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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

The Unusual Miracle

Mark 11:12-14, 19-26

The section of the Scripture we now encounter is somewhat unusual. Indeed, if this section had been long lost from the Gospel of Mark (and the parallel account in Matthew, in which the timing appears different) it would be received with some doubt. Let’s look at it:

(Mark 11:12-14 NNAS) On the next day, when they had left Bethany, He became hungry. {13} Seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. {14} He said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again!" And His disciples were listening.

(Mark 11:19-26 NNAS) When evening came, they would go out of the city. {20} As they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. {21} Being reminded, Peter said^ to Him, "Rabbi, look, the fig tree which You cursed has withered." {22} And Jesus answered^ saying to them, "Have faith in God. {23} "Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be taken up and cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. {24} "Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. {25} "Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. {26} "But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions."

(Note that the last verse is in italics in this translation. The NIV does not have this verse at all. It appears to be a later addition to Mark’s Gospel.)

Our Sense of Fitness

If indeed this were a long lost passage we might raise some objections to it. I can think of three:

·         Destruction seems so unlike God. We think of him as the creating, loving God, not as a destroyer.

·         This seems at first glance to be a fit of pique. It’s the kind of thing one would expect from a petty person, one who would snarl at others. It seems almost too small for the Lord Jesus Christ.

·         Then, there is the delay. The Christ I know heals immediately; but the tree withers overnight.

We shall see some answers to these. The interesting thing about the account is that the disciples asked none of these things; they were simply astonished that the tree withered at all. Before we can understand this, we need a little lesson in horticulture (and symbolism).

About Fig Trees

The real key to understanding this section is this: the fig tree which Jesus has encountered is somewhat unusual. This type of fig tree produces leaves after it produces fruit. So if you see the leaves, the fruit should already be there! Easton’s dictionary tells us this:

The fig-tree of Palestine (Ficus carica) produces two and sometimes three crops of figs in a year,

(1.) the bikkurah, or early-ripe fig (Micah 7:1; Isa. 28:4; Hos. 9:10, R.V.), which is ripe about the end of June, dropping off as soon as it is ripe (Nah. 3:12);

(2.) the kermus, or summer fig, then begins to be formed, and is ripe about August; and

(3.) the pag (plural green figs, Cant. 2:13; Gr. olynthos, Rev. 6:13, the untimely fig), or winter fig, which ripens in sheltered spots in spring.

The last of these is what Christ was expecting. As we see, it is by no means certain that all fig trees would have such figs. Only those in “sheltered spots” would have this – a point worth remembering as we study the symbolic aspects.

Symbolic significance for the House of Israel

The Old Testament uses the fig tree frequently for a sign of peace and prosperity (see, for example, Zechariah 3:10 for a prophetic use in this way). Jesus, in the parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9) attaches another symbolism to the fig – it is the representative of the House of Israel. Recall that this is just after the Triumphal Entry, during which Jesus has prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem. In this acted out parable he makes the point clear: the House of Israel has failed to produce the fruit of Godliness required of her. She will therefore be cursed and no more fruit will ever come from her. Perhaps our Lord wanted the disciples to hear the words of Jeremiah:

(Jer 24:8-9 NNAS) 'But like the bad figs which cannot be eaten due to rottenness--indeed, thus says the LORD--so I will abandon Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials, and the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land and the ones who dwell in the land of Egypt. {9} 'I will make them a terror and an evil for all the kingdoms of the earth, as a reproach and a proverb, a taunt and a curse in all places where I will scatter them.

Indeed, if you will consider the history of the Jews, this prophecy has indeed been fulfilled. But the lesson is not just for the House of Israel.

The lesson to us

God’s character is consistent. One of the reasons we are given the Old Testament is so that we may learn the lessons taught to the House of Israel and apply them to the church. In this acted parable there are three things we may see:

·         If there is no fruit in your life in Christ, you will wither away. Indeed, you will wither away from the roots up, for you are no longer in contact with your true root – Christ.

·         This will not be done because you have cut the root – it will be done because Christ himself commands it. It is in his nature to cut off that which is not fruitful.

·         And it is in his nature to do so patiently, but suddenly. He will long wait for your repentance and fruitfulness, but some day his patience ends, and you are cut off from him.

This is clear. The real question is, “How do I avoid such a fate?” Indeed, it is that question – which the disciples do not ask, but need to answer – which Christ discusses next.

Have Faith in God

This is one of those questions where Jesus leaves it to His hearers to work out the connection. I think it might go like this:

·         Oh great, I’m supposed to be fruitful for God. How do I do that?

·         Ah, I know. I know what produces results in this world – hard work! I will work hard and God will bless that.

·         But what if I’m unlucky? Any farmer knows that all the hard work in the world is no match for one summer hailstorm.

That process is about how we think. It leads us right down the path of salvation by works, and that path is fruitless. Christ now sets us on the right path: have faith in God. I suggest to you the following thoughts:

The “what” of faith

It is important to realize that the word translated “believe” in most instances is the verb form of the noun “faith.” We are commanded to trust. Our trust is not in the Bible (surprise, surprise) but in the person the Bible reveals.

The “who” of faith

Easton makes a crucial point. If we are to trust, we must know the person we are trusting. Trust is a special form of the personal relationship, and we must know the person we are trusting, and that they are indeed trustworthy. Indeed, we must

·         Believe that God is. (See Hebrews 11:6). We are told that this is His name, and it describes his essence. If we do not believe that, we cannot have this trusting relationship.

·         It is not sufficient to believe that He is; we must also believe that He hears and answers prayer. The imagined god who created the universe and spun it into space, ignoring it from then on, is not the God revealed in the Scripture. There is no sense praying to a god who won’t or can’t listen. So we must, as a matter of faith relationship, believe that he hears and answers prayer.

·         Beyond that, we must also know that He is faithful. We are not dealing with the arbitrary and capricious gods of the Greeks, who dealt in whim. We are dealing with the God who never changes, who is indeed eternal.

The “how” of faith

The faith described here is, as one writer put it, one which “takes before it receives.” It is a faith that acts as if the one praying had already received. How does one maintain such a faith?

·         It begins with a consciousness of God. I have heard many experienced Christians tell me that they “pray without ceasing,” for their lives are a continuous conversation with God. Mine is not the same experience (I’m a bit more formal); but the essential ingredient is the continuous presence of God. He is not “there” at prayer time and absent at other times; He is there all the time and listening and watching.

·         It continues with what one author called “an experienced communion.” God is not merely a cosmic watchdog, knowing everything you do. In faith he is the partner with whom you experience your life. He experiences it with you; you share those experiences with Him. One old thought is this: your real friends are not those you have laughed with but those you have cried with. We need to experience the communion of tears and laughter with God.

·         It rises to the point of a realized certainty. You know Him so well, you know what He will do. (Humorously, it’s like my wife. I know she will be late for my funeral. I just won’t be there to laugh about it.)

The Condition

All this sounds good, and such a promise of power tempts us to Faustian bargains. It is not a bargain but a relationship. (Interesting, isn’t it, how the word “business relationship” is now the popular buzz phrase in business? Something to that? Perhaps a bargain is no bargain compared to a relationship.) Christ makes it clear that the relationship is contingent.

We understand this, instinctively. If you wish to woo and win the young maid, your good looks and healthy wallet may give you a start. But if the two of you do not share a common outlook on life, a common world view, the relationship is not going very far. If she believes that appearance is everything, her physical beauty may attract you. Eventually, however, the shallowness will show.

It’s the same with God. You must share his view of things if the two of you are to have the personal relationship you so desire. You must, in some sense, be like him. Here Christ tells you what that sense of relationship is – it is in loving forgiveness.

We need to understand this carefully. It is not a bargain (“you forgive them and I’ll forgive and empower you”); it is a relationship based upon shared values. He believes in forgiveness (to the point of the Cross). Do you share his point of view? Do you believe in forgiveness as He does?

You complain that your prayer life is ineffective. Perhaps this would be a good place to look for a reason.

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