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.”
Unless we understand this, Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree seems entirely out of character at best and petulant or mean at its worst. We must not think that Jesus was simply angry at the tree and struck out against it like a child might throw down a toy and break it just because he can’t make it work. Jesus was not being petulant. He was teaching an important lesson with two points. First, the religion of Israel, focused in her leaders, was not producing fruit. It was a case of blatant hypocrisy. Second, that or any other religion will wither up at last, becoming as dry as a tree that is no longer nourished by its roots.
This is exactly what Israel’s official religion had become: dry and useless. Failure to bear genuine spiritual fruit was the chief failure of those religious leaders, who appear in the story immediately before this, wanting Jesus to rebuke the children for their praise, and in the story that follows where they challenge Jesus’ authority and hypocritically decline to answer a question that he puts to them regarding John the Baptist.
But let us not stop here. This is also what will happen to every merely outward church, any gathering of people who show the green leaves of apparent spiritual prosperity but who fail to possess the fruit of the Spirit which is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control” (Galatians. 5:11-23).
Jesus addressed this issue in Luke’s Gospel. He had been followed by people Who made a verbal profession of discipleship. They called him “Lord,” which meant that they were calling him their master and were describing themselves as his servants, but they were disregarding his teaching. Jesus showed the impossibility of this intrinsic contradiction by asking pointedly: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).
The problem of profession without practice was present in the early church too, as proved by the epistle of James. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22-25).
The great Anglican evangelical John Charles Ryle wrote, “Is not every fruitless branch of Christ’s visible church in awful danger of becoming a withered fig tree?… High ecclesiastical profession without holiness among a people—overweening confidence in councils, bishops, liturgies and ceremonies, while repentance and faith have been neglected—have mined many a visible church in time past and may yet ruin many more. Where are the once famous churches of Ephesus and Sardis and Carthage and Hippo? They are all gone. They had leaves but no fruit… Let us remember this. Let us beware of church pride: let us not be high-minded, but fear.”1
There is nothing so obvious as the truth that religious words without spiritual fruit are worthless. Yet few things are so common. Ryle also wrote, “Open sin, and avowed unbelief, no doubt slay their thousands. But profession without practice slays its tens of thousands.”2 If we belong to Jesus we will produce spiritual fruit, and if we do not, we do not belong to him. Jesus warned that those who call him
“Lord, Lord” but do not obey him will be carried away by life’s torrents.
1 John Charles Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: St. Matthew (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1974), p 270
2 John Charles Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. St Luke, vol. 1 (Cambridge: James Clark, 1976), p. 195.