By Tim Harlow
I don’t fancy myself an extreme environmentalist. I’m not a “tree hugger,” but I do respect nature. I have cut down a few trees that were past their prime, and I once accidently killed a small one with a golf cart, but I do love trees. Where I live, the only trees are ones someone planted. So the story of Jesus “zapping” a tree is fascinating to me.
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” (Matthew 21: 18, 19).
Did he gesture with his hands? I mean, all the Bible says is that he spoke the words, but it seems to me like some kind of a “zapping” gesture is appropriate.
I don’t believe this was a moment of low blood sugar rage. I had one child who seemingly became demon-possessed when she hadn’t eaten. Every home video of Lauren shows someone trying to feed her something. That’s not the deal in this Bible incident. Jesus was making a statement. Many times the Bible used the fig tree as a symbol of the nation of Israel.
Mark’s Gospel tells us it wasn’t the typical season for figs, so does Jesus’ action seem harsh to you? No, because it wasn’t uncommon to find figs out of season; some trees produce most of the year. Perhaps Jesus was frustrated by the presence of leaves. Typically a tree with leaves also has fruit. This tree was a “poser.”
Jesus often was baffled at how clueless the religious leaders were. Now when I read these passages I wonder what he’d think about us!
Would he be as frustrated by our lack of fruit as he was back then? The religious system of Jesus’ day had “leaves.” It looked like the religious leaders and followers were doing what God wanted. They had services, followed God’s commands, and observed the rituals.
There were leaves . . . but no fruit.
Identifying the Fruit
What does fruit look like? It’s a good question. The people back then thought they were bearing fruit. They thought keeping the rules and being good and going through the motions of religion was fruit. Jesus essentially said, “No, that’s just leaves . . . it’s possible for you to be a nice white tomb on the outside and be full of dead men’s bones on the inside” (Matthew 23:27). Leaves . . . without fruit.
Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5).
Scholars have argued over what that fruit looks like. Was Jesus talking about the fruit of the Spirit? (Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.?) Or was he talking about the fruit of reproduction?
I believe the answer is both.
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
In my opinion, Jesus was upset the tree was acting like it had fruit, but it was deceitful.
The problem with the first-century church was it was acting like it had fruit, but it was deceitful. The problem with the 21st-century church is the same thing.
We’ve got buildings and marquees with nice slogans and welcome signs, and there are people going in and out. But more than 95 percent of all churches haven’t seen a single convert in the past year.
Leaves, yes. The churches are healthy in the sense of the organism being alive. But any organism that doesn’t reproduce is really already dead, even if it looks alive.
In the case of a tree, it can look really good for a generation, but producing fruit is about whether the tree becomes a forest . . . or firewood.
“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:8).
Tim Harlow serves as senior pastor with Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois, and was president of the 2014 North American Christian Convention.