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encouragement theology

The Barren Tree

Thoughts from Matthew 21…

This is a very simple story. Jesus was returning to Jerusalem on Monday morning when He saw a fig tree full of leaves. It was early in the season, but the leaves indicated that the tree must have figs (the fruit forms before the leaves).2 5 He went to the tree in hunger, only to find that there was no fruit. He then responded by cursing the tree, saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!

The next morning, the disciples noticed that the tree had withered completely. Jesus then used the dead tree as a teaching point to demonstrate the power of prayer. You can move a mountain into the sea if you have faith without doubting.

Some have seen this passage as an example of Jesus reacting in anger, cursing out at the fruitless tree that failed to feed Him, and killing it for its failure. But if this is the case, was this the tree’s fault? Did the fig tree make a conscious decision to not bear fruit?

But Jesus’ response regarding the dead tree shows that this was not a reaction of anger but a lesson for His disciples. There were only two recorded events in the life of Christ where he destroyed nature: this scene with the fig tree, and the earlier scene in Gadara, where He healed the demon-possessed men and allowed the demons to drown the herd of pigs.

This scene with the fig tree shows three teaching points: The first point is the illustration of the fig tree itself. It was full of leaves and looked very healthy, but it was fruitless. It had more leaves than would be expected for that time of the year, yet it didn’t have any fruit. Many Bible scholars understand the fig tree to be an illustration of Israel, with the fruitless tree representing the fruitless nation.1 a The people of Israel had a great show of good deeds and religious fervor, but without any real fruit of repentance. Like the fig tree, they were all green and healthy looking, but without any substance. And just like the fig tree, they were doomed to destruction because of their fruitlessness. The nation of Israel would ultimately die, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

The second point is that Jesus used the fig tree to teach the power of prayer. He repeated the earlier promise that only a small amount of faith can cause great things to happen. It is important to note that the prayer is for judgement this time. God hears our prayers for a blessing, but He also honors our prayers when we ask judgment for those who are rebelling against Him. This is the same prayer that Elijah prayed for his unbelieving nation, when He prayed for drought (see here). This is not a prayer for vengeance, but that the people would be moved to repentance. God promises to hear us when we seek to advance His agenda — even when it is against those who oppose him.

The final point is an application that each of us needs to consider. We may not be as wicked as the Jews of that day, when they were conspiring to kill the Lord Jesus Christ, but we can all fall into the same trap of becoming leafy without any fruit. We show all forms of good deeds on the outside, but there is no Godly fruit from our actions. There is no repentance from our disobedience, nor is there any work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. When you see this happening, it is an immediate time to check yourself with God. Have you really received Him into your life? If not, all of your good deeds are worthless to Him (Isaiah 64:6). But even when you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, we can still lapse into times of fruitlessness. We need to continually repent, turn away from our disobedience, and come back to Him. Only then will our lives be fruitful, and only then will we not be like the barren fig tree.

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