After a long walk on a hot day, Jesus was hungry and wanted a snack. He walked up to a fig tree that was starting to sprout green leaves even though it wasn’t the season for figs. He immediately curses the tree: Woe to you, figs! (speculation, of course). The disciples hear the curse and probably wonder if Jesus woke up on the wrong side of his rock that day (see Mark 11:12-14).
Well, Jesus wasn’t in a bad mood and he didn’t wake up on the wrong side of anything. This curse was an object lesson for the disciples—immature, hardheaded, impressionable men who so often failed to get it. Immediately after the fig tree incident Jesus and the disciples enter the temple and Jesus starts to “clear out” the temple (Mark 11:15-19). That means he got fired up, tipped over tables, threw coins on the ground, and told the hypocrites who did not truly love God to leave God’s building.
So immediately after cursing the fig tree, Jesus enters the temple to curse the Jews, essentially saying, “I don’t want your lip service and legalism.” How does this connect to the poor, inanimate tree? The reference of the fig tree implicated Israel, who was often referred to as a fruitless fig tree by God (see Jer. 8:13; Hos. 9:10; et al.) Israel often appeared righteous (remember the green leaves?), but was actually wicked and dead. Not much had changed by Jesus’s day, and, in prophetic fashion, he exposes their idolatry again.
In Mark 11:20-25, Jesus fully explains why he cursed the tree. By cursing the tree (and clearing the temple), Jesus teaches the disciples that they are to do whatever is necessary to remove obstacles to fruit in their lives. The point was, “Have faith in God,” then he added that faith will throw mountains into the sea. “Moving mountains” is a hyperbolic expression and was historically used for what seemed impossible to accomplish (Isa. 40:4; 49:11; 54:10). Faith in Christ overcomes seemingly impossible obstacles (cf. 1 John 5:4). The implicit point also is that faith is in God. It does not take much faith to move a “mountain”—faith only the size of a mustard seed, actually (Matt. 17:20). Therefore, it’s not the amount of faith that matters, but the object of faith. Jesus then tells the disciples the oft-quoted popular line, “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Jesus is not giving an un-qualified promise for a certain kind of “prayer of faith.” He simply says, “If there is something that is standing in the way of you bearing fruit in the Christian life, pray that it will be removed and God will do it for you.” Sin, suffering, or whatever. When we seek to desire more of Christ, and we pray for it, God will do it. Maybe not immediately or the way we imagine, but he will do it.
At his conclusion (Mark 11:25), Jesus points out one major hindrance to producing fruit at: lack of forgiveness. When we pray for obstacles to be removed, but we are unforgiving toward someone, there will be no victory over our obstacles. An unforgiving heart is the greatest obstacle to bearing fruit because it shows that we truly do not understand the gospel. When we fail to forgive, we assault God’s character, grace, and sovereign work. Being habitually and resolutely unforgiving may actually prove that we have not actually experienced God’s grace at all. On the other hand, an evidence (fruit!) of God’s gracious saving activity in our lives is that we forgive others just as God in Christ forgave us (Col. 3:13).
Here are some penetrating questions to make this applicable for today:
- What obstacles must I overcome to bear fruit?
- Where am I not truly believing the gospel, focusing on Jesus as the object of my faith, and thus failing to move these “mountains”?
- Am I resorting toward coldhearted legalism or I am delighting in God as my supreme Treasure and letting my actions/fruit flow from that?
- Am I actively praying for fruit that comes out of a new identity and a true love for Jesus (see John 14:15)?
- Is there anyone in my life that I have not forgiven?
- Am I truly resting in the forgiveness I have in Christ so that I am free to quickly, sincerely, and lavishly forgive others?