Appearances can be deceiving, can’t they? You see something and it appears to be a certain way; but on closer inspection you discover that it’s quite different. You see a brochure for a holiday and the accommodation looks lovely and there’s a big swimming pool out the back and fantastic views. But when you arrive, you discover the accommodation is dirty and the pool is tiny and while the views may be fantastic, the main road next to the house means there’s a constant din of traffic. Appearances can be deceiving.
The fact that appearances can be deceiving is disappointing and frustrating and annoying when it comes to things like holidays. But when it comes to our relationship with God and when it comes to the hope of eternal life, then it’s vital that none of us is deceived. It’s crucial that we all know what our relationship to God really is. Here’s a man who thinks he’s a Christian. But is he right? How can he know for sure? He goes to church and joins in with everyone else, singing the songs and bowing his head and listening to the preacher. And he does all these things; and his neighbours will say of him:
Yes, of course he’s a Christian. Just look at what he does.
So someone appears to be a Christian and the man himself thinks that he must be a Christian. And yet, how can he know for sure? Is there any way of telling? Since appearances can be deceiving, is it possible that some of us are being deceived about our own standing before God? Might it possibly be the case that we’re mistaken? Or what if someone came to you and asked you what it means to be a Christian? How would you answer? What would you say to that person? What are the true signs that someone is a genuine believer?
We must thank God that in various places in the Bible God has laid down for us what the signs of a genuine Christian are, because none of us wants to be deceived. None of us wants to be mistaken about our relationship to God and about the hope we have of everlasting life; and no one wants to find out on the day of judgment — when it’s too late to do anything about it — that all along we were mistaken and that, despite appearances, we never really belonged to Christ. And so, since appearance can be deceiving, we need to make sure that we are not deceived.
And this is what today’s passage is about. We can divide today’s reading into three parts. In the first part, the Lord Jesus is hungry and he sees a fig tree. And the fig tree is covered in leaves; and so, from a distance, it looks as if it’s strong and vigorous and full of life; and, therefore, from a distance it looks as if it will be fruitful. But when the Lord approached the tree, he discovered it had no fruit. It seemed to promise much, but really it was bare and barren and fruitless.
Perhaps you’ve been out walking; and if it’s the right time of the year, there are blackberries growing by the side of the path for you to enjoy. But then, on other occasions, you look for berries, but there are none: it’s the wrong time of year; or the birds have beaten you to it. And you’re disappointed, because instead of berries, there are only leaves and thorns.
When the Lord comes to us, to examine us and to inspect us, what does he find? When he comes to us — the way we might come to a blackberry bush — what does he see? Perhaps you’ve been coming to church all your life and you’ve heard the wonderful good news about the Lord Jesus and his death on the cross to pay for sins; and you’ve heard the wonderful good news of his resurrection afterwards to give us life. You’ve been taught these things. You’ve heard them. You’ve sung about them. And so the Lord comes, expecting to find in you a true faith and a genuine love for the Lord and his people. Imagine him coming, hopefully and expectantly: after all these years, after hearing these things, and having the Bible in your hands, he thinks:
Of course, these people will love me.
But will he be disappointed? Will he be disappointed with what he finds in us? The Lord went to the fig tree, looking for fruit, but he found none. And because he found none, what did he do? Well, he pronounced a curse on the tree so that it withered and died. And since cursing the fig tree was a sign to signify how on the day of judgment his curse will fall on all who do not bear fruit in their lives, then we see how serious it is; and how vital it is that all of us produce the fruit he’s looking for in our lives.
And then in the second part of the passage, the Lord went into Jerusalem; and he went up to the Temple. Now, the Temple was a magnificent building: it was large and spacious and full of splendour. The Psalmist spoke of worshipping the Lord in the beauty of holiness; and he was thinking about the Temple, and how it was decorated with gold to match the beauty and the majesty of the Lord God. And, of couse, in today’s passage, it was coming up to the time of the Passover; so crowds of people would have been streaming into Jerusualem and into the Temple to worship the Lord and to offer sacrifices. And so, once again, we see something that appears to be very promising. There seems to be life and activity and so much going on in the Temple and so many people who appear to be seeking God and worshipping him.
But appearances can be deceiving; and the Lord soon discovered that the Temple had been turned into a market. There were money changers, because everyone had to pay the temple tax; and if you’d come from far away, then you may have had to change your money into the local currency in order to pay the tax. So, they needed money changers; but the thing is the money changers had set up their stalls in the Temple, which was meant to be a place of worship. And then there were people selling doves and and bulls and goats there, because the worshippers had to offer sacrifices; and instead of bringing an animal with them from home, they brought money and bought what they needed once they’d arrived. So, this was a useful service for the people. But the thing is those who were selling these animals had set up there stalls in the Temple, which was meant to be a place of worship. Instead of being a place to pray and to worship the Lord, the Temple had become a market. And since the Lord described it as a den of robbers, then we learn that not only was all this trade going on in the place of worship, but it was also dishonest trade. Inside the courts of the Temple, there was theft and deceit and greed and people were treating it as a place to do business.
The Temple seemed to be a place where God was being worshipped and where men and women came to honour him. It appeared to be a place where people had come to praise God and to pray to him. But it had in fact become something entirely different. Appearances can be deceiving.
So, when the Lord looks at your life, what does he see? What does he find when he examines you with his all-seeing eyes? He sees you in church today, worshipping him. But if he were to follow you home, and enter your house, and watch you alone at home, or at work, what would he find?
When we turn to the third part of today’s reading, we’re shown three marks of a true Christian. Three kinds of fruit that mark out the true Christian. There are many more marks than these, but where you find these three marks, you find a true Christian.
And the first is faith. The Lord Jesus turned to his disciples in verse 22 and he said very simply:
Have faith in God.
Faith is the first fruit, the first mark of a true Christian.
Faith joins us to Christ. It unites us to him. It connects us to him and brings him near. For many people today, God seems so very far away. He seems distant and aloof and hard to reach. How can we know him? How can we connect with him? Does he know me? Is he aware of me? Does he care what’s happening to me? For many people today, God seems very far away. And so, from time to time, I’m called to see someone who is in hospital; or I have to visit someone who is bereaved; and they need to be comforted and helped. And what a difference there is between the true Christian and those who are not. The true Christian knows the Lord is near and believes that the Lord loves his people and is willing to help. When the true Christian is suffering, he turns to God’s word, because he believes that the promises it contains of comfort and peace and joy and hope are true. The true Christian knows that the Lord is near and so she trusts in the Lord to give her the strength to face every trial in this troubled life. And the true Christian knows that even on those occasions when the Lord seems far away, it won’t be forever, but that soon enough he will return to fill our lives with joy.
But then there is the person who has no real faith. And how very different it is. God is a stranger to them. He is far away. They do not know him or his help. And it’s tragic: men and women in hospital, some of them facing the worst possible news, coming face to face with death, and they do not know God or the comfort that only he can give. They do not know the only one who is able to carry them through death and into eternal life. They have no faith; and therefore they do not have God.
But when a man or a woman or child has faith, then they have God. And whoever has God, has all his help and protection and strength and peace and grace and loving-kindness. And because they have faith, they know he is near to help them with all the difficulties and problems and frustrations they face day by day.
Here, then, is the first mark of a true Christian. This is the fruit the Lord is looking for in us. He is looking for faith; and the purpose of all our singing and preaching and worship in church is to awaken and strengthen faith in God and in his Son, Jesus Christ. ‘Have faith in God’, the Lord Jesus says to us; and so we see how vital it is, how necessary, for each of us to get it.
And, of course, those of us who have children should consider this as well. We make sure our children have all they need for life. We make sure they eat well and get enough sleep. We take them out to get new clothes so they are always dressed well. We make sure to take them to school to get a good education. We take them to see their friends and to clubs. We care for them and we want the best for them. And yet here is the most vital thing of all: they must have faith. And so, parents must do what we can to help our children come to a true and living faith in God. And so we will read the Bible to them and talk to them of the Saviour and teach them to pray and bring them to church. And we will try to set them an example of what it means to believe in God; and we will pray for our children and do whatever we can to lead them to faith in God and in his Son Jesus Christ. The first mark of a true Christian is faith; and that is what God is looking for in us.
The second mark is believing prayer. Verse 24:
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
True Christians will pray. Think for a moment about a new baby, being born. What normally happens first? The baby is born and almost immediately begins to cry. It happens instinctively. The baby isn’t taught how to cry; it’s not like reading or writing or playing football which have to be learned. The new child instinctively and naturally begins to cry. And, of course, the parents breathe a sigh of relief, for when the new baby cries, it’s a sign of life: their baby is alive; all is well. Well, when someone becomes a Christian, when someone starts a new life with Christ, that new Christian cries out instinctively and naturally to God in prayer.
And then of course, a baby — as she grows up — continues to cry out to her parents. When she’s upset, or when she’s afraid, she cries out to her parents. When she needs something, she turns and asks her parents for it. It happens so instinctively. And it’s the same for the true Christian. When we’re in trouble, our first reaction is to cry out to God. When we’re upset or miserable, we turn to him in prayer. When there’s something we need, our response is to pray for it.
And we cry out like this to whom? If an unbeliever ever thinks of praying, he prays and says:
God! Help me!
He calls out vaguely to ‘God’. But when the true believer prays, he prays and calls out:
Father. Oh Father, help me. Father, hear me.
The believer prays like that, because through faith in Christ, we’re adopted into God’s family and we know God as our loving Heavenly Father. This is the mark of a true Christian. The true Christian prays. They cry out to God.
In this passage Peter was astonished at the power of the Lord’s words. He only spoke to the fig tree; and the next day, the tree had completely withered up and died. His word is powerful! And yet the Lord Jesus is saying to Peter and to us that this great and mighty power is available to us when we pray. And so, the true Christian will pray, trusting in God our Father, to use his great and mighty strength for our benefit.
Now, this is not the only thing the Bible says about prayer. In this passage, the Lord emphasises that when the believer prays with faith, he or she will receive what they ask for, because faith is vital when we pray. However, in other places in the Bible, we’re reminded that we’re to pray according to God’s will. And so, just as loving and wise parents will only give their children what is good for them, so our loving Heavenly Father will only give us what is good for us.
But let’s move on to the final mark of a true believer which is mentioned here. And it’s forgiveness. Verse 25:
And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.
A true Christian is someone who forgives. Now, this is vital as well, isn’t it? Think of the Lord Jesus on the cross. Do you remember how he prayed for those who were crucifying him?
Lord, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.
Or do you remember the thief on the cross who sought his forgiveness. The thief said to the Saviour:
Remember me when you come into your kingdom.
And the Lord Jesus — even though he was suffering on the cross — was willing to turn to this dying thief and say to him:
Today, you will be with me in paradise.
In other words, on the cross, the Lord promised to forgive this man his sins.
Or think of Saul, who used to go about persecuting the church, trying to wipe out the name of the Lord Jesus. And yet, on the road to Damascus, the Risen Lord Jesus met Saul and turned his life around and sent him out as a great apostle and preacher. And how did Paul describe it? Listen to his words in 1 Timothy 1:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
‘I received mercy’. In other words, ‘I was forgiven’.
True Christians forgive because our Saviour forgave. He forgave men and women he met during his ministry here on earth. He pardoned them and didn’t hold their sins against them. And he forgives us for all that we have ever done wrong. That’s why Christians forgive. We forgive because we have been forgiven.
Do you hold resentments? Are you bitter? Is there someone you have refused to forgive and you nurse a grievance again that person? Just as you might bring an ornament out of a cupboard to look at it from time to time, so you keep bringing out this grievance which you have to remind yourself about what this person has done to you; and you refuse to throw it away. Well, it’s time to throw that grievance away, because the mark of a true believer is to forgive, just as you have been forgiven by the Lord.
There are times in every Christian’s life when our faith becomes weak and God seems far away from us. And there are times when we find it difficult to pray. And there are times when we find it very hard to forgive someone who has hurt us. There are times in every true Christian’s life when these three vital marks seem to have vanished from our lives. So how do we differ from the person who is not a Christian at all and who never displays these marks?
Here’s the difference. The true Christian is concerned about it. The true Christian is afraid. The true Christian knows that something is not right and his faith should be stronger; and he ought to pray more; and he knows he ought to forgive, because he has been forgiven. And when these marks fade from his life, the true Christian is afraid and he’s concerned and he wants to put things right.
But the person who is not a Christian isn’t bothered. It’s normal for him not to believe; and it’s normal for him not to pray; and it’s normal for him not to forgive. He’s not afraid and he’s not concerned.
But perhaps today there are people here thinking:
I’m concerned about this. I’m afraid. I’m concerned. These marks are missing from my life and I want to know what I can do about it?
So, what’s the answer? We need to remind ourselves of the Lord Jesus. We need to bring him to mind. We need to think about him and remember what he has done for sinners. We need to think of his suffering on the cross to pay for our sins, because it’s by thinking about this and his great sacrificial love, that our faith is awakened and strengthened and we’ll begin to trust in the one who died for us. And we need to think about his suffering on the cross, when he died to pay for our sins, because that will drive us to our knees to praise him in prayer. And we need to think about his suffering, when he died to pay for our sins, because when we think about how he died as the Lamb of God so that we can be forgiven, then the bitterness in our own hearts will vanish; and the resentment will disappear; and our hard and unforgiving hearts will melt; and we will begin to forgive and to love as he has loved and forgiven us.