Another view of Jerusalem
Matthew 21:19-22 – Seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it except leaves only; and He said to it, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.” And at once the fig tree withered. (20) Seeing this, the disciples were amazed and asked, “How did the fig tree wither all at once?” (21) And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. (22) And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
After the ‘Triumphal entry’ into Jerusalem, Jesus was to stay in and around that city until His death. After chasing the merchants out from the temple that first day, He spent the night in nearby Bethany, just outside the city, and returned to Jerusalem the next day.
On the way back to Jerusalem, he was hungry, and found a fig tree. Here was performed a remarkable miracle which astonished His disciples, even after years of seeing Jesus at work. No doubt Jesus had performed many similar miracles, each worthy of recording, yet Matthew records this one.
Why? I believe that it was not just a space-filler anecdote for Matthew (or Mark, who records the same event). Nor was it just a demonstration of Jesus’ power – the calming of the seas demonstrated more raw power over nature, and the raising of Lazarus was far more effective in showing His power over life and death.
No, I believe the demise of the fig tree was a deliberate act, prepared in advance by the Lord to demonstrate what was soon to happen to Jerusalem.
A lesson on prayer and faith?
Many have said that the passage is all about the power of prayer and faith. Indeed, when the disciples are unable to cast out a demon (Matthew 17:20ff), He points out their ‘littleness’ of faith, then adds, “For truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”
Moving mountains, then, appears to be a mark of faith. But is it? Does this mean that no person in history has ever possessed such faith, even the size of a mustard seed? Remember, a mustard seed was a symbol of insignificance because of its miniscule size.
What about, then, the woman whose faith was enough to heal her from a haemorrhage suffered for twelve years? When she touched Jesus’ cloak, Jesus pronounced, “Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well.” (Matthew 9:22ff). Her faith was not insignificant, but had motivated her to push her way past a crowd to reach Him.
And what about the centurion, who approached Jesus on behalf of his sick servant? (Matthew 8:5-13) Of him, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel.” This was a Roman, of whom He spoke. Now, you might not think it would have taken a mustard seed’s worth of faith for a Roman to do what the centurion did, but how small must it have been? When we speak of people of “great faith”, how could we use such a term if they did not even have a mustard seed’s worth?
We’re not talking about great changes in governments or laws, or changes in heart of people that may have resulted from the collective prayers of Christians over time. What Jesus promised was no less than the ability to move mountains: Not by earthquake or erosion, but by its being taken up and cast into the sea!
Remember also, that Jesus was saying this not just to show what could be done, but also to show how deficient in faith the disciples still were.
Then again, Paul considered that it would take perhaps a little more faith than that to move mountains:
1 Corinthians 13:2 – and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains…
So how much faith does it take? Okay, maybe the disciples never really did see a need to move mountains… and as far as the record goes, neither did they go around killing fig trees. So why did Jesus bring it up, almost prophetically?
I am not against prayer, nor am I skeptical concerning miracles, but it seems to me that Jesus had something completely different in mind when He caused the tree to wither, and stated emphatically that the disciples would be able to do the same, and even cast the mountain into the sea. It was not a simple point about faith or prayer, although what they would eventually do certainly would involve a lot of faith and prayer.
The consequences of fruitlessness
Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels relate the incident of the fig tree. Luke doesn’t, but instead includes a parable:
Luke 13:6-9 – And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. (7) And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground? (8) And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; (9) and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'”
Here, I believe, we see the real point of the withering of the fig tree. Remember, Jesus was about to enter into Jerusalem and confront and condemn the rulers, and then pronounce desolation upon her (Matthew 23).
The fig tree should produce fruit. If it doesn’t, it will be rendered incapable of ever producing fruit again. Just like the worthless slave with the talent. He did not bear ‘fruit’ (profit) and so had his meagre amount taken away, and was cast out (Matthew 25:14-29).
In this, Jesus is only reiterating what He had already proclaimed through the prophets:
Isaiah 5:1-7 – Let me sing now for my well-beloved a song of my beloved concerning His vineyard. My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. (2) He dug it all around, removed its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine… Then He expected it to produce good grapes, but it produced only worthless ones. (3) And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah… (4) What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones? (5) So now, let Me tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard: (6) I will lay it waste… (7) For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel and the men of Judah His delightful plant. Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.
Jeremiah 8:13 – (Of Judah) “I will sure snatch them away,” declares the Lord; “There will be no grapes on the vine and no figs on the fig tree, and the leaf will wither; and what I have given them will pass away.”
Isaiah 34:4 – And all the host of heaven will wear away, and the sky will be rolled up like a scroll; all their hosts will also wither away as a leaf withers from the vine, or as one withers from the fig tree.
Jeremiah further states that it is the ‘shepherds’ who are responsible for Israel’s fruitlessness, and the consequence is further destruction:
Jeremiah 12:1-13 – … (2) You have planted them… You are near to their lips, but far from their mind… (10) “Many shepherds have ruined My vineyard, they have trampled down My field; they have made My pleasant field a desolate wilderness… (12) On all the bare heights in the wilderness destroyers have come, for a sword of the Lord is devouring from one end of the land even to the other… (13) … But be ashamed of your harvest because of the fierce anger of the Lord.”
The laying waste of the vineyard and ruining of the fig tree could have been accomplished by divine miracle, as Jesus showed. I believe, however, that what the disciples would pray for was to be vengeance by God’s appointed warriors, as again foretold by prophets:
Joel 1:6-12 – For a nation has invaded my land… (7) It has made my vine a waste and my fig tree splinters (or, a stump). It has stripped them bare and cast them away; their branches have become white… (12) The vine dries up and the fig tree fails…
Habakkuk 3:16,18 – … Because I must wait quietly for the day of distress, for the people to arise who will invade us. (17) Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food… (18) Yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
Therefore, Jesus was not just out to kill trees, nor were the disciples told that they could clear a forest, but Jesus performed the miracle to show that through their faith and perseverance, God would work to bring about His vengeance upon that wicked generation! This was the time of the withering fig tree!
So what about the mountains?
Matthew 21:21 – “Even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen.”
Jerusalem, in fact all of Israel, was referred to as God’s mountain, or Mount Zion. The mountain was symbolic for the old Jerusalem as well as for the new Jerusalem:
Hebrews 12:22 – But you have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…
Before establishing a new Mount Zion, the old one had to be dealt with. Casting into the sea was a symbol of absolute rejection.
Zechariah 9:3,4 – For Tyre built herself a fortress and piled up silver like dust, and gold like the mire of the streets. (4) Behold, the Lord will dispossess her and cast her wealth into the sea; and she will be consumed with fire.
The same was to happen to the Babylon of Revelation:
Revelation 18:21 – Then a strong angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “So will Babylon, the great city, be thrown down with violence, and will not be found any longer.”
Considering the evidence that suggests that Babylon in Revelation is in fact Jerusalem (see our study Babylon = Jerusalem), it is clear that that is exactly what the Lord had in mind when He talked about casting “this mountain” into the sea. Even if Babylon were not Jerusalem, the parallel is plain.
Jerusalem would have been in sight as they were approaching. It would have been the mountain that was to suffer the same fate, metaphorically, as the fig tree.
Our faith might be lacking when compared with the original disciples of Christ, and that could well be the reason for much unanswered prayer. However to say that all Christians have insignificant faith – in fact even insignificant compared with the epitome of insignificance – is, I believe, to miss the point of what Jesus was saying in relation to the fig tree and the moving of the mountain.
Jesus was priming His disciples for great works in the future, work that would require steadfast faith and dedication. Rather than belittling them, He was illustrating the result of their faith in the fulfillment of God’s work: the spread of the gospel which would harvest the fullness of God’s elect, prior to the judgement and destruction of the ‘wicked generation’.
Matthew 24:13-34 – “But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. (14) This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come… (31) And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other… (34) Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”