Sermon: Jesus Curses the Fig Tree and False Religion Matthew 21:18-22

Truth Taught- Judaism looked good but failed to produce any fruit, therefore, Jesus forever curses it.

Introduction

Matthew’s account places Jesus and His disciples on their way from Bethany back to Jerusalem.  It follows behind the account of Jesus cleansing the Temple of the Money Changers and those who sold sacrificial animals.  We saw last week that it was the Priests of Israel that had the responsibility to keep the Temple pure and free from anything that would hinder the worship of God.  But the Priests of Jerusalem had long since traded true worship for monetary gain. 
We saw last time that Jesus was doing wonderful things, literally Messiah things, cleansing the temple, healing the blind and lame, clearing the way for true worship and the Scribes and Priests were indignant.  They saw the wonderful things, they heard the children declaring that Jesus is the Messiah, and they were angry.

Then Matthew declares that Jesus left them.  He left their religious establishment never to return to them.  We noted that He came back to the Temple but not to those religious leaders.  His words to them from now on would be words of judgement not of instruction or care.
Jesus has declared His authority over Jerusalem as He entered it seated on the colt.  He has declared His authority over the Temple as He cleansed it and declare it to be His house of prayer and worship.  Today, in a further act of judgement on the religion of the day, He curses Judaism once and for all.

Matthew has given us three visual proofs that Jesus is the Messiah.

1. Jesus entering His City riding the colt

Zechariah 9:9 (ESV) 

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! 

Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! 

Behold, your king is coming to you; 

righteous and having salvation is he, 

humble and mounted on a donkey, 

on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 



2. Jesus entering His Temple and cleansing it-

Zechariah 14:21 (ESV) 

21 And every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and take of them and boil the meat of the sacrifice in them. And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day. 


3. Jesus cursing the fig tree-

Zechariah 14:4 (ESV) 

On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. 

Father, this is Your Word.  We ask that You would give us clear and accurate understanding.  We ask that the Holy Spirit would apply these truths to our lives so that we can obey You and glorify Your Son…AMEN  

Matthew 21:18–22 (ESV) 

18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 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 withered at once. 

20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”

1.  A Visual to Picture Israel’s False Religion

18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 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 withered at once.

Jesus and His followers stayed in the area of Bethany about two miles from the City of Jerusalem.  This was probably in or near the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha.  

On one of their trips back into the City, Jesus sees a certain fig tree.  

The OT prophets frequently used the fig tree and its fruit as images of Israel’s relationship to Yahweh and her experience of his judgment…

God expected His people to produce a wonderful fruit that they and the nations would come and partake.  Whether it is the OT prophet speaking of sour grapes, wild grapes or a barren fig tree, the prophet was speaking judgement on Israel. 
We see that while Jesus came to Jerusalem to ultimately die for the sins of His people His death while it would save many, His presence in Jerusalem was also a curse for those outside.  The religious leaders of Judaism, for the most part, were among those whom Jesus would curse. 
We must realize that God is doing many things and two of them is saving His people and passing judgment on those who are not His people.  Here, especially, those who pretend to be His people and are not.
I wanted to quote many OT texts but refrained to just one text to show what is going on here in our passage today.

Micah 7:1–2 (ESV) 

7 Woe is me! For I have become 

as when the summer fruit has been gathered, 

as when the grapes have been gleaned: 

there is no cluster to eat, 

no first-ripe fig that my soul desires. 

The godly has perished from the earth, 

and there is no one upright among mankind; 

they all lie in wait for blood, 

and each hunts the other with a net. 

Matthew’s language where he writes, he became hungry, is pointing to this exact text.  

There should have been early figs.  When the leaves grew it was time for the early figs.  First-ripe figs is literally, the ripening figs.  During the time of the Passover in Jerusalem the fig trees are beginning to get their leaves but the leaves are not fulling developed yet.  When they are fully covered with leaves and the leaves are grown it’s time to start looking for the early fruit. 
Here was a tree that had matured early for some reason.  This tree should have had early figs. 
When you look for figs, you first see the green leaves of the fig tree.  Our Lord’s point is that while the tree looked good from a distance its leaves were no more than a show.  It had borne no fruit, only leaves.
Here, lies the comparison that the OT speaks of in so many places.  The religion of Judaism had become so corrupt that it bore no fruit.  It should have but didn’t.  It was a religion of deceit.  It looked good.  It had all the adorning traits.  It had the City, the Temple, the Ceremonies, the Holidays, the Garb.  It looked good from a distance but the closer one got to it, there was no real fruit.  It was smoke and mirrors.   
First century Judaism was truly a trap for the assuming worshippers.  

they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts the other with a net. 

In a couple of Chapters Jesus will finish what He has started here as He declares the seven woe judgements upon the religious leader of Judaism.  They looked impressive but were nothing but show.  This show often deceived the people into thinking they were sincere and they really knew God and were close to Him.

Matthew 23:1–15 (ESV) 

23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. 

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. 


The fruit of the fig tree is symbolic for the good things and the good life God’s people are to produce by simply staying close to God and being obedient to His Word.  Just like a fig tree does not try to produce fruit it just produces fruit at the right times of the year.  It does this because it’s a fig tree.  You see, it’s just a fig tree doing fig tree things.
What happens when the fig tree stops producing fruit?
What happens when Israel stops producing fruit?
The tree and Israel meet judgement…

Matthew 3:10 (ESV) 

10 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.

2.  Prayerless Religion vs. Prayerful Return

20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” 

When the disciples ask Jesus to explain what just transpired, he pivots and talks about prayer. Why? Though they do not yet fully understand, they will be the new caretakers of God’s people (Matt. 21:33–45). They will be instruments by which the true Israel is transformed—when the Jewish nucleus of Christ-followers extends branches worldwide and brings forth fruit from all nations (beginning in Acts). And, as Jesus teaches here, they will do this by the power of faithful prayer.

Remember in last week’s message when Jesus declared that His house is to be a house of prayer but they had made it a den of robbers?
There was no real prayer taking place.  There was no true worship.  It had become something else entirely and no real fruit was being produced. 
The withered fig tree is Judaism.  They had forgotten God and began running things without Him.  You see Israel didn’t wither away on that day; she had been withering for many years.  This was simply a visual of Israel’s deadness.  Israel had forsaken God and it was seen in the Temple becoming a den of wickedness and a place where no prayers were truly offered up to God.

Matthew 23:27–28 (ESV) 

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. 


Jesus is teaching His disciples that they are not to be prayerless.  In fact, through their prayers and ours, God will do some truly amazing things. 
Here, is where this text has been misinterpreted.  Here is where the wheels fall off, so to speak, in our understanding of the text if we are not careful.  Jesus is not saying that if you have faith and pray you can literally move mountains.  Let’s stop to think about this.  I’ve never heard of a mountain moving because someone prayed.  I’ve never seen it or heard of one moving.  Surely there have been people who prayed in faith.  Surely in the last two-thousand years someone has prayed with faith.  Right?  So, why no mountains moving?  Why no change in geography because someone prayed?
If this is our view of this text then either Jesus was wrong or no one has met the criteria to pray in faith.
There is a true interpretation that we must discover here.

21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.      

Now, they were on their way from Bethany to Jerusalem and on the way is where the fig tree was cursed.  Notice Jesus says, if you say to this mountain.
This mountain not any mountain but a particular one which is one that was on their way from Bethany to Jerusalem.  We must see that the Bible has details for a reason.  What mountain is on the way from Bethany to Jerusalem?
Mount of Olives lies almost directly between the two.  This is the mountain Jesus is speaking about. 
Jesus moves from the figure of the fig tree to “this mountain,” which in this context means the Mount of Olives. Jesus speaks here of the removal of “this mountain” in conscious reference to… 

Zechariah 14:4 (ESV) 

On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. 

We see the influence of Zech on Jesus and the Evangelists at several other places in this narrative; and the fact that Zech 14 shows the Lord coming into His City for both salvation and judgment.  Jesus is underscoring the point made with reference to the fig tree – namely where the Jews failed, the disciples should fervently pray for the swift and final coming of the Kingdom of God.

Unlike the Jews who had turned the Temple, the house of prayer into a den of thieves, Jesus presses His followers to not forsake prayer especially the prayer of faith that prays for the things God has said will come to pass.  It is through these prayers God will do great things and through these prayers God will move a mountain.
The prayer of faith is the prayer that longs for God’s Kingdom; a prayer that by faith longs for God’s glory to be seen on earth as it is in heaven.  When we pray like this, our prayers will not go unheard.  God will move.

Conclusion

The Jews had become accustomed to certain religious activities but they were dead spiritually.  They had leaves, they went through the motions, they looked good on the outside but were a dried-up fig tree, no fruit.  They had forsaken their responsibilities of prayer for other things.  

This is a danger that not only plagued Israel but can plague us as well.  We can look the part and do the stuff but there is no real fruit in our lives.  

Real fruit are things like… Fervent prayer, Holiness, Obedience to God’s Word, and Increasing love for Christ, and things like these.  Just like the Temple during the Passover Celebration, Lots of action, lots of activity, but no righteousness. Leaves, but no fruit.

God always judges those with no fruit.


How do we line up?  Are you producing fruit?  What can you point to in your life and say, I’m a Christian and this is what a Christian does.  Just like the fig tree bears fruit because it’s a fig tree, Christian’s bear fruit because they are Christians.

Are you praying?  Are you serving the body here?  Are you growing in holiness and obedience?  Is your love for Christ increasing?

Resources Used

http://reformedperspectives.org/magazine/article.asp/link/http:%255E%255Ereformedperspectives.org%255Earticles%255Ekno_chamblin%255ENT.Chamblin.Matt.21.18-22.html/at/The%20Cursing%20of%20the%20Fig%20Tre

The Gospel of Matthew by R T France

Matthew by Daniel Doriani

Matthew by Leon Morris

Matthew by David Dickson

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