Mark 11:12-14 and 20-22 “The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig-tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, ‘May no-one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard him say it. . . . In the morning as they went along, they saw the fig-tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus. ‘Rabbi, look! The fig-tree you cursed has withered!’ Have faith in God,’ Jesus answered.”
Both Matthew in the twenty-first chapter of his gospel and Mark in these words before us tell us that the Lord Jesus Christ cursed this fig tree, even though such an action on his part would cause real perplexity to the church for the next two millennia, the Saviour knowing that that would be the case. For example, Bertrand Russell thought that this incident tarnished Jesus’ character. The atheist philosopher said, “I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history” (Bertrand Russell, “Why I am Not a Christian,” Clarion Books, 1957 p.19). There has been that negative response from the world, and yet Jesus Christ did smite the fig-tree. A few professing Christians have also come to the conclusion that this incident is out of character for the Son of God. T.W. Manson sniffily judges, “This is a tale of miraculous power wasted in the service of ill temper (for the supernatural energy employed to blast the unfortunate tree might have been more usefully expended in forcing a crop of figs out of season); as it stands it is simply incredible.” J.B. Phillips writes of Jesus “venting his feelings of frustration and despair upon the fig-tree.” William Barclay judges Jesus to be guilty of ‘petulance.’ A.M. Hunter finds the whole story “one of the most perplexing in the Gospels.” That is what modernist writers have said. Unsanctified learning has done much harm to the Christian faith. But even these men have to acknowledge that the event Mark is describing did take place. The disciples of Jesus heard him say to the fig-tree, “May no-one ever eat fruit from you again” (v.14); later the disciples saw the fig-tree withered from the roots (v.20). Even though our Lord knew that this incident would be misunderstood and criticised in the 20th century by atheists and professing Christians alike, he yet cursed the fig-tree. Though men would use this event to discredit him, nevertheless Jesus Christ still did what he did. It must be an important event.
Again, our Lord knew that there would always be fragile Christians in his church, troubled with doubt and melancholy (I’m thinking of people like William Cowper). If this incident were reported, Jesus was aware that it could become a stumbling block to people like that (as would Jesus’ reference to the ‘unforgivable sin’). Cowper was once reading his Bible during one of his bouts of depression and he wrote, “One moment I thought myself shut out from mercy by one chapter, and the next by another . . . I particularly remember the parable of the barren fig-tree was to me an inconceivable source of anguish; and I applied it to myself, with a strong persuasion in my mind, that when our Saviour pronounced a curse upon it, he had me in his eye, and pointed that curse directly at me.” Yet though our Lord knew that his words and deeds would make the depressive Cowper lie on the floor of despondency still Christ went ahead and cursed the fig-tree. Jesus also ensured that his Spirit inspired the record of what he had done in two of the gospels.
How shall we approach this incident? Let me begin by affirming that our Lord Jesus never fell into pettiness, pique or petulance; he was not resentful at this fruitless tree. It is a sin to sulk and also to take offence. It is as much a sin as stealing or lying. Whatever reason our Lord had for acting like this towards the tree it was not through any ill-humour on his part. Then again, let me underline the unusual nature of this miracle. There were just three periods of miraculous activity during the Old Testament dispensation. There were virtually no wonders wrought by Abraham and the patriarchs, or the judges, nothing during the reign of David, in the period of Isaiah and Jeremiah, or at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. The first period of miracles was during the exodus from Egypt, and the second was under the prophesyings of Elijah and Elisha, and finally in the Old Testament during the time of Daniel in Babylon there were some extraordinary signs. As you read of the supernatural activity of God during those periods you will be aware that many of them were miracles of God’s judgment, for example, the first ten wonders of Moses were ten plagues. Elisha summoned some wild bears to attack a mob of young men, and fire from heaven to consume fifty soldiers. The handwriting on a wall during a feast in Babylon condemned Belshazzar. When we come to the New Testament we meet the final period of miracles during the history of redemption. The miracles wrought by our Lord and his apostles were different; they were mainly displays of his love, but not exclusively so. I would remind you of what happened to Ananias and Sapphira, Herod, Elymas the sorcerer and some professing Christians in the Corinthian church. Those were all people struck down by the Lord. So were a herd of pigs, but overwhelmingly the miracles of our Lord and his apostles were marvels of mercy. The raising of the dead, the feeding of a multitude, the stilling of the tempest, giving sight to the blind – these were displays of the loving kindness of God. In them, as in all the life and death of Jesus Christ, God was commending his love towards us.
We come to this incident before us and we read that when the judgment of the Lord Christ erupted it actually fell upon a tree. It didn’t smite a man but an unconscious and unsuffering object, a fig-tree, indeed upon one fruitless tree, leaving tens of thousands of other fig-trees still standing. Our Lord did not pour out a tree plague like Dutch Elm disease on all the fig-trees of Israel. It was a single tree killed by him on this one occasion. Let me tell you what I witnessed happening in our Manse kitchen this morning; I saw my wife kill a carrot. She cut its head off and plunged it into boiling water. Then I saw her further kill a potato and then other vegetables, celery and onions and beans, she ended their lives without a moment’s thought, and let me tell you more, that after the service this morning we are going home and we are going to eat them all.
What is the point I am making? Few in our generation have true values. An adulterer philosopher has the temerity to disdain our Saviour Jesus for killing one tree. There are vegetarians who refuse on issues of morality to kill and eat animals. There are the so-called eco-terrorists who will be outraged about experiments on animals, some would firebomb the homes of the scientists involved. They will campaign against the killing of foxes and seal cubs and whales, but for these same people it is always an open season on the unborn child in the womb. That child has no rights; “kill it!” they cry. They have no absolute values, calling wrong what God does not call wrong and saying something is right which God deplores.
I am also making this point, that God has given to man authority over the creation to use it for our own lives, “I will give you . . . every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food” (Gen. 1:29). That is how God has structured our existence. Men are kept alive only by eating other living things. Christ, the true man, needed fruit and vegetables to stay alive and work for God and man, but there is no evidence that our Lord was a vegetarian, quite the reverse. The risen Christ catches fish in the Sea of Galilee; he kills them and cooks them for his disciples and they eat together. One day this particular fig-tree would have died, as every living thing must, and that would be by an act of God, as every living thing dies as God wills. The Lord who gives and sustains life is also the Lord who takes it away. He merely shortened the span of life of this one tree. In its death the fig-tree has spoken its message to millions while every other living fig-tree in Israel has nothing to say.
What we have in Christ smiting the fig-tree is this, a dramatic visible action showing us the truth of the living God and his expectations for all who claim they are his people. Once again, as in his entry into Jerusalem, our Lord is stating divine truth in an unforgettable way. If Jesus had just spoken words, and said something like this to his disciples, “Our nation is ungodly and barren, producing no fruit in the service of God, and we are in a exceedingly dangerous state because the Lord is angry with us,” then the disciples would have struggled to remember what he’d said. Don’t we have difficulty remembering teaching in the sermons we hear from Sunday to Monday? What do we remember? The vivid illustrations backed by the truth coming powerfully to us. The smiting of the barren fig-tree declares that the nation of Israel at the time of our Lord had a pathetic formal religion; it was basically ungodly and barren. It wasn’t producing the fruit of loving obedience to its God, and the Lord was about to pour out his wrath towards them. The Jews were in a perilous condition in the eyes of God; they were on the brink of his wrath. That was what Jesus knew and taught, but here he didn’t declare those truths in words at all, for that wouldn’t have made the desired impact upon them. He smote the fig-tree, and we are told that the next day “Peter remembered, and said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, look!'” (v.21). That was the point of this dramatic parable performed before their eyes. Christ’s wrath was towards barren Israel was at this time substituted by his wrath to a tree.
1. THERE WERE MANY TREES WHICH HAD ONLY LEAVES ON THEM, AND YET THIS TREE ALONE WAS CURSED BY OUR SAVIOUR.
There are many trees whose only function is to give to all shade, and beauty, and oxygen; they provide a home for squirrels and a roosting place for the birds of the air. They produce no fruit but we are glad of them. We would hate to live in a landscape without forests. There are many people in the world who are like such beautiful trees who bear no heavenly fruit; composers and painters and authors and designers and scientists and architects and courageous judges and rulers who punish evildoers. There are nurses and doctors, firemen and policemen for whom we are especially thankful. They have no divinely given fruit, that is, they lack any saving faith, but they make the world a more beautiful place. God in his common grace won’t allow this world to become like hell. All of mankind are in God’s image, and so we thank God for inspiring teachers, and kind neighbours, and family members who as yet have not professed faith in Christ. We have always loved them and will never cease loving them. To us they are like magnificent trees who yet lack fruit unto salvation, and we thank God that he hasn’t visited them in judgment yet. He gives them long life and usefulness. They are the inheritors of an earlier grace in the land and we can thank God for them, though we pray that the Holy Spirit will one day produce his own fruit in their lives in regeneration. God’s goodness to them is designed to lead them to repentance when they’ll say, “God has spared and blessed me so greatly all these years and yet I have kept his Son out of my life. I am all leaves and no fruit. God have mercy on me for my barrenness and save me.” May many such cry mightily to God for a fruitful life.
Are there not many also within the professing church who are all leaves and no fruit? They have passed through the ceremonies and services of the church. They will come to a place of worship more or less regularly, but they know nothing of fellowship with Jesus Christ, with a love in their hearts for the Saviour. They know something of the truth, but where is their self-control, and forgiveness, and brotherly love, and prayerfulness? No presence in any congregation can guarantee you salvation. No form of doctrine believed can ensure eternal life. You must be born again. You must bring forth fruits meet for repentance. You are trees that bear only leaves. God has healed you of your diseases and given you a happy marriage and prosperity. You have seen your children and children’s children. Take no comfort in such things! They are mere leaves. Where is the fruit which God the Holy Ghost alone can produce? In what ways are you any different from your friends who make no profession to know God? There is a character like you in Pilgrim’s Progress. His name is Mr. Talkative. He had an opinion on any religious subject, Protestantism, revival, the baptism of the Spirit, Christian ethics – he could talk very fluently on all such things, but he was all leaves and no fruit.
There are religious folk who have regrets for how they have lived but they have no repentance. It is easy for me to bring a congregation to the river of regret, but I can’t make you drink the waters of repentance. If our transient sorrows for sin were real repentance then what other fruit would also be present in our lives, humility would be there, thanksgiving to Jesus Christ for his shed blood, a holy modest walk in life – such fruits meet for repentance. But it is not so; you are leaves only and no fruit. Then, Horatius Bonar says, our faith is in vain, our religion is in vain, our hopes are in vain, our Bible-reading is in vain, our church membership is in vain, our life is vain. How patient God is with you, as he was for 120 years with the generation who listened to the preaching of Noah before the flood. He was waiting for them to repent. He smote none of them until finally that world had filled up all its sins and then the fountains of the deep opened up and the heavens were rent and the great cascades of judgment began. May it not be so with you! Beware! Beware! Fruitless trees will not stand for ever, however old and beautiful and revered they are, we must all one day die. God’s mercy waters you with his tears. The husbandman, Jesus, cries, spare him for one more year and I will dung the tree and perhaps in this next year there will be fruit at last. There was just one fig-tree smitten by Christ that none might despair, but there was one, that none might presume.
2. THERE ARE SOME TREES WHO DON’T EVEN HAVE LEAVES, LET ALONE FRUIT, BUT THEY AREN’T YET CURSED BY THE LORD.
There are some men and women, both young and old, who are living their lives in total repudiation of God. They have nothing but mockery and contempt for Christ. Brutal, hard, cruel, lustful people who have no fear of God nor man. They are criminals, thieves and murderers and rapists and pimps and bullies, filled with scorn for Jesus and hatred of any who don’t give them what they demand. They abuse their wives and children and any whom they meet. Neither man nor beast is safe in their company. They are so evidently without God, without hope, living in Egyptian darkness, utterly ignorant of the Lord, constantly defying their own consciences. One of them was called Saul of Tarsus. Another was called John Newton. Another is known as the Son of Sam, the 1970s serial murderer David Berkowitz, now serving a life sentence in a New York prison – go to a search engine, write the phrase “Son of Sam”, and read the remarkable testimony of his conversion many years ago. He has himself rejected the possibility of a parole because of the savagery of his crimes.
Men like that (and there are millions more) were once totally barren trees with neither leaves nor fruit, but they weren’t smitten by the judgment of God. When the Lord Sabaoth’s Son came to them he said to them these astonishing words, “Live!” He said to them that it was not his will than they should perish but that they should repent of their sins and believe in him, and what he commanded them he gave them grace to do! And though they had the fiercest doubts than they should ever receive mercy from God because of what they’d done they cast themselves on his grace and their lives were transformed. The barren tree produced not only the leaves of morality and education and new skills but the fruit of godly love for God, and towards their fellow men – gentleness, forgiveness, patience, meekness and tenderness. What fruit! God created it in them. For God sent his Son to them not to condemn them but that through Christ they might be saved.
Despair not! Never think that you’ve been too much of a hypocrite and a sophisticate, that you couldn’t trust yourself to believe in Jesus Christ, that you have come to know too much and have refused too long, so that there can be no hope for you. It is the devil who makes you think like that. There was once a man who was the very worst of all men. Paul said it was he; he called himself the ‘chief of sinners’, worse than you, the most terrible man that has walked this earth. I doubt whether it was in fact Paul, though I’ve also thought at times it was me, but whoever it was, and however much his sin abounded, he wasn’t struck dead, but rather God’s grace was much more abundant. That power homed in on him with life-transforming energy, and it irrigated him, and pruned him, and beautified him with the life of heaven and produced in him such verdant fruit, so that whereas beforehand there had been enmity towards God and utter indifference toward his Son there was now worship, and love, and joy and a life of service. The world was amazed at the change; this old gnarled barren tree that many considered to be dead from its roots up was now covered in luscious fruit. It has been so for others far wore than you, and so why not for you? Cry mightily to God that he will make you, even you, abundant in fruit!
3. THIS ONE LEAFY TREE WITH NO FRUIT WAS CURSED BY OUR LORD.
Do you see the scene as Mark describes it? After spending the night in Bethany Jesus and his disciples set off for Jerusalem early in the morning – maybe they had skipped breakfast. This was an area rich in fields of figs, dates and olives, and one could reasonably expect to pick some nourishment as one walked along. So, in the distance Jesus spotted a leafy fig tree, maybe a derelict in an old ruined garden, in the corner of a vineyard, or in some sheltered hollow, and so more verdant. Immediately his mind was turned from the natural to the spiritual. Often in the Old Testament the people of God are compared to a fig-tree – Isaiah 34, Jeremiah 29, Hosea 2, Hosea 9, Joel 1 and Micah 7. Perhaps the opening verses of that latter chapter came to his mind; “What misery is mine! I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard; there is no cluster of grapes to eat, none of the early figs that I crave. The godly have been swept from the land, not one upright man remains. All men lie in wait to shed blood; each hunts his brother with a net” (Mic. 7:1ff). Jesus’ memories of the previous day’s crowds and the empty shouting still made him grieve. He looked at the fig-tree’s beautiful foliage, but he knew that that growth wouldn’t help his hunger. You cannot live on leaves; you must eat the fruit. He is living in the midst of a people under the judgment of God; a people covering their moral nakedness with leaves. Soon God’s condemnation was going to fall on their sin.
Some of you are protesting about Christ’s judgment on the tree, “but it was not the fig season,” so figs wouldn’t be found anywhere on such trees at the time of the Passover. You have spotted that Mark himself tells us that; “it was not the season for figs” he says (v.13). True enough, March or April wasn’t the fig season, the early crop came in May and June, and the later crop in August or even September. It was too soon for edible fruit to be on the tree, and too late for any of the previous year’s fruit to be still hanging from the branches. All this was known to Jesus. He’d lived in the land for over thirty years. Not a single fig-tree in the whole nation would have borne figs during the Passover. Who ever went to a fig-tree for figs then? No one. Our Lord walked to this fig-tree in the sight of the disciples looking at the fruit that was on it, confirming to himself and to them that it was inedible figs, as hard as horse chestnuts. This tree in full leaf at Passover season seemed to be making an offer of food, but it simply couldn’t fulfil it.
That was Israel, even at the climax of its religious year, at Passover time, great crowds, excitement, hustle and bustle in the Temple so that a stranger would think, “This is a deeply believing, loving people.” No! It was an offer of religious reality, but Israel was all leaves and no fruit, as at every other Passover. Jesus then addressed the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (v.14). Christ then walked on to Jerusalem and he entered the Temple. Plenty of leaves there too, as he’d seen the previous day when he had dismounted from his donkey and looked around at the scene. There were the rituals going on, the priests’ religious costumes, the courts, the ceremonies, men standing to pray, some thanking God that they weren’t like other men, rich people noisily clattering handfuls of coins into the trumpet-shaped containers, all those outward and legalistic acts of merit, but what was lacking was any fruit of righteousness. So then and there Jesus would drive out the greedy money-makers and the crooks that had taken over his Father’s house. The cleansing of the temple is sandwiched by Mark in the midst of the smiting of the fig-tree. Those two conjoined actions of the Lord Christ – to the tree and to the Temple – show God’s wrath towards his own nation Israel far more powerfully than words of wrath alone. If today we are claiming that we’ve been redeemed by the grace of God, that we’ve been delivered from the wrath of a sin-hating God, and that he lives in us then there should be the evidence of a transformed and godlike life in us. Where’s the fruit? Pray that the Lord won’t have to take some visible action in your own life to show you the importance of these things. That is where Jesus is searching us. The hypocrite claims that he is a Christian, and yet he lives indistinguishably from the people in the world who hate God.
“Why on earth did he do that to that fig-tree?” the apostles would have questioned one another. “This is Passover time. There are no figs on fig-trees during the Passover.” Then they’d have thought more deeply about his words and realised that the Lord was showing them God’s judgment to come on a nation which was all leaves and no fruit, a nation which was going to crucify its Messiah, the Son of the living God. Here was an unforgettable symbol of God’s judgment on Israel the barren fig-tree. The curse of the fig-tree was an action of what we may call ‘prophetic realism’ declaring the fate that was to come upon the nation. A foretaste of this was going to be given in the very next hour, when Jehovah Jesus drove the crooks out of the rotten Temple, but then, in full-blown fulfilment, in the year 70 with the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. So in this miracle of his judgment falling on the fig-tree Jesus vividly dramatised the extinguishing of life in old covenant rebel Israel. Its day was ending; the time for it to be terminated as the people of God had come, and Jesus was declaring this by killing this particular fruitless tree, the fig-tree – the honoured symbol of the people of God. If you were a Jew you’d have no problem understanding the meaning of Jesus’ action; “We are facing the wrath of God!” That is to be the great theme of Jesus’ mighty sermon in Mark 13, but vividly presented here in this enacted parable.
The Word of God is absolutely insistent that those who profess to be the children of God must bear fruit. The blessed man of psalm one is like a tree who “yields its fruit in due season” (Psalm 1:1). Getting old is no excuse for barrenness; Psalm 92:14, “They still bear fruit in old age.” We are told that “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life” (Provs. 11:30), so when such a congregation assembles on the Lord’s Day the experience will be like walking into a heaven created orchard, the boughs of whose trees are bending down to the grass loaded with fruit. It is not enough that a few men and women are the fruit-producing trees in the assembly, but every single one. What did Christ say in the Sermon on the Mount? “By their fruit you will recognise them” (Matt. 7:16), not by their claims. Jesus says to his disciples, “I have appointed you to go and bear fruit” (Jn. 15:16). Paul is concerned that the Christians in Rome “might bear fruit to God” (Roms 7:4), and that the Philippians might be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God” (Phils. 1:11). James describes the wise as being “full of mercy and good fruit” (James 3:17). So in the great day of judgment before us God’s concern will be this, not our gifts, or our knowledge, or our faith, but the fruit!
Peter was standing there next to Jesus when he smote the tree an d cleansed the Temple. He never forgot what happened that day nor the lesson Jesus taught him, that a fruitful Christian life is not an option; it is indispensable. So as an old man he wrote these words in his last letter to the next generation: “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins” (2 Pet. 1:5-9). If you claim you’ve been cleansed from your sins then that claim must be given some substance in your life by holy fruitfulness. You remember how the apostle Paul describes the fruit which the Spirit creates, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gals. 5:22&23). It takes life, and rain, and sunshine, and good soil, and osmosis, and fertility, and pruning to produce fruit. But Israel, God’s own professing people, had festivals, and ceremonies, and rituals, and crowds of people that could shout out biblical slogans. That’s human engineering not fruit. How fearful is that? It is devastating. The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. That is the meaning of the smiting of the fig-tree.
4. TO BE A FRUITLESS TREE IS TO BE IN FEARFUL DANGER.
It is a fearful state to be spiritually barren, as Jude describes them, “Autumn trees, without fruit, and uprooted – twice dead” (Jude 12). Let me tell you of two occasions when Jesus underlined the dangers of barrenness. The first is in Luke chapter 13:
“A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down'” (Lk. 13:6-9). The one who had the fig-tree was God; the man who took care of the vineyard was Jesus, and the fig-tree was you. God has borne with you for many years. He comes periodically and looks at your life, and then one day God says, “Still no fruit! No holiness; no humility; no godliness. Cut him down!” But Jesus says, “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.” When did Jesus say that about you? 364 days ago, and for the last months he has been digging around your life letting the water and air of truth and righteousness bring the hope of fruitfulness to you. He has been fertilizing you with his Word and Spirit, but still there is no fruit! The time is running out. Of course it may not have been 364 days ago, it may have been 365 days ago! How urgent then it is! Cry to God for new life today!
You know John Bunyan’s poem for children on this passage?
“What, barren here! In this so good a soil?
The sight of this will make God’s heart recoil
From giving you his blessing, barren tree,
Bear fruit, or else your end will cursed be.
“Are you not planted by the water-side?
And don’t you know your Lord by fruit is glorified?
The sentence is, Cut down the barren tree:
Bear fruit, or else your end will cursed be.
“Have you been digged about and fertilised too,
Will neither patience nor yet dressing do?
The woodcutter’s coming, barren tree,
Bear fruit, or else your end will cursed be.
“Christ who around your roots takes pains to dig
Would (if he found on you just one good fig)
Protect you from the axe; but barren tree,
Bear fruit, or else your end will cursed be.
“The utmost end of patience is at hand,
‘Tis much if you much longer here will stand.
O cumberer of the ground, O barren tree,
Bear fruit, or else your end will cursed be.
“Your standing nor your name won’t help at all;
Just fruitful trees are spared, then you must fall.
The axe is laid into your roots, O tree!
Bear fruit, or else your end will cursed be!”
That’s a powerful poem for adults, let alone for children.
The second passage is found in John 15:1&2, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.” The branch is you, linked in some way to Christ, by tradition, and routine, and upbringing, and Sunday services, and respect, but not yet vitally. You are not in living union with the Son of God. If I should say to you today, “Where is Christ?” Then you could not reply to me, “Christ in glory is living for me, and Christ is also within me the hope of glory.” You are a fruitless branch. God is the gardener and he is coming to you with his pruning scissors in his hand and he cuts off every branch that bears no fruit. What hope is there for you? Having so many leaves, but no fruit!
Once a friend of mine who is a preacher was speaking to a man about the gospel, and the man got angry with what he heard. He said to my friend, “You mean that if I don’t believe what you’re telling me God is going to kill me?” “Yes,” my friend courageously replied. “Yes, God will kill you.” Of course we know that eternal judgment does not hang on believing what I say, it is believing what the Son of God says. The One who preached the Sermon on the Mount has spoken; the one who spoke and the seas and winds obeyed him has spoken; the one who gave sight to the blind; the one of whom his Father said, “This is my beloved Son. Hear him!”; the one who rose from the dead on the third day. He has spoken to us but if we reject his salvation he will kill us. We might not express it in that phrase, but the warnings of the Bible amount to the same thing. You remember the words with which John chapter three end? “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (Jn. 3:36). God will give him the second death. “Depart from me,” God will say. God will really kill him. God has the prerogative to give life and take life away. You don’t. I don’t. God does, but let me tell you one thing more, even more extraordinary than that.
5. THERE WAS ONCE THE MOST FRUITFUL OF TREES SMITTEN BY GOD.
Let me tell you this remarkable story; there was once a tree that was absolutely loaded with fruit. Every branch and virtually every twig bore fruit, not just at one season of the year, but all the year around. How the birds of the air loved to nest in its branches and make their homes there. How the people of the land would enjoy gathering and sitting under its shade eating its fruit. All around there was barrenness. There were many leaves; much promise of fruit, but all the others were fruitless trees. That made this tree unique in the world, but with that fact went danger. All around there was jealousy of this tree’s fruitfulness. They cursed the tree, and they decided they must cut it down, and they did – this verdant fruitful tree was cursed! They cut it down and destroyed it.
That green tree was Christ. He became a cursed tree. Why? The Bible says, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (Gals, 3:10). But our Lord Jesus had continued, throughout his life, to do everything in the Book of the Law. All that God requires of man Jesus Christ alone, of the whole race of men, fulfilled! Yet he was cursed in that cruel death on the cross. What a fearful end! Nailed naked between two criminals on a cross, hanging there until he was dead. It was a cursed end. Why did God permit it? If God is the first cause of everything, and if Jesus were the beloved fruitful Son of God, then why did God permit such a judgment to fall on this one sinless one? It was for us! “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gals. 3:13). That is the staggering answer that the Bible gives. Thus Christ “redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gals. 3:14). He became our substitute; the guilt of our barrenness was laid on him, and his fruitfulness was imputed to us. Glorious transaction! Unbelievable grace!
You remember when our Lord was walking to Golgotha through the streets of Jerusalem carrying his cross that the professional mourning women lined up on the route and began their wailing as he walked past. Jesus stopped still and addressed them; “Daughters of Jerusalem don’t weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children . . . for if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Lk. 23:28&31). The Lord Jesus was a green perfect tree, and full of fruit, but that couldn’t secure his life from sinners’ hatred when they condemned him to crucifixion. If they did that to the green tree then what will sinners do to dry barren trees, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem in forty years’ time when the Roman army would penetrate the defences and enter the city? And what will happen to fruitless trees in the great day of judgment? If the cross declares that God won’t even spare his beloved perfect only begotten Son when he bears our sins, then what will it be for us dry and barren trees in that great day?
The curse on this one barren fig-tree speaks of the character of God as righteous and sin-hating. The curse that fell on Christ speaks of the character of God as merciful, one who loves his own people with a love that is determined to bring them to glory. None of us is fruitful, no not one, but God made his Son, the only fruitful one, a curse, that God might be just in pardoning us, and that the fruit of righteousness might be found in us by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Confess your barrenness to God, and then pray “Make me truly fruitful O Lord!” That will mean that you’ll need to be changed. A bad tree bears bad fruit. A bad tree cannot bear good fruit. So cry to God that you might be changed, made a new creation. Cry today, “Change me O Lord!” Begin to pray that prayer in your own words now, and don’t stop until you know that God has heard you and the beginnings of new fruit are seen in your life. Then work with the Spirit so that the fruit increases thirty-fold, sixty-fold and a hundred-fold. Why not?
29th August 2004 GEOFF THOMAS