Images of the Savior (41 â€“ His Cursing the Fig Tree)
In Isaiah chapter five, the Lord tells of a vineyard to which he had given every peculiar advantage, preparing for it a very fertile place which he had cleared of all stones and debris, planting in it the best vines, and preparing within it a watchtower and a wine vat, in order to protect it and provide it with the necessary means to put its fruit to the best use; but when the time came for it to produce good grapes, it produced wild and unusable grapes instead. For this cause, the Lord destroyed every advantage of the vineyard, ensuring that, from henceforth, it would produce only thorns and thistles. In verse seven, Isaiah makes the application that, â€œthe vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the House of Israel, and the men of Judah are that which was planted for his pleasance; and he waited for justice, but behold, bloodshed! for righteousness, but behold, a cry!â€ As we shall now see, on the occasion of his cursing of the unfruitful fig tree, our Savior was acting in much the same way, and expressing much the same truth. Let us observe what transpired on this occasion, as well as the use to which Jesus put the event, or the lesson which he drew from it.
First, we must be aware that this cursing of the fig tree followed hard upon the heels of Jesus' cleansing of the Temple, during his final week in Jerusalem. Although Jesus had always been very clear on the divine necessity that his teaching and miraculous signs be given first to the Jewish nation, so that he spent himself for three years in â€œproclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness among the peopleâ€ (Matthew 4:23); yet now that the hour of their final rejection of him, and of his subsequent death on a Roman cross, had become imminent, his signs were shifting from that which signified the mercy of God, and the nature and power of his Kingdom, to that which signified the judgment and destruction of the unbelieving majority of Israel. Hence, Jesus had just cast out the merchants from his Father's house, thereby signifying that they whose dealings are with the currency of the world, and who have no true heart for prayer and fellowship with the Father, will ultimately be denied access to the place where God's presence would actually dwell through Immanuel, the true Temple of God, in the New Heavens and New Earth. Even as Jesus had once come to â€œseek and to save that which was lostâ€ (Luke 19:10), he would likewise come again to destroy them who did not produce the fruits of repentance â€“ and just as he signified his prior work of mercy throughout his earthly ministry, so at the end of it, in the face of Israel's final, national rejection of their Messiah, he was signifying the reality of the coming judgment and curse that he would deal to them who had found within themselves no need of a Savior.
Let us see now how Jesus did this. First, we will observe the state of the fig tree: we notice that it had all the signs of life and fruitfulness from afar, being green and flourishing, and full of leaves; and we notice, moreover, that it had every external advantage which should tend to true fruitfulness, being by itself, where no other tree could suck up its necessary moisture and nourishment from the soil. So also, the nation of Israel had been separated out to be holy to God, and given every inducement to true holiness that no other nation had received, including the law of Moses; the Temple and its worship services, which held forth in visual form the deep truths of the Messiah's work of redemption; the prophets who continually urged the people to turn back to God; and finally, the very Son of God himself, who dwelt among them, and taught them the true doctrines of God with great wisdom and authority. And furthermore, just as this fig tree, the nation of Israel also had very many fair leaves, indicating that by all means the true fruit of godliness ought to have been found in her. For the people studied the Word of God diligently and committed it to memory, and were very zealous to fulfill the traditions of the elders; but all these things were only so much show, and lacked the fruit which is pleasing to God, the fruit of genuine holiness, for which he hungers as a hungry man desires figs.
Only we must be certain that we too are not in the same condition; for how many fair and flourishing hypocrites are there in the Church today, who have been given every outward and advantage, and who show the leaves of many outward acts of religion, but display no love, joy, peace, etc., which things are the true fruit of the Spirit? Let us be sure that, if God did not spare his own natural people, neither will he spare us, if we prove faithless as they. The curse that overtook Israel will overtake any of our churches as well; and unless we repent and do the true works of righteousness, Jesus will likewise remove our candlestick, and cast us into the outer darkness (Revelation 2:5). Oh, let us tremble, and seek to abide in his presence! For the fruit can come only from those branches which derive their inner nourishment from the vine, which is Jesus our Savior (see John 15:1-17).
Next, we will observe the nature of the curse, which we may discern from these words: â€œNo longer shall there be any fruit from you foreverâ€. Oh, what a fearful judgment this entails! What judgment of God could be more just or more terrible than that, because of mankind's professing themselves to be wise when they are indeed fools, and exchanging the glory of God for the idols of their shame, he finally delivers them over to their own unclean hearts, to work out their shameful lusts with their bodies (see Romans 1:23-24)? Is this not the judgment that God poured out upon Pharaoh, hardening him in his own wickedness, so that with every evil deed and act he would treasure up for himself more eternal wrath in the day of judgment? Oh, let us be certain that, if the leaf of outward piety is seen in our lives, the fruit of the Spirit may be found there also. And if it is not, let us cry out for the mercy of our Savior lest, the day of his mercy being past, he harden us and curse us with perpetual unfruitfulness, and our final outcome be that of the fig tree.
Reading on, we see that the curse of our Savior is immediately effective, for the very next morning (as we learn from Mark's account), the disciples found the fig tree at once withered up, and were amazed at the power of the Savior's words. May we not derive from this circumstance the assurance that the word of our Savior is strong and unalterable, and that those whom he has cursed are cursed indeed, and will not at all find a way of escape? Be very certain, you who suppose to obtain security in some place other than this man Jesus, whether it be in a bank account, a life of good deeds, or any other such thing, that just as his word of mercy is mighty to save those who are lost, so his word of judgment is mighty to curse those who have placed their trust in any other thing. And who can deliver out of his hand?
But now, as Jesus took advantage of this occasion to instruct his disciples in the nature of faith, we must be careful not to miss the force of this lesson either. The disciples, already having been astounded by the powerful word of Jesus, must have been more astounded yet at the Savior's promise that, as notable as this event was, they would do mightier deeds yet, if they had but a mustard seed of faith. If it were a great thing to wither away a fig tree with a mere word, how much greater would it be to pluck up a mountain by the roots and cast it into the sea by the same means? And yet this is what should transpire by the word of one of Jesus' true disciples, who dared but to ask it in prayer, and believe that it should be.
As this passage has been much abused by practitioners of a prosperity gospel, who would wrest faith from its only appropriate place of resting securely in Jesus, confident that God in his wisdom will work out all things for the good of those who love him (see Romans 8:28), and use this passage to claim for themselves their beloved idols of material wealth and physical prosperity, when it is at once manifest that this offer is not intended for idolaters; therefore, we must be sure to observe that this physical event, in which a green tree withered at once away, was typical of a spiritual condition, in which outward professors of godliness will be cursed with eternal spiritual death; and therefore, the following event to which Jesus makes reference, the casting of a mountain into the sea, must likewise be understood as applying to spiritual realities. We may learn from this saying that, as great as is the power of Jesus to judge his enemies, it is a far greater power yet that would enable him to give true life to those who had been dead, and to transfer them from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of his marvelous light. And this vastly greater power is precisely the power that Jesus would enable his disciples to see realized, through their prayers and the proclamation of the gospel, so that whatever mountains of physical persecution and spiritual bondage should lie in the way, these would be utterly cast away by the mercy of Jesus, so that the Kingdom of God should spread throughout the world.
But tell me now, you who use this verse to horde up for yourselves ease and prosperity, do you not make yourselves greater than the Savior, who readily underwent suffering for our own salvation? Do you not deny that true saying of the apostle, that â€œall who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecutionâ€ (II Timothy 3:12)? Do you not forget that Paul himself prayed fervently for deliverance from an infirmity, and was denied the request, the grace of God having prepared something better for him (II Corinthians 12:7-9)? You would do well to heed the condemnation of our Lord's brother, who railed against the contentious believers for asking amiss, in order to consume it upon their lusts (James 4:3), or to note the beloved disciple's clarification elsewhere, that all we ask for, we are to ask according to the will of God (I John 5:14). Are you not destroying the flock of God when you teach them that, whatever weakness they have to bear, they are bearing it because their faith is small, and if they could increase their faith, their health would flourish and their bank accounts swell? Do you not turn their hearts to idols, teaching them to love earthly treasure more than Christ, and urging them to scorn the fellowship of his sufferings, which always precedes the power of his resurrection? Know of a surety that you will bear your burden, whoever you may be.
But we trust that the true disciples of our Savior will not be so easily led astray. The dangers of false teaching are many and deceptive, and so we urge you all to feast your eyes upon this Savior of men, whose words of judgment are unstoppable in their fearful power, and whose grace is mightier yet, being strong through the prayers of the faithful to move very mountains, and to draw the weakest soul that cries out for mercy into the Kingdom of eternal life and light.