"In Cursing The Fig Tree Jesus Prays For
God's Promised Judgment On Unbelieving Israel."
Sermon by Rev C Bouwman on held on Sunday Morning 6 April 2003.
Text: Mark 11:14 "In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again." And His disciples heard it."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise" Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Did Jesus do right to curse the fig tree? Would it be right for you to curse the barren fruit tree in your back yard? And if you cursed it, what would actually happen?
Cursing, brothers and sisters, involves calling upon God. Cursing is a form of prayer, it’s asking God to bring about the evil that you express in your curse. After all, God alone is the almighty, and nothing happens apart from Him. When Jesus expressed the curse that no one should eat fruit again from this tree, He was at bottom asking God to prevent fruit ever appearing on this tree again. So: did Jesus do right to ask God to curse that tree? Could we do the same? Are we allowed to?
Jesus expresses a curse in our text because God Himself has cursed. It may not be otherwise; people may not call upon God to curse what God has not cursed. On the other hand, what God has cursed, we need to curse also. For the people of God are to follow the thoughts of God.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
IN CURSING THE FIG TREE JESUS PRAYS FOR GOD’S PROMISED JUDGMENT ON UNBELIEVING ISRAEL.
The reason for Jesus’ prayer. The result of Jesus’ prayer. The lesson of Jesus’ prayer.
1. The reason for Jesus’ prayer.
Jesus, we learn from vs 12, was hungry when He walked the two kilometers from Bethany to Jerusalem. He saw a fig tree in the distance, and so went to the tree to see if He could find some fruit on it. "He found nothing but leaves," says vs 13, "for it was not the season for figs." So Jesus cursed the tree: "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again" (vs 14). The following morning Jesus and the twelve retraced their steps from Bethany and Jerusalem, and see: the tree was "dried up from the roots" (vs 20). Peter was surprised at the effect Jesus’ words had; "Rabbi, look!", he says; "The fig tree which You cursed has withered away."
A number of questions immediately present themselves.
Why did Jesus curse the fig tree in the first place? Sure, there was no fruit on it. But Mark makes a special point of telling us at the end of vs 13 that "it was not the season for figs." If it’s not the season for figs, why does Jesus curse the tree for failing to produce figs?? Let’s be honest: given that it’s not the season for figs, Jesus’ prayer of curse sounds childish, impetuous, vindictive.
Why did the tree wither? We can think of many other ways in which no one would ever eat fruit from a given tree. God could make the birds eat all the ripening fruit before people could, God could make the fruit fall off before it was edible, God could prevent the fruit from setting. Why something so radical as withering?
There’s a third question. The story of the fig tree is interrupted by the account of Jesus’ actions in the temple, where He drove out the merchants and marketers. Why? Might that have any significance?
Still another question. When Peter says that the fig tree withered, Jesus replies with the topic of prayer and the promise that whatever you ask will happen – if you don’t doubt. Why? What’s the link?
It’s clear: we have to look more carefully at the entire passage.
I mentioned last week that when Jesus was still in Galilee He’d told His disciples that He had to go to Jerusalem, and there would be arrested, crucified, killed (Mk 8:31; 9:30f). So Jesus had slowly made His way south from Galilee to Jerusalem.
With chap 11, Jesus has come close to Jerusalem, so close that He could organize His royal entry into the city. Astride the foal of a donkey Jesus came into the holy city while the crowds cried out their Hosannas, and declared blessed Him who came in the name of the Lord.
Then comes the words of vs 11: "And Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple." As you envisage the temple, brothers and sisters, what comes to mind? What ought Jesus to see as He looks around there?
According to the instruction God had given in the Old Testament, congregation, Jesus ought to expect a lot of piety in the temple. There should be people thankful for God’s blessings, and so bringing their thank-offerings to the temple. There should be people broken on account of their sins, and so bringing their sin-offerings to the temple. There should be priests officiating at the sacrifices and explaining to the people each step of the ritual – that God’s justice demanded the sinner die on account of his sin but God in mercy let the sin be transferred from the sinner to the animal and the animal be killed instead – the Gospel of Jesus Christ! That priest should be explaining to the forgiven Israelite that he has every reason to be thankful for God’s gracious mercy, and how he should show that thankfulness by a life of obedience to God. In a word: the temple should spell out how sinners are reconciled to God through Jesus’ coming sacrifice, should speak of peace with God.
But when Jesus came close –vs 11: He "went into Jerusalem and into the temple" and "looked around at all the things"- when Jesus came close, what did He see? Humble sinners coming with their sacrifices, and eager priests proclaiming to them the gospel of grace? Did He see gratitude written on people’s faces for the redemption God in mercy gave? No, beloved, no. What He saw was merchants hawking their wares, worshippers with money on their minds. In other words: instead of piety He saw a market…. The temple of God had become Wall Street, the temple of the Lord given over to the goddess Economy….
The following morning was the episode of the fig tree Jesus cursed on account of its barrenness – though it was not the season for figs. Is there a connection with the events in the temple? Here we need to pause for a moment to consider what significance God has given to the fig tree.
Fig trees were very common in Israel and throughout the Middle East. They grew a wide canopy of large leaves that gave welcome shade from the hot sun. Fig trees also bore a tasty fruit that could be gathered twice a year. So the fig tree became a symbol of peace and contentment, of God’s blessings. When the Lord describes the land He is going to give His people Israel, He says it’s a land of "vines and fig trees" (Dt 8:8). Solomon’s kingdom of peace is described in the book of Kings like this: "Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree" (I Kings 4:25). When the prophet Micah describes the messianic age he says that people will "beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks…. Everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree" (Mic 4:3f; cf Is 2:2f). Similarly, when Zechariah prophesies of the coming of the Christ and the peace He will bring, He says: "‘In that day,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘everyone will invite his neighbor under his vine and under his fig tree’" (Zech 3:10). It’s clear: the fig tree is in the Old Testament a symbol of blessing, of peace, of contentment.
Exactly for that reason, brothers and sisters, is the barren fig tree a symbol in the Old Testament of God’s curse, of disruption. In His covenant with Israel God had promised that if His people would disobey He would give disease and plague so that the trees of the field would not bear their fruit (Dt 28). In keeping with that promise, Jeremiah must say this: "‘I will surely consume them,’ says the Lord. ‘No grapes shall be on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree, and the leaf shall fade…’" (Jer 8:13). Through Amos the Lord says, "I blasted you with blight and mildew. When your gardens increased, your vines, your fig trees, and your olive trees, the locust devoured them…" (Amos 4:9). The fruitless fig tree is the symbol of curse.
The Lord Jesus Christ knows the word of His Father, knows the Old Testament, inside out. He has labored in Israel for three years, preaching, teaching, and working miracles in order to show that He is the promised Messiah, the fulfillment of the gospel that was to be proclaimed in the temple. But after three years of labor the response is … nil. On His way to the cross He’s come to Jerusalem, to the very city where the temple stands on Mt Zion, where the gospel of salvation is meant to be proclaimed. He comes to the temple where God’s covenant people are meant to bring their sin offerings and their thank offering – and what does He find? Fruit on His labor, the fruit His soul desires? There is no fruit; Israel is barren! There is only materialism, the goddess Economy right in the temple itself!
As Jesus walks to Jerusalem next morning He sees yonder "a fig tree having leaves" – that symbol of God’s blessing, just as the temple was the evidence of God’s blessing on Israel. But when Jesus came close and looked for fruit, there was no fruit at all – even as the temple had no fruit…. Hence Jesus’ response: "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again." Here was a prayer to God that the Lord of all the earth would curse the tree as Israel deserved to be cursed.
And No, beloved, Jesus was not too hasty in His judgment. After cursing the tree, Jesus took His disciples into the temple to show them how barren Israel really was. Vs 15: He "began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves." And that wasn’t all; for the remainder of the day "He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple" (vs 16). With His mighty hand and outstretched arm the Lord put a end to trading in the temple. That is: He removed the goddess Economy from the temple of His Father. And why? With Economy no longer the driving motif of the temple, there was room again for the preaching of the Word of God. And that’s what Jesus did. Through His miracle He got the attention of the crowds, and now made it His point to teach – says vs 17. The text of His sermon was Isaiah 56:7: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations."
But what’s the response of the people to the opening of the Word of God? Is there an acknowledgement that God’s word has authority, that God would have the temple be characterized by prayer and not by business, by sacrifices and not by thievery? None of it. Vs 18: "the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him." That’s the official response of the temple leadership! Business before prayer, thievery before sacrifice! Jesus would show from Scripture that it ought to be different? Away, away with Him!
Do you see, beloved, how barren the temple is? It looks so desirable, with its promises of forgiveness and peace with God. But a close look reveals only decay, barrenness, sterility. And a call to repentance produces only hardening…. How very much did the temple and its leaders and its patrons deserve the judgment of God! "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again!"
I come to our second point:
2. The result of Jesus’ prayer.
And see: the following morning there was confirmation that God in heaven had heard Jesus’ prayer. For the fig tree is now all withered! In one night the almighty God of heaven and earth had so dried up a leafy, shady tree that next day there was no moisture left in it.
Yes, God answered Jesus’ prayer-of-curse. But why this way? Why should the tree whither, as opposed to its fruit never setting again?
Here, brothers and sisters, is God’s judgment on Israel’s barrenness. So barren is the temple that it has no right of existence anymore. A fig tree in the Old Testament was a symbol of blessing, of peace, of abundance – and that was due both to the fruit it bore and to the shade it gave. With its focus on business, the temple supplied no fruit, did not nourish any hungry or thirsty soul with the gospel of peace-with-God and forgiveness of sins. But it still looked attractive, and people could be deceived to come and seek shade under its leaves – only to be drawn in to the worship of the Mammon. So God destroys it altogether; so radical is His judgment. That’s the message of the withering of the tree; Israel and the temple shall whither altogether!!! That withering of the tree is God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer, and at the same time it was an announcement of doom for the temple and those who worshiped Mammon in the temple.
And we need to know, congregation, that this announcement of doom became reality in due time. Jesus understood that the temple could not last, and told His disciples so. Mark 13: when Jesus one day went out of the temple, His disciples commented on the splendors of the building. What Jesus said in reply? "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down" (13:2). That is: this temple would be destroyed, God’s house of prayer for all nations destroyed, withered, gone…. And it happened too. A mere one generation after the Jews crucified Jesus and rejected the Spirit of Pentecost, the armies of Rome under Titus pulled the temple to bits in the year 70 AD, and plowed up the temple mount. The point: God keeps His Word! The promise inherent in the withered fig tree came to pass!
That brings us to our third point:
3. The lesson of Jesus’ prayer.
Our text ends with the note that "His disciples heard" Jesus curse the tree. Indeed, Jesus wanted His disciples to hear His prayer about the tree, for it provided the opportunity for Jesus to give His disciples further instruction in prayer. That is why, when Peter drew Jesus’ attention to the withered tree, Jesus (says vs 22) "answered and said to [the disciples], ‘Have faith in God.’" In other words: believe God’s promises, believe that He will do as He has said He would do. The Old Testament had said that God would curse disobedience, would curse covenant breaking amongst His people; well, in the temple is disobedience and covenant breaking, and so God’s curse must follow. "Have faith in God"; trust that He will do precisely what He said He would do. As the fig tree symbolizes the peace God promised faithful Israel, so the withered fig tree symbolizes the curse God promised upon unfaithful Israel. You have seen how God answered My prayer; trust that God will answer your prayers also.
Jesus draws out His instruction with a specific example. Vs 23: "For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says." Which mountain? No, brothers and sisters, Jesus does not speak about any mountain. He speaks about "this mountain", and that is none other than the mountain upon which the temple stands – Mt Zion. In other words, here the word ‘mountain’ denotes the temple. That barren fig tree had dried up to its roots as a symbol of what would happen –according to God’s Old Testament ordinances- what would happen to the barren temple; it would wither, perish, be destroyed – that’s God’s promise. And because it’s God’s promise, "whoever says to this mountain, Mt Zion, the temple, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ … will have whatever he says." Utter a curse on Mt Zion, as Jesus did to the tree? Yes, says the Lord, yes you may –why?- because the Lord has promised destruction on covenant breaking – and that’s what the temple is full of!
And even as He says it, Jesus knows that the temple will harden itself in its unbelief and its apostasy. For these very scribes and chief priests who reject His preaching today, who refuse to make the temple into "a house of prayer" and insist instead that it remain "a den of thieves", will shortly crown their unbelief with the great evil of murdering the Son of God. Yet Jesus does not pray the petition of vs 23 at this time, does not pray it because He wants to go to the cross to satisfy God’s righteous anger against His people’s worship of Economy and to pay for their sin of demanding the death of the Savior foreshadowed in the temple sacrifices. Here is the love of the Savior for the unworthy; instead of asking for the destruction of the ungodly, He continues on His way to the cross!
But let it be fixed in our mind, beloved: here is suffering for the Lord too, and temptation! He could ask God to remove that mountain right away, as He’d asked God to destroy that fig tree. He could ask God to destroy the temple leaders, as God had promised; they deserve it! But He doesn’t! He doesn’t, because He intends to lay down His life for His sheep, to pay for sin. That is: He’s not going to treat these hardened covenant breakers according to what they deserve.
From the specific example of the temple, Jesus expands His instruction to His disciples to more general terms. Vs 24: "Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them." Pray for good things, for blessings; pray for evil things, for curses – "whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them." As Jesus cursed the tree, asked God to prevent the tree from bearing fruit; as one could curse Mt Zion, ask God to dump the temple into the sea – so one can ask for anything and it will be granted.
Anything? Yes, brothers and sisters, anything. That’s what Jesus says. Yet we need to compare Scripture with Scripture, and then Jesus’ point is that we may ask God for anything God has promised us in His word. As the church confesses in Lord’s Day 45: a prayer that pleases God and is heard by Him includes that we ask God "for all that He has commanded us to pray."
Implication? We need to know what God has told us to ask for. That is: we need to know the Bible! Jesus knew from the Old Testament that God’s curse had to follow on Israel’s covenant breaking. Jesus knew from the Old Testament also what significance the fig tree had. So, in the light of the apostasy Jesus saw in the temple, He asked God to ensure that no one would ever eat fruit from it again. Jesus knew His Old Testament, and so understood the significance of God’s response to Jesus’ prayer; He knew the withered tree foreshadowed what would happen to Israel. He knew His Old Testament, and so knew too that the temple would be destroyed on account of Israel’s hardness in sin. So too the disciples, and we today: we need to know God’s promises! And then pray those promises into existence as the circumstances around us demand it.
But there’s another element to it all. Human nature so quickly and easily latches onto God’s promises, and prays them out of vindictiveness. Personal hurt gets in the way, and then we ask to fulfill His promise to punish the evildoer and behind our prayer is a desire that the one who hurt us suffer for the hurt he’s done to us. That’s an unchristian thought, and Jesus knocks it on the head right away. Vs 25 & 26:
"And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses."
Why ask God to curse another? Because you have hard feelings against him? No, says Jesus, that is not legitimate grounds to ask God to curse another. In fact, if you have hard feelings against another, God will not forgive your trespasses and so you are worthy of God’s curse. You have hard feelings against another? Go first and forgive him; there may be no room for hard feelings, no room for asking God to curse another for personal reasons.
What reasons there can be instead to ask God to curse another? One can ask it only with a view to the other’s good, with a view to the other’s repentance. Jesus asked the Lord to curse the fig tree, and so to show the disciples what Israel deserved. Then Jesus did not sit back –like Jonah- to see what God would do; rather, Jesus went back to the temple, swept Mammon out, and preached, sought repentance from the people. And when that repentance did not come, He did not ask God to cast Mt Zion into the sea, but He instead went to the cross to lay down His life for His people – including those very people who rejected His preaching in the temple and some time later demanded His crucifixion.
Shall we then easily pray for a curse upon another? No, beloved, no! We shall do what we can to move the other to repentance. And we shall forgive, as the Lord on the cross asked His Father to forgive those who crucified Him. But where God has announced a curse on evildoers, yes, we shall ask God to fulfill that curse – but we’ll ask it very carefully, with no vindictiveness, no spite in our heart.
Rev C Bouwman has served as minister of Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott, Perth Western Australia.
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