FIGS, FRAUDS, AND FAITH
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
September 13, 2015
18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. 20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.’”
— Matthew 21:18-22, ESV
St. Francis of Assisi was a true nature lover. He has inspired generations of Christians to be good stewards of God’s green earth, as well we should be. I wonder what he thought of Christ’s actions in this episode, in which He killed an otherwise innocent tree with curse words.
You have to admit it was a strange couple of days in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. He killed a tree, kicked people out of the Temple, and otherwise cast a shadow over the holiest week of the year. He did these things to make it the holiest week in history, but who could have understood it at the time?
The Cursing of the Fig Tree
Matthew and Mark tell the same story with slightly different details and the same synchronized result. Jesus killed a tree. Either He was being petulant or prophetic, and I would vote for the latter. Everything Jesus did, He did for judicial and redemptive reasons.
In one sense, Jesus was demonstrating that the time had come for the old covenant to give way to the new. For three years Christ has shown His disdain for what J. C. Ryle called the “Jewish Church.” The parable recorded in Luke 13:6-9 is particularly instructive, as are the many Old Testament references that tie national Israel to vineyards, olive groves, and fig trees. Jesus, frankly, had had enough of Israel and the old covenant. They had broken the covenant and broken His heart too many times. He cursed the fig tree one day and it was found dead on the next day. He cursed Israel in His day and the next generation found it gone, the Temple destroyed.
Some point to the rebirth of national Israel in 1948 as a momentous moment in prophecy. Indeed it was a significant political event, with repercussions that rock the world to this present day. I am not sure it has anything to do with real prophecy in a positive way, but I could be wrong. I do, however, continue to marvel at how evangelical Christians have consistently supported a nation of people who resoundingly reject Jesus Christ as Lord. Ironically, this policy has ultimately contributed to the dearth of Christianity in the Middle East.
This doesn't mean we should be down on Israel. Our Savior, after all, is Jewish. I abhor antisemitism and I believe modern Israel should be honored and protected as a rightful member of the United Nations. It seems prudent for our country to be allied with them for political and military purposes. But no people and no person can claim to be God’s when they wear only the leaves of religion but lack the fruit of following Jesus Christ (ref. John 5:20ff, 14:6; 1 John 2:22ff).
In this miraculous moment, Jesus said that He was through with Israel as a nation. But the main thing He was saying is that God is through with any nation, any religion, any church, or any individual who claims to know, love, and obey the Lord, but does not. The cursing of the fig tree was a condemnation of the religion of Israel, but it is ultimately a dire warning against the religion of nominalism (Christian in name, only) and hypocrisy (pretending to be godly while practicing evil), which in the end are one and the same.
The Warning Against Hypocrisy
Jesus cursed the fig tree and cleansed the Temple to demonstrate His utter disdain for hypocrisy. Not everyone in Israel was guilty, but the vast majority of the religious rulers and most of the ordinary Israelites were either sterile, nominal believers or outright hypocrites. There was only a remnant of real faith, much like in today’s church.
Apple trees produce apples, banana trees produce bananas, Fig trees produce figs. Leaves on the trees signal that fruit is to follow. A leafy tree that does not bear is making a false profession of fruit. It is worth nothing but fuel for the fire, so Jesus did nothing wrong in killing this thinly leaved tree unladen with fruit that was not even fit for shade. Be warned, it is an action He has taken repeatedly and will one day perform cataclysmically.
Jesus hates hypocrisy. Most of us do, too, except for those among us who practice it. But if I may offer an excuse for the hypocrites, they don’t know what they are doing. Did the fig tree realize it was bearing only leaves and not fruit? Of course not, it was spiritually dead. So are all lost people, especially the hypocrites.
Christian faith without Christian fruit is not Christianity. A person may adorn the leaves of an outward profession of faith, baptism, and church membership (by the way, if you don’t wear those leaves, you won’t produce any fruit, either), yet fail to produce any real fruit. They actually think they’ve done enough by just wearing the leaves, but like Adam and Eve they are falsely covered and stand naked and ashamed before God. Profession without practice, faith without fruit, is hypocrisy.
Real fruit produced by real faith results from real regeneration, the miracle of the new birth which comes by sovereign grace through total trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It bears true worship, real discipleship, a hunger for fellowship, and the spiritual desire and ability to engage in evangelism and ministry. It is the character described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 5:5 and Galatians 5:22-23 in which the love of God is effectually poured in and the character of God is evidentially poured out.
Barren hypocrites will be cursed by God. Fruitful followers will be like Jesus Christ. How can you tell which one you are? According to this strange saying of our Lord, you can know you are His by the fruit of your discernment and the power of your prayers.
The Expressions of True Faith
The fruit of a genuine Christian life is not necessarily religious clothing, like that worn by Jewish pharisees and church going (or church abandoning) hypocrites. It is certainly not clamoring for money, politicking for power, or pursuing personal happiness at the expense of other people and God. Christian fruit bears all of the things mentioned above and expresses itself in at least a couple of peculiar ways taught by Jesus.
With true faith, Jesus said, you can do the same thing that He did to this fig tree. So, this means we should all get out and kill some trees, right? No, but it does mean you discern the difference between a fake Christian and the real thing. Real faith recognizes nominalism or hypocrisy and has no use for it. If you have hypocrisy in your own life, kill it, metaphorically speaking. If you spot hypocrisy in someone’s life, get away from it lest the disease become contagious. If you spot hypocrisy in institutional life, especially church life, curse it, or politely speak out against it. This is what real Christians can do to be like Christ.
And, real Christians can really pray. They can pray for anything they want, and their prayers can kill trees and move mountains. Anything you want? Yes, but what a true believer really wants more than anything else is the will of God (ref. “the Lord’s prayer” in Matthew 6:10) and he or she will always pray towards that end (ref. 1 John 5:14).
So, if you are preaching or praying for worldly wealth, personal glory, or power over other people, you are probably a fig tree without figs. Yet, if you have experienced the grace of a life-changing and soul-saving experience with Jesus Christ, and you are praying for others to receive this impossible, miraculous gift of salvation while making efforts to communicate the gospel to them, then figs are pouring out of your soul.
Jesus is not hungry for figs. He is hungry for those who hunger for Him, for truth, for love, for obedience that glorifies God. He is hungry for those with the courage to stand up to hypocrites and liars, and for those with the passion to pray for and reach the lost. He is hungry for holy fruit, in your life and mine. Let us go forth, bearing the cross and bearing fruit, for the glory of God and the good of all people.