We must not think that Jesus (Mt.21.18-27), was simply angry at the tree and struck out against it like a child might throw down a cell phone and break it just because he can’t make it work. Jesus was not being petulant. He was teaching an important lesson with two points. First, the religion of Israel, focused in her leaders, was not producing fruit. It was a case of blatant hypocrisy. Second, any religion like it will always wither up at last, becoming as dry as a tree that is no longer nourished by its roots.
This is what Israel’s official religion had become. It had become dry and useless. Failure to bear genuine fruit was the failure of the leaders who appear in the story immediately before this, wanting Jesus to rebuke the children for their praise, and in the story that follows in which they challenge Jesus’ authority and hypocritically decline to answer a question that He puts to them regarding John the Baptist.
But let us not stop here. This is also what will happen to every merely outward Church, any gathering of people who show the green leaves of apparent spiritual prosperity but who fail to possess the fruit of the Spirit, which is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
People who were following Jesus made a verbal profession of discipleship. They called him “Lord,” which meant they were calling Him their Master and were describing themselves as His servants, but they were disregarding His teaching. Jesus showed the impossibility of this intrinsic contradiction by asking pointedly, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”
The problem of profession without practice was present in the early Church too, as shown in the Epistle of James. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” However, the obedient are blessed.
The great Anglican evangelical John Ryle wrote: “Is not every fruitless branch of Christ’s visible church in awful danger of becoming a withered fig tree. Let us beware of church-pride: let us not be high-minded, but fear.”
Nothing is so obvious as the truth that religious words without spiritual fruit are worthless. Yet few things are so common. Ryle also wrote, “Open sin, and avowed unbelief, no doubt slay their thousands. But profession without practice slays its tens of thousands.” If we belong to Jesus, we will produce spiritual fruit, and if we do not, we do not belong to Him. Jesus warned that those who call Him “Lord, Lord” but do not obey Him will be carried away by life’s torrents.
I do not think Jesus’ disciples got the point of what He was saying at this time. If they had understood Him, they would more than likely have asked about the failures of the Pharisees or the shallow nature of their religious practices. They did not do this. Instead, they were amazed at the speed with which the fig tree withered and asked Him to explain it: “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?”
The disciples’ reaction is not surprising since they were always slow to understand what Jesus was teaching, just as we are. What is surprising at first glance is the way Jesus responded to them. Since He had been teaching about the failure of Judaism and would add to that teaching in the parables that conclude this chapter and start the next, we might expect Him to have said, “Forget about how quickly the tree withered, and try to understand what I am saying about Judaism.” But He didn’t do that. Instead, He took the question at face value and replied with some remarkable teaching about prayer: “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
The seemingly impossible things are possible through the power of God, when the people of God take Him at His word and pray in a believing way. It is an encouragement to pray often, well, and rightly.
But why did Jesus respond this way here? The instruction about prayer becomes critically important. Jesus is teaching that what is important about genuine religion is not how prosperous our “temples” have become but whether we are actually communing with God and are growing spiritually by it.
Put this over against everything we know about the Pharisees and apply it to ourselves. These men were scrupulous about obeying their legalistic interpretations of God’s law, as was Paul, who could say of his younger days as a Pharisee, “as for legalistic righteousness, [I was] faultless.” Their brand of religion had prospered. The temple was an amazingly beautiful and financially successful place. They were highly regarded. Yet this meant nothing to Jesus, who is breaking with Judaism formally in this chapter. He had no interest in the outward show of religion if the hearts of the people were far from Him. He counted religion fruitless if financial prosperity had marginalized or eliminated prayer.
If Jesus were speaking to us directly today, would He not say these same things about much of our evangelical religion? Actually, He has said it through Paul, who described religious people of the “last days” as “having a form of godliness but denying its power.” Spiritual power comes not through politics or money but through prayer.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org