Parallel passages: Matthew 21:12-22 ; Luke 19:45-48 .—
The blighting of the barren fig tree.
I. SYMBOLISM .
1 . Miracles of mercy. Mercy has been called God's darling attribute; judgment is his strange work. The only-begotten Son, who has declared the Father unto us, has manifested the selfsame character. His miracles are miracles of mercy—all save two. Of these two, one was permissive and punitive, when our Lord allowed the devils to enter into the swine of the Gadarenes; the other, which is recorded in this passage, is a sort of symbol such as the old prophets used when they inculcated any solemn utterance, or wished specially to impress any predicted event. This custom was common in New as well as in Old Testament times. Thus Jesus washed his disciples' feet. Thus also Agabus, when he foretold Paul's imprisonment at Jerusalem, symbolized the fact by taking the apostle's girdle and therewith binding his own hands and feet, saying, "So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle." In like manner our Lord, by this miracle of the blasted fig tree, most symbolically and significantly sets forth the blight of barrenness which so justly fell upon the Jewish people, and which is sure to fall upon any people or any person who has only the leaves of an outside profession, but who wants the fruits of a genuine faith or a heartfelt piety. To pronounce a curse on a senseless tree might appear meaningless—it might even seem vindictive. Not so, however, when the Savior, in order to express the hopes which the appearance of the tree excited, and the disappointment which its want of fruit occasioned, devoted that tree by a striking figure to future and for ever fruit-lessness. He thereby converts that tree into a symbol of the hypocrite or false professor, be he Gentile or be he Jew; and makes it a danger-signal, at once to warn us of the danger and ward off the doom.
2 . Judgment succeeds the abuse of mercy. Another lesson which our Lord teaches us by this tree is the consequence of abused mercy. When mercy has been abused, judgment must succeed. The day of grace does not always last; and when that day has passed, and its privileges have been misused, the axe is then laid to the root of the tree, that it may be hewn down and cast into the fire. Such was the case with the body of the Jewish nation at the very time this miracle was wrought. Their day of grace was expiring. Their heart had remained untouched by that most pathetic appeal, "If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace!" Now, however, they were hid from their eyes. A woe similar to that pronounced on Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum had gone forth against all that people, notwithstanding the fact that they had once been the people of God, and notwithstanding the many and great privileges which they had enjoyed, as well as the loud and leafy professions they had made.
3 . The relation of the miracle of the fig tree to the parable of the fig tree. The fact of this relationship should be kept in view. The miracle narrated in this passage and the parable recorded by St. Luke are in a great measure the converse of each other. The parable of the fig tree long spared through the intercession of the vine-dresser, and this miracle of the fig tree suddenly withered to the very roots, are to a large extent the right opposite of each other. The one represents mercy pleading, the other judgment suddenly and surely Overtaking the guilty; the one the long-suffering kindness of God, the other the swift vengeance of Heaven; the one mercy prevailing over judgment, the other judgment without mercy; the one a tree spared in hope of fruitfulness, the other a tree suddenly scathed to the very earth because of its barrenness. There is, however, one point, and only one point, in common; and that is, the end of continued unfruitfulness is cursing, the end of barrenness is burning, and the end of all leaf and no fruit is the speedy execution of the sentence, "Bind them in bundles, and burn them."
4 . A c omparison and a contrast. In the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, we find a beautiful comparison and an awful contrast; by the former the lesson of the parable is enforced, and by the latter the warning of this miracle receives a solemn sanction. "The earth," we there read, "which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them for whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: but that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned."
II. OUR LORD 'S DISAPPOINTMENT .
1 . He hungered. The Savior was on his way from Bethany to Jerusalem. It was in the morning, and he was hungry. This may appear strange. What had been the matter with the friendly family of Bethany, under whose roof our Lord had been so often and so hospitably entertained? Had they forfeited the high character for hospitality which they had so well earned? Had they forgotten its rights and become inconsiderate towards their Guest—a Guest whom they so highly honored, and who had such claims upon them? Had they forgotten his wants, or neglected to supply them? Had Martha ceased her thrift, and given up her housewifery? Be this as it may, it could be no intentional neglect, much less a studied slight; it must have been some strange oversight. Or, as our Lord's time on earth was soon to terminate, and as much was to be done that day, perhaps he left Bethany at an earlier hour than usual; and, doing so, he could not wait till the customary hour for breakfast, and would not allow the household arrangements to be broken through for his convenience. Or perhaps he wished to reach the temple in time for the morning sacrifice at nine o'clock, before which time a devout Jew seldom broke his fast. Or perhaps he was so intent on his Father's business, and so intensely absorbed in his own great work, and so rapt in contemplation of its grand results, that he neglected the food provided for him. Or, in the absence of any direct statement, and where we are left to conjecture, we may suppose that it is just possible that he had shunned the shelter of any roof, and spent the previous night in prayer on some lone hillside or other sequestered spot. At all events, the broad fact stands out that he, by whom all things were made, became hungry; that he, who had fed thousands in a wilderness with a few loaves and fishes, would fain have satisfied the cravings of appetite with a few unripe figs.
2 . Leafage without fruitage , or all leaf and no fruit. The district through which our Lord passed on his way, as he went from Bethany to Jerusalem, was a fig region. A village by the way had its name from this very circumstance; that village was Bethphage, which, as we have already seen, means "house of figs." Journeying through this district, he would, as might be expected, see many fig trees. His eye, however, rested on one at some distance. From St. Matthew's special mention of this one fig tree we conclude that there must have been something peculiar in its appearance. Our Lord singled it out from all or any in the district. It was rich in leaves, and so, full of promise. We must have in recollection the well-known fact in reference to the fig tree, that it puts forth its fruit before its leaves. The leaves of the fig tree, when they appeared, warranted the expectation of the figs. The leaves of this tree, visible to a distance, must have been large and numerous, and thus they held out the hope of abundant figs. The leafy honors of the tree bespoke its abundant fruitfulness. On the other hand, we are informed that "the time of figs was not yet," by which some
4 . Adumbrative of Gentile as well as Jew. There may be the leaves of profession without any corresponding fruitfulness in the case of Gentiles as well as of Jews. This symbolic fig tree may have a personal application to ourselves. We may profess Christ to please men, to keep up appearances, to maintain a respectable position, or advance in some way our worldly prospects. We may rest in a mere form; we may have a form of Godliness without the power; we may have a name to live, and yet be spiritually dead; we may be content with the outward visible sign, and care nothing for the inward spiritual grace. This was the complaint of God against his professing people in the days of Ezekiel. "They come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they show much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness. And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not." Here is the too common defect of profession without practice, naming the name of Christ and not departing from iniquity. Others, again, it is to be feared, are downrightly insincere; they put religion on like a cloak, and lay it aside when it suits them; like their Sunday clothes, they wear it on the sabbath, but lay it past throughout the week. They impose on their fellow-men, they trifle with the Almighty, and deceive their own souls.
5 . The Savior ' s dissatisfaction with barren professors. Many a time Christ comes to professors, and when he finds no fruit, no figs, no real goodness, nothing but leaves, oh, how he is disappointed! Many a time he is wounded in the house of his friends; many a time he has reason to be indignant with the false professor; many a time religion is scandalized by the leaf of profession and the life of sin. We can conceive Christ coming to such professors and saying—Was it for this you trod my courts? for this you joined yourself to my people? for this you sat at my table? for this you took the cup of salvation in your hand? for this you avouched yourself to be the Lord's in solemn sacramental action?
6 . His remonstrance. Besides the expression of just indignation, there is tender remonstrance on his part. That remonstrance may be supposed couched in some such terms as the following:—After all my care for you, and love to you, and provision for your salvation; after all my goodness and grace to your soul; after all my sufferings, both in life and death; after all my agony of soul and anguish of body; after the many precepts I have given you, the exhortations I have addressed to you, the warnings I have sent you; after all the checks of conscience, and after all the strivings of my Spirit, is this the return you make me? Have you so soon forgotten your covenant engagements; so soon forgotten all your vows; so soon belied the profession you made, saying by act, if not by word, "O Lord, I am thy servant: thou hast loosed my bends"? Have you so soon and so sadly violated your pledged allegiance expressed in the words, "I am not my own; I am bought with a price; and bound therefore to serve the Lord with body and spirit, which are the Lord's"? God forbid that this should be the case with any of us! May better things be hoped, and reasonably hoped, of us all, and "things that accompany salvation"! Let our motto be, "Now being made free from sin, and become servants of God, we have our fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life." Let our conduct be in accordance with the statement, "I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?" Let our meditation be on "whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report;" and "if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise," let us "think on these things."
III. DOOM PRONOUNCED ON THE FIG TREE .
1 . He stereotypes its state. Christ does not make this fig tree barren, he only stereotypes its barrenness; he found it in that state, and, as far as its condition of barrenness was concerned, he left it pretty much as he found it. It bare no fruit before, it should bear no fruit afterwards, and so no fruit for ever. As far, however, as his own action was concerned, he did more; for he withered its leaves, he scathed its trunk, he blighted it both root and branch. It was cursed, and so devoted to barrenness; it was dried up from the roots, and so inevitably destined to decay; it was completely withered, and so doomed to entire destruction. To the present hour the Jew has an unmistakable resemblance to this symbolic fig tree. Nationally, he is barked and peeled; he is a tree of which the branches are withered; he is one of a nation on which the blight of Heaven rests; the curse has come upon them to the uttermost. He has neither Church, as in days of old, nor State, nor proper nationality. He has neither temple, nor priest, nor sacrifice. He is still doomed to the "wandering foot and weary breast"—one of a people resembling this withered fig tree to which the curse of Heaven clings.
2 . Applicability of the symbol to our own case. What is the conclusion from all this, and what is its connection with ourselves? Just that of which the apostle, in writing to the Romans ( Romans 11:21 , Romans 11:22 ) speaks: "For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off."
3 . Responsibility pertaining to the Church of God. It is no light matter to have the Church of God in our midst, its ordinances dispensed to us, its sacraments enjoyed by us, its doctrines proclaimed to us, its duties declared to us. What weighty responsibilities does all this impose? "Unto whomsoever much is given, of them shall much be required." What a blessing, if we improve these privileges, and know the time of our merciful visitation! What a millstone weight of condemnation is hung about our neck, when, in the full enjoyment of ordinances, we prove ourselves at once unfaithful and ungrateful? We see here what Christ expects of us, and what he has every right to expect. He sees on us the leaves of profession; he requires the living power of religion in our souls. He beholds the leaves of confession; he demands correspondence of character, conduct, and conversation. He has heard your proclamation with the lips to the effect, "Henceforth shall the Lord be my God;" he looks, therefore, for piety of heart and purity of life. He observes with you the show of Godliness; he will not be satisfied unless you diffuse the savor of it all around. Truth binds you to this; you have sworn, and must not go back; you have vowed, and must fulfill your vow; you have avouched the Lord to be your God, and the covenant entered into may not be broken, except at terrible risk. Gratitude binds to this. What shall we render unto the Lord for all his gracious benefits and gifts to us?
"Love so amazing, so Divine,
Demands my heart, my life, my all."
Consistency binds to this. What can be thought of any one who enters into the most solemn engagements and then practically repudiates them? Our welfare, both for time and eternity, binds to this; for "blessed is every one that feareth the Lord; that walketh in his ways. For thou shalt eat the labor of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee."
IV. APPLICATION OF THE WHOLE .
1 . Think for a moment of the awful doom of this withered fig tree. It is the doom of every hypocrite and of every false professor. The first blessing pronounced on man was fruitfulness; one of the severest curses is barrenness. The leaf of the merely nominal Christian will soon wither; it will soon decay and die. There is no root, and so even the leaf of profession will not last long; no faith, and so no fruitfulness; no principle, and so no practical Godliness. The sparks of his own kindling make but a flickering light at best; and that light, bad as it is, soon goes out altogether in utter darkness. "The wicked is driven away in his wickedness, but the righteous hath hope in his death."
2 . As it fared with the Jews, so will it fare with every individual who abuses God's mercies by continued unfruitfulness. God's ancient people has been unchurched, and, if we may so say, unpeopled; and if this was done in a green tree, what shall not be done in a dry? The seven Churches of Asia had been unfaithful, and the candlestick was removed out of its place. So with the African Churches—Alexandria, Hippo, and Carthage.
3 . God looks for fruit, and claims it as his due. The more fruitful you are, the more is he glorified. "Herein," said the Savior, "is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit;" the more, also, is your own soul benefited and blessed. Often, when men become unfruitful, and prove false to their vows, neglecting God's ordinances, and abusing his mercies, he gives them over to judicial blindness of mind, hardness of heart, sacredness of conscience, or to strong delusion, or to a famine not of bread but of bearing the Word of the Lord. Sickness, or age, or poverty, or removal of their habitation, deprives them of the once possessed, but little esteemed and much abused, mercies. So with Ephraim; he is "joined to his idols: let him alone."
4 . During our walks in summer or early autumn we used to see a tree withered and decayed; its leaves were gone, its bark peeled off, and its branches quite bare. Near to it on every side were trees green and leafy, healthy and vigorous, beautiful and flourishing. How ghastly looked that naked skeleton tree beside them! We often said as we passed it by—What a true type of a barren professor, "twice dead, plucked up by the roots"!
5 . From this miracle our Lord took occasion to speak of the wonders which faith works, and to urge the necessity of faith to the success of prayer.—J.J.G.
All things whatsoever ye pray and ask for, believe that ye have received them; and ye shall have them . But you must "ask in faith, nothing wavering."
The fruit of the fruitless fig tree.
This action of our Lord Jesus is one of the very few he is recorded to have performed to which exception has been taken. It has been objected that the "cursing" of the fig tree was a vindictive act, and unlike and unworthy of the gracious and beneficent Redeemer. In answer to this objection, a distinction must be drawn between a vindictive and a judicial proceeding; the latter having no element of personal irritation or ill feeling. It must not be forgotten that the Lord Jesus was and is the Judge, and this symbolical action was a picture of his judicial function in exercise. It has also been objected that the doom pronounced and carried into effect was unjust, inasmuch as the season for figs had not yet come, and Jesus looked for what, in the nature of things, it was not reasonable to expect. In answer to this, it must be remembered that trees have no consciousness, and no capacity for sentient suffering; and that, in the analogous case of the barren professor of religion, no sentence of condemnation is pronounced except as the consequence of moral culpability. This passage has two distinct movements, each containing its own spiritual lesson impressively conveyed.
I. HERE IS A SYMBOL OF " JUDGMENT IN THE HOUSE OF God."
1 . The fruitless fig tree is an emblem of the immoral or useless professor of Christianity. Leaves are beautiful in themselves, are indicative of life and vital vigor, and seem to promise fruit; yet, in the case of such trees as that here spoken of, it is the fruit which is the end for which the tree is allowed to occupy ground, to absorb nourishment, to engage the toil of the husbandman or gardener. So in the moral domain. The foliage corresponds to outward position, to visible standing, and audible confession. These are excellent and admirable where they are not deceptive. But where there is "nothing hut leaves" to meet the eye of the husbandman, where there is the "name to live" without the life, where there is the language of belief and of devotion with no corresponding principles and conduct,—all this is disappointing to the Divine Husbandman and Wine-dresser.
2 . The withering of the fig tree is symbolical of the moral doom and destruction of the unfruitful professor of religion. The tree may live, although it bear no fruit. But the fruitless Christian carries his own condemnatiou within him. The Lord who came to earth to save, lives in heaven to reign, and finally will return to judge. It would not be just to found an argument upon what is but an illustration. Nevertheless, there is very much express teaching from our Lord's lips as to the doom of the hypocrite. The fruitless scribes and Pharisees incurred his anger and his condemnation; and there is no reason to suppose that those more privileged, and equally false and spiritually worthless, can escape their doom. To be fruitless is to "wither away." For the barren there is no place in the vineyard of God.
II. HERE IS INSTRUCTION AS TO THE POWER OF FAITH AND PRAYER . It is a lesson we should scarcely have expected to find attached to this miracle. The amazement of Peter and the other disciples was excited by this exercise of power on the part of the Master. In reply to their expressions of wonder, Jesus, who was ever ready to give to the conversation a practical and profitable turn, discoursed upon the power of faith and prayer.
1 . Faith gives efficacy to effort. It removes mountains. But such is not the work of the doubter or of the vacillating. All moral miracles and spiritual triumphs are due to the faith which is placed, not in human skill or power, but in God himself.
2 . Faith gives efficacy to prayer. There are those who are mighty in prayer. This is because they believe in God, to whom "all things are possible." Hesitating, half-hearted prayer is dishonoring to God. We are directed to believe that we have received, at the very moment when we offer our entreaties; which is certainly only possible to strong faith. Yet what encouragement is there so to pray!
3 . The works which may in this manner be accomplished, the blessings which may thus be obtained, are described in remarkable language. Trees may be withered, mountains may be removed, all things may be had, by those who have faith. No wonder that the poet says of faith, it—
"Laughs at impossibilities,
And cries, 'It shall be done!"
4. Yet there is a condition of a moral kind laid down by Christ. A sincere and forgiving disposition is indispensable. If we appeal to a gracious and benignant Father, if we ask of him needed forgiveness, we must approach him with a mind unstained by wrath, by malice, by any lack of charity.
The barren fig tree.
How changed is the scene! The great King entered into the royal city, and the great High Priest into the holy temple. Then—O significant words!—"he looked round about upon all things." Alas, what scenes caught those calm eyes! in the eventide he left Jerusalem, accompanied only by the twelve. On the morrow,, returning again to Jerusalem from Bethany, where he had spent the night, "he hungered." A mere touch of the pen discloses a link of connection between him and every one who in hunger seeks and has not his daily bread. But a "fig tree having leaves" from "afar" attracts his keen sight, and "he came, if haply he might find anything thereon," as the leaves which usually appear after the fruit promised. Alas, his hope is mocked! "He found nothing but leaves." Then he, who giveth nature its greenness, who maketh the fig tree to blossom, and hangeth the fruit on the vine and the olive, uttered his "curse" in prohibiting it to minister any more to the wants of man. The morrow finds it "withered away." There were watching disciples for whose use this and the other trees grew in the great garden, and this must be used for their highest good. By it he will impress upon their hearts a solemn truth. It is a parable enacted. But the parable goes unexpounded, while a great lesson on faith in God is given. By common consent, this withered tree conveys a deep teaching on immature professions. Following so immediately after the jubilant cry of yesterday, it seems to speak in condemnation of that all too hasty and untrustworthy demonstration, those shouts of welcome to the King of Jerusalem which would be so seen exchanged for the cry of repudiation, "We have no king but Caesar." The strength of the tree is exhausted in the immature foliage. This seems to point to the immature haste of profession made by them who cried "Hosanna!" and who would show how vain the hopes would be that relied upon that cry, for in a few days it would be exchanged for "Crucify him!" It was the one visible curse of him who in reality curses everything that is false and pretentious. Significantly it is related, "and his disciples heard it." The morrow declares that the Lord's word is a word of power, as the drooping leaves and dried-up branches and trunk, even "from the roots," declare. Peter's exclamation draws forth from the Master a profound reply, which seems designed to lead the thoughts of the disciples away from all that is false, unreal, and untrue, on which they may not place their hope, to him who is worthy of their faith, and who never disappoints them that trust in him. Henceforth this fig tree stands before us as—
I. A SYMBOL OF INSINCERITY , or of that uncultured strength which is presumption.
II. A SIGN OF THE DELUSION AND DISAPPOINTMENT WHICH MUST FOLLOW FROM TRUST IN EMPTY , UNNATURAL BOASTS AND PROMISES . Many are dependent upon, or at least influenced by, the professions of others. There are weak souls that lean upon stronger ones for support, who are comforted and strengthened by their fidelity, or led astray by their dejection.
III. Therefore this must be A SOLEMN WARNING AND ADMONITION TO ALL TO TRUST IN THE TRUSTWORTHY . And in this case, perhaps, not to commit themselves to the frail, unworthy cry of an excited multitude, but to have calm faith in God, who can sweep away the false and delusive, the weak and fruitless fig tree, and with equal ease the firmly rooted mountain from its place. The "mountain" may have found its antitype in the firmly fixed power that waged its opposition to the world's Redeemer, and would soon hang him on a tree. That which could not satisfy the hunger, and that which could crush and overwhelm the King, were equally amenable, as is every mountain and every deceitful thing to the mighty power of God, invoked by a faith held in a true spirit.—G.
The witthered tree.
I. DESTRUCTION MAY SERVE THE PURPOSES OF LIFE . Here the fig tree is destroyed for the sake of a lesson to the spirit. Much lower life is destroyed from day to day that the higher may be preserved.
II. THE INCIDENT ILLUSTRATES THE RESERVE OF CHRIST 'S MIRACULOUS POWER . He could destroy; that was evident. But he came not to destroy, but to save. And while he lavished his power upon the sick and suffering, to heal, cheer, and deliver, he economized the dread power of destruction. Compare what is said on this subject in 'Ecce Homo!'
III. FAITH THE ONE SECRET OF POWER . Our Lord here employs, as often, a bold figure of speech. To the undivided thought and will nothing is ideally impossible. Actually our power is limited, as is our thought. But we are born for the ideal, and to overcome our limitations. Prayer is essentially part of faith; it is the exercise of the will, the entire going-forth of the man in that direction in which he is called endlessly to exert himself.
IV. LOVE IS AN ESSENTIAL CONDITION OF TRUE FAITH . Faith works by love. How mistaken is it to limit faith to intellectual assent! Devils believe, but love not, and are weak. Faith and love are other words for the might of God in the soul. "Oh, my brothers, God exists! Believing love will relieve us of a load of care!"—will lift mountains' weight from the spirit, and make our ideals a present reality. But the unloving, unforgiving soul remains fettered in itself, unreleased, unfree, and weak.—J.