In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
I do not think that Jesus’ disciples got the point of what he was saying at this time, because if they had understood him, it would have been natural for them to have asked something about the failures of the Pharisees or the shallow nature of their religious practices. They didn’t do this. Instead, they were amazed at the speed with which the fig tree withered and asked him to explain it: “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” (v.20).
The disciples’ reaction is not surprising since they were always slow to get what Jesus was driving at, just as we are. What is surprising at first glance is the way Jesus responds to them. Since he had been teaching about the failure of Judaism and would add to that teaching in the parables that conclude this chapter and start the next, we might expect him to have said, “Forget about how quickly the tree withered, and try to understand what I am saying about Judaism.” He didn’t do that. Instead, he took the question at face value and replied with some remarkable teaching about prayer. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “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” (vv. 21-22).
We have already come across almost the same teaching in Matthew 17:20, where Jesus said, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” So we have already seen something of what this means. It is not a promise about moving mountains. It is a figure of speech meaning that seemingly impossible things Will be possible through the power of God, when the people of God take him at his word and pray in a believing way. It is an encouragement to pray often, well and rightly.
But why did Jesus respond this way? It could be only that he seized the opportunity to talk about something that was important to him, digressing from his main theme. But when we remember that the chapter has begun by an account of three symbolic acts pointing to the failure of Judaism and that it ends with two parables (a third following in chapter 22) that explain the nature of this failure and that a chief failure was the eclipse of prayer by the priest’s business interests—“It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers’” (v.13)—suddenly the instruction about prayer fits in and becomes critically important. What Jesus is teaching is that What is important about genuine religion is not how prosperous our “temples” have become or are becoming but whether or not we are actually communing with God and are growing spiritually by it.
Put this over against everything we know about the Pharisees and apply it to ourselves. These men were scrupulous about obeying their legalistic interpretations of God’s law, like Paul who could say of his younger days as a Pharisee, “as for legalistic righteousness, [I was] faultless” (Philippians 3:6). Their brand of religion had prospered. The temple was an amazingly beautiful and financially successful place. They were highly regarded. This meant nothing to Jesus, who is breaking with Judaism formally in this chapter. He has no interest in the outward shows of religion if the hearts of the people are far from him. He counts religion fruitless if financial prosperity has marginalized or eliminated prayer.
If Jesus were speaking to us directly today, would he not say these same things about much of our evangelical religion? Actually, he has said it through Paul who described religious people of the “last days” as “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). Spiritual power comes not through politics or money but through prayer.