Following the narrative of Jesus through the gospel writers is an amazing journey. Jesus often says things that make us really stop and think. When we read scripture, we have to keep in mind that it is spiritually discerned, and the meaning may not be obvious at first; we have to dig deeper and give God time to enlighten us.
We also have to read it with two non-negotiables in mind. First, God’s character is infinitely and innately righteous and good. Our inability to understand the deeper things isn’t a reason to doubt Jesus or presume His motives are less than honorable and right. Second, Scripture is without error, divinely inspired and God-breathed, and preserved for us as the final authority over our lives, and the true revelation of God to His children. God’s ways are always right, and He always tells us the truth.
Take Mark 11 for example. Jesus has just made His triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, welcomed, and adored by the crowds. The next morning, on His way back into Jerusalem, He is hungry. He sees a fig tree in the distance, full of leaves. Expecting to find some fruit, He finds nothing for it was not the season for figs. At a surface read, His response seems harsh and prideful in light of that last fact…He says, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!”
The very next event is one that everyone loves to put up as an example when they are “righteously” angry. Jesus clears the temple of the moneychangers, driving them out with a whip and highly offending the chief priests and scribes. Again, at a surface read, we might say Jesus was “hangry,” His irritation at the fig tree affecting His response. The next morning Jesus and the disciples make their way back into Jerusalem once more and pass by the cursed fig tree. Overnight, it has withered and died, from the roots up. The disciples are astonished at its rapid demise. Jesus responds with a lesson on faith in prayer.
Mark 11:22-25 – And Jesus answered saying to them, “Have faith in God. Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen it will be granted him. Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.
Jesus was not “mad” at the fig tree because it failed to satisfy His immediate, physical hunger. He wasn’t “in a bad mood” when He cleansed the temple. If we look deeper, we find a lesson on the fruitfulness God rightly expects from His people and the key to producing it.
Israeli fig trees produce several times a year. The first ripe figs appear in early Spring, even before the leaves, thus Jesus was justified in expecting at least some fruit on the tree, even though summer was the time for the sweeter, larger harvest. The fig tree was fully in leaf, but a closer inspection showed it was barren. Many Bible scholars believe the fig tree represents Israel in scripture. By outward appearance, it was showy and religious (i.e. leafy) but there was no true spiritual fruit. The incident at the temple was a symptom of their hard hearts, a picture of the barren tree. Israel failed to recognize their Messiah, and so were “cut off,” but like the tree, the roots remained. Gentiles are grafted in. As Jesus said, there will be no fruit from the empty, religious version of Israel but one day they will recognize their Messiah and new fruit will come – the “summer” fruit of repentance (Matthew 24:32-33, Romans 11:25-27). They will be grafted back into covenant with God through faith in Christ.
I believe Jesus connected this to the prayer of faith for a reason. We know from other scriptures He is not teaching an “ask for anything and you’ll have it” kind of faith, but specifically address His disciples – those who are willing to take up their cross, deny themselves, and follow Him. A true disciple desires above all for their lives to produce spiritual fruit – godliness, sanctification, and a gospel harvest of people coming to salvation. If we approach God with humility (readily forgiving others and showing them the same grace we have received), we can pray with faith, expecting God to produce abundant fruit in our lives, no matter what season of life we are in!
There’s so much we could “dig into” around this one chapter, but for today, just one takeaway. Are we bearing fruit “in and out” of season – fruit that brings glory to God (Psalm 1:3, 2 Timothy 4:2)? Or are we like Israel, living an outward show of piety and devotion to God, but on closer inspection, quite barren? Let’s pray boldly with “mountain-moving” faith for abundant fruit, fruit that remains (John 15:8,16).