20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” – Mark 11:20-25 ESV
When Jesus departed the temple, He and the disciples returned to Bethany for the evening. The next morning, which was probably Wednesday, they made their way back to the city of Jerusalem. After His symbolic exit from the temple the day before, it is likely that Jesus chose to enter the city through the Lion’s gate rather than the Golden Gate, which led directly into the temple complex. They would have taken the same path through the Kidron Valley and the Garden of Gethsemane, so eventually, they came to the spot where Jesus had cursed the fig tree the day before. And to the shock of the disciples, the fig tree was “withered away to its roots” (Mark 11:20 ESV).
Just the day before this same tree had been in perfect health, covered in green leaves and full of life. But despite its outward appearance of vitality, it had been missing one important thing: Fruit. This tree, unlike all the other fig trees in the garden, had bloomed early. Under normal conditions, the presence of leaves would have been an indication that there would be figs present. But when Jesus had approached the tree the day before, He had found it completely barren. So, He had cursed it.
Peter was the first to recognize the dramatic difference in the tree’s appearance. And he recalled the statement Jesus had made to the tree 24 hours earlier: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:14 ESV). Surprised by the tree’s sudden demise, Peter felt the need to let Jesus know that His curse had worked. He called out, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered” (Mark 11:21 ESV). Overnight, the once lush tree had dropped all of its leaves and lost every ounce of life-giving sap. It had withered away, from the roots up.
There is so much going on in this scene. The tree is the obvious focal point, and Jesus is going to use the opportunity to convey two different messages to His disciples. One will have to do with fruit and the other with faith. The reason the tree was dead was that it had failed to bear fruit. It had given all the appearances of fruitfulness but, upon closer examination, it was discovered to be barren. For Jesus, the tree was an apt symbol for the fruitlessness of the nation of Israel. Keep in mind that the city of Jerusalem was literally overflowing with pilgrims who had come to celebrate Passover. They were a people who practiced all the prescribed feasts and festivals. They regularly brought their tithes and offerings to the temple. They attempted to keep the Mosaic Law and, when they failed to do so, they counted on their sacrifices to assuage the anger of God.
Three years earlier, John the Baptist had confronted a group of Pharisees who had shown up in the wilderness of Judea where he had been preaching and baptizing. When John had seen them, he responded in prophetic anger, stating, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10 ESV).
As the religious leaders of Israel, these men were thought to be icons of virtue and the symbols of moral rectitude. But John had recognized them for what they were: Withered and lifeless trees incapable of bearing good fruit. Their flowing robes and outward displays of righteousness were nothing more than “green leaves” that gave the impression of fruitfulness but without nothing to show for it.
Jesus would later pick up on this same theme, warning His disciples to be on the lookout for false prophets. And He told them exactly how to spot these dangerous charlatans.
“You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.” – Matthew 7:16-20 NLT
And Jesus had also warned His disciples that only those who abide in Him can bear good fruit. And all those who refuse to abide in Him and fail to produce fruit will be dealt with severely by God.
“He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.” – John 15:2 NLT
The Jewish people were to have been God’s choice vine, but they had failed to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And when God had sent His Son, the people of Israel had rejected Him. So these fruitless “branches” would be cut off, completely eliminating any hope that they would ever produce good fruit.
The apostle Paul would later elaborate on this “cutting away” of the fruitless branches. In writing to the Gentile believers in Rome, he reminded them that they were branches that had been grafted into the olive tree of Israel. But at the same time, some of the natural branches had been removed.
Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among them and participated in the richness of the olive root, do not boast over the branches. But if you boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. Then you will say, “The branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted! They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand by faith. – Romans 11:17-20 NLT
With the cursing of the fig tree, Jesus was making a statement about the spiritual condition of the nation of Israel. And His foray into the temple complex the day before had revealed just how spiritually fruitless Israel had become. They were rotten to the core, down to the very roots. Their religious leaders were exactly what John the Baptist had declared them to be: A brood of vipers. And their venom had poisoned the people, leaving them just as withered and lifeless as that fig tree.
But none of this was on the minds of Peter and his companions as they stood looking at the dead tree. They were fixated on how quickly it had died after Jesus had cursed it. And Jesus knew that they were more interested in His display of power than they were in any lesson He might be trying to teach them. So, rather than expounding on the fruitlessness of Israel, Jesus took the opportunity to teach His disciples about faith.
“Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart.” – Mark 11:22-23 NLT
First, He pointed them to God. Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that God Almighty must be the focus of their faith. The reason the people of Israel had become fruitless was that they had failed to remain focused on God. Remember what Paul said: “They [Israel] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you [Gentiles] stand by faith” (Romans 11:20 NLT).
The real point behind Jesus’ lesson was the power of God. The reason we place our faith in God is that He is all-powerful. Nothing is impossible for Him. And Jesus uses an impossible scenario to describe the unfathomable power of God. If the unlikely situation arose where a mountain needed to be moved from one place to another, God could make it happen. The lesson Jesus is trying to teach has nothing to do with getting whatever we pray for. He is not suggesting to His disciples that they have a blank check from God to fulfill their heart’s desires. The focus of their faith was to be God, not the thing they wanted from Him. Having the power to curse a fig tree would end up being a curse in and of itself, if God was left out of the equation. God is not to be viewed as a source of power to accomplish our desires. He is to be the focus of our faith and the object of our affections. His power is not why we love Him, but it is always at the disposal of those who do love Him.
Fruitfulness is the byproduct of faith. As long as the disciples kept believing in God, they would experience His power flowing through their lives and resulting in the good fruit that only He can produce.
But Jesus also wanted His disciples to understand that while their access to God would place His power at their disposal, it came with conditions. The privilege of entering into God’s presence through prayer could prove dangerous. Attempting to avail oneself of God’s power for selfish reasons is always a risk. That is why James wrote, “you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:2-3 NLT).
But there is another, and even more dangerous tendency to avoid. God’s power is not to be used to seek revenge on your enemies. That’s why Jesus warned His disciples, “whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25 ESV).
Jesus didn’t use the power of God to wither the fig tree because He was angry. He did it to teach His disciples a lesson. Jesus never used the power of God to seek revenge or call down divine wrath on His enemies. Yet, He knew that this would be a temptation for His disciples. In fact, just days earlier, as they were making their way to Bethany, Jesus had sent a few of His disciples into a Samaritan city to find accommodations for the night. When they returned, they announced to Jesus and the other disciples that the Samaritans wanted nothing to do with Jesus. This news infuriated James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” and they asked Jesus for permission to use divine power to destroy the entire town.
“Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” – Luke 9:54 ESV
But Jesus rebuked them for their spirit of revenge and their desire to use the power of God for self-centered purposes. This was not what He had taught them.
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:44-45 ESV
Faith and fruitfulness. These two vital characteristics are inseparable. Without faith in God, it is impossible to produce fruit. And the absence of fruit is evidence of a life devoid of faith in God. But as Jesus had previously told His disciples, God was going to be glorified by their future fruitfulness. And the key would be their faith.
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” – John 15:7-8 ESV
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
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