Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, He was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then He said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.” Matthew 21:18-19
So as I read this passage, I had to stop for contemplation. Jesus, of course, is omniscient. He reached up into the tree, knowing that no fruit would be present. I don’t know about you, but if I knew there was no food in the cupboards, I certainly wouldn’t reach into the cupboards when I’m hungry. I would go directly to another source where I knew food could be found. But then again, I’m not Jesus. Clearly.
I believe Jesus was deliberate in His actions, and everything He did was to teach principles to those around Him, and of course, glorify His Father in the process. So, why? Why did He reach up in the tree, knowing there would be no fruit? And why did He curse the fig tree afterward? Was it a quick momentary act of anger because He was hungry and it didn’t offer any fruit? Knowing Jesus’ character, I would definitely say that’s not the case. Jesus often spoke in parables, and this was a real-life parable in action.
From a distance, the tree was alluring, even inviting, but up close, the tree offered nothing. To apply it, the people of the day appeared to be religious, but in essence, after further review, just like the tree, they did not even bear fruit. (And what good is a fruit tree without fruit?) The footnote in my NIV Study Bible calls it, “religion without substance.” It goes on to talk about the application in Jesus’ time, “Just like the fruit tree looked good from a distance but was fruitless on close examination, so the temple looked impressive at first glance, but its sacrifices and other activities were hollow because they were not done to worship God sincerely.” How many people today put their faith in their good works and religion? How many different faiths today are work-based? Almost every single one instructs followers that they have to do a list of things to obtain ‘afterlife’ and please God/the gods.
When you really think about it, many religions share common elements. Many even believe that Jesus came to earth, died, and rose again. Some believe He was a prophet. Some believe He was a good man that lived. All of them involve some kind of faith & good works. It’s uncanny just how close the resemblance is when you really break it down. Take a look at the chart below, and start at the bottom and work your way up, comparing the left from the right.
The biggest visible difference is the ‘object’ of the faith. Christ-followers choose to put their faith in Jesus Christ as the only way to heaven. Other religions put their faith in good works. For the Christ-follower, good works are (or should be) a natural result of having a relationship with God. Other religions have requirements of good works in order to obtain favor from God. You know some of them – go to confession, light a candle for the deceased, pray facing a certain direction, don’t eat certain animals because one day you’ll be reincarnated into one of them if you’re good enough.) I’ve heard it said many times, “It’s all the same. As long as you believe in something.” But the Bible says, even the demons believe. Believing is not the answer – it’s the object of your belief/faith that is. We could never be good enough to earn God’s favor, yet He freely gives it to anyone who chooses to accept it.
The next application from this living parable is for those people who claim to be fig trees, but they bear no fruit. Have you ever thought you knew someone but later been shocked to hear them share that they were a Christian? I’ve had a few interactions with people through the years like this. They would lose their temper in meetings, cuss at the drop of a hat, take out their frustrations on everyone around them, and party like everyone else at the seasonal company events. They claimed to be a “fig tree”, but as far as I could see, they didn’t produce any fruit from that tree. It’s not my place to judge – that is God’s job. But this I know, when it comes to my faith in God, I believe the Bible is pretty clear: we should live out our salvation. If we claim to have a relationship with God, no one should be shocked to hear about it. It should be evident in our actions; the fruit should be on the tree. James 3:17 says, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” If we claim to be a Christian, then there should be evidence of it. If there’s no evidence, then it begs the obvious question.
This last week, I had the opportunity to help an old friend out from our church in Ohio. I hadn’t seen her in well over 15 years, and it’s not like we were ‘best buds’ when we did know each other back then. She posted a need on facebook, and then a few days later, she posted it again. As I saw her need becoming more pressing, I had a gentle nudge from the Holy Spirit telling me to volunteer. I could have easily just moved on to another post in facebook and acted like I never even knew about the situation. But I knew in my heart that if I did “move on”, it would be wrong of me. The Holy Spirit was telling me to ‘live out my salvation,” and so I volunteered, even though this involved in total nearly 10 extra hours of my time in a 15 hour span, smack dab in the middle of the work-week. I won’t go into all the details, but one person said to me, “Why in the world did you volunteer to do that? Are you crazy?” Another said, “You are a saint to do that for her.” No, I wasn’t crazy, and no, I wasn’t a saint. I was just doing what I knew God wanted me to do. I was living out my salvation and hopefully showing evidence of Him in my life as a result. Now, I’m a people-pleaser by nature, and because of that, sometimes I just do things because I know it’ll make them happy. Maybe you can relate -- the real test of fruit is the motive. I didn’t do the favor for my friend to rack up points in my ‘good deeds bank.’ I didn’t do it so that one day maybe someone would help me out in my time of need. In fact, at first, I really didn’t want to do it at all. To quote Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for ‘dat!’” The truth is, I did it because I love Jesus, and He urged me to volunteer. It was my choice to obey, and I didn’t even want to do it at first. In fact, I ignored the first post that saw from my friend. But part of obedience is doing things you wouldn’t normally do, just because He tells you to do them. That’s when fruit is produced.
Now look to the end of the passage. “Why did Jesus curse the tree?” He clearly didn’t lose His temper because He was starving to death. Was it a sign of what will happen to trees that don’t bear fruit? I’ll let you go study that for yourself. That answer is for another day, another blog.
The bottom line is, “who” or “what” is the object of your faith? Are you doing good deeds to advance in your religion, in hopes of earning God’s favor? Or maybe like the religious workers in Jesus’ day, all you care about is yourself and giving the appearance of religion to onlookers. Or are you a fig tree that is bearing fruit, truly seeking God, and as a result, there is evidence of that relationship in your life?
Jesus says we need the faith of a child. It’s a big decision, but yet it’s so simple. I’ll close with this short video of my daughter Amber sharing in a stadium in Barranquilla, Colombia about her decision to start a relationship with God. Even as a 9 year old, she talks about the struggle she had in making a decision to follow Christ.
I write this blog to share about my relationship with Christ, and I write so others will one day understand how being a Christ follower is not a list of rules and regulations, it offers joy and freedom. If all this talk about fruit, faith, and figs leaves your brain in a fog, then chances are you really don’t understand what the Bible teaches about having a relationship with God and being a Christ-follower. I’d love to share more with you, one on one. Message me or talk to someone, but don’t just disregard this as a fanatic Christian rant. Jesus - He’s the real deal, and I don't know about you, but I don't want to be a worthless tree that exists without bearing fruit.