Matthew 21:20-21 - And seeing this, the disciples marvelled, saying, "How did the fig tree wither at once?" 21And Jesus answered and said to them, "Truly I say to you, if you have faith, and do not doubt, you shall not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, `Be taken up and cast into the sea,' it shall happen." Read Matthew 21:1-22.
Why would the Lord Jesus, of all people, curse a fig tree? Has that question ever bothered you? It just doesn't seem characteristic of Christ, does it? Is this the same Jesus who healed the lame, brought sight to the blind and gave life to the dead? How are we to explain this seemingly negative miracle in which Jesus actually took away the life of a "poor little tree"? From the account, it even appears that the Lord took revenge on the fig tree for not having any fruit when He was hungry! Is this the same Jesus who recommended turning the other cheek rather than taking revenge? And what about the statement that He made in reference to the withered fig tree--that it was possible to throw a mountain into the sea? What did Jesus mean by that statement, and what do mountains have in common with fig trees? Finding the answers to these questions really begins with a basic understanding of all the miracles of Christ. As we analyze the miracles of the Lord Jesus, we find that they all were performed in order to convey truth. They were not just demonstrations of God's power; they were planned and designed to illustrate and dramatize the teachings of our Lord. Therefore, whenever we examine any miracle of Christ, we should be looking for the meaning of the miracle. What is the particular truth that God wants us to learn from the miracle? Thus our main question concerning the cursing of the fig tree should be, "What is the teaching of this miracle?" We'll find that the problem questions we raised do have answers when we come to appreciate the meaning of this little-considered miracle. The teaching at the heart of the cursing of the fig tree involves God's dealings with His people, the nation of Israel. In the time of the Old Testament prophets, God likened Israel to a fig tree. (See Hosea 9:10.) The Lord had chosen Israel to be His covenant people. They were to be His special testimony to the surrounding nations and, like a fruitful fig tree, they were to bring forth spiritual fruit to the honor and glory of God. When the Son of God left heaven to come and live in the midst of His chosen people, He was looking for that fruit--evidence of spiritual life. He was "hungry" for this fruit, but He found nothing to satisfy His longing heart. He found plenty of religious "leaves," which would indicate that there shouldbe some spiritual fruit--but there was none. In the parable of the fig tree in Luke 13:6-9, the Jewish people are unmistakably pictured in the barren fig tree. Notice that the three years of our Lord's gracious public ministry are portrayed in this parable. All that time He was looking for fruit! In the parable, every effort was made to cultivate some fruit, but it was to no avail. In fact, the Jewish people turned their backs on God Himself when they rejected Jesus as their Messiah. As John 1:11 says, "He came to all that was His own, but His own people did not receive Him." How sad! What was to be the result of this rejection of God's own Son? Three years earlier, John the Baptist had said, "The axe is already laid at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!" (Matthew 3:10). John's statement was not only true of the condition and fate of individuals; it was characteristic of the Jewish nation as a whole. At this critical point in its history, the nation of Israel was like a fruitless tree, so it was to be cut down and removed! It happened! In 70 AD the Roman army conquered the rebellious Jews and put an end to the nation of Israel of that day. All this, of course, was vividly dramatized in the cursing of the fig tree. Is God ever out of control when He takes life? Of course not! We may not always understand why God takes the life of an animal or a tree or a person, but we can be sure it is not an indication that God has lost control of Himself or His creation. In the miracle before us we do understand why the Lord took life from the fig tree--it was to prophetically illustrate what would soon happen to the fruit-less nation of Israel! Performing this miracle certainly did not bring joy to the heart of the Lord. In the same way, the removal of the nation of Israel from its place of privilege was certainly not a time of rejoicing in heaven. Remember how the Lord wept over the coming fate of the Jewish people when He cried, "Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!" (Matthew 23:37-38). God was long-suffering and patient with His wayward people, but they would not return to Him. Whenever God's love and forgiveness are refused, God's judgment must follow. A holy God must be true to His righteous principles. Before we go further with the meaning of this miracle, let us make a present-day application concerning salvation. The Bible teaches that the evidence of true faith is spiritual fruit. Jesus said that believers would be known by their fruit (Matthew 7:20). A checklist of spiritual fruit is given in Galatians 5:22-23--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Is there spiritual fruit, the evidence of true faith, in our lives? Or are we just wearing masks of religious leaves--lots of pious talk and works which hide our true inner condition? The curse of God remains upon everyone who trusts in self-righteousness and refuses God's gracious offer of forgiveness and eternal life through Christ. Religious leaves--even the thickest and most glossy leaves--will never get anyone into heaven. In Matthew 24:32 we have a parable about a fig tree given in the Lord's Olivet discourse concerning the future. Since Israel is represented by a fig tree in other passages of Scripture, is it not possible that the nation of Israel is represented by the fig tree in this parable as well? Will the fig tree of Israel live again? It's hard to deny that the rebirth of the nation of Israel is a miracle taking place before our very eyes. And the religious leaves are already showing! But what about fruit? A careful reading of Romans 11:11-32 seems to indicate that the grace of God to Israel will be seen in a most amazing way before the return of Christ. Spiritual fruit will eventually be found in the reborn nation of Israel! Now what about the mountain that the Lord mentioned in verse 21? What is the connection between the withered fig tree and the removal of the mountain? When this statement was made, the Lord and His disciples were coming towards Jerusalem from the village of Bethany (v17-18). As they came over the Mount of Olives, they had a spectacular view of the beautiful Temple, which was built on a mountain ridge across the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives. When the Lord said "this mountain," He was likely referring to the mountain on which the Temple was built. The Temple Mount was the focus of religious Judaism. This was the center of the religious leaves of the nation. Notice, in context, all the fruitless religious activity around the Temple (v1-17). What was the true spiritual condition of the religious money-changers (v12) and even many of those who voiced their "hosannas" (v9)? "This mountain," with all its religiosity, was a hindrance to the Lord's gracious ministry. In fact, this religious establishment was viciously opposed to Christ and His teachings. (See Matthew 26:3-4.) Like a mountain barrier, religious Judaism blocked the further progress of God's kingdom program. Therefore the removal of this obstacle would be like a mountain taken up and thrown into the sea. And so the unbelieving nation of Israel was rooted up and thrown into the surrounding "sea" of Gentile nations. "This mountain" of religious Judaism, which had rejected Christ and then continued to harass and persecute the early Church, was taken out of the way so that the Gospel could continue to go out to the whole world. In verses 21-22 the Lord assures us that this has a practical application for today. How often we face things that seem to be mountainous barriers in our Christian walk. Think of the doubts and discouragements, for example, that constantly rise up before us. What are we to do about these obstacles which hold us back from further spiritual growth and progress? Pray in faith, and see these mountains removed! We are not talking here about the "burdens" of life or the "thorns in the flesh" which the Lord may purposefully allow to come into our lives to increase our faith and dependence on Him. Prayer will not necessarily remove these. (See 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.) But when there are obvious obstructions and opposition to Christian growth, we have here a promise that we can claim. There is no personal problem or ministry muddle that is too big a mountain for faith. These mountains can be moved by our prayers! The taking away of some mountains may not be very pleasant--like the cursing of the fig tree. But the removal of menacing mountains, like fruitless fig trees, is evidence of a miracle-working God who is on the side of growing Christians!