Session #127 Curses & Leaves
Scripture Matthew 21:18-22
Summary What do we make of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree in Matthew 21:18-22? It’s tempting to ignore such accounts and rationalise that He no longer does that. Or that such curses do not apply to us. On the contrary, the rarity of such incidents should highlight the seriousness of such pronouncements. While Jesus presents a warning against fruitlessness, He also provides the way to fruitfulness.
Now in the morning, as He returned to the city, He was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither away so soon?” So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” Matthew 21:18-22
It seems to be a short straightforward passage about a fig tree with no figs, about curses and leaves and how Jesus curses and leaves. Let us review the overview, timeline and consider the context.
In our study of Matthew 21:1-22, Jesus entered Jerusalem, went into the temple and did some housekeeping. Then He left Jerusalem and lodged in Bethany for the night and headed again for Jerusalem the next day. Between Bethany and Jerusalem, He cursed the fig tree with no figs and immediately, the tree withered. The disciples asked and He provided a teaching about faith and prayer and after that, He entered the temple again and was confronted by the leaders, who challenged His authority.
At a glance, it seems like the events occur over two days, but in the gospel of Mark 11:1-27, we have a better idea of the timeline. Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and went into the temple for a look. It was late, so He left Jerusalem and lodged in Bethany for the night. The next day (Monday), He headed for Jerusalem again and on the way saw and cursed the fig tree with no figs and then went into the temple and did some housekeeping. Then on Tuesday, Jesus went to Jerusalem again and they saw the same fig tree, withered and Jesus provided a teaching about faith and prayer and after that He entered the temple again and was confronted by the leaders who challenged His authority.
In Mark, we observe that the fig tree cursing pre-figures the temple cleansing while Matthew rearranges the material so that the temple cleansing comes first followed by the cursing of the fig tree, possibly to demonstrate the Messiah’s focus on housekeeping i.e., fig tree cursing is positioned as an explanation of temple cleansing.
The main point of the above overview is that the cursing of the fig tree and cleansing of the temple are very closely related and the interpretation of the passage must take this into account. With this backdrop, we see that this passage presents a warning against fruitlessness and also provides the way to fruitfulness.
A Warning Against Fruitlessness
Nothing But Leaves (Matthew 21:18-19)
There are two types of figs found in Israel. The main crop ripens in August but the Passover is in March/April. This was what Mark meant when he said it was not the season for figs (Mark 11:13). In late March/early April, there would only be early figs, of which a few ripen and are gathered in June. Most fall off before they are perfected, leaving only green leaves. Early figs are rarely eaten due to their unpalatable taste but someone who is too hungry to care about the taste would eat them anyway. A leafy tree lacking such early figs however, would bear no figs at all that year.
Jesus was not unreasonable to expect to find figs. He went to this tree precisely because there were leaves. He was not looking to find fault but to find fruit. However, He found nothing but leaves. There was a presence of leaves but an absence of fruit. Leaves on this tree advertised that it was bearing but the advertisement was false. Even more critically, the absence of early fruit indicated and implied the absence of any fruit later.
This account is closely related to the cleansing of the temple – Jesus’ housekeeping against commercialisation, corruption, consumerism, complacency, compromises, being clubbish and closed, etc and also against lots of religious rituals, practices and activities i.e., lots of religious and spiritual leaves but not fruit. At a glance, lots were happening and taking place and the presence of leaves should indicate the presence of fruits. Even if it is not the main crop, there should be early figs, early fruits to feed those who were needy and hungry. If it is nothing but leaves, then it is just an outward show with nothing else to offer. Paul in his letter to Timothy warned of a form of godliness that denies the power.
Is the church like that today? How is your own spiritual life? Do you have lots of things and yet no fruit to show?
Curses on Leaves
It is easy and tempting to hide behind leaves. In the army, we are taught to camouflage ourselves with leaves to conceal ourselves from the enemy. In Genesis 3:7, Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves when they sinned against God in the garden. Yet, these only can conceal us but offer no protection from the bullets. In the same way, God sees through all our leafy cover-ups. We may be able to impress others but we cannot hide from the Lord. Jesus said to the Church in Sardis: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive (lots of leaves), but you are dead (no fruit).” (Revelations 3:1).
Jesus expects fruit and ‘curses’ fruitlessness (Matthew 21:19). If ‘nothing but leaves’ represents fruitlessness, then the curse upon the presence of leaves is a curse against fruitlessness of the tree. More precisely, Jesus curses the hypocrisy of those who make a show of the spiritual life with nothing to show for it, i.e., presence of leaves but absence of fruit. He was targeting specifically the religious leaders in the temple cleansing in the context of Matthew, for they advertised piety without producing true righteousness; and generally, the people of God (Israel, as kingdom people). We too must take heed as today we are God’s kingdom people.
The truth is God hates hypocrisy. The word ‘hypocrite’ appears 34 times in NKJV – 21 times in the New Testament and 15 times in Matthew alone. This will be a major theme and accusation when Jesus confronts the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 where it appears 7 times. This is also directed to His disciples and servants (Matthew 24:51). By definition, a hypocrite is one who has lots of leaves but no fruit.
If you cannot imagine Jesus cursing, then you have not read your Bible carefully. These curses are recorded as warnings to God’s people of the judgement that awaits those who do not bear fruit. Those who claim to be pious should produce the fruit of righteousness, or they too will fall under the Lord’s judgement.
The following scriptures further show Jesus’ expectation of fruitfulness. The Old Testament is full of imagery about trees bearing fruit e.g., Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17:7-8. John the Baptist also told God’s people that they were expected to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8,10) and Jesus expects good fruit from good trees and ‘every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Matthew 7:17-19, Matthew 13:23). Jesus expects His disciples to bear much fruit and anyone who does not abide in Him is cast out as a branch and is withered… are burned (John 15:5-6).
Jesus expects fruit but what is this fruit? There are two broad categories of fruit: the fruit of maturity and the fruit of ministry. The fruit of maturity is that we are expected to grow and produce the fruit of the Spirit and this will take time. The more we become like Jesus, the more we bear the fruit of what He is like. The Bible also tells us of the fruit of holiness, the fruit of righteousness and the fruit of the lips where we give praise and thanks. The fruit of maturity is really about aligning to the person of Jesus, becoming like the person of Christ. The fruit of ministry would be the assignments, the impact of our lives on others or influence of the kingdom. When the tree grows fruit, the tree does not eat the fruit but it is for others that come along the way. Therefore, our assignments are for that very purpose, to bring impact and influence to others. If fruitlessness is cursed of God, then fruitfulness is blessed and rewarded by God and this may encourage us to respond well to Jesus’ expectation of fruitfulness.
Curses and Leaves
Jesus said to the fig tree: “Let no fruit grow on you ever again” (Matthew 21:19). Was Jesus just hungry and angry and then went on to throw a temple tantrum? It seems so ungracious and final that Jesus curses and leaves, but we need to remember again and consider how the cleansing and cursing accounts are closely related. God was very patient and very gracious with the temple. He gave many warnings and chances to Israel and her leaders, many housekeeping sessions over and over again, until a final housekeeping that brought an end to the temple system.
Consider another parable about the fig tree in Luke 13:6-9: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’ ”
When we consider these together, we see again that God is so patient and gracious with us: His house, His temple. The same warnings and chances are given over and over again until there is no more chance to bear any fruit; then judgement of works or lack of works will then come. It is not about being busy with churchy stuff, religious practices or Christian activities. Busyness does not necessarily mean fruitfulness. We are to be engaged purposely in the work of the kingdom, to know and fulfil our God-given kingdom assignments. If we say we are awakened, we must be aligned.
And if we claim to be aligned, we must be assigned. In and through our assignments, we must constantly check if we are indeed bearing fruit of maturity and of ministry.
Jesus’ cursing and leaving of the fig tree is akin to His pronouncement of the end of the temple system, and leaving it to its own destruction and demise. We are to remember that God is gracious but He will also call to account and judge. We need to learn to hold this tension between His grace and His judgement and to love the blessings but heed the warnings.
Finally, no one can claim ignorance, or accuse God of not having warned or awakened; or that He was not patient or gracious. Those who do not bear fruit as expected are similarly subjected to the consequences. The choice is ours: how we want to live and how we want to respond. This may not be a popular message but thankfully, the account does not end on such a dreary note. Jesus curses and leaves the figless fig tree but He does not leave us to figure things out on our own.
The Way to Fruitfulness (Matthew 21:20-22)
Having considered the warning against fruitlessness, we will now consider the way to fruitfulness. In Matthew 21:20-22, Jesus’ disciples wondered how the fig tree withered so quickly and Jesus proceeded to teach them a lesson on prayer and faith, and receiving when they believe. What is this faith for? Is it for whatever we want? Taken on its own, these verses have been used or misused for making the case that as long as we believe and have faith, we can ask for anything we want and get it. While we do not disagree with the faith-principle of such a position and the prayer of faith is indeed right and must be encouraged, we must caution against an unhealthy understanding or stretching of such a teaching. For one, it does not support ‘blank cheque’ prayers. For another, it disregards entirely the context which we have been considering.
As we have determined in the first part, the indictment is against hypocrisy and fruitlessness. These next verses go on then to provide the key – the key to fruitfulness is through prayer and with faith. I believe this is why Matthew arranged the material the way he did, merging both the cursing and the withering of the fig tree as one unit. His focus was to apply this general “prayer and faith” principle more specifically to praying against hypocrisy and barriers to fruitfulness. It is not just praying with faith to get whatever we want. It is praying with faith for fruit and fruitfulness. This is the key we must not miss. .
What was done to the figless fig tree in Matthew 21:21? It was judgment against complacency and barrenness. There are many examples in the Old Testament of God warning His people such as in Jeremiah 8:13, where the Lord told the Israelites through Jeremiah that if they are not going to bear any fruit, no fruit will grow on them ever again. This phrase ‘let no fruit grow on you ever again’ foreshadows the end of the temple system.
Next, what does ‘this mountain’ in Matthew 21:21 represent? It depends on which direction they were facing. It could be that they were looking at the Mount of Olives. Then the reference would be figurative, referring to the challenges in life, and that this mountain can then be cast into the sea. If they were facing the other way, then it could be the Temple Mount. In such a case, it would be symbolic that this Temple Mount or the temple system would be cast away and thrown into the sea. Both these interpretations are possible. The words from Jesus may be an allusion to Zechariah 4:6-9 where Zerubbabel’s obstacles in building the temple are compared to a mountain and the Spirit of God would bring the obstacles down and “the mountain shall become a plain”. When compared to Jesus and the temple and its challenges, Jesus seemingly faced an ‘impossible’ task of reforming the Jewish temple system.
However, by the Spirit of God, the ‘mountain’ will be removed and be cast into the sea, the Dead Sea that was in view; and whatever is dead belongs to the Dead Sea. Jesus Himself will lay a new foundation with His own life. He Himself will be the chief cornerstone and by the Spirit of God, a new temple will be raised through a people of faith.
Therein lies the way to fruitfulness. Through this teaching on prayer and faith, Jesus was making an extremely bold and radical statement. The way to God will no longer be through a religious, ritualistic, even cultic, temple system. Instead, a new and living way will be opened directly to God, through Jesus Christ Himself, always accessible through faith and prayer in His name. The key and the way to fruitfulness is made possible through faith and prayer, through an abiding relationship with Christ. What appears functional is first and foremost relational. Fruitfulness is a natural outcome of any branch that abides in the vine. Remember also the relationship between faith and works i.e., obedience. For sure, when we believe, we will receive. In the same way, when we pray, we must also obey.
This is a very short passage but packed with so many things. In just five verses, Jesus curses and leaves and then teaches the disciples how to believe and receive. It is not two separate teachings but one big picture. As we have seen, the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple are both very closely related, leading to the lesson on prayer and faith.
This teaching presents both a warning against fruitlessness as well as the way to fruitfulness. In summary, there are five key points and a few practical applications to note.
Fruit is expected. Jesus expects all of us to bear fruit – good fruit, much fruit. We can review both the Old and New Testament scriptures and see repeated mentions of fruit in the lives of the kingdom people. It would do us well to take note of this expectation and warning, especially if we are leaders. There are two broad categories of fruit –the fruit of maturity, which speaks of alignment and becoming more and more like Jesus; and the fruit of ministry, which is our assignment to bring impact and influence into the life of others.
Fruitlessness will be judged. God is very patient and gracious. He will give many chances. In the end, we must give account for fruit or the lack of fruit. As long as we do our part, God provides both the opportunities and His grace for us to be fruitful. Let us not play church or simply put on a show that we have nothing but leaves to show. When we stand before Jesus to give account, we cannot give any excuse or claim that we never knew His expectations for fruitfulness. The consequences have been made known to us. We must make a decision on how we want to live for Jesus, to bear fruit.
God Hates Hypocrisy. God is not mocked or impressed with lots of luscious “leaves”. Do not hide behind these leaves, or try to cover up. God sees through everything. As such, it is also good to take stock, to check our own alignment or misalignments.
Examine ourselves to see if we may be hypocritical, with outward shows of religion or forms of godliness, but with no fruit. Hypocrisy is a main theme as we head into the next teachings. Let us be sensitive to the Holy Spirit to point hypocrisy out to us, in case we may be leafy with nothing to show.
Remove Challenges to Fruitfulness. For the church as a corporate body, we can be very aware of how tradition and institution can lull one into slumber, complacency or presumption. We must cast the dead stuff into the dead sea. The removal of what is so entrenched may seem impossible, but with prayer and faith, anything is possible. Sometimes, instead of fighting against it, God will leave it and move around it as nothing can stop the advancement of His kingdom. We need to learn to move with God, instead of fighting the system and pray for things to be removed by faith. We must be personally responsible for our own spiritual growth, going on to perfection and moving on with the Lord so that we may bear fruit for Him (Hebrews 6:1). On a personal note, let us learn to discern between Christian activities from kingdom assignments as busyness does not necessarily mean fruitfulness. We need to pray to remove anything that stands in the way of Jesus and His kingdom, against any distractions, the stones and the thorns that choke the Word and the life of the kingdom. We need to pray for God to prune and get rid of excess leaves that take away the nutrients so that we can bear more fruit and much fruit (John 5:2).
Faithfulness Leads to Fruitfulness. It all begins with being awakened and being aligned, and then being assigned, all the while abiding in the true vine, Jesus. Apart from Jesus and by His Holy Spirit, we can do nothing i.e., we cannot bear fruit that lasts (John 15:5, 15:16). We can start where we are and be faithful in the small things that prepare us to be faithful in the larger things. We need to have faith and faithfulness in and through our assignments, because whatever we do, whatever we need, pray with faith to be faithful and fruitful. Faith is required for patience, endurance and perseverance, to remain faithful through difficult times and difficult people.
Galatians 6:9 reminds us not to grow weary but be faithful, for in due season, we will reap and harvest the fruit that we are to bear to the glory of the Lord. May we be found faithful in the Lord and not just have leaves to impress people but have fruit to show, to the glory of Jesus, to bring Him pleasure, that when we stand before Him, we can give account and hear those words “Well done, good and faithful servant.”