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.”
We are on a sermon series from Matthew 21 which recounts the details of Jesus’ unveiling of his Messianic identity to the world. He is no longer hiding the truth of his true identity for the time has now come for the Son of man to be known to the world.
This is, therefore, a sermon series on the King who enters Jerusalem, the heart of the Judaic religion, and reveals his holiness by cleansing the temple and displaying his splendour through his ministry to the sick.
And then we have this passage.
Growing up in the catholic church and then moving to the protestant church, and through my years in the prosperity Gospel, the Charismatic chaos, I have heard this passage preached or quoted many times. And the focus of the passage is always on that phrase “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.”
- The object of our pursuit is faith
- The resistance then in that pursuit of faith is all doubt
- The ultimate goal of our pursuit then is to move mountains
The preacher will then go on to give examples of how exemplary faith has done many mighty miracles in their ministry – supernatural encounters. They will talk about why faith is the key to unlocking the impossible. So, what is called for in any situation is faith that ‘you can move mountains’.
They will ask you to close your eyes and think about that issue that so burdens your soul, and to have faith without doubt, then to stand and proclaim in a loud and confident voice, “Problem! You shall not taunt me anymore. Be moved into the heart of the sea!”
Then they will pray over you and send you out.
This is the sum of most, if not all, of the sermons that I’ve heard on this passage growing up.
I do not wish to give you the same weak frivolous message. I call it frivolous because it is a message flooded with true statements that smuggle in a lie that changes everything.
- You see, the object of our pursuit is not faith, it is Christ. Faith is a gift, and it grows in its measure the more you look at Christ and not at yourself.
Ephesians 2:8–9 ESV
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.If faith is of works, if it can be produced by works, then salvation through that faith is accomplished by works. But it is not a result of work.
If the object of our pursuit is faith, our resistance is against all doubt, and our goal is to move mountains, as these preachers teach us, the one thing that we fail to recognise is that the teaching has us focused on faith we cannot manufacture, that we are called to strive for, a doubt we cannot resist unless we have faith, and mountain that is never moved by our strength to begin with.
Flooded in all the true statements is smuggled in a lie to look anywhere else except to the One person that all your attention must be focussed on.
My problems, my mountains, my faith, my word!
Stop! We must stop! That is not the point of this text.
- We do not resist doubt by effort. We resist it by faith.
- The goal of our faith is not to move mountains. It is to see Christ exalted on high so that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
Yet, this passage is all about faith and what faith can accomplish. But in order to understand it we must stop inserting ourselves into the text or desperately appropriating the text to our circumstances. Cast your burdens at his feet, deny yourself, pick up your cross and come to this passage in search of what Christ means to give you. Then, and only then, will you be satisfied with the riches of his truth.
Like the other passages in this chapter, Matthew is not focused on the chronological order of things, rather he is taking a thematic approach. Here in Matthew’s account, Jesus cursing the tree and its withering is mentioned as one event. But we know from Mark that it happened a day apart. Jesus curses the tree but then as he and his disciples walk past that tree the next morning, the disciples point out that the tree is withering.
So, Matthew’s intention is clear here. He intends for us to understand the theme. Christ, the King of the Jews is now here in Jerusalem and the events that are unfolding here are a divine intervention, a fulfilment of prophecy.
As Jesus in his Kingly authority speaks and acts through these chapters, we will later see in
Matthew 23:37–39 ESV
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”
Jesus is entering into the heart of Israel cleansing the temple and healing the sick. He is entering into a hostile territory that should have received him with gladness. This place then is not a place of faith but a place of resistance. This is the context, and it is within this context that Jesus says what he says and does what he does.
Matthew 21:18 ESV
18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry.
- After the events at the temple, Jesus went and lodged outside the city, at Bethany, a village about 3.2 km from Jerusalem on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. It is possible that Jesus lodged at the home of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha.
- Now, in the morning, he returns to continue the last leg of his ministry in the hostile heart of Israel. The nation that kills the prophets that are sent to it. Yet, the heart of Christ is to gather them like a hen gathers her brood under her wings.
- He became hungry. Christ, in his divine display of authority, was still human in the flesh. But I believe that the point that Matthew is trying to make is to use Christ’s human hunger to show a metaphoric sense of God’s hunger, a hunger to see his people faithful (O Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered your children!)
Matthew 21:19 ESV
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.
Mark tells us in
Mark 11:13 ESV
13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.
Reading that many Christians wonder why Jesus would curse a tree that couldn’t bear fruit. The point here is that figs with fully blooming leaves (a fig tree in leaf) are a sign that the fig has fruit. Some fig trees would be fully leafed right before the season for figs and one could find figs on that.
So the fact that it was in leaf and yet had no fruit is significant to our understanding of what Jesus is doing here. Because now we’re looking at a tree that has the outward appeal of being fruitful. It has an outward appearance of beauty. Yet, Jesus found no fruit.
- Jesus had through the course of his ministry used the analogy of a tree and its fruit.
Matthew 7:15–20 ESV
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
So this analogy has been used before, probably repeatedly in Jesus’ three-year ministry. So now, when you see the analogy in action where you have an actual tree that does not bear fruit but has an appearance of fruitfulness, I believe Matthew’s intentions in recounting this story and Jesus’ intention in cursing the tree are meant for us to understand that this isn’t about the tree, it is undeniably about us.
- From the cleansing of the temple to the cursing of the fig tree, Matthew is giving us the theme of unfaithfulness and its consequences. The Holy of Holies has not come out of the temple to cleanse its outer courts and now beyond to Jerusalem and then to all the world.
- “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
Here is these words church! Out of the mouth of the one who brought blessing and salvation, from whose mouth come the words of eternal life, fountains of living water, hear him now issue from that very same mouth – a curse.
Jesus looks at a fig tree that has the appearance of fruitfulness but inwardly has no fruit really, and when the King came hungry to find fruit and did not find it, this is his proclamation – May no fruit ever come from you again! And the tree withered.
People like to argue that this is a contradiction since Mark says it withered the next day. This isn’t a contradiction. You see when a tree withers, it does not wither overnight. It does over a period of weeks. In tree-withering terms, a day is as good as immediately. Also, it is very possible that the withering began at the moment Jesus cursed it and it took a day to spread across the tree.
- Israel’s unfaithfulness has been compared in Jeremiah to the fruitless fig tree.
Jeremiah 8:13 ESV
13 When I would gather them, declares the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.”
Here the Lord has come to gather, and yet all that he had given them has passed away from them.
- This isn’t a story about a fig tree that Jesus found and thought that he might curse it in order to show the disciples what their faiths can accomplish.
Matthew 21:20 ESV
20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?”
- The marvelling of the disciples feels to me like an equal part of wonder and faithlessness. “How did the fig tree wither at once?” How? Is that really a question after all that they have seen?
How? Because Jesus spoke. Thats how.
Matthew 21:21 ESV
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.
- Seeing their wonder, Jesus responds using what I believe to be a pivoting over that incident. You see, the direct implication of the fruitless tree was the lack of faithfulness. There was no faith in Jerusalem. So he cursed the tree and his disciples marvelled. So, he pivots on that incident and brings a different perspective while on that same subject of faith.
Therefore, the tree serves as a sign of judgment of faithlessness and a sign of the power of faith.
- This is Jesus comparing and contrasting the faithlessness of the people and the faithfulness of Christ in his humanity.
- Truly – Jesus is bringing emphasis to what he’s about to say. Probably bringing the disciples closer to him.
- I say to you – This is instruction for those who would follow him. This is what he says to those who are faithful. Not to the tree. The Master issues a curse and the turns and issues a blessing.
- if you have faith and do not doubt – Faith in whom? Faith for what? Do not doubt what?
Hebrews 11:1 ESV
1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
- What are the things that a Christian hopes for?
Romans 5:3–5 ESV
3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
The Christian hope according to Paul is a hope that grows in suffering, not diminishes. This is why we are called not to begrudge suffering. Hope does not shame us.
So, the hope we have is of a kind that does not begrudge suffering. A hope that is higher. This isn’t a hope that is fixated on us but on Christ, his words, his promises, his ability, and his will.
And faith is the assurance of that hope.
- What are the things he’s not seen?
Romans 8:23–25 ESV
23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
The term translated as “evidence” or “conviction” is the Greek word elengchos, which often refers to an argument or a case being made. Faith is an argument for that which is not yet seen.
These things that are hoped for in the person of Christ, are things not necessarily seen and yet this hope is not hidden but rises in argument and defence of it.
- So, faith is both assurance and conviction of things not seen yet hoped for. Figs and mountains can never be worthy objects of such a faith.
When Jesus is calling for faith, he is not calling for faith in moving mountains, but faith in him. When he says that they ought to have no doubt, that resistance is against doubting the will, the word and the promises of Christ.
What power do you have O man to heal the blind, raise the dead or drive out demons apart from Christ? Or to wither figs or move mountains apart from him. Surely Jesus said,John 15:5 ESV
5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
Christ is not a superpower you inherit using whose words you find mountains to move in order to make much of your name. This isn’t about your power, about your goals, about your will or your purpose. This is about Christ the King and his glorious name.
Tell me, which Christian who has such faith that is wrought in reverence and love for Christ, will want to move mountains against his will.
Luke 10:20 ESV
20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Take your eyes off of you and set it one who is worthy of your sight.