Title: Killing Trees and Sinking Mountains
Text: Matthew 21:17-22
FCF: We often struggle relying on God’s power and will to accomplish the great things He intends for us.
Prop: Because God produces fruit in those who believe, we must bear much fruit.
[Slide 1] Turn in your bible to Matthew chapter 21. Last week we continued to see Jesus exposing what had become the false and cultic faith of the Jews. That although they had the word of God, they did not understand, nor did they live by it. Jesus rebukes the backward and upside down nature of 1st century Judaism and then he cranked the panic dial up to 50, as he claimed to be coequal to God. This didn’t sit well with the Religious leaders. They wanted to kill him for what he had said. And it wouldn’t be long before they would get their wish. In the text today Jesus will speak directly to His disciples. He will perform a miracle before their eyes. A miracle designed to show them the failure of Israel, but also to show them how God intended to still gain victory through them. All that and more is in front of us. Let’s read from Matthew chapter 21 starting in verse 17. I’m reading again from the NET this week, but follow along in whatever version you have – unless you don’t have a bible – if that is the case, make sure you let someone know so we can get you one.
What a crazy passage of scripture. Jesus is killing trees and telling His disciples that they can sink mountains. What does this mean? Let’s look.
I.) An unfruitful faith is cursed, so we must bear much fruit. (17-19)
a. [Slide 2] 17-18 – And leaving them, He went out of the city to Bethany and spent the night there. Now early in the morning, as He returned to the city, he was hungry.
i. So as we have learned previously, Chronological order is simply not important to Matthew.
ii. Matthew has strung together the triumphant entry, the cleansing of the temple and now the fig tree into, really, two days. When in reality, his entry occurred, probably on Monday morning, the cursing of the fig tree on Tuesday morning, followed by the cleansing of the temple. Then on Wednesday morning as they made their way back to Jerusalem they noticed the withered fig tree.
iii. But as we’ve said multiple times before, Matthew is attempting to build a narrative thematically.
iv. For now – as a prelude to something larger, Matthew is emphasizing Israel’s misunderstanding and misapplication of God’s Word, and presenting Jesus as the authority of that Word, in its understanding and example.
v. This will help us understand what is about to happen.
vi. Another thread we should pick up on here, is that Jews, even to today, wrestle with believing that Jesus could be human. If He were God only that would make sense, and if He were man only that may make sense. But to be both is very difficult for a Jew to believe. How can God die? How can God eat and subsequently defecate and therefore be unclean?
vii. So after just seeing Jesus claim to be worthy of the same praise as Yahweh, claiming divine status… now we see Jesus as a human. Expressing the full range of the human experience including, hunger.
b. [Slide 3] 19 – After noticing a fig tree by the road he went to it, but found nothing on it except leaves.
i. Fruit trees next to the road were typically regarded as public property. Jesus going to this tree to eat some figs from it, is not Him attempting to steal from someone.
ii. I had to do some research on fig trees but what I found helps us to understand exactly what is happening here.
1. Figs produce their fruit twice a year. After harvesting, they will rebound with another crop.
2. But fig trees produce leaves and fruit at the same time. Perhaps even fruit first and then leaves. So if you see leaves, you’d expect fruit to be on the tree.
3. Typically in Palestine, fig harvest would occur in May or June. But this is the month of Nisan. This is March or April.
4. So what is interesting here, something that Mark points out, is that figs were not in season. What does that mean? Well it means that if Jesus saw a fig tree with leaves on it, it was probably the only fruit tree around that showed any promise for sustenance.
5. The fruit it bore would no doubt be unripe and therefore not very tasty… but would at least provide some nourishment.
6. Nevertheless, when Jesus arrives at the tree, it is absolutely barren of any fruit at all.
7. This is not uncommon of fig trees, as they can be quite finicky about bearing figs. Two common reasons for this happening would be either
a. The fig tree had too much nitrogen which would cause it to bear full and vibrant leaves, but no fruit. Or
b. It failed to pollinate with other fig trees and thus would not be able to produce the fruit.
iii. In either case, we see an example here of false advertising. It appeared to be fruit bearing, it appeared to be quite healthy, but it bore no fruit.
iv. So what does Jesus do?
c. He said to it, “Never again will there be fruit from you!” And the fig tree withered at once.
i. In Mark we see it took a day for the tree to wither, Matthew has condensed this episode to achieve his point… nevertheless, trees do not dry up in a day. Either way it points to a supernatural act of God in cursing this tree.
ii. Not only did He curse it, but there is an eternalness to this curse. The Greek is actually translated – FOREVER. You will not bear fruit ever again! This is a clue to us that Jesus wasn’t acting out of anger because He was grumpy about not getting any food. This isn’t a hurt petulant Jesus. This is a sign.
iii. No scripture is designed to be read and interpreted in seclusion. We know that Matthew has been showing that the Jews had the word of God but misinterpreted and misapplied it grossly.
iv. We know that Matthew has been showing that Jesus was the final interpretive authority and keeper of God’s Word.
v. We just saw the Jews misunderstand why He came. We just saw the Jews abuse the temple.
vi. Matthew expects us to be picking up what he is putting down.
vii. But he also expects us to think like a Jew. What would or should a Jewish person see from this?
viii. Well often in the Old Testament, the fig tree was a symbol of Israel. Fruitfulness of trees or plants is often used as a symbol of obedience to God. Cursing a tree to never bear fruit is a symbol of divine judgment.
ix. So based on all this, what is happening here?
x. Jesus is using this fig tree as an object lesson for His disciples. And what is that object lesson?
d. Israel’s external appearance seemed to be healthy, godly, religious, and even honoring to Yahweh… but they did not bear fruit. And as a nation designed by God, purposed by God, to bear fruit for Him… they were not fulfilling their purpose. In fact, they were chasing people from Him.
e. [Slide 4] The overarching truth being taught in this object lesson, is that unfruitful faith… will ultimately be cursed by God. Just as Jesus has already taught in the Sermon on the Mount – a good tree bears good fruit. And not all who call Him Lord, Lord will enter heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father. This is an acted parable designed to teach one application.
f. And that application is only an introduction to what Jesus will be teaching for the next few episodes, well into chapter 22. What is that application, well we’ll see it in a moment, but for now it is absolutely necessary for us to understand that unfruitful faith will be cursed. It will be rejected. It will bring God’s judgment.
[Slide 5 (blank)] As we move forward in this episode we see that Jesus moves to teach the application of these truths to His own disciples. We have seen this throughout the gospel, how Jesus will gather his disciples and answer their questions. Usually this happens after He has taught something to everyone, and they come to Him privately for explanation. Here Jesus teaches them first, almost preparing them for the next several episodes in which He will teach the same lesson to the religious elite. But what is the application Jesus is trying to teach?
II.) An enduring faith produces great and seemingly impossible works, so we must bear much fruit. (20-22)
a. [Slide 6] 20 – When the disciples saw it they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?”
i. This would not have made my top ten questions to ask.
ii. I mean up to this point, you’d think that the disciples would stop asking how Jesus is able to do all this… accept that He can do it… and get to the real questions. The better questions.
iii. Like WHY? Why did you just do that Jesus?
iv. We kind of answered that a few moments ago.
v. Nevertheless they miss his object lesson, and instead focus on the power and authority of Jesus.
vi. Something they are still having difficulty grasping it seems.
vii. I find it interesting that Jesus almost ignores their question entirely and drives the entire discussion right back to where He wanted it to go in the first place…
b. [Slide 7] 21 – Jesus answered them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to the mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.
i. Faith is the key. Faith without doubt.
ii. Faith without doubt should probably not be viewed as a special kind of faith, but synonymous. Jesus is revealing what faith is and it is enduring and unwavering.
iii. Now what is faith? SOMEONE PLEASE… I have been trying to teach this to you for over two years now, as the Spirit has been trying to teach it to me for several years now…. Please someone tell me a good definition for what faith is…
iv. Dependence and Surrender. Desperate Need and Desperate Submission. Unwavering trust and an unquestioning heart of obedience. That is faith.
v. Dependence on God, Christ, The Spirit – without wavering. Without faltering. Without pause. Without interruption. That is the key.
vi. And if it is true of you … forget the fig tree. It is a petty example and one that you need not worry too much about. Why?
vii. Look at this mountain. Which mountain?
viii. Well we saw Jesus use a similar expression before. It was after the transfiguration where the disciples had failed to cast out a demon and Jesus said that if they had faith as big as a mustard seed they could move this mountain. The way we understood it then was as a Rabbinic saying to express something that was of impossible difficulty.
ix. And while I think it is acceptable to see Jesus doing the same thing again, I wonder if Jesus had a more specific point in mind. Yes talking about the impossible… but perhaps something specific that was impossible.
x. Perhaps Jesus pointed toward Jerusalem and told His disciples, that even if they say to the temple mount, be lifted up and thrown into the sea, it will happen.
xi. Woah…. Let that sink in for a second.
xii. What was the temple for the Jew? It was access to God. It was the mitigation of their sin. It was a place of worship and ritual, ceremony and devotion.
xiii. Is Jesus referring simply to miraculous deeds possible when done in the will and power of God? Or was there something more here for the Jews? In Matthew 17, when he used this expression last, he spoke to His disciples in a pagan place, beside a pagan mountain. To instruct them that they could do great things in God’s Sovereign power would fit well in that context. Especially since He just told them that His church would stand against the gates of darkness and that darkness will not prevail. But now as they stand in the shadow of the temple mount… could Jesus be suggesting something even greater than miraculous deeds?
xiv. That through true faith, true dependence, true surrender – one would be granted access to God and a permanent sacrifice? One may be granted the ability and opportunity to bear much fruit? Without ritual, without ceremony, only with faith that endures.
xv. We can’t be sure. But I wonder.
xvi. Jesus continues.
c. [Slide 8] 22 – And whatever you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive.”
i. The word believe here is a present active participle. What that means is that if you are continually believing while you ask, you will receive.
ii. You get the image of Peter walking on water here. Continual belief allowing him to stand on the water. Failing belief causing him to sink.
d. But what does all this mean?
e. It means that if you are depending on God and Submitting to His will – if a mountain stands in your way, command it to move in the name of Jesus and it will move.
f. Even if that mountain is the temple cult, the pagan Judaism that has the appearance of godliness but lacks any fruit, any power, any substance. Even if that is the mountain in your way... you can move it with a simple command in the power and will of God.
g. [Slide 9] Jesus taught through his acted parable that unfruitful faith is worthy of judgment, but here He teaches His disciples another truth. Enduring faith produces great and seemingly impossible works.
What we see here then is the application that Jesus intended His disciples to see all along. God’s design for Israel, God’s design for mankind from the beginning, was to bring Him glory. With their lives, with their actions, with their very breath, they were designed to bring Him glory. When men fell, sin complicated things. God chose Israel as His special people, His portion among the nations, and gave them a law designed to keep sin at bay, and drive them to desperate need of Him. However, all that remained of that covenant in the first century was an appearance of religion, but no power and no holiness. Ritual and Ceremony, but no God. But Jesus brings the New Covenant and with it the guarantee that enduring faith will produce great and previously impossible works. So what does that mean for us?
[Slide 10] Regardless of who you are, regardless of what kind of faith you have, God’s desire for mankind has always been constant. He desires fruit. Good Works. Ephesians 2 says that this was the very reason that salvation was given, so that God may turn His people into a masterpiece for the purpose of Good Works.
Although good works could never earn salvation, salvation will always produce good works, because Good works are the desire of God for His people. And the New Covenant is God transforming us to what He desired us to be. Like a potter with clay, breaking us down and reshaping us.
[Slide 11 (blank)] And while we could easily apply this passage to talk about great things we can accomplish with this enduring, desperate, and surrendered faith – I think it is in keeping with Matthew’s context and Jesus’ teachings to see that primarily, this great and impossible work only possible by faith, is access to God and His provision for us.
In the next few episodes we will see Jesus interact with the religious elite and He essentially tells them that because Israel was not faithful to produce the fruit of the kingdom, that the Lord has opened up His covenant relationship to all nations so that all those who would be faithful, could come. And that God would do this to make Israel jealous enough to return to Him.
[Slide 12] So what is our take away? We must be a people who produce fruit. We must bear much fruit.
So how do we do that? Well, quite simply, we can’t. Jesus says that it is when we pray and ask in continuing faith that we can receive. Enduring faith produces works. Which, like a Chinese finger trap, has us pulling the other way. We want to try to raise up this fruit, these works in our own effort and power. The disciples tried to do the same thing when they tried to cast out the demons, and wondered why it didn’t work. There Jesus said it was because they lacked faith. The solution for stunted fruit production is greater dependence on and surrender to God, through Christ.
If we have this God, His power, and His passion, we will see the results of the killing of our sin desires and the raising up of His righteousness in our lives. Sometimes immediately. Sometimes over a period of time. But this result is sure for genuine followers of Christ.
So what is the problem? When we get this messed up, we become fruitless trees. Showing signs of healthy life, but having no value or worth. Because honestly what good is a fruit tree with no fruit?
But such is the nature of man. We honestly think we are capable of raising up from ourselves righteousness. Whether that is for salvation or in salvation we have convinced ourselves that we are capable of doing as God asked, without Him, or with only a little of His help. And it is simply untrue. What happens to a culture that doesn’t need God? What happens to people who have claimed the name of Christ, but don’t need Him for every good work?
They become what the nation of Israel had become. People who misinterpreted and misapplied God’s word. Emphasizing ceremony and ritual over obedience and mercy. Who would tithe mint and cumin, but neglect loving others. Who would define mercy by loving those who love them, but still hating their enemies. Who would exclude foreigners from worshipping in the temple so they could make it more convenient for the Jews.
In all this, they maintain a form of godliness but are emptied of any power. Power to change, power to grow, power to influence the world around them for purpose and plan of Yahweh.
[Slide 13] Has this happened to the American church? You better believe it. How?
Looking to programs, strategies or methods to numerically grow the church. We see it all around us, I hear it in the hearts and minds of local pastors, and I feel the pressure creeping in upon me as well. The motivation is relatively pure… the more people in the pews, the more who can hear the gospel and be saved. But setting aside for a moment how that isn’t really the purpose of the church I have to wonder that instead of looking to strategies, programs and methods of human origin, shouldn’t we be asking in the will of God, for the power of God, for His plan to be worked through us? Even if it was God’s design for His church to be a magnet, drawing the lost and filling the pews, why would a manmade program, strategy or method accomplish that? Are we asking God to join our work, or begging God to allow us to join His?
These kinds of churches have a form of godliness, they may even preach the gospel sometimes – but if their purpose is to draw the lost, and all their programs, strategies and methods are designed with this goal… eventually, even the gospel will have to be discarded or watered down. Why? Because the gospel divides. The gospel separates. The gospel is foolishness to the gentile and a stumbling block to the Jew. And Jesus reveals that most people, if it is the true gospel, will not want it. This form of godliness, lacks the power of God because they are asking God to join them, rather than Seeking God’s plan and will, even if that means their church do things differently.
And we are not innocent CBC. In our very recent history, we were plagued by the same goals and methods. Strategies and programs. We too succumbed to the pressure to engineer success, rather than begging God to use us any way He saw fit. We have since shifted from that. And God has blessed us for it in so many ways. And not all of them are tangible. In fact, I’d say the best of those blessings are intangible.
What other ways do forms of godliness without His power show up in the American church?
Even now, even among strong and good church leaders, there is a movement to use the influence and reach of the church to correct societal ills plaguing this nation and the world. Racism, women’s rights, sexual abuse and misconduct, among others. Their solution is to actively fight against such things by changing policies and accommodating unbiblical standards. The thought is of course, that we can end these things if the church would only unite to fights against them. But a question that they have never asked is this… “Does God want these things to end, and if He does, how does He want to stop them?” I would say that God most certainly does not desire injustice. He is near to the oppressed and close to the voiceless. But has God revealed His will regarding how He desires to change societal ills in the world?
If you don’t know the answer to that question, then you haven’t been paying close enough attention to the book of Matthew. There is no hope for these things to change apart from the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross whereby He makes a way for a person to be brought from deadness in sin to a living and righteous God-pleaser. That is God’s will for stopping injustice. It is to preach Christ Crucified. Because that is the ONLY hope for mankind. So rather than forming our plans and strategies to ensure that the unbelieving world around us is not racist, sexist, or allowing sexual misconduct to go on unchecked… we will ask God, while depending on and surrendering to Him to use us to spread the gospel of Christ so that His Spirit may change the heart of each and every person who believes. That is the only strategy God has given us to affect the sins of the unbelieving world, and we should be well acquainted with that strategy because such were we… until He changed us and made us new!
And how does having a form of godliness but lacking God’s power reveal itself in our hearts personally?
So many people come to church every Sunday, sit in a pew, sing, listen to a sermon, and go home. Church is an event they attend. It is an experience they have. They have bibles which they occasionally read, they pray at every meal. They listen to the Christian radio station. They may even attend a bible study. They don’t get drunk, they don’t get high, and they aren’t addicted to painkillers. They don’t swear or go to R rated movies. They don’t even have cable TV. They even tithe! By all external standards of measurement, they are Christians. They are exactly what any pastor would want in a member of his church. But they do not further the kingdom. They aren’t making disciples. Or they are seemingly unable to control their tongue. Or they are constantly complaining. Or are notorious for bad mouthing the specific president they don’t agree with. They are timid cowards who would gladly go to church and be a Christian while it is easy… but the day that armed men from the government enter this building, beat the snot out of me and take me to prison for preaching Christ, the day this building is shut up and burned down, the day Christian book stores can no longer sell the bible, because to own one is illegal, the day this happens, they will disappear and cast off the leaves of religion, because they never bore fruit anyway.
Do you not know, that in faith you can move mountains? Do you not know that in faith, dependent and surrendered, there is nothing that God calls you to that HE will not make happen? Do you not know that in faith you can enter the very presence of the eternal creator of the universe? Stop. Stop right there. Think about that. Did you hear what I just said? In desperate need and reckless submission, we can enter the throne room of the HIGH AND LOFTY ONE! Where angels cover their face and feet, we can run in as sons and daughters. Take a moment… and mediate on that.
Yet churchgoers across this land, and even possibly in this building look at missionaries and pastors as super Christians or priests. Do you not know that every believer is called to be like Christ? Every believer a priest? Do you not know that every qualification of an elder is also a lifestyle truth of any who are followers of Christ? There is nothing special about my prayers! I do not stand closer God’s ear than you do. Especially if you are 5’8’. Because if you are in Christ – He is your mediator and the Spirit is your intercessor.
Do you not know that ANYTHING you ask in dependence on God’s power and in submission to His will, you will receive. That means that whatever God wants, God will not only get – but He can use you to get it. And nothing can stand in the way. Not a mountain, not religion, nothing.
[Slide 14 (end)] Friends it doesn’t matter how many leaves you have… only if you bear fruit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Are you loving one another, at peace with one another, teaching one another, edifying one another, encouraging one another, forgiving one another, being patient and kind with one another, serving one another, respecting one another, confessing sins to one another, bearing one another’s burdens? Is this who you are? You can sit in that pew, and read the bible and pray, every day of your life… but that wasn’t what God called His people to do. He called them to be new creations and make disciples. Reading your bible and praying is a means to these ends, but not an end in itself.
So if your faith is alive… if your dependence on and surrender to Christ is real… you will bear much fruit.
But if you aren’t bearing much fruit, if you look at this list and think, man I don’t have a blessed one of them, or very very few… it isn’t a willpower problem. You don’t need to go home and try harder. It is a faith problem. Your faith is deficient. You are just another clone of 1st Century Judaism, and you have nothing to hope for but judgment.
So what can you do? Well, no matter where you are, the great unifying theme of the gospel touches you. The gospel is just as applicable to those saved for decades and those still dead in their sin, because if you want to please God, your response is always the same regardless of where you are. The only thing you can do is cry out to God for grace, for power, and submit to do and be whatever He wants you to do and be. If you continue in that… you can literally do anything.