Two weeks ago we read that the Lord entered Jerusalem on a young donkey and the crowds welcomed him as their king. Last week we read that the Lord entered the temple and drove out the buyers and sellers and money-changers who had turned God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers. So, the Lord is now in Jerusalem and it won’t be long before he’s arrested and crucified. And we see the opposition to him building, because after the first part of today’s reading, when he cursed the fruitless fig-tree, we read how the chief priests and elders questioned him about his authority. And it’s clear that that don’t believe in him.
Verses 18 and 19
But first we have the story about the fig-tree which can be divided into two parts. The first part is about the cursing of the fig-tree while the second part is about believing prayer.
Matthew tells us in verse 18 that it was early in the morning. So, it’s time for breakfast; and we’re told that the Lord was hungry. This is once again a reminder that when the Eternal Son of God came into the world as one of us, he really did become one of us. He was made like us in every way and therefore he became hungry and thirsty like us. And Matthew tells us that he saw a fig-tree by the road. But when he went up to it, he found nothing on it except leaves. I know nothing about fig-trees, but the Bible commentators explain that if a fig-tree has leaves on it, then you would expect it to have fruit as well. If a fig-tree has leaves on it, then it should have figs on it.
Mark, in his version of this story, tells us that it wasn’t the season for figs. However, even though it may not be the season for figs, apparently some fig-trees will bear fruit early. And so, on this occasion, while it wasn’t the season for figs, the Lord spotted a tree with leaves on it. And so, great! Here’s one of those trees that bears fruit early. Let’s go and get its fruit and have it for breakfast!
But when the Lord reached the tree, he was disappointed to discover that while this tree had leaves, it did not have any fruit. There was nothing on it, except leaves. And therefore he said to it: ‘May you never bear fruit again!’ And immediately the tree withered.
And what’s the point of this story? Why did the Lord curse the tree so that it withered? It’s because he could turn this into a teaching opportunity. He went to this tree, expecting to find fruit, because it was showing signs of life. But on closer examination, he discovered that it was fruitless. And so, what does the Lord discover when he examines us?
In the Bible, the image of fruit is used to represent the kind of behaviour the Lord expects from his people. It signifies our good deeds, done in obedience to God’s commands. And then there’s Paul who writes about the fruit of the Spirit, which refers to the qualities which his people are expected to display in their lives: love and joy and peace; and patience and kindness and goodness; and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control. But here’s someone who comes along to church and listens to God’s word and gives thanks to God in prayer and praise. Here’s someone who appears to be a faithful member of the church. And if you heard about this person — and about how he comes to church and listens to God’s word and give thanks to God in prayer and praise and appears to be a faithful member of the church, then you’d assume that here’s someone whose life must be full of good deeds; and here’s someone who must display the fruit of the Spirit in his life. But then, on closer examination, you discover to your disappointment, that the good deeds and the fruit of the Spirit are missing from this person’s life. And despite all his activity in the church, he behaves and he speaks and he thinks and he treats other people in the same way as people who have no faith.
And by cursing that fruitless fig-tree, the Lord is warning all those whose lives are fruitless that they need to turn from their sinful, fruitless lives; and they need to seek his forgiveness; and they need to pray for his Spirit to come into their lives to renew them, so that they will display the fruit of his Spirit in their life; and their lives will be filled with good deeds, done in obedience to God’s commands.
Appearances can be deceiving, can’t they? And we can all appear to be what we are not. And so, we all need to examine ourselves to see whether there is — under all the leaves of our church activity — genuine fruit being produced in our lives.
But as well as examining ourselves, we’re to remember and believe that the Lord is merciful and gracious and slow to anger and he’s abounding in steadfast love and he’s willing to pardon all who come to him for forgiveness.
Verses 20 to 22
But let’s move on to verses 20 to 22 which is about believing prayer.
The disciples were amazed at how the tree withered so quickly. Mark, in his version of the story, tells us that the Lord cursed the tree on one day; and it wasn’t until the next day that they found it withered. Matthew simply abbreviates the story for us.
And the Lord turns what happened to the tree into another teaching opportunity. If you have faith, he says, and do not doubt, then not only will you be able to do what was done to the fig-tree, but you’ll be able to cast mountains into the sea! The Lord, of course, is using hyperbole. He’s exaggerating for effect. After all, why would anyone need to cast a mountain into the sea? But the point he’s making is that when we pray, we should pray with faith, believing that God is able and willing to give us whatever we ask for in prayer. That is to say, he’s able and willing to give us whatever we ask for in prayer, so long as what we ask for is in accordance with God’s will. If what we ask for is not in accordance with his will — if we’re asking for something sinful, for example, or foolish — then we will not receive it, because God is our loving heavenly Father who only wants to give us good gifts.
But there’s nothing that is too hard for God. When we were children, there were things we asked our parents for. And they might have wanted to give us what we asked for, but they were unable to do so, because it was beyond their ability to give. But nothing we ask from God is beyond his ability to give. Nothing is impossible for him. Nothing is too hard for him.
And that’s what we need to remember and believe when we come along to our prayer meeting and as we pray for ourselves in Immanuel and as we pray for the extension of Christ’s kingdom throughout the world. Nothing we ask for in prayer is too hard for God. Nothing we ask for is too much for him. In fact, he’s the one who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or can even imagine. Isn’t that how Paul puts it in Ephesians? And doesn’t Paul also says in Romans that since God the Father did not spare his Son, but gave him up for us all, then how will he not also, along with Christ, graciously give us all things?
What confidence this gives us when we pray! When we pray, we believe we’re coming to Almighty God, who is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his power. So, nothing is too hard for him. And when we pray, we believe we’re coming to our loving heavenly Father, who wants to give us what is good. And so, we can come to God in prayer with confidence and faith, believing that nothing is too hard for him.
Verses 23 to 27
Let’s move on to the next part of today’s passage. The Lord went up to the temple to teach. And the chief priests and elders came to him, not to learn from him, but to question him. They wanted to know by what authority is he doing these things.
Presumably they’re referring to his authority to teach, but perhaps also his authority to drive out the buyer and sellers and to heal the sick in the temple. And, in one sense, they’re right to ask him about his authority to do these things, because it wouldn’t be right for false teachers, for instance, to teach in the temple. And in our own day, we don’t just allow anyone who wants to come along here on Sundays and begin to teach. If someone started to preach here, we’d ask them who said they could. Have they permission do preach and teach in this place? However, the way the chief priests and elders responded to the Lord’s reply makes clear that they don’t believe in him.
So, they want to know by whose authority he does these things. And in response he asks them by what authority did John baptise. When he refers to John’s baptism, he’s probably referring to everything connected to John’s baptism ministry, including what he he preached and what he said about the Lord Jesus being the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. So, by what authority did he conduct his ministry? Did he receive authority from God in heaven or from men on earth?
And Matthew tells us that they discussed it among themselves. And in their discussion they said that if they say John’s baptism was from heaven, then the Lord’s next question will be, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ That is, why didn’t you believe him when he testified about me? And since they did not believe in the Lord Jesus, then they weren’t prepared to say that John’s authority came from God. But then, in their discussion among themselves, they also said that if they say John’s baptism was from men, then they know the people will be angry with them, because the general public believed that John had been sent from God. So, they realised they can’t win whatever they say. And in that case, they’ll say nothing. ‘We don’t know’, they answered. And the Lord replied that if they’re not going to answer his question, then he won’t answer their question either.
They asked the Lord by what authority he did all these things. But everything the Lord did demonstrated that he had come from God and that he was God’s Anointed King, sent to save God’s people. The two blind men the Lord met in chapter 20 could see that he was the Son of David, God’s Anointed King. The crowds who welcomed him into Jerusalem, could see that he was the Son of David, God’s Anointed King. The children in the temple could see that he was the Son of David, God’s Anointed King. Those people could see it. And the chief priests and the elders could see what they saw, but they refused to believe in him. And instead of beleving in him and receiving the free gift of eternal life, they rejected him as their Saviour. But to all who believe in him as the Son of David, God’s Anointed King, sent to save his people, he gives the hope of everlasting life in his everlasting kingdom.