New Testament Study:

Matthew 21:18-27

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In Jerusalem

 

18Early in the morning, as [Jesus] was on His way back to the city, He was hungry. 19Seeing 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.

20When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

21Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, 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. 22If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

23Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while He was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him. “By what authority are You doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

24Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘From men’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

27So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then He said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

    

In His last week on earth, Jesus spent much time in Jerusalem teaching the crowds that were gathered for the Passover.   Jesus had spent the night in Bethany (see Matt. 21:17) and woke up early to return to Jerusalem:  “Early in the morning, as He was on His way back to the city, He was hungry” (vs. 18).  Apparently, in His zeal for service, He had not eaten breakfast, for “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” (vs. 19).  There is more to this episode than a display of anger by Jesus against a tree that could not provide His breakfast.  Jesus, we believe, was teaching a lesson by His cursing of the fig tree.  “Our Lord sought illustration of religious truth from all sources; from food and water, patching clothes and bottling wine, sowing and reaping, and changes of weather, birds and flowers, plants and trees, as well as the doings and sayings of men around Him—all were made to teach lessons” [Broadus, 435].  “We should understand this story as an acted parable:  the fig tree in leaf gave promise of fruit but produced none.  The result was that it was accursed.  Those who profess to be God’s people but live unfruitful lives are warned” [Morris, 530].  “Its leaves advertised that it was bearing, but the advertisement was false.  Jesus, unable to satisfy His hunger, saw the opportunity of teaching a memorable object lesson and cursed the tree, not because it was not bearing fruit, whether in season or out, but because it made a show of life that promised fruit yet was bearing none” [Carson, 445].

Note that the punishment given the fig tree was appropriate to the transgression.  The tree made a show of having fruit, yet had none.  The punishment was that it continue and remain fruitless, as Jesus said:  “May you never bear fruit again.”  So, those who make a show of godliness, and yet bear not the fruits of godliness in their lives, are in danger of the same punishment.  They are in danger of living “fruitless” lives forever:  lives devoid of the sense of fulfillment; lacking success in all endeavors.

Now, some have said that the cursing of the fig tree was the only destructive miracle that Jesus performed.  Yet, though the fig tree was destroyed, the miracle was actually a constructive one, in that it has taught us a valuable lesson.  The fruitless fig tree became something of value by participating in the live parable.  “To fell a whole forest has never been considered cruel, and to use a single barren tree as an object lesson can only seem unkind to those who are sentimental and idiotic.  It was kindness to the ages to use a worthless tree to teach a salutary lesson” [Spurgeon, 295].

The disciples were surprised at the miracle:  “When the disciples saw this, they were amazed.  ‘How did the fig tree wither so quickly?’ they asked” (vs. 20).  Jesus used the occasion of their surprise to teach about faith:  “Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the truth, 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’” (vss. 21–22).  As Jesus teaches, the power of faith is unlimited.  Anything is possible.  And so, we may ask, why don’t we see mountains being moved by faith?   I can’t even lift this pencil, by faith, and throw it across the room (let alone into the sea).  Why not?  There are two reasons:  my faith is weak; and I’m not given the faith to do such things.  There are two aspects to faith:  God’s side, and my side.  Faith is “a gift of God” (see Eph 2:8).  Faith comes from God, and God (spiritually practical as He is) sees no spiritual reason to give me the faith to hurl this pencil across the room.  And then there is my side.  Even if God gives me the faith to do something magnificent, I must take hold of that faith, make it my faith, and “not doubt”.

Jesus gave the example of hurling a mountain into the sea, “not as a thing likely or proper to be actually done, but as an extreme case of a conceivable miracle, to illustrate more vividly the miraculous possibilities presented to unwavering faith” [Broadus, 435].  “There is no record of any disciple ever moving a literal, physical mountain; for that matter, Jesus Himself is not said ever to have done such a pointless thing.  But throughout the history of the Christian church mountainous difficulties have often been removed when people have prayed in faith” [Morris, 532].  “Before a living faith, barren systems of religion will wither away; and by the power of undoubting confidence in God, mountains of difficulty shall be removed, and cast into the sea” [Spurgeon, 296].

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, He went to the temple to serve by teaching:  “Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while He was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him.  ‘By what authority are You doing these things?’ they asked.  ‘And who gave You this authority?’” (vs. 23).  These questions are reasonable for the religious leaders to ask.  However, as we shall see in what follows, they did not ask the questions to get a true answer; rather, they asked them to trip up Jesus.  If Jesus had given them a straight answer, they would likely have charged Him with blasphemy, and sought to turn the crowd against Him.

“Jesus replied, ‘I will also ask you one question.  If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  John’s baptism—where did it come from?  Was it from heaven, or from men?’  They discussed it among themselves and said, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” He will ask, “Then why didn’t you believe him?”  But if we say, “From men”—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’  So they answered Jesus, ‘We don’t know.’  Then He said, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’” (vss. 24–27).  Jesus answered by asking them the question, “John’s baptism—where did it come from?”  This may, at first glance, seem like Jesus was avoiding their question.  But on the contrary, Jesus was trying to get them to answer their own question.  If they would have acknowledged that John’s baptism was from God, then they would have to acknowledge that Jesus’ authority came from God, for this is what John preached.  In order to answer their own question, Jesus wanted them to look at the evidence, and conclude themselves by what authority Jesus came.  Similarly, when we speak to others about Jesus, we can let the evidence laid out in the Bible answer questions about Jesus’ authority and Lordship.

The chief priests and elders were not interested in the truth, as can be seen by their discussion among themselves.  When seeking to give Jesus an answer, they were concerned with how Jesus and the crowd would respond.  They weren’t seeking to answer truthfully, but were seeking to answer in a way that was (for them) politically correct.  “Men-pleasers are obliged to be politicians, and see which way the land lies… The question our Lord put to the chief priests and elders was simple enough had they been honest men; but as they had a game to play, they could not reply without great difficulty” [Spurgeon, 298].

Note especially that they did not even discuss what the true answer to Jesus’ question was, and so, when they did not respond to Jesus’ question, it was proper that He not respond to theirs.  “Their equivocation gave Jesus a reason for refusing to answer their question.  Rejection of revelation already given is indeed a slender basis on which to ask for more” [Carson, 448].  “Note, those that imprison the truths they know, in unrighteousness (either by not professing them, or by not practicing according to them), are justly denied the further truths they enquire after” [Henry].