In Matthew 21:18-22, the Lord Jesus comes upon the Temple and is quite busy. He cleansed the Temple with a whip in hand. He publicly embarrassed the chief priests and scribes who had forgotten the simple beauty of children praising God for His goodness. After a good night’s rest, the Lord Jesus was returning to that great city. Along the way, He encountered a fig tree, one rich in all the appearances of life with its beautiful leaves abounding. However, after closer examination this fig tree was found to be barren. And so, the Messiah does the unexpected.
Matthew writes, “And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And [Jesus] said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once.” (Matt. 21:19 ESV) What just happened? Did we just watch Jesus get upset because He was merely hungry? If we divorce this passage from its context we are going to be lost. We must consider the timing of this event, its location, and the other surrounding details in order to understand Matthew’s words appropriately.
The event in focus occurs after Jesus has cleansed the Temple. If we look ahead, what we will find is that Jesus will be challenged at the Temple (cf. Matt. 21:23) and the religious leaders will purposefully go out of their way to try to “entangle Him in His words.” (Matt. 22:15 ESV) None of these details are irrelevant in our study. As Sherlock Holmes put it, “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”
We first observe that this miracle is utterly unique. It’s never replicated by Jesus, the Apostles, or any other disciples. So, we consider it quite attentively. Matthew tells us, “[Jesus] went to [the fig tree] and found nothing on it but only leaves.” (Matt. 21:19 ESV). Mark’s Gospel also adds, “… it was not the season for figs.” (Mark 11:13 ESV) So why would Jesus be upset? We need to know something about figs and their trees to grasp this passage fully.
The people of Jesus’ day would be as familiar with the development of fig trees as we are about corn rising in rural Pennsylvania. The figs typically would be ready for their harvest in August. However, there were early green immature figs which would be evident around the time of our story. The leaves on the tree would also typically indicate that something edible would be present. And if there were leaves but no figs at this point in the year then there were not going to be figs at all during harvest time. And so, what we have before us is a tree with all the show of life and satisfaction, but under close examination is utterly useless.
Jesus, standing then in the Spirit of the Old Testament prophets, provides for us an object lesson: any person who claims to know God yet bears none of the fruit of the Holy Spirit is ultimately a liar like this tree. The only remedy for a barren heart is the life bearing seed of the Lord Jesus. A healthy plant cannot but grow!
The only source for spiritual vitality comes from our abiding in Christ. For faith is the hand of the heart. By faith we receive the promises of God in joy and are nourished. By faith we cry out to God for our deepest need. Though this text as a whole is hyperbolic, the promise is meant to stir us up to pray trusting more in the One who hears us than our own desires. Let us pray with by faith hoping in Christ our King. May we bear fruit between now and the day of His glorious appearing.
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