A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on June 28, 2020.
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” (Matthew 21:18–22).
After leaving Jerusalem for the evening, Jesus lodges in Bethany. The next morning, on his return to Jerusalem, he passes a fig tree, and seeking to satisfy his hunger, he searches for a fig to eat and finds none because it isn’t the season (Mark 11:13). For no reason mentioned other than the lack of fruit, Jesus then speaks directly to the tree saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And, instantly the tree withers, and the disciples are confounded.
It is a short but captivating account in between Jesus’ visits to Jerusalem, but why is this here? Why would the Great Physician who heals curse a fig tree to wither? Why does he who turned water into wine not grow figs? Is this nothing more than an outburst of righteous anger, evidencing the power of his word?
We should be careful not to skip past the questions of why to get to how, but the disciples do, asking, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” Jesus graciously answers the question, teaching them about the utmost importance of faith. But there is more to this account than Jesus’ answer.
There is also a temptation to isolate this passage and to fixate on Jesus’ hyperbole. Throwing mountains into the sea certainly captures the imagination. But what do Jesus’ actions reveal? What is the significance of the fig tree? And why has Matthew placed this account in between two key passages in which the leaders of Israel reject the identity and authority of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel? The answers to these questions may be found in considering the fig tree and its lack of fruit.
The fig tree is used repeatedly in the Prophets as a symbol for Israel. In an obvious example, Jeremiah refers to Israel as a fruitless, withered fig tree (Jer. 8:13), a metaphorical description of spiritual degradation. The fig tree that bears no fruit defies its purpose, just as a fruitless Israel defied its purpose to bear fruit of the kingdom of God. While the withered fig tree of our passage does indeed reveal Jesus’ power, the story of Israel’s judgment is equally powerful.
Consider the greater context of this passage. After cleansing the outer court of the temple from the secular vendors and traders, Jesus heals the blind and lame. The children praise him singing, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” But the chief priests and scribes beholding these wonderful things are indignant, rejecting his revealed and praiseworthy identity (Matt. 21:12-17).
When Jesus returns to the temple to teach, he is confronted by the chief priests and elders who do not recognize the evidence of his authority but question and deny it. Using two parables and a quotation from Psalm 118, Jesus confronts their rejection of him, prophesies their coming judgment, and then explains the significance of the fruitless fig tree: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matt. 21:22-46). They had become the fruitless, withered fig tree.
And so it was, as the kingdom of God resides not within the geographic boundary of ancient Israel but advances to the ends of the earth. Rather than the ethnic descendants of Jacob, true Israel is comprised of the children of Abraham through faith, gathered from every tribe, tongue, and nation. As Jesus had earlier prophesied, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:11-12). The chief priests, scribes, and elders of Israel revealed that they could not provide the evidence of their purpose, namely to bear fruit. But God in his grace and mercy has raised up a people, through faith in the Son of God, to bear the fruit of the kingdom of God, the evidence of our purpose as the children of God.
This is why Jesus answers the disciples’ question, “How did the fig tree wither at once?”, and it is why Jesus’ answer carries greater significance than one withered tree. Jesus says, “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.” Prayer is an essential means of grace in the Christian life, and there is purpose in it. Faith is the essence of the Christian life, and there is purpose in it. You and I were not redeemed by the blood of Christ to be fruitless fig trees. We were given the kingdom of God to be a people who bear its fruits. Or, to state it simply, as the children of God by his grace we bear fruit through faith with prayer.
What is meant by bearing fruit? Bearing fruit is a metaphor describing the outward evidence of the inward reality of saving faith. Such evidence includes our desires and our works, so there is both an inward (or affirming) and an outward (or testifying) aspect to Christian fruit. Our desires and works testify that we are children of God. However, Christian fruit is not self-produced or self-perpetuated. It is produced by the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit, producing fruit through us, such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
This fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in and through us may be manifested in a myriad of ways. For example, Jesus says that if we love him, we will keep his commandments (John 15:15). So, love is manifested in our obedience to Christ. Or, James charges us to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). So, we may be joyful for Christ’s sake even in difficult circumstances. Whatever the case, we bear fruit, whether it be through the desires of our heart or the actions of our life, evidencing the inward reality of faith.
One of the casualties of the shallow theology of modern Evangelicalism is the idea that a profession of faith may not be accompanied by evidential fruit. Little Johnny made a profession of faith at six years old at Vacation Bible School, spent his life living for Lucifer, and we are to be assured of his salvation, not based on the fruit he bore but on the supposed validity of his profession. Sadly, hell may be filled with those who profess to be a Christian but do not possess saving faith. As Jesus explained to his disciples, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). Fruit is not optional; it is evidential.
For this reason, the Apostle James explains, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). It is not alive, because it never existed. Or as John Calvin put it, in his response to the Council of Trent, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet faith which justifies is not alone: just as it is the heat alone of the sun which warms the earth, and yet in the sun it is not alone, because it is constantly conjoined with light.” Heat and light, faith and works, fig trees and figs, each separate yet conjoining.
We hear this perfectly explained by the Apostle Paul when he writes to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10). All who are in Christ have been saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ for good works, and therefore the works reveal the reality of saving faith by God’s grace. We are justified by faith alone, but that faith is never alone.
This then takes us back to the withered fig tree and the disciples’ wonder: “How did the fig tree wither at once?” In short, because Jesus did it. Let us remember, “with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26), whether it be withering a fruitless fig tree, saving the lost, or producing fruit in those who are prone to doubt. For example, consider the Jewish idiom of moving a mountain, meaning to achieve the unthinkable. You may encounter someone that you think would be impossible to love. And it may be impossible for you, but not for Christ working in you through faith.
I am reminded of Corrie Ten Boom’s encounter after World War II had ended with the Nazi soldier who had treated her so brutally in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She was determined that she could not even shake his hand after a church service and certainly not love him. It would be easier to move a mountain than love your torturer. But her vengeful thoughts were overcome by the overwhelming presence of the love of Christ. “When he tells us to love our enemies,” she said, “he gives, along with the command, the love itself.” Corrie moved a mountain that day through faith, bearing the fruit of love, and so may we.
Just as trees wither and mountains are moved through faith in Christ, he gives us the means of grace to bear fruit. Consider, for example, prayer. Prayer is, according to the Shorter Catechism, an “offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies” (WSC 98). What should be the foundations of these desires offered up? To love the Lord your God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:37-39). Upon this foundation, we pray for that which is agreeable to God’s will, bringing our petitions through our Mediator, Christ Jesus, as he intercedes for us. This we do through faith, bearing the fruit of answered prayer.
Prayer then is an essential means to bearing fruit. Do you love like Christ? Are you joyful like Christ? Do you have peace like Christ? Are you patient like Christ? Kind like Christ? Do good like Christ? Are you faithful like Christ? Gentle like Christ? Do you exercise self-control like Christ? Well, we’ve got a lot to pray about, don’t we? As James reminds us, “You do not have, because you do not ask (James 4:2), and “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
How often are our lives seemingly lacking in fruit because we do not offer up our desires to God in prayer? Or, how often are our prayers unanswered because we ask with wrong motives? Are we lacking the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, because we do not desire to bear them or because we do not pray for them?
Christ has chosen to reveal himself to the world through the fig tree of his church, but the world will not see him unless we bear his fruit. Therefore, Jesus charges us, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5). We abide in Christ through faith. We abide in Christ with prayer. And through faith with prayer we evidence our purpose, bearing the fruit of the kingdom of God for his glory.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 John Calvin, “Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote,” Mongergism.com, accessed June 26, 2020, https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/calvin_trentantidote.html.
 Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place (Washington Depot, CT: Chosen Books, 1971).