A Fig Tree and Mountain-Moving Faith

Would you have wanted to witness the miracle of Jesus recorded in Matthew 21:18–22?

Beware of being unfruitful! This miracle warns of God’s righteous judgment. This miracle is unusual in that it is a miracle of judgment or cursing. The fig tree was disappointingly void of fruit, and Jesus pronounces that it will never bear fruit. Most of Jesus’ miracles were beneficial, merciful acts. Matthew’s account does not conflict with that in Mark 11. Mark gives more of a chronological report, while Matthew’s is topical. The withering of the fig tree is a visual warning to an unfaithful nation, to an unbelieving covenant people. It is associated with the cleansing of the Temple. It precedes the parables of the tenants and the wedding banquet, and Jesus’ pronouncement of woes on the Pharisees. The miracle is set against the background of judgment in Jeremiah 24. Jesus had come to his own, and his own refused to receive him. In 70 A.D. Jerusalem and its temple would be destroyed. The judgment about which Jesus warned was going to come. “The withering of the fig tree… is a prophecy of the judgment that would overtake Israel on account of its barrenness.” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, p.68)

God requires you, his covenant people, to be fruitful. Old Testament Israel was warned of the covenant curse that would come upon faithless disobedience. Note how the curse upon rebellion is described in terms of crop failures, Deuteronomy 28:38–42. Israel in Jesus day was about to reject the Messiah, and judgment loomed on the horizon, Matthew 24:2. The Pharisees and others who prided themselves on being children of Abraham, but who rejected the Messiah and plotted his death would fall under God’s covenant curse. Jesus warns you to be fruitful. The church today is God’s covenant people, and he expects fruitfulness. Jesus would soon warn his disciples that they had to be fruitful and abide in him, or they would be subject to pruning by the Father, John 15:1,2,5,6. We tend to think of being fruitful in terms of witnessing to others and seeing them come into God’s kingdom. While that aspect cannot be excluded, fruitfulness is a richer concept. Bearing fruit means living as one united to your Savior. It means displaying the fruit of the Spirit in your life. It includes all that you do to the glory of God.

Pray faithfully. The prayer of faith can move mountains. The disciples marvel at the prompt withering of the fig tree. Jesus is using hyperbolic language as he speaks of faithful prayer. The prayer that Jesus commands is believing prayer. It involves trust in and dependence on the Lord as your Savior and King. Just as your justification is not by your own strength or goodness, so your fruitfulness is not something you generate from within yourself. Being fruitful grows out of your relationship with Christ. “Faith is nothing else than that act whereby man lays hold of, appropriates for himself the endless power of God.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God and the Church, p.96)

In faith cast yourself on God in Christ Jesus. At the heart of prayer is the concept of coming to the sovereign, infinite God, and seeking his grace and favor. Prayer has accomplished mountain-moving things! God, in response to the prayers of his people, has built his church. God has graciously drawn you, by nature a sinner and rebel, to himself. The focus of faith is not on you. It is not asking if you are cranking out enough faith. Rather, true faith recognizes you own weakness and looks to your sovereign God. It looks to the Redeemer he has sent into the world. Jesus taught his disciples — and you — to address God as your Father in heaven. In Christ God has given you his greatest gift, and he will not withhold from you anything that you truly need. “But if in justification we have been granted peace with God, sonship, free and certain access to the throne of grace, freedom from the law, and independence from the world, then from that faith will naturally flow a stream of good works. They do not serve to acquire eternal life but are the revelation, seal, and proof of the eternal life that every believer already possesses. Faith that includes the assurance that with God all things are possible, that he gives life to the dead, calls into existence the things that do not exist (Rom. 4:17), and always enables people to do great things. This faith says to a mountain: ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will be done (Matt. 21:21).” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, pages 228–229)

Pray for the advance of the kingdom of God. Don’t treat God’s promise to answer prayer as heavenly dispensing machine. Pray for the advancement of the Kingdom of heaven. The surrounding context of Jesus’ words indicate his concern with the kingdom. He entered Jerusalem as the Messianic King. He spoke of John the Baptist, the fore-runner of the kingdom. His surrounding parables focus on the kingdom. Pray “Your kingdom come,” in the troubled world in which we live. Pray for the growth of the kingdom in your own life. Make sure that the focus of your prayers for yourself are not divorced from God glorifying himself in his kingdom. Yes, pray for your specific needs. Pray with the assurance that God will meet your needs even beyond what you might expect — although possibly not in quite the way you had in mind. Pray, depending on your gracious Savior to make you fruitful.

No, the sight of the withered fig tree is not pleasant. It does serve as a needed warning to be fruitful. But, above all, it ought to drive you to a deeper trust in the One in whom you are indeed fruitful, in whom you are glorifying to God.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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