Lessons From A Fig Tree
Life, Gift, Fruit
Tragic times raise major questions in our lives. In Luke 13 we see that this was true in the time of Jesus as well as in our own time. We read starting with verse one,
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” [Luke 13:1-5]
In the crowd of people Jesus was teaching, there were people in the crowd who related to Jesus a tragic circumstance. We don’t know the details but it appears that some Galileans were offering sacrifices when the soldiers of Pilate killed them. It was a barbaric act that in many respects violated the sanctity of worship.
I wonder why these people brought the issue before Christ. We can’t know for sure but here are some possible reasons,
- They had honest questions about the seemingly arbitrary nature of life.
- They were trying to make a theological statement. I wonder if this is why Jesus responds with, “do you really thing these Galileans were worse sinner than the other Galileans?” Maybe these folks were trying to imply that there is a spiritual “law” that hardship comes to the unfaithful and blessing comes to the faithful. It was a common theological belief of the time.
- They were trying to diminish the authority of Christ. No one I read suggested this idea and maybe I am way off base. Jesus responds to the question about the Galileans with another illustration, those who were killed by the tower of Siloam in Jerusalem. Is it possible that the people brought up the first question to imply that the fact that these people were Galileans shows that God didn’t favor the Galileans as much as other Israelites? (The people of Galilee were seen with a measure of contempt because of their diverse population. They may not have been hated like the Samaritans, but they were seen as less “holy”.) Were these people making an issue about the fact that this massacre happened to Galileans.
Again, I’m thinking out loud. But if this is the case then is it possible that Jesus was saying, “Are you willing to be consistent with your conclusions? You think the Galileans were punished because God is not as pleased with them. So, is the same true of those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam (in Jerusalem) fell on them?”
Here’s something else. If you remember, Jesus was known as “the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee” (Mt. 21:11). If you remember Pilate sent Jesus to Herod because he was “under Herod’s jurisdiction” (Luke 23:6). I wonder if these people were trying to imply that God didn’t favor the Galileans (or Jesus) like He did other Jews. It is possible that this whole issue was designed to diminish the authority of Jesus. If so, it was the classic example of attacking a person when you don’t like what they are saying.
Though we cannot know for sure why they brought the issue up in the first place, we do know how Jesus responded to them. Jesus says, they were really asking the wrong question. The real question wasn’t, “Were these people being punished for their sin?” but “Why are we NOT punished for our sin.”
To illustrate Jesus tells a parable
“A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” [Luke 13:6-9]
There are some lessons I think we can learn from this parable,
GOD HAS GIVEN US LIFE AS A GIFT
The fig tree was ‘planted in the vineyard”. It was a tree planted by the owner. It was planted in the owner’s ground. The owner’s servant nurtured it. The tree owed its life to the owner. The tree has no right to expect life. The tree is in no position to demand anything. The tree exists by the grace of the owner.
Somewhere along the line we have this idea that God “owes” us. For some reason we think that we are entitled to at least 70-80 years of life. Deep down we believe that we have been “cheated” (in other words we didn’t get what we should have gotten) if we are not healthy or prosperous. We feel we that God has “let us down” if we don’t get the job, the relationship, the position, the opportunity we wanted.
Let me ask a question, if your child came to you and said, “Why didn’t you clean my clothes today?” or “Why didn’t you buy me a brand new car on my birthday?” What might your response be? If your child said, “You are supposed to give me everything I want . . . and because you haven’t I know you don’t really love me.” How would you respond? Bill Cosby perhaps has the best response, “I brought you into the world, I can take you out!”
The last spanking I received as a child was when I said something about mom not having the laundry done. And do you know what? I deserved the spanking. When I said those words I showed that I didn’t appreciate the kindnesses that had been extended to me. I was becoming demanding when I should have been grateful.
So it is with the Lord. We have no right to complain about anything. R.C. Sproul’s caution is right, “Never pray for justice . . . you might get it.” Every day of life we are graciously given one more day of life that we don’t deserve. No matter what happens to us, it is better than we deserve and we should be grateful.
RECIPIENTS OF GRACE SHOULD PRODUCE HEALTHY FRUIT
The owner of the fig tree was upset because the tree wasn’t producing fruit. We are told that he had come three years looking for fruit and had found none. It’s very possible that the tree had been planted SEVEN years earlier.
In the book of Leviticus (19:23-25) we are told that the first three years a tree bore fruit the fruit was not to be eaten. The fourth year the fruit was to be given to the Lord. Only on the fifth year would the farmer reap a benefit from the tree he had planted. It is possible and likely that when this man said he had been coming to the tree for three years, it was years five, six, and seven of the tree’s life. It may be that this was the third year he came looking to collect his fruit.
The man was not being unrealistic. The tree should have been producing fruit by this time. He had a right to expect that after all this time the man should be getting some return from his investment.
In the same way, God has a right to expect those He has redeemed to be fruitful. When the Bible talks about us being fruitful it is talking about the results of our faith. The idea is simple, a person who has God’s Spirit within them because of Christ should begin to show Christlike characteristics in their living. Please understand, the Bible does not teach that we must DO certain things before we can be saved. It teaches that we can only be redeemed through the grace of God. We cannot get to Heaven by our goodness. We can only get to Heaven by His grace. However, good works, a change in our actions and our attitudes is the evidence that God’s Spirit has really entered your life. We receive grace and then are changed . . . not the other way around.
The most popular and specific passage on the idea of being fruitful is found in Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia,
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.[Galatians 5:21-26]
Every passage in the Bible that talks about being fruitful implies the same thing. A true believer should evidence their faith in the way that they live. A so called believer who is not becoming more Christlike in their character is showing that they have not made a genuine commitment to Christ at all.
But don’t miss an important point. The owner of the Vineyard was patient. He had waited several yeas and was going to wait another. And God is patient with us. The Lord does not expect you and I to show Christian maturity in a short period of time. He doesn’t expect us to overcome all our vices quickly. He understands that some days our old ways will dominate our life.
We don’t expect our infants to walk and talk a week after birth. We don’t expect them to live as adults for many years. Growth takes time. We need to remember that in our own lives, and we need to remember that in the lives of those around us. We should be showing the evidence of fruitfulness . . . we should be making progress in Christlikeness but we should not expect perfection. God doesn’t expect it of us, and we shouldn’t expect it in others.
GOD IS PATIENT . . . BUT NOT FOREVER
I suspect you have already picked up on the final lesson. Though the owner of the fig tree was gracious and has been patient, a tree that does not bear fruit will be chopped down. Jesus made this point in dramatic fashion just before Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
18 Early in the morning, as he [Jesus] was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 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]
Mark 11 tells us that it was not the season for figs. This raises a question that has bothered people for ages. “If it wasn’t the season for figs, why was Jesus surprised that He didn’t find any figs?”
Toward the end of March the leaves begin to appear, and in about a week the foliage coating is complete. Coincident with [this], and sometimes even before, there appears quite a crop of small knobs, not the real figs, but a kind of early forerunner. They grow to the size of green almonds, in which condition they are eaten by peasants and others when hungry. When they come to their own indefinite maturity they drop off.” Their appearance is a harbinger of the fully formed appearance of the true fig some six weeks later. So, as Mark says, the time for figs had not yet come. But if the leaves appear without any knobs, that is a sign that there will be no figs. Since Jesus found “nothing but leaves”—leaves without any knobs—he knew that “it was an absolutely hopeless, fruitless fig tree” and said as much.
Christians often mis-speak. We say that God is infinite in mercy and His patience is without end. But that is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that there is a point when mercy stops and judgment begins. There is a time when God’s patience will run out. And none of us knows where and when that time will be. We assume there will always be time to get serious about our faith but we are presuming on the goodness of the Lord.
The owner gives a reason for his actions, “why waste the ground” on unproductive trees? Some might say, “This tree may not be producing, but it isn’t hurting anyone.” But those folks would be wrong. That unproductive tree is taking nutrients, keeping the sun from reaching areas in the trees shade. The tree is absorbing water that could help other things grow. The tree might look harmless but underneath everything the tree is stealing from the trees and vegetation around it.
This is something that we don’t think about. When a professing believer does not show any evidence of transformation in his/her life they are doing harm as well.
- They are taking blessings that could go to another
- They are giving a wrong image of what a true believer really is . . . in other words they lead others to think that Christianity requires no commitment.
- They are mis-representing Jesus because people look at these professors of faith and conclude that having a relationship with Christ will make no practical difference in our lives.
- They people are diminishing the power and the impact of the Kingdom of God.
God is patient and God is merciful, but God will not stand idle as we remain unfruitful. God will first seek to prune those who are unfruitful. God will try to help us grow. But if pruning doesn’t work, God will remove that person from the garden.
Let me get even more practical. Here are four implications of what Jesus is teaching.
Making a commitment to follow Christ is something to address immediately . . . you may not have another day. Many people seem to be in a dating relationship with God. They love spending time with God and His people. They enjoy His company and would talk of the many great moments they have had with the Lord. They are dating but aren’t willing to commit to marriage. Like in any other dating relationship this may work for a while but somewhere along the line one of the people will say, “I want more than this” and they will move on.
God wants more than a dating relationship with us. He wants us to be His. God is patient with you now . . . but you don’t know how much time you have. Please, stop playing around with faith. Why not make that commitment to follow Jesus Christ right now?
We must remember that being a Christian is not about an “event” in our life, it’s about a relationship with Christ. We have put an undo emphasis on “saying a prayer” and not enough emphasis on walking with Jesus. We have made it seem as if coming to Christ as Savior is different from following Him as Lord. But it is a package deal! We have not really received Christ as our Savior unless we are willing to follow Him as our Lord. Rather than simply try to “make the sale” we should encourage people to “count the cost” . . . like Jesus did. This style of evangelism won’t produce as many “decisions”. But it will result in a group of believers that will make an impact on the world like the early church did. If we stop encouraging superficial faith I think the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian will become much more evident. People will see what it means to be a believer and when they do . . . I think more people will be drawn to the Savior.
Third, we should begin viewing every day not as a chore but as a gift of grace to treasure. We are guaranteed nothing. We don’t know how many days the Lord will give us on this earth. Today is a gift. Think about how would different your life would be if you lived each day with that realization?
We need to spend less time “inspecting the fruit” of others and give more time to checking on the fruit from our own life. We (I) spend an enormous amount time being critical of the way others live. We would do well to hold ourselves to an equal standard. To that end, here’s a brief checklist that we can use in our own lives,
Am I obeying the commands of the Lord or just learning them?
Am I growing to appreciate every day as a gift of grace from God?
Am I as ruthless in examining my own life as I am the life of those around me?
Can I point to areas of progress in my spiritual life?
Do I see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control taking a great hold on my life and character?
Am I willing to trust God even when I don’t understand?
The tragic times of life remind us that we live in a world that is stained by sin. Our only hope of life, joy, fulfillment and Heaven is found in Jesus. And the sooner we get serious about our relationship with Him, the better. For it is only then that we will discover a taste of what life will someday be in His presence.