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What Happens to the Fruitless?

Date: Aug. 14, 2016

Author: Bob Henkins

Matthew 21:12-22

Key Verse: Matthew 21:21

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, 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.”

Over the years, many times Julia has taken the kids to go apple picking. Thankfully I have been able to be a part of many of them but not all. What if you drove all that way out to the orchard and you could see from the parking lot that the trees were in full bloom, so you unpack the car, get the kids out, pack up the stroller, you excitedly pay your admission fee as you anticipate what kind of apples you’re going to get. What’s your favorite type of apple, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith? Anyway, as you’re walking toward the different groves, thinking about tasting as many apples as you’re going to pick, when suddenly you find that absolutely none of the trees have any apples. The trees are full of leaves but no matter where you look you can’t find a single apple. How are you going to respond? You’d be disappointed, maybe even a little frustrated because you drove all that way and it took a while to get the kids together and everything packed up. And now you have to go home empty handed. What a waste of time. Well, today’s passage has a similar tone and an important message that all of us need to hear.

In last week’s passage when Jesus entered Jerusalem, a bunch of people gathered around him as they proclaimed him king. Not only that, they proclaimed him from of the line of David which means they praised, exalted and worshipped him as the Messiah. After Jesus entered the city, he goes straight for the temple. Let’s take a look at verse 12. “Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” When Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he was riding on a donkey which was the symbol of humility but then when he reaches the temple he seems to go ballistic turning over tables, scattering money and driving the people out. At first glance, Jesus’ actions, the first one being humble and the second one violent, seem contradicting, but are they?

They’re not if you know who Jesus is. When Jesus went to the temple, he went right to the center of the Jewish society and the heart of their faith. The temple was the place where the presence of God would reside so that he could be with his people. This was the one place that was supposed to be set apart from everything else and used for the sole purpose to worship God. It was the appropriate place for the Son of God to go when he entered the city. Since everyone was praising God and singing Hosanna as he entered city maybe he expected to find the temple filled with more people thanking and praising God but instead the temple looked like a dirty market place with bird cages full of doves, and lambs and other animals being bought and sold for sacrifice. The place was busy, there were booths for the money changers and people haggling here and there. It was the busy season right before the Passover and it was business as usual as people were doing their last minute Passover shopping. Since many Jews from all over the world made their annual trip to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover it was much easier to bring some extra cash with you than to transport a lamb or whatever you planned to sacrifice. That way when you reached Jerusalem you could just stop in at the local shop, buy your sacrifice and be on your way. It was much more convenient. And if you were lucky, maybe you could catch Macy’s Pre-Passover sale and get up to 45% off. But you couldn’t get all your Passover needs with just any currency, you had to use temple currency. That means you would have to get in line at the currency exchange along with everyone else because that was the only place you could get the money you needed to buy things for the Passover.

It kind of reminds me of the Taste of Chicago where you have to buy tickets because the food booths only accept tickets. And if the people who ran the temple were anything like those who run the Taste of Chicago, you can bet that there was no funny business and everything was on the up and up right? Come on don’t let me down this is Chicago, we’re so corrupt we’ve almost got the lowest credit rating of all the states and we’ve had consecutive governors go to prison. Of course there is cheating going on. They charge more for the tickets than they are worth, they sell the tickets in strips of 12 and the full food portions are 8-10 tickets, they arrange it so that you always have tickets left over. It’s just like selling hotdogs in a 12 pack and the buns in an 8 pack, they try to make you waste something so you have to spend more. The same kind of corruption was going on in Jesus’ day except the money changers and the animal sellers would jack up their rates and the temple guards would extort bribes from the money changers so that they could get their booths put in the best location with the most traffic. And behind it all was the religious leaders because they got a cut of everything. First century Jerusalem wasn’t so different than Chicago after all.

What was Jesus’ reaction to all this, take a look at verse 13, ““It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”” The people in the temple who were supposed to be worshipping God were trying to negotiate a better deal. Those who were supposed to be praying were cheating, lying and stealing from other temple goers. But that isn’t even the worst thing. What’s the worst thing? Jesus calls it a den of robbers, the den is the home of the robber, a place where they feel comfortable, they are at ease to do what they want. The religious leaders felt at home using the temple to oppress and steal from those who came to worship God. Who could oppose them? If the average worshiper wanted to be right with God, they had to go through this corrupt system. Those who were poor, were only oppressed further.

When Jesus came to the temple he wanted to find a place of prayer and communion with his father God. When he didn’t, his righteous anger at the desecration led him to cleanse the temple and to drive out those who were being sinful. To give you an idea of the ferocity, John records that Jesus even made a whip out of cords that he used to clean the temple of its filth. We have to remember the purpose of cleansing, it’s to bring healing and restoration. When you cleanse a wound, you do it to remove all the stuff that could cause infection so that the healing process can do its job.

We should take this as a warning to us. God’s house is a place of prayer, not a place of business. We should have the fear of God and reverence for him whenever we’re in God’s house. After the temple was destroyed, we find that our bodies became the new temple. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” When Christ comes into our life, just as he cleansed the temple so the healing could begin, he must first cleanse our hearts of sin so that the healing process can begin in us too. But as long as we have money changing tables in our temple, our heart can’t be focused on God but on money or something else. The only question is, when Jesus comes to clean, how will you respond, humbly or, as we’ll see in a moment, will you be annoyed like the religious leaders?

After Jesus cleansed the temple, maybe people felt a little awkward to go back in. What do you do after a scene like that? But verse 14 tells us that the blind and the lame came to Jesus at the temple and he healed them. First off, I wondered how could the blind find Jesus? How did the lame get to Jesus? Where there is a will there is a way. Most likely they would not have been able to get into the temple before because of all the business traffic and animals walking around. But now since the money changers and animals had been driven out, the temple was clear and they could easily get in. These people were marginalized and overlooked in that society. Yet Jesus valued them and had compassion for the them as he healed them. This fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 35:5-6 and validated Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah that was promised by God.

Many people were praising God, including the little children. They followed Jesus into the temple courts. When they saw the wonderful things that Jesus did they continued to sing, “Hosanna to the Son of David” (v15). The religious leaders saw all the wonderful things that Jesus did too, they couldn’t deny it. But instead of joining in with the children in celebration, the religious leaders became indignant. Why? Because when the children saw Jesus as the Messiah, this was blasphemous to the religious leaders. It was extremely offensive and they couldn’t take it any longer and so they asked Jesus, “Do you hear what these children are saying?” (v16) It had the meaning, “How could you let the children blaspheme like that? Why don’t you stop them?” If you’ve noticed, until this time, whenever Jesus healed someone or drove out demons, he told everyone to be quiet and don’t spread the news about what he’d done. Jesus worked like this because it wasn’t his time yet. But now, Jesus didn’t mind if people told what happened, if they spread the news. Now Jesus accepted their praise and embraced it because now his time had come. It was the last week of his life and soon he would die for the sin of the world. God’s plan for world salvation was in full motion. Even in Jesus’ response he quoted scripture from Psalm 8:2, “From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise.” He even took a jab at them by saying, “You’re the religious leaders, haven’t you ever read that in the scriptures?” Not only did Jesus courageously stand on God’s word and boldly identify himself as the Messiah, alone in the face of opposition, but he even defended those who praised him. Then he left Jerusalem and spent the night in Bethany.

The next day, early in the morning, Jesus and his disciples were heading back to Jerusalem. As he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. So, 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. (v18-19) Was Jesus just Hangry? The whole scene here seems a bit puzzling. Why did Jesus get so angry with a tree? In Mark’s gospel it says that it wasn’t even the season for figs yet, which makes this even more puzzling. Jesus never treated inanimate objects as moral agents responsible for life and action. Usually he used them to make a point in a parable. But he doesn’t seem to be focused on teaching the disciples a lesson here. It’s more like he’s still remembering the incident at the temple from the day before and thus there is something more important going on in his mind and the tree is not the real object of his attention.

The fig tree had been used as a symbol of the Jewish Church. Prophets like Hosea had used both it and the vine in this way (Hos. 9:10), and even Jesus himself used it early on in his ministry when he made an allusion in his parable of the fig tree planted in the vineyard, from which the owner sought fruit in vain for three years (Lk 13:6). And here was that parable being played out in real life. Jesus saw this tree as the Jewish nation, standing alone set apart from all the others. And upon this nation God had lavished his love and blessing in the hopes that it would produce abundant fruit of holiness and righteousness. But what was the result? They boasting about being the children of Abraham, they had a special heritage being chosen by God, gifted with highest privileges.  The Israelites professed to have what no other people, that they were the sole possessors of the knowledge of God when in reality they were empty and bare. Sure, they looked good on the outside and did all the right things with rituals, ceremonies, meticulous observances, and scripture reading. But there wasn’t any real devotion, no true righteousness, no sincere worship from their heart, no real good works. It was true, other nations were equally fruitless, but at least they didn’t claim to be holy. They were sinners and didn’t try to hide it. I’m not saying that was good but their time hadn’t come yet. However, for Israel, the season had arrived; she ought to have been the first to accept the Messiah, to unite the new with the old fruit, to pass from the Law to the gospel, and to learn and practice the lesson of faith. God’s hope for Israel was that they should be a light for the world by revealing God’s great love to everyone. Perfect fruit wasn’t to be expected God knows how weak we are, but Israel’s sin was that she flaunted her perfection and counted herself sound and whole, while all the while being rotten at the very core, and barren of all good fruit. They used all of God’s blessings for their own benefit and no more. They even hindered the coming of the Messiah, and in fact were planning to kill him. It was a slap to the face of God.

So when Jesus cursed the fig tree, it foreshadowed God’s divine judgment on the nation of Israel. When they didn’t produce the fruit that God desired, he would take away all of their privileges. Jesus said that the temple should be a house of prayer (v14-16), he even gave the example by healing the blind and lame which produced love, joy, peace, thankfulness, and praise. But the religious leaders couldn’t even praise God (v.16) for all his wonderful works. All they could do was complain. This serves as a warning to us. For the withered tree would continue to stand as a monument of unbelief and God’s punishment. All of us who have confess faith in God have received from Jesus many blessings. If we don’t bear his blessings well and produce fruit, we may lose them. Among our fruit we should love God and love one another. But he also wants us to not only bear fruit individually but corporately as a community as well. I believe that God has blessed our fellowship with a wonderful new Bible house so that we can glorify God through making him know on the campus and in the community.

When the disciples saw the wither tree, they were amazed and asked how did it happen? But instead of answering their question about the tree, I believe that Jesus was trying to show them what to do for themselves and how to bear fruit. Jesus replied in verses 21-22.  “Truly I tell you, 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. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Alone we can’t do anything, but we have power through God. And the way we access God’s power is through prayer. Jesus' illustration shows the power of God, and the access to that power by his faithful servants. The faithful will bear fruit, or their works produce good fruit, especially in prayer for others. God’s house of prayer is no longer the temple, but the church, not the building, but the people who believe in Jesus and come together in prayer.  God has call us to be a part of something greater than just our own salvation. God called us to be a community to do his work for his glory, to share life together. In God’s great hope, he wants us to share his love with the whole world.

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