Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
(Matthew 21:18-22 ESV)
Having left Jerusalem after cleansing the Temple and confronting the religious leaders, Jesus makes His way back to the city early in the morning of the next day. Notice that Jesus was hungry. Jesus was God in a human body. God came from heaven, and lived on this earth in the form of one of His own creations. God knows exactly what it’s like to live here on this earth. He knows the struggles, the limitations, and the needs we face. He understands perfectly what we go through every day.
As He was approaching Jerusalem, Jesus saw a fig tree by the road and went up to it hoping to find figs but instead found nothing on it except leaves. Jesus uses this unusual situation to act out a living parable to teach His disciples (and us) about the spiritual danger of making outward behavior without inward change.
Fig trees are interesting because they normally bear fruit before generating leaves. So a tree that has leaves can be expected to have fruit. But that is not what Jesus finds. He found leaves, but no fruit. This tree was misleading.
In the Bible the fig tree is a symbol of the nation of Israel [Matthew 24:32-35]. This particular tree represented spiritually dead Israel – a nation that had the outward pretentiousness of being right with God but was not [Romans 10:2; 2 Timothy 3:5]. Additionally, “fruit” in the Bible is always an indication of a life transformed as a result of salvation [Matthew 13:8, 23; John 15:5; Galatians 5:22-23 et. al].
On the surface, Israel would have seemed like a nation that was on the right spiritual track. They had the “leaves” – the outward religious rituals. But they lacked “fruit”. Their outward display was empty.
It’s not how we appear on the outside that matters. It is what we are on the inside that counts. And it is only through the Holy Spirit living inside of us as the result of salvation that we can be changed on the inside. But for that to happen one must repent of sin and accept God’s offer of forgiveness through Jesus.
Because the fig tree was superficial – pretending to be something it was not – Jesus condemned it and the tree withered. This was a symbolic prophecy of the coming destruction of Israel which would happen just about 40 years later when Rome completely destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD.
God doesn’t want an outward show of religiosity. He wants is a humble, broken heart that repents of its sin [Matthew 5:3]. The evidence of that will be the fruit of the Spirit, not garments and rituals [Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21].
Likewise today many religions have the outward appearance of true godly worship such as ornate artwork, involved rituals, and religious garments. But on closer examination they are really not what they seem.
Tragically, many people who ascribe to these religions think they’re impressing God with their repetitious prayers and ornate religious displays. But they aren’t. And like Israel, they will be condemned.
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