Matthew 21: 18-22

In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”

Understanding And Applying the Text

This section provides several points of interest. First, Jesus was hungry. Second, He sought figs from a tree that had none. According to Mark, it was not the season for figs. So third, He sought figs when there should be no figs. Forth, Jesus cursed an innocent tree for not having figs when it should not have figs. There are many questions that come from this short passage.

Let’s try to unravel some of them.

The previous day Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover. There was a lot of excitement surrounding His arrival. He spent the day in the temple healing and teaching. He spent the night in Bethany. This is the next morning. He returns to Jerusalem. Both Matthew and Mark tell us as Christ went into the city He was hungry. He approached a fig tree. The tree was in full bloom. That was a sure sign there were figs on the tree. But there was nothing on it but leaves. Jesus cursed it. And the tree immediately withered.

Christ did not pretend to be hungry. He was actually hungry. Jesus had two natures, human and divine. As a man He was hungry. Do not think because He was divine He did not hunger. He was both man and God. As a man, he hungered. If He did not need food He would not be human. This is not the only time scripture tells us Christ hungered. (Matthew 4:2; 12; Luke 4:2 Hebrews 4:15.) He was human in every sense of the word but without sin. But Jesus was also divine in every sense of the word. He was not half divine and half human. He was all God and all human. How can that be? That is the mystery of the nature of Christ.

That causes a problem in this passage. How could Jesus expect fruit on a tree that had none? And He expected it to have fruit when it was not the correct season for fruit. And worse Jesus appears angry. Why was He so enraged at the tree?

There is no problem in saying, as a man, he did not know the tree was fruitless. It is also possible He knew the tree was fruitless. It was not passion or anger that led Christ to curse the tree. That would not only have been unjust, but childish and ridiculous.

This was a teaching opportunity. Yes, He was hungry. If He was hungry it is a good guess the disciples were also hungry. There was no food at hand. Jesus used the circumstances to glorify God. The tree was in full bloom. It was screaming it had fruit. But it had none. This is an object lesson. Jesus is teaching the destruction that awaits hypocrites.

This is easier to understand when we do not read this in isolation. We need to remember what happened the previous day.

Matthew links this with the cleansing of the temple. It is not a coincidence it follows right after that innocent. Linking this to the cleansing of the temple helps. It speaks of God’s imminent judgment of Jerusalem. It is an object lesson that shows the destruction of the city and the temple (Jeremiah 24:1-10)

This is easier to see if we pay attention to the disciples’ reactions. They did not express fear. They were amazed, not fearful. If Jesus was expressing anger that would be a reason to be afraid. Being around an angry man with that much power would be a reason to fear. Contrast that to Jesus calming the storm. When Jesus calmed the storm they were afraid. (Matthew 8:27; Mark 4:41) Christ did not express anger. There was nothing to fear. This was an object lesson.

What about this poor innocent tree? It was only doing what trees do. Jesus’ actions appear unjust. But not so. This tree promised figs but had none. It was hypocritical. What happened to it symbolized the coming judgment of Jerusalem.

Christ responds to the disciples’ amazement by exhorting them to have faith. If they have faith they will not doubt. If we have faith promise follows. Christ commands us to have faith. But faith is not natural to us. It is unnatural for us to believe. It is not natural for us to have faith. An example of this is Mark 9:24. The father of the child with the unclean spirit says, “I believe; help my unbelief.” In other words, I want to believe. But I don’t. And I know it. Please help me believe. There is the key. Faith is a gift from God. (Romans 10:17, Ephesians 2:8-9). We must pray and ask God for faith. We are to pray God will give us that gift. That should be our daily prayer. As we pray we increase in faith. As we increase in faith we pray. And the cycle continues.

We must understand “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive” in its context. Jesus was not saying, with faith you get to control God. That is, your wish is not God’s command. Go back to the beginning of this passage. Jesus was hungry. We wanted something to eat. No one ever has had as much faith as Jesus. We could have said to the tree, “produce fruit.” And fruit would have appeared. But that was not God’s will.

When you suffer you may have heard someone blame you. “You don’t have enough faith.” “You need more faith.” “If you had more faith god would heal you.” “If you had more faith your child would not have died.” “It says so right here if you have faith and command a mountain to move and it will.” Well, no you do not get to command God.

Again, where does faith come from? Faith comes from God. It is a gift. It is not something you generate yourself.

Faith in God means, expectancy and assurance of obtaining from God whatever we need. Faith generates prayer. It penetrates the treasures of God’s grace. Faith does not stand alone. Christ adds prayer to faith. Jesus did not say that we will have whatever we wish. That would make faith presumptuous and careless. The true test of faith lies in prayer.

But you may object that those prayers are never heard. Why aren’t mountains thrown into the sea? Surely someone has enough faith. The answer is easy. Christ does not turn us loose like spoiled little children who God grants their every whim. Faith comes from hearing the word of God. (Romans 10: 17) The Holy Spirit constrains us by the word of God. The Holy Spirit then brings us into obedience. Christ promises nothing to His disciples, outside the will of God. True faith receives what it asks for. Trust in God is not presumptive arrogance. It is submission to His will.

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