Paul is an interesting person. Sometimes, he seemed shizophrenic. At times, he was so humble. He referred to himself as a chief of sinners. And to the weak, he became weak, to the Jew he became a Jew, and so on. He was so accommodating. Yet, in Gal 2, we see quite a different side of Paul.
11 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12 Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? 15 “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
The gentle, mild-mannered, accommodating Paul went up to Peter and opposed him to his face. Why was Paul so riled up? Peter might have preached the right gospel, but through his actions before those in the circumcision group, he was passively condoning the heresy that you needed to be circumcised in order to be saved. In v16, Paul says Peter’s action was tantamount to reverting back to the law, that you can justify yourself through the law, through your works and your efforts at observing the law. This is religion and it totally nullifies the gospel, which is salvation by faith in Christ.
As a quick aside, how did the gospel waters get so muddied? v12 – because Peter was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. He was people-conscious, he was fearful of people, he wanted to please people. If you are a people pleaser, watch out. Esp. if you are a leader. Because it won’t be long before the gospel will be lost.
Paul was very flexible and accommodating when it came to many secondary issues, but when it came to a Tier 1 issue of what constitutes the gospel, Paul lost it. He was so strong because this mentality of works and man-made religion would lead countless people astray and eventually their eternal condemnation. Already, in this context, Barnabas was led astray. He was a leader and as a leader, consider how many more would have been led astray by this adding to and subtracting from the gospel.
Jesus was the same way. He was so gentle. He was not scandalized by prostitutes. He hung out with tax collectors, the dregs of society. He welcomed little children. He was so gentle and compassionate. But when it came to religious people, Jesus, like Paul, lost it. Because they missed the whole point of what genuine faith in God looked like. They were so focused on observance of laws, they had failed to keep their hearts tender, they were lost and they were leading others astray.
Jesus’ harshest actions toward this man-centered, religious mindset is found in Matt 21:17-20.
17 And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night. 18 Early in the morning, as he 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. 20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
I am preaching through the gospel of Matthew on Sundays and I know I’m jumping the gun a bit, but this account of a figless fig tree is one of the key ideas that Matthew is trying to bring out. Matthew was a Jew and he was burdened for his fellow countrymen, the Jewish nation. He wanted them to be saved by discarding their religion and placing their faith in Christ. And so that’s why there are so many conversations recorded between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew was trying to show the Jewish people the deadness of their religious system. To accomplish this in a most shocking and direct way, Matthew holds up this example of a figless or fruitless fig tree. It’s a chilling passage and one we should familiarize ourselves with and measure ourselves against on a regular basis.
The important thing to know about fig trees is that the fruit precedes the leaves. v19 – Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. The leaves were like a blinking neon sign–come here, come check me out, figs are here. If there were no leaves, then Jesus wouldn’t have even bothered going up to the tree.
The figless fig tree was a metaphor for the Jewish state. Full of leaves. Full of abundant religious profession. An elaborate hierarchy of scribes, pharisees, priests and elders. And Jesus was trying to show them that they were dead, meaning despite the leaves, there was no fruit.
What a warning this is to all churches. We can have elaborate programs and many people being added to our membership. We can plant churches and do overseas missions among the unreached and unengaged, but it is quite possible to do all of this and still be full of nothing but leaves.
A fig tree that has leaves and no figs is a freak of nature. It’s unhealthy growth. These freaks of nature occur in forests and in vineyards so it’s not impossible to have a fig tree with no figs and only leaves.
Do we find these freaks of nature in the church? Of course we do. What do these freaks look like? They are filled with leaves. Imagine for a moment what a leafy person would be like. I imagine that they have something about them that attracts us to them. They are probably better than most. More polished, more disciplined, more zealous, talented, filled with many leaves.
v19 – the fig tree was on the side of the road. It was in a very visible position. Leafy people probably are very visible. Many I’m sure rise up the ranks in churches and assume leadership positions. Think of the way pharisees and the teachers of the law are depicted. Very disciplined, very zealous, having influence. You can’t become a leader in that system by being a lazy bum. They had to be highly motivated people. We would probably say these are the ones with natural leadership qualities.
Persons whose religion are false are frequently prominent because they lack the grace to be modest. They seek the highest office, they push themselves into leadership. They do not walk in secret with God. They are motivated by the applause of men.
It’s interesting to note–recall that in the Garden after the Fall, the first Adam came to a fig tree looking for leaves to cover his shame, but the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, goes to a fig tree and looks for figs. He is looking for fruit, not leaves. To Jesus, how many services we attended over the course of our lifetime, how many small groups we were a part of, how many mission trips we went on, these don’t matter. Not even the “fruit” of our ministry, if we can even call it that, or how many people we led to Christ, or how many churches we planted. Those things can be signs of life, if real fruit is there, but we have to be careful. Those things can also be mere leaves so we better examine closely.
15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
How can you tell the difference between a false prophet and the real thing? v16 – By their fruit you will recognize them. You can’t tell by looking at external acts, or external works. v21-23 reinforce this idea that even those who prophesy and drive out demons and perform miracles may be nothing but leaves because there is no personal knowledge of Christ. Personal knowledge of Christ can only be validated by fruit.
Why is it important that we keep the gospel at the forefront of our minds and hearts? One reason is so that we don’t settle for leaves. Leaves are external and therefore easier to identify. He is a gifted communicator, he seems to be a people person, she seems good with kids, she’s committed to this church, and based on leaves, we can select people for various leadership roles.
On the surface, it’s really hard to distinguish between a human talent, a spiritual gift, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, as in the case at Corinth, and genuine fruit.
We have to keep examining ourselves and one another. Don’t stop at the leaves. Is there fruit?
Fruit of the Spirit and the Beatitudes – these are the marks of a Christian. The longer we are part of this church, what do we want to see in one another? Commitment to church? Commitment to one another? Those are nice, but those are not fundamental. Zeal to share our faith? Desire to disciple others? These are desirable as well, but those are not fundamental. The fundamental essence of a Christian is measured by fruit (Gal 5) and the Beatitudes (Matt 5).