thinking you can live your own life, claiming him as Savior, claiming your salvation from him, without submitting to him as your Lord? Have you been so disconnected from Jesus that he has not had the opportunity to use you to bear fruit? If so, hear him call you to repentance from his word today.

Perhaps the Lord is reminding you that he is the Lord of all creation, and that nothing, not even a little fig tree, escapes his care and notice. If so, hear him call you to trust him with all the details of your life today.

Maybe, like the disciples, you are interested in the power that Jesus exerted in this miracle. Maybe you are moved by the idea that your prayers could be answered as thoroughly and dramatically as those of Jesus. If so, hear him call you to a deeper connection with himself.

In fact, if there is one theme that runs through all of this, it is that we must remain deeply connected to Jesus. The word of God invites us to believe that today, to repent of the times we turned away from that, and to receive his power to renew and maintain that connection.

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