We come now to Jesus’ final break with Judaism, and we should be aware by now of how it is unfolding. We have read about the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem by which the Lord presented Himself as Israel’s true King, knowing that He would be rejected by both the leaders and the masses of the people; and another symbolic action, the cleansing of the temple, which would be no more permanent this time than it had proven to be the first time. In the verses we come to now, we find a third symbolic action: the cursing and withering of the fig tree.
“In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 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 weathered at once” (Mt.21.18-9).
In the Old Testament, Israel is often compared to a fig tree or a vine, and judgment on Israel is compared to its destruction. Jesus used the image himself in a parable recorded in Luke 13. In that story, at an earlier point in His ministry, Jesus spoke about a fig tree that was not producing fruit and which the owner was therefore going to cut down. “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?” he said.
A servant pleaded for it. “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.” The fruitless fig tree represented the barren religion of Israel as Jesus found it during the three years of His ministry, and its destruction represented God’s impending judgment on it.
Similarly, in Matthew 21, Jesus has found the religion of Israel to be barren. Its leaders have turned the temple from “a house of prayer” into a “den of robbers.” Jesus has been rejected as king, and the time for judgment has come, which is why Jesus cursed the fig tree, saying, “May you never bear fruit again,” and why the fig tree withered. The cursing of the fig tree was a powerful symbolic action. It is also a warning to us of how God views any religion that does not produce genuine spiritual fruit.
I know nothing about fig trees, but I have read that fig trees first produce green figs, which are not very good, but are still edible, and then green leaves immediately grow. Later in the year the figs ripen and are normally picked and eaten. The problem here is that a tree in leaf advertises that it has fruit, but this fig tree had no fruit at all. It was a case of false advertising, which Jesus used as an illustration of hypocrisy in religion.
This is a case of profession without practice, and what a problem it is! It has been a problem all through biblical history. It had been the case in Israel. On the day before the prophet Ezekiel learned of the fall of the city of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, the Lord appeared to him to explain why this was happening, and the explanation was in terms of the people’s empty profession. God told Ezekiel: “Your countrymen are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, “Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.” My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument as well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.”
God told Ezekiel that Jerusalem was destroyed the first time because the people wanted merely to be entertained by God’s words, not wanting to obey the instructions.
In Matthew 15 Jesus quotes Isaiah, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.’”
Jesus used this verse to reprove the Pharisees and teachers of the law who made a profession of adhering strictly to God’s words when actually they were obeying only their own regulations. Jesus called them “hypocrites” and “blind guides.”
This point is made repeatedly in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount: “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men” (6.2); “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men” (6.5); “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting” (6.16); and, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (7.5).
In chapter 22, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” Then in the very next chapter, He pronounces a devastating series of woes or judgments on them. That chapter ends with the words, “Your house is left to you desolate,” which is what Jesus pointed to by the withering of the fig tree in chapter 21.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org