There once was a fig tree by the side of the road between Bethany and Jerusalem. It was growing in a land flowing with milk and honey. It boasted of a heritage that went back to the mighty fig trees of old – to trees that fed King David and that even refreshed Abraham after rescuing Lot from captivity. The family legend passed from generation to generation was that Adam and Eve were told not to eat the fruit of what was the very first fig tree. Adam and Eve had failed that test after Eve saw that the tree was good for food and a delight to the eyes as well as that it was to desired to make one wise and so she took of its fruit and ate and also gave some to Adam who was with her and he ate. Then when Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened and they knew they were naked it was fig leaves that they sewed together. That tree by the side of the road between Bethany and Jerusalem took great pride in its lineage going back to such ancient trees famous for their leaves and fruit. Then one morning the second Adam, the son of Abraham and David, the promised Messiah as He was returning to Jersualem became hungry. And He looked up and saw that beautiful fig tree all covered in the grandest of leaves just standing there by the road. The tree didn’t rejoice at the coming of the Messiah promised to Adam and Eve and Abraham and David. It just stood there stiff as a board. It looked beautiful from a distance because of its lush leaves but when the Messiah came to collect its fruit there was none to be found on it. So the Messiah cursed it and the tree withered at once. This was not the first time Jesus had confronted those unwilling to praise Him and give Him the fruits of repentance, but thankfully not everyone was as stiff as a board.
- Whether you are stiff and fruitless depends on how you answer the question, “Who is this?”
The fig tree that stood there stiff as a board and without fruit was like the religious leadership of Israel. They did not join the crowds in praising Jesus. It made them angry. Nor did they repent from the corrupt practices of money-changers and pigeon sellers in the temple. If you paid the temple tax at Jerusalem you had to pay it at the temple and only a certain kind of coin was used to pay it so the money-changers would take a fee for exchanging the currency and a fee for giving you change. Such practices take advantage of the poor. Likewise with the selling of pigeons, which is what the poor often brought for sacrifice. In order to offer an animal for sacrifice the priest had to verify that it was without blemish. So you could bring your own animal and hope that they would accept it or you could buy one at the temple for whatever price they demanded. If these things were not bad enough, the portion of the grounds used for these practices was the area where Gentiles were allowed to come and pray. Thus the purpose of the temple to extend the blessing of God to the nations was lost. Then they saw Jesus healing the blind and the lame and heard the children shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And still the priests and Pharisees did not repent and believe in Jesus. Still they did not praise Jesus and change their ways. So they are like the stiff and fruitless fig tree that Jesus cursed and it withered at once. (But Jesus had been cultivating a new fig tree that soon would be planted – led by the disciples.)
As one of the disciples, Matthew shows us how this new fig tree believes in Jesus and bears the fruits of repentance. Matthew correctly answers the question, “Who is this?” He shows that Jesus is the promised Messiah. The Jewish people anticipated a Messiah King who would save them. The crowds shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Hosanna meaning “save us” and “Son of David” being an obvious title for the Messiah King. Moreover, the Jewish people anticipated that the Messiah would be a prophet who would come and cleanse the temple. The crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” Thus Matthew shows us Jesus is the promised prophet who cleanses the temple in fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures immediately after showing us Jesus is the promised king humble and mounted on a donkey colt in fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. Who is this? The Messiah who fulfills the Hebrew Scriptures. The disciples came to realize that this was no mere man – Jesus defended the children who praised Him from Psalm 8 where the infants and babies praise God. Thus Jesus was claiming to be God with us. The disciples believed in this Jesus and offered the fruit of repentant lips praising Jesus. Furthermore, the blind and the lame were changed – they were healed. They were outcasts not allowed to bring sacrifices to the temple before, but the healings show that the Levitical regulations that were necessary for cleansing to come into God’s presence before are now fulfilled in coming to Jesus. For a saving faith is faith in Jesus and repentance unto life is coming to Jesus and the fruits of such repentance include praising Jesus. (But anyone who continues to reject Jesus will be stiff and fruitless.)
- Therefore, Jesus took His kingdom away from the stiff and fruitless priests and Pharisees and gave it to you who believe in Him and bear the fruits of repentance.
- The prophetic sign of cursing the fig tree and it withering at once represented how the kingdom of God was being taken away from the priests and Pharisees. They had turned the temple into a den of robbers rather than a house of prayer for the nations. They were hopping mad when the children cried out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” They were upset that he was healing the blind and the lame in the temple. They were afraid of the crowds because the crowds held Jesus to be a prophet. They were not fit to lead Israel. The Messiah had come into their very presence but they were unwilling to recognize Him and His authority to do this. So the kingdom of God would be torn from them and given to others.
The kingdom of God was given to you who believe in Jesus and bear the fruits of repentance. You are the new fig tree that Jesus has planted. You praise Jesus with your lips as you sing and you praise Jesus with your lips as you speak. You may have been considered outcasts by a religious establishment, but like the children and the blind and the lame in Jesus’ day, you have been welcomed and made whole by Jesus. You are the temple of God – you are His house of prayer – and you take the good news of Jesus to the world and pray for people from many nations. You welcome outcasts regardless of disability or racial-ethnic categories or anything else – you welcome all who have a saving faith in Jesus and who have a repentance unto life of coming to Jesus. You enjoy it when the children praise Jesus rather than demanding that they be seen and not heard. You recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, that He is God with us, that He is the prophet-king who saved us from our sins, that He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Thus you have been given responsibilities in the kingdom of God – you have been set over a little in this life and God wants you to use it well and faithfully. You have the responsibility of making disciples of all nations and teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded you. The disciples marveled when they saw that the fig tree withered at once, but Jesus says that if we have faith then mountains can be taken up and thrown into the sea. In other words, there is nothing that can stop us from doing what we have been called to do if you have faith and do not doubt. Praise be to God. Amen.