First point: Talk is cheap without the fruit to back it up.
There is a lot of talk in churches. Especially those in leadership, they wouldn’t be in leadership if they were quiet. They wouldn’t be recognized as leaders if they did not far excel others in the group. Excel in terms of gifting. Excel in their service. Thus, their professions of faith, the promises they make to God, are often very loud. These leaders have a very impressive exterior. They are polished. Well-educated. And often charismatic. People flock to them. They look like fruitful trees. You expect that their lives would produce many baskets of the best figs. They impress us by their talk. They overpower us by their competence and leadership skills. We envy them.
We are so easily impressed by man. We look at someone who seems to have a strong faith. Or a robust hope. Or someone who seems loving. Or has a sharp mind and knows their Bible. Yet it’s abundantly possible that such men and women have never entered the kingdom by the new birth. He has never been taught of God. The gospel has come to him in word only. He is a stranger to the work of the Holy Spirit.
All vineyards have some fig trees covered with leaves. The foliage of their profession is highly visible, noticeable, conspicuous. Yet they have no fruit. Such persons seem to defy the seasons. It was not fig season. Yet this fig tree was covered with leaves. When a fig tree is in full leaf, you expect to find figs upon it. And if you do not find figs, then the tree will not bear any figs for that season. Therefore, we have to consider the fact that this figless fig tree is a freak of nature. This fig tree is not growing as it should.
Lebron James – he is a freak of nature in the NBA. Someone as large and muscular as him shouldn’t be lightning quick and able to jump so high. Likewise, there are spiritual freaks of nature in churches today. Certain men and women seem advanced in every way compared to the average church member. They are quite superior in many regards, covered with virtues, as this fig tree is covered with leaves.
These people usually catch the eye of others. According to Mark, our Lord saw this fig tree from afar. Presumably, there were other trees around, but the other trees must not have been as noticeable because they didn’t produce leaves. And so, when Jesus began to go up the hill toward Jerusalem, he saw this one tree quite a long way before he reached it. The tree also stood in a prominent location. It stood near the path from Bethany to the city gate. In plain view for all those passing through.
People who are highly religious are frequently prominent, because they have lack the grace to be modest. They won’t settle for being a background servant. They want to push themselves to the front. They want to be leaders. Give me a position, give me a title so that I can be respected. They do not walk in secret with God. They have little concern about private godliness because they are eager to be seen by men. If they serve someone, they want to publicize to the world what they just did. If they led someone to Christ, they want to post what happened on their facebook wall. If they experienced an answer to prayer, they want to email blast everyone to show how God listens to the prayers of a righteous man or woman.
They live before men. They want to hear their names in the testimonies of their followers so that they can get the glory for themselves. But God never shares His glory with anyone. Remember that. At this church, we will help each other and you may mention a name or two in your testimony. But by far, the name that we should hear most often when we listen to a testimony is the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. I may preach the gospel to you and through my preaching, by God’s grace, you may be saved. And for that you might be thankful for me, the preacher. I may provide some counsel in helping you make a critical decision, or I may visit you at the hospital. But Jesus is the only one who can save you and redeem you and sanctify you and love you unconditionally forever. So His name, not my name, not the name of one of the staff here, or the name of our church, but His name needs to be lifted high.
This is easier said than done because we like to be lifted up and we like to lift up someone from our ranks. We’d rather worship man over God. Because a man, a woman, a leader is tangible. God is invisible. It’s easier to worship man. For example, in in Acts 14, Barnabas and Paul are in the city of Lystra. Paul is preaching and in the crowd is a cripple and Paul calls out to him, Stand up on your feet. And the man was healed instantly. After witnessing the miracle, the crowds wanted to worship Paul and Barnabas. They brought sacrifices to them and Barnabas and Paul said, what are you doing? We too are only men, human like you. The same thing happens in Acts 10 with Peter. The point is, don’t worship the messenger. Worship the one who embodies the message, the good news about Jesus Christ. As leaders and under-shepherds, if the sheep start worshiping us, it’s our responsibility to help shift the sheep’s attention back to the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Religious leaders love to be like the fig tree near the city gate in plain view for all to see. This is both their weakness and their peril. They want to be public figures but with that publicity comes an extra burden because everyone is watching them. This is the dark side of leadership. It makes their spiritual failure as a public figure that much more terrible because it has the potential to stumble many in the body of Christ. For those in leadership who fall, greater dishonor is brought upon the name of the Lord. It’s far better to be fruitless in a corner of your room than to be fruitless along the public path which leads to the temple.
Our Savior and his disciples went up to the leafy fig tree. It caught their eye. But it didn’t stop there. The leaves drew them to itself. Have we not been fascinated by the magnetic appeal of one who seemed to be more devout than usual? He seemed so godly, so generous, so humble, so useful, that we looked up to him, and wished that we were more worthy to be associated with him. Young converts and seekers are naturally inclined to fall into this trap. We are drawn to impressive people, who are usually hand picked to be the leaders. And if the leader fails, and we all do, how tragic for these young ones when they realize that their confidence in man was misplaced.
In cases when the leaders turn out to be all they profess to be, praise God, they are a great blessing. Think about that fig tree with leaves actually having figs. It would have been a great refreshment to the Savior if he had been fed by the fruit. When the Lord makes the leader flourish in terms of fruitfulness, it is a blessing to the family, to the church, and to the community. Please pray for me. Pray for Brother Jae. Brother Matthew. The deacons and deaconesses and college staff. Pray that we can bear fruit so that we can be a proper blessing to you.
May every Christian here say to himself or herself, I have been like that fig tree. I have many leaves. I’m prominent. People know that I am a Christian. People even look up to me. I have made many bold, public professions of faith in Christ. Please pray to the Lord that those professions would be more than words. May the talk be backed up by real, authentic, Spirit-generated fruit.
Second point: Just like in this fig tree account, Jesus will inspect our lives and look for fruit.
The first Adam in Genesis came to the fig tree looking for leaves because he wanted to cover his shame. But the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, comes to a fig tree and looks for figs. He searches our character through and through, to see whether there is any real faith, any true love, any living hope, any joy which is the fruit of the Spirit, any patience, any sign of self-control, any evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And if Jesus does not see these things, he is not satisfied with church attendance, going to prayer meetings, listening to sermons, Bible studies, daily devotionals. For all these may be no more than leaves.
Notice that what Jesus looks for is not your words, not your resolve, not your promises, not your loyalty or commitment, but he looks for none other than true, authentic spiritual fruit. The fruit is spiritual. We can’t produce it through works. Can you will yourself to be more loving? Or more joyful? Or more patient? You can’t. This fruit is generated by the Holy Spirit and it is a sign of genuine conversion.
When the Lord went up to that fig tree he had a right to expect fruit. Because the fig, according to nature, comes before the leaf. If leaves were present, there should be fruit. Jesus looks for fruit from the preacher, to the usher, to the sister who teaches a Bible study, to that brother who has a bunch of young men he is discipling. As Christ had a right to expect fruit from a leaf-bearing fig tree, so he has a right to expect fruit from all his followers born of the Spirit.
Fruit is what the Lord earnestly desires. The Savior, when he came under the fig tree, did not desire leaves. He was hungry and human hunger cannot be satisfied by leaves. He desired to eat figs. And he longs to have fruit from us also. He hungers for our holiness. He longs that his joy may be complete in us. He comes up to each of you who are members of his church, and especially to each of you who are leaders of his people, and he looks to see evidence of grace.
Third point: The result of Christ’s inspection of our lives can lead to judgment.
It can be most terrible if the inspector finds nothing but leaves where fruit was expected. Nothing but leaves means nothing but lies. Sounds harsh but it’s true. If I profess faith, and have no faith, is that not a lie? If I profess repentance, and have not repented, is that not a lie? If I profess to be kind, but my thoughts and attitudes are unkind, is that not a lie? If there is nothing but leaves, there is nothing but lies.
We can live a lie and fool one another because none of us can inspect the hearts of others. But Jesus can. He won’t be fooled. God cannot be mocked. Our Lord discovered that there was no fruit. What did he do next? He condemned the tree. Did he curse it? Actually, it was already cursed. The tree was of no use because it couldn’t provide any refreshment to hungry travelers. It’s only purpose was to deceive. Likewise, if a preacher doesn’t have the grace of God in him, he is utterly useless, and it’s likely that he is a curse to the people he is ministering to.
What was Jesus actually doing when he cursed the tree? He was simply revealing the true state of the tree. It was nothing more than a confirmation of its state. This tree has not produced any fruit, and so, Jesus condemns it to never bear fruit ever again.
This judgment is actually a blessing in disguise. There is grace wrapped up inside God’s judgment. A word from Jesus was given and the tree withered. Jesus reveals the true state of the fig tree–it is a figless fig tree after all. Such a withering would be terrible, but it would be infinitely better to wither away right now than to be left in its previous state and continue to deceive others for years to come, and worst of all, deceive ourselves.
If a church has 10 members and it’s been around for many years, then the church is obviously dead. But the damage it inflicts on others is minimal. Because visitors can readily see that the church is dead and they may come once but they won’t come back. What if the church was several hundred on Sundays and it looked alive. Things were happening. People were serving, but in reality, this church was also dead. Consider how many people would be fooled and stumbled. If our church ever dies on the inside and God leaves our presence and there is no fruit, then the best thing that could happen to this church, the most loving thing for others who might potentially join our church is for God to shut us down for good.
This has been a hard message. It has been a sobering message for me to preach. I want to end on a note of hope. Thank the Lord that he is a God of grace. He is all gentleness and tenderness. The only thing Jesus ever destroyed was this fig tree. He never destroyed a man or a woman. It is only a barren tree that he causes to wither away. He doesn’t want a single person to perish. He wants all to repent and place their faith in Christ. This is great news. He will never wither you, but he will give you chance after chance to respond to him.
After all this talk about false leaves, you might think, forget the leaves. But a fig tree with fruit and no leaves is also a freak of nature. It’s unhealthy growth. Leaves are necessary. The fruit is not likely to ripen well without leaves. Leaves are essential to the health of the tree, and the health of the tree is essential to the ripening of the fruit. So, open confession of faith is good, publicly professing our faith to others is good. Being public in our witness is healthy. These things must continue. There is nothing wrong with these things. What’s needed is fruit to back it up.