Matthew 21:18 – In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry.
The main events of Matthew chapter 21 are also recorded in Mark chapter 11. When we read the two narratives, it seems like there is a time discrepancy, but there really is not. The difference is in the method of recording events.
In Western culture, it is our practice to always relate events in chronological order (This happened first, followed by that, etc). However, in the Middle Eastern culture, that is not the case. Events are often grouped together if the author thinks they are most important or related in some way. This is the case with Matthew chapter 21.
So Matthew is grouping relevant events together, but we are reading them with the belief that they are listed chronologically. This leaves us with the impression that on Sunday Jesus made his triumphal entry and immediately cleansed the temple before departing to Bethany for the night. Then, on his way to Jerusalem Monday morning, he cursed the fig tree and within seconds, the disciples noticed that it was dead/dying. While the events are all true, this is probably not the actual timeline in which they occurred.
If we want to see a chronological account, we need to look at Mark chapter 11. There Mark tells us that Jesus made his triumphal entry on Sunday. After healing and teaching in the temple that day, he returned back to Bethany. On Monday morning, he returned to Jerusalem and cursed the fig tree on his way to cleansing the temple. That night, they returned to Bethany (or at least left Jerusalem). Tuesday morning, on their way into the city, the disciples noticed that the fig tree was withered away, and this opens up the door for Jesus to teach them about faith and prayer.
Matthew 21:19 – 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.
This tree was at the side of the public roadway. Therefore, it was community property and anyone travelling on the road could eat the fruit.
So, imagine you are walking down the road. It is very early in the morning, probably before 6 am. You are hungry. [Sadly, there is no indication that coffee was available!] Your eye naturally focuses on what is in the distance. You spot a certain fig tree, standing out from all the rest. While the other trees are bare and appear dormant, this one is in full leaf, appearing healthy, robust and luxuriant. By its appearance, the tree gives you a hope or promise of fruit. Naturally, you head straight for it, only to find… nothing. Absolutely nothing!
How would you feel if this happened to you? Would you feel like you were cheated or deceived? How would you express your anger or disappointment?
When Jesus sees that there is no fruit, he pronounces judgment on the tree. This does not mean that he lost his temper and yelled/cursed in a fit of rage. He simply spoke to the tree, sentencing it to perpetual barrenness. Does this seem odd to you? Why would Jesus do such a thing?
Think of it this way – instead of telling a parable with words, Jesus was demonstrating a parable with his actions. If that is the case, what is the parable and what is its meaning?
The obvious first answer is that the fig tree represents the nation of Israel. Israel was separate or distinct from the other nations (trees) around it. While other nations were spiritually bare or dormant, Israel was full of ‘leaves’ that indicated outward devotion to God. Indeed, Israel had the law/covenant, the prophets, the promises, the rituals and the sacrifices. For all appearances, she was profoundly religious.
That outward devotion gave the appearance of a people/nation that was healthy, vibrant and luxuriant. Any nation like that would obviously contain fruits of righteousness and salvation, right?
But we find that underneath all that outward devotion, Israel was spiritually fruitless and barren. She had replaced her relationship to God with works. Having rejected the Messiah, she had nothing to give anyone in need of spiritual sustenance/food. Therefore, Jesus pronounced a judgment on her. She will henceforth be spiritually withered and barren.
The somewhat less obvious meaning of this parable is that it applies to us. That’s right. It applies to you and I! In fact, this parable is a solemn warning to every Christian!
Religious activity can be divided into two groups – leaves and fruit:
- Leaves are showy forms of religious activity while fruit is true inward change.
- Leaves are head knowledge, while fruit is heart knowledge.
- Leaves are ‘works’ while fruit is relationship.
- Leaves offer the sinner a false promise of spiritual reconciliation to God via self righteousness, while a believer with true fruit is clothed with the righteousness of Christ.
- Leaves are nothing more than hay, wood and stubble which will burn up in the fires of testing and trial. Fruit is like gold and silver, which the fire of adversity refines.
The ‘leaves’ of religious works may fool people, but they won’t fool God. So…what kind of tree are you?
Matthew 21:20 – When the disciples saw it, they marveled saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?”
Jesus is now in the last week of his life on earth. During the last three years, his disciples had seen literally hundreds if not thousands of miracles. The lame/crippled were walking. The blind could once again see and the deaf could hear. Evil spirits were cast out of people and the dead were raised to life. Storms were stilled with just a word. Food was multiplied to feed thousands of people.
After seeing all of these astonishing miracles, you wouldn’t think the disciples would be amazed by a dead tree, but they are. They are so amazed they actually asked Jesus how he pulled this off.
Matthew 21:21 -22 – 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.”
In Jewish culture, ‘moving a mountain’ or ‘plucking up a mountain by the roots’ was a proverbial expression that denotes overcoming the greatest of difficulties or solving the greatest perplexities.
Jesus is telling his disciples that nothing is impossible with God. No difficulty is too hard for God to overcome. No problem is so perplexing that God cannot solve it. What God has promised shall certainly be performed, when we ask in faith, believing that God will act on our behalf.
This is an amazing promise directly from Jesus and it is available to every believer in Christ. There’s just one problem – we seldom experience it in our own lives. For most of us, it is a promise that remains just that – a promise and not a reality.
If you attend the Kipton Community Church or watch it online, you know that this is a topic that Pastor Lee has spoken about recently. He is leading our fellowship on a journey to discover why we don’t see this promise come to pass more often in our lives.
I certainly don’t have all the answers to this question. However, this is a good opportunity for us to look at some basic principles in our study of this topic.
In these verses, Jesus mentions prayer, faith and believing (not doubting).
Prayer: As a Christian, you are familiar with prayer. Prayer is speaking to God. During prayer we ask God to move on our behalf. We take time to praise and worship him. We allow time and opportunity for him to speak back to us. Because each of us is a unique individual, our prayers will also be unique. Don’t worry so much about that – God loves variety! The main point I want to emphasize here is that prayer is talking to God.
This means that talking your problems over with your mom or your best friend is not prayer. Spending your entire day mulling over a problem is not prayer. Placing your problems on social media and getting feedback or support from all your followers is not prayer. Getting advice from a professional of some kind is not prayer.
Sadly, we sometimes tend to substitute these things for true prayer. Why is that?
One reason might be that deep down, we don’t believe prayer really works. I admit this sounds shocking at first, but just pause and think about this with me.
- If we really believed in the power of prayer, then prayer would be our first response to trouble, not our last resort.
- If we really believed in the power of prayer, we would spend a good amount of time praying. But how many Christians have trouble praying for even 30 minutes a day?
- If we really believed in the power of prayer, we would spend more time praying and interceding for lost souls than we do trying to find the latest gimmick to get people in the church doors.
- If we really believed in the power of prayer, we would cover everything we do in prayer, rather than relying on our own abilities.
I propose that many Christians aren’t able to see mountains moved in their lives because they simply have a poor prayer life. You may certainly disagree with me, but you have to at least admit that this is a possibility.
The good news is that you can strengthen/improve your prayer life. The more time you spend in prayer, the more comfortable you become. The more you praise him, the more faith rises up within you. The more time you spend with God, the better you will hear him speak back to you. I encourage you to take an honest account of your prayer life and see what you can do to improve it.
Faith: Faith, like prayer, is a huge topic. We could discuss different aspects of faith every day for a year and not run out of things to talk about. However, today we are focusing on the topic of faith as it relates to mountain moving prayers.
The main point I want to emphasize here is that faith cannot stand alone; it is dependent upon a framework of promise.
For instance, have you ever prayed and asked God for healing? What gave you the assurance/confidence/faith that God would heal you? Because he promised that he would, right?
Exodus 15:26 – …I am the Lord that heals you.
Isaiah 53:5 – But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
So when we pray for healing, we exhibit faith in God’s promise to heal us. We have confidence that God will do as he promised and we will be healed.
Do you need wisdom? In the scriptures, God promises us that he will give us wisdom when we ask:
James 1:5 – If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
So when you pray, you can have faith that God will grant you wisdom if you ask for it, because he has promised to do so.
The opposite is also true. Have you ever prayed to win the lottery? How did that work out for you? Why didn’t God answer that prayer? One reason (there may be others) is that there is no scriptural basis for expecting God to give you the winning power ball numbers. He never promised to do that.
So, in order to pray in faith and move mountains, your prayer must be resting on a promise of God. This means you must know what the scriptures say; you must be reading the Word of God so that you know what he has promised.
Romans 10:17 – Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.
Reading and meditating on the scriptures produces faith in what God has promised.
Let me ask you this – Is it possible that some Christians don’t have answers to mountain moving prayers because they are ignorant of the promises contained in the Bible? Do we have some vague idea of what we think God has said, or do we know for sure? Can we quote it exactly? Do we spend time absorbing and meditating on the word? If not, we will certainly not experience answers to mountain moving prayers.
Believing: The main thing I want to emphasize here is that “believing” is a state of heart and mind which allows us to receive the answer to our prayer. It includes humility, hope, and dependence on God alone. We must not only believe that God CAN move mountains for us, but that he WILL do it, and he will do it FOR US.
Let’s suppose that your car is in the repair shop. You ask your best friend to give you a ride to work. Do you believe that they will do so? Of course you do! Why do you believe them? Because of the relationship you have with them. You have trusted them many times in the past. They are reliable. There is no doubt that you can trust them this time too. If your friend says they will pick you up, you know/believe they will.
It is the same with God. If your relationship is close, it will be easy for you to believe that God will honor his promises, and you can easily receive the answer to your prayer. If your relationship is cold or distant, it will be hard for you to believe and hard for you to receive.
So let me ask you this – Is it possible that Christians don’t receive answers to mountain moving prayers because we don’t believe? Is it possible that we don’t believe because our relationship with God is not as close as it could be?
Again, I would like to reiterate that I do not have all the answers as to why we don’t routinely experience answers to mountain moving prayers in our lives.
What I do know is that faith, belief and prayer are required in order for God to do the impossible for you (or through you). So we can start by examining these three basic aspects of our lives and making changes where needed.
Once we have the basics firmly in place, we can then examine other factors that hinder our prayers. These include things like asking according to God’s will, harboring unforgiveness, God’s timing, man’s free will, etc.
Matthew 21:23 – And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
In the time of Christ, the position of teacher/instructor of the law was conferred upon a man by the scribes, with the approval of the Sanhedrin. This was done after years of careful study under a teacher endorsed and recognized by them. After the training period, the new teacher went through a solemn ceremony in which he was given a key to the room in the temple that contained the law. This was an outward symbol that he had the right to interpret the law and to teach.
Here we find Jesus back in the temple, teaching the people without the approval of the scribes. As we have seen throughout the book of Matthew, this infuriates the religious leaders because it undermines the false authority and positions of power they have worked so hard to build for themselves.
Many times they have tried to debate doctrine with Jesus, but he always proves them wrong and they wind up looking foolish in front of the people. They have even tried to cleverly (or so they thought) trap him, but again in every instance his divine wisdom puts them to shame.
They are further infuriated that Jesus ‘went over their heads’ when he cast the traders out of the temple. After all, they were the keepers of the temple, not Jesus! If they approved of the traders, what right did he have to cast them out? And worst of all, Jesus openly accepted the acclamations of the people that he was the Messiah. This was something they just could not tolerate!
So in this instance, they try a new tactic to discredit Jesus. They raise doubts about his calling and commission. They demand to know who he had trained under, and who endorsed him as teacher.
Now, had they done this with the motivation of honestly seeking the truth, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing. Any man who began to meddle with the honor of the priesthood or the prophetic office had better be appointed by God. How much more one who claimed the title of Messiah!
However, their motivation is something quite different. They earnestly desire to put Jesus to death, and they want to do it according to the law. So they are searching for any infraction or breach of the law which would allow them to discredit and kill Jesus. This is why they call his commission into question.
Matthew 21:24 – Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things.
Jesus was not under any obligation to answer their questions. His works, his teaching and his fulfillment of prophesy all confirmed that he was the Messiah, commissioned by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As the Son of God, they had no right to question him, and Jesus would not submit to their authority.
Matthew 21:25-26 – The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd for they all hold that John was a prophet.
Now the religious leaders have a problem. If they acknowledge John’s mission to be the forerunner of the Messiah, it would obligate them to acknowledge that Jesus was the Christ, exactly as he claimed to be. John testified more than once that Jesus was the Messiah.
John 1:29 – The next day John saw Jesus coming unto him, and said, Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
However if they deny John’s authority they feared that the crowd would stone them. The common people believed that John was a prophet sent by God. Great numbers of them had submitted to his baptism. And his death did not hurt his reputation one bit – he was held in high esteem long after Herod removed his head from his shoulders.
Matthew 21:27 – So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
The only safe answer for these petty tyrants is not to answer! What great lengths the leaders go to in making themselves spiritually blind, deaf and dumb!
Matthew 21:28-29 – What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went.
Jesus now gives this very short parable in order that the religious leaders might feel some conviction about their attitudes and actions. If they will allow themselves to be convicted, it will lead them to repentance.
The first son seems to be wicked for he refuses to go and work for his father. This son represents the publicans and harlots who were the ‘wicked sinners’ of that day.
At first they refused to do the work that God requires of them. However, upon hearing Christ’s message and seeing his miracles, they repented and believed. In the words of the parable, they ‘changed their mind and went’.
Matthew 21:30 – And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, “I go, sir,’ but did not go.
The second son is represented as a hypocrite, who says the right thing, but does another. This clearly represents the Jewish leaders. They gave lip service to the father (God), but did not do as he asked of them.
They pretended to have great concern for the church as if they were its faithful and honest guardians. But in reality, they obstinately opposed Christ, denied his miracles and eventually lobbied to have him crucified.
Matthew 21:31 – Which of the two did the will of his father? They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.
Thus, the worst and vilest sinners entered the kingdom of God before the religious leaders because they had no illusions about their spiritual state. They did not trust in their own righteousness; they were sinners and they admitted it. Thus, they were open to conviction and repentance, which lead to eternal life.
However, the proud religious leaders continued to rely on their own righteousness. They were blinded by vain hope and confidence in their own works. They refused to be convicted of sin, and were thus unable to come to repentance. They forfeited eternal life.
Matthew 21:32 – For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
When John preached the message of repentance, the publicans and prostitutes embraced his message. Their hearts were prepared to receive salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. They found eternal life and reconciliation to God.
Sadly, the religious leaders witnessed this, yet they were not provoked to jealously by it. In fact, they were completely unmoved by the life altering changes that the gospel produced in their Jewish brothers and sisters.
We can only hope that this parable stuck in the minds of the religious leaders and eventually produced some repentance.
Let me offer you some encouragement: Today’s lesson involves some teaching about answered prayer. Prayer is a vast and wonderful topic of study and discussion. In fact so much has been written about it, you probably couldn’t even read it all in your lifetime!
Don’t be overwhelmed by the volume of material out there. The best way to find answers to prayer is to get alone with God. I strongly encourage you to spend time with God in prayer. Just do what seems natural to you. God greatly desires to fellowship with you, and he will meet you there. If you are not receiving answers to mounting moving prayers, ask God to reveal the problem to you.
Let me offer you some relief: Jesus tells us that the vilest sinners were eligible to come into the kingdom of heaven, once they repented. Maybe you were like that at one time. But this should give you some relief – there was nothing that was so bad that it could not be forgiven by the blood of Christ.
You can be sure that the enemy, Satan, will try to bring your past up as often as possible. He is trying to make you feel guilty and ashamed. If he can do that, he will affect your relationship with God, and possibly halt your ministry. Don’t fall into that trap! Once you are forgiven, your past becomes a testimony to the power and grace of God! So don’t be ashamed of where you came from.
Let me offer you some strength: This lesson speaks about bearing fruits of righteousness. And it is true that all Christians should bear fruit. But keep in mind that in the natural realm, fruit does not suddenly spring up overnight. It starts out small, then grows and matures slowly over time.
What fruit is the Holy Spirit growing in your life? Don’t be impatient or don’t be frustrated if progress is sometimes slow. The Holy Spirit will continue to mold you into the image of Christ until he returns, or calls you home!