A less retold story about Jesus is when he cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit. Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem riding a donkey. He visited the temple and drove off the merchants and money changers, accusing them of turning the house of prayer into a den of thieves. Then, he spent a night outside of the city.
The next morning, he returned to the city, and on his way, he felt hungry. He passed by a fig tree and looked for fruit to eat, but he found no fruit at all. He was more than disappointed. As we know, Jesus hates fruitlessness. The Bible says,
Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. (Mt 21:19b).
This is an opposite version of a miracle. Jesus’ miracle usually restores health or life, but this is the reverse. It killed a life. The disciples were impressed to see the tree withered in front of their eyes and asked how it happened.
Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (Mt 21:21–22).
This brief moment with the fig tree precedes a profound teaching at the temple a moment later. There are three important messages revealed here.
First, Jesus hates fruitlessness. The fig tree was supposed to bear fruit according to its season. The fact that Jesus looked for its fruit means it was time for it to bear fruit. Jesus had told another parable about a fruitless fig tree in a vineyard, which the owner ordered the gardener to cut down for not bearing fruit.
The second important message is about Jesus’ authority. When he cursed the tree, it withered. It shows nature is under his authority. That is profound! That means He did not need to come to earth to save humanity. Since humans did not bear fruit as they were supposed to, he could just scrap the earth and start over, like he did with Noah’s time. But God promised Noah never to do it again.
Still, the crucial point here is that he had the authority to curse the world to death like that fig tree and recreate a new world. But he did not, keeping his promise to Noah, and now he came to save humanity through grace. Remember, we live and survive due to Jesus’ grace. He expects us to grace it forward, as we mentioned last week.
The third important message is that this authority has been given to the believers. He said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” This is huge!
Most people interpret this passage as a matter of faith. When you put it in context, it’s not about empty faith but faith that bears fruit. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Faith without fruit is futile. Jesus emphasized this point repeatedly on many occasions.
We can talk about faith all day, but if we don’t have fruit to prove it, we are just like that fig tree, which contributes nothing to society. Jesus’ brother James said, “Faith without work is dead.” He said,
“For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (Jas 2:26).
He said faith without work is just like the body without the spirit—a zombie. Faith is futile without fruit.
Jesus nailed this point in this week’s scripture lesson. After studying this scripture lesson, you will never talk about faith without thinking about fruit. So, let’s begin!
[Hi, in case we haven’t met yet, I am Sam Stone, the Lightkeeper—you are the light of the world, and I am the keeper! (No pun intended). It’s my calling to help you shine your brightest so that God is glorified in you and you are satisfied in God.]
The Scripture lesson for today is from the Gospel According to Matthew 21:23-32. [Listen to the Word of the Lord!]
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (Mt 21:23–32).
[Blessed are those who delight in God’s word. Thanks be to God!]
Jesus cursed the fig tree on the road and now had arrived at the temple and started teaching. So, the fig tree incident gives us a context to interpret this passage. The priests and the elders came to question Jesus,
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Mat 21:23).
It’s a trap question. These priests and elders wanted to arrest Jesus based on his answer. Based on the context, “these things” mean his teaching, his turning the tables in the temple the day before, and his riding the donkey to enter Jerusalem. All these things are signs of the Messiah based on the Hebrew Scriptures. As Bible scholars, they knew it.
Now, they wanted Jesus to say he was the Messiah in front of the crowd so they could arrest him among the eyewitnesses. In those days, the Messiah symbolized a leader who would overturn the Roman occupation and reestablish the nation of Israel. So, for them, the Messiah was the leader of the rebellion.
The Roman government had warned the religious leaders to report to the authorities if they found anyone suspicious of rebellion. If they failed to report but harbor the Messiah, the Roman government threatened to wipe out the entire religious establishment. That meant they would lose their job security, livelihood, and whatever little power they had as religious leaders.
They wanted to expose Jesus and get him arrested for their self-preservation. It was a selfish act. These priests and elders were cowards. They could have joined Jesus to overturn the Roman occupation and usher in the kingdom of God, but they didn’t have the courage to move a mountain.
Just as Jesus taught the disciples after the fig tree, they didn’t have the faith that bears fruit. They doubted they could stand against the mighty Roman Empire. People lived under tyranny because they allowed it. These religious leaders were accomplices in the perpetuation of the Roman occupation. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said,
“One man who stopped lying could bring down a tyranny.” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The first person we need to stop lying to is ourselves. They knew Jesus was the Messiah but lied to themselves because of their doubts and cowardice. As a result, they didn’t bear fruit. They were zombies.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the fig tree symbolizes Israel. Now, Jesus was facing the fig tree without fruit. He could have cursed them to wither. But as the Bible says, Jesus came to save humanity through grace. However, these disgraced religious leaders were not only fruitless but also evil. They wanted to trap him to get him killed.
Jesus gave them a chance to reconsider what they were doing by answering their question with a question to make them think.
Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (Mt 21:24).
Now, they were stuck. If they answered that John the Baptist’s authority came from heaven, then they must believe what John said, including his testimony that Jesus was the Messiah. If they said that John did it on his own, they were afraid of the crowd because they believed John was a prophet sent from God.
Again, that proves they were cowards. They didn’t have the faith to move the mountains. They fear Rome as well as the crowd. They were a bunch of fruitless wimps.
So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. (Mt 21:27).
When they said, “We do not know.” It was a lie. As Solzhenitsyn said, “One man who stopped lying could bring down a tyranny.” These religious leaders were wimpy liars. They perpetuated tyranny by colluding with foreign occupiers. All they wanted was to use Jesus’ words to arrest him. Jesus was disappointed at the cowardice. Then he told them this parable, hoping to stimulate some awakening.
He said a man had two sons. He asked the first son to go to work in the vineyard, but he said, “No.” But he later changed his mind and went. The father went to his second son and said the same, and the son answered, “Yes.” But he did not go. Then Jesus asked the priests and elders, “Which of the two did the will of the father?” They said, “The first.”
Unlike Jesus’ other parables that need some dissecting, pondering, and interpretation, This parable sounds plain and too obvious. Jesus tried to make the point: “It’s not what you say but what you do that matters!” It’s a parable of “Actions speak louder than words.”
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Mt 21:31).
Even though the parable is plain and simple, the end is shocking. Jesus was telling the religious leaders that those whom they despised were going to the kingdom ahead of them. Why? Jesus wasn’t justifying the sinful way of the tax collectors and prostitutes, but their change. The next verse reveals it.
For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (Mt 21:32).
Many people misinterpret this verse because they take it out of context. They think Jesus was just talking about believing. No. Based on the parable, Jesus meant their ultimate actions that proved their belief. The phrase “Change your mind” in Greek has the same meaning as “repentance.” John the Baptist’s slogan or bumper sticker was,
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” (Mt 3:8).
Actions speak louder than words. That means these tax collectors and prostitutes have repented and lived in a new way of life. They no longer made excuses for their lives and bowed down to the tyranny. Instead, they lived a new way of life—the kingdom life. These religious leaders saw how those lives had changed before their eyes, but it didn’t move them to believe.
They fear change so much that they would rather crucify Jesus than embrace the kingdom. Any nation under a dictatorship has colluders like these. They can’t confront their own denial. Even Jesus’ repeated stimulation didn’t break through their bareness.
This passage calls us to reflect on our own lives. Do our actions align with our faith? Are we bearing fruit worthy of repentance? Are we colluding with the power that be to perpetuate tyranny? The tyranny we face today may not be that of a government but ideology, doubt, fear, shame, or discouragement.
Jesus is calling us to focus on fruit, meaning focus on actions. When we have doubt, the best way to overcome it is to start doing despite doubt. What do we do? We do God’s word. Like Jesus’ brother, James said,
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (Jas 1:22).
So, let’s be doers of God’s word because it is in doing that we bear fruit. He says we deceive ourselves by not doing what we hear, like those religious leaders at the temple. Some might say, what if we do and bear no fruit? Don’t let that doubt overcome you. You will bear fruit when you do God’s word because the action is the fruit. Let’s do it!
That’s it for today. I hope you find this message illuminating as much as I enjoy receiving it from the Head Office. Until we meet again, keep your light shining brighter and broader, and harvest the fruit of profound freedom, purpose, and happiness.