Friday, August 8, 2014

A Fruitless Fig, a Cursing Christ, and How Picasso and Rembrandt Can Help Us Understand

In spite of all the enmity and antagonism He'd just faced after turning tables in the temple, Jesus got up the next morning and headed right back into the thick of things. There was still important work to be done and those clerics who were critics wouldn't keep Him from His calling.

Matthew Henry writes:  "We must never be driven off from our duty either by the malice of our foes or the unkindness of our friends."

Wise words! Words I need to heed!

How often have I caved because of someone's cruelty?  How often have I packed up my toys and headed home because someone didn't play nice with me?  How often have I just given up on doing the caring thing because someone did an unkind thing?  

Sadly, too many times.

Thankfully my Savior was and is much more tolerant and tenacious than I, or I'd still be dead in my sins!!

Think about it, the all-knowing Jesus knew full well that arrest and trial, mocking and scourging, even pain and death awaited Him from that place and from those people.  There would be MUCH malice, but He would not be moved from His mission! 

Jesus had come to die for His enemies and sacrifice Himself to save sinners - and nothing and no one would stop Him!!

It's absolutely amazing ... but, we're not quite there yet!  

On His way to the temple, as He was heading back to do His duty, "He became hungry."  

The Son of God was also the son of man, and knew intimately all of the pains and passions of this life - yet without sin!  Being hungry, Jesus spied a fig tree full of leaves off in the distance. Being omniscient, He was perfectly aware of it's true state (fruitless), and He seized the opportunity to teach from that which He couldn't taste - to teach a life lesson about judgment.

This has always been a unique story to me.  Jesus has repeatedly shown us that He can save, but here He will remind us that He can also destroy.  

Whoa!! What?!?! 

I must admit, this place is a little uncomfortable!  We tend to like tales of marvelous mercy and glorious grace. We tend to recoil a bit at examples of holy justice and divine wrath. Those pieces don't always fit well with our view of God.  But is our view an accurate one? 

When in a dialogue about the Divine, I'll often refer to Picasso and Rembrandt as an example of how presuppositions can skew our view. 

Pablo Picasso self-portrait
I think many of us have (and possibly even prefer) a portrait of God in the more abstract vein of Pablo's paintings.  In our opinions we fashion God with a big nose of kindness, a giant eye of mercy, and a large lip of love. The things we like, the things we are comfortable with, the things we consider "kind of cool" become the things that are most prominent in our picture.  But what about the things that are somewhat unsettling - things like justice, wrath, and even holiness?  

Look at Picasso's self-portrait. Do you see that small wart on the nose, that faint dash of a nostril, that little line above the mouth?  That's the stuff we don't care for as much. Thus, we make that stuff small, seemingly insignificant, and possibly even portrayed as a blemish.  

As we look at the abstract it may seem to be a pleasant picture, but it's an out of proportion picture.  It is just not the real deal.

Rembrandt van Rinj self-portrait
Now, consider the work of Rembrandt van Rinj - the master of realism. Perhaps you don't care as much for his colors, but you'll have to admit he's balanced in his craft. He paints what is true of the people who sit for a session. What you see is as it exists. When you gaze at his artistry you get a good glimpse of things as they actually are, and you'd be able to recognize van Rinj if you saw him on the street.

The Word of God paints for us a Rembrandt of God - balanced and proportioned.  The Scripture shows us God's attributes in perfect harmony and with full form. 

His love is shown as a holy love.  His mercy and His justice meet with utter equipoise.  His kindness and even His wrath have a proper place in the affairs of this world and in the world to come. Who God is and what He is like lie open before us on the pages of the Bible that we may know Him in fact rather than fiction.  

Today's narrative offers sort of a Rembrandt about our Redeemer.  

Matthew tells us:
"Now in the morning, when He returned to the city, He became hungry.  And seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it, and found nothing on it except leaves only;  and He said to it, 'No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.' And at once the fig tree withered.
And seeing this, the disciples marveled, saying, 'How did the fig tree wither at once?'"   
Matthew 21:18-20    

In my days of atheism it was stories like this that made me question Christ. Truth be told, even now my natural inclination when I read this passage is to ask, "Jesus, what are You doing? What's up with the fury over a fig? You're seeming a bit extreme on this one and I'm getting a little uncomfortable."  

And then I think of Picasso and of Rembrandt, and I pause to think on what is concrete rather than on what is abstract; on what is real rather than relative.  

The Word of God assures me that the Son of God is not given over to passions.  Jesus isn't ruled by emotion or fueled by rage.  So, if He's not going a bit overboard about breakfast, then what's really happening here?  

Several things strike me this day: 
  • things about how we outwardly appear from a distance, versus how we actually are upon close examination;  
  • things about the fruit of real faith and the lack thereof in false faith;  
  • things about what follows being fallow; 
  • and things about how to respond to a Jesus who can make a tree wither with just a word.  

I'll warn you, this may not be a pleasant post, but I pray it will be a profitable one.

First, let us consider what should have been on the fig tree

This was a fig tree FULL of leaves. It gave every appearance of being a fig tree full of fruit. Therefore, Jesus came to it expecting fruit because of its leafy profession.  

You see, "a good tree bears good fruit."  The Bible gives many references to the necessity of spiritual fruit coming from a soul who is truly grounded in God.  
  • "Bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance."  (Mt 3:8)
  • "[I] appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit..." (Jn 15:16)
  • "[He] was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God." (Ro 7:4)
  • "Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord...bearing fruit in every good work..." (1 Co 1:10)
In the narrative before us, the abundance of leaves that covered that tree made a public profession that fruit should be found. Calling ourselves Christian is a similitude to this story.  If we profess faith, we should produce the fruit of that faith.  Are we?

Second, let us look at what was on the fig tree

As Jesus drew near, it was clear that that this fig tree was all leaves.  There was plenty of plumage and quite a shaft of showmanship, but not a single piece of produce to pick!!

Beloved, is this not the hypocrite?  In this fig tree do we not see an example of feigned and false faith?  Here is one with a "form of godliness"but without the fruit of godliness. 

And I must pause to ponder -  how often within Christendom does outward show abound? 

We attend church, we slap Bible bumper stickers on our Buick, we wear a cross around our neck, we post memes about Jesus on our FaceBook walls, and slip tracts to unsuspecting store clerks and waitresses. that fruit? Are those really the figs of faith? 

The fruit that Jesus is looking for isn't found in a check-list of do's and don'ts that make us think we've accomplished something for the Kingdom.  The figs of real faith are found in Galatians 5:

"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, 
goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."

Dear one,
  • It's possible to go to church regularly and be the most unloving woman in town.  
  • It's possible to stick a fish on your Ford and have zero joy and even less peace in your heart.  
  • It's possible to wear a cross around your neck and be impatient and unkind in your attitude.  
  • It's possible to fill up FaceBook with links about the Lord and yet lack true goodness and faithfulness in your life. (The truth of this statement can often be seen by the posts that follow said slogans of salvation!!)
  • It's possible to pass out a tract about Jesus and know nothing of the gentleness or self-control that comes from being in Him.
We may be able to wrangle up some fake fruit alternative - sort of the "Sunny Delight" of salvation, but the fruit that Jesus is looking for, and the only fruit He'll receive, is the 100% whole fruit which comes from the Spirit of God living, breathing, and actively working in the heart of the child of God. 
Christ isn't look for exterior leaves that blow in the breeze, He's looking for a righteous reality to our religion  - the fruit of faith, the fruit of the Spirit.

So, what's growing on my branches? 

Sure, there are days and moments, and sadly even some seasons where my production is pitiful. But, in the big scheme of things, is my garden growing in the grace of God?  By His power, am I "bearing fruit in its season" ?  

Oh Lord, help me to be a fig tree ripe unto harvest by the power of Your indwelling Spirit in my soul!!  I won't bear a blessed thing without your help!

Third, let us think about the fruit of being fruitlessness.

Here's where it really starts to sting, and where my inner Picasso can want to paint a more pleasant picture than the one inscribed on the pages of my Bible.  

You see, the ultimate fruit that comes from a life of being fruitless is that Christ will curse.

(As unpleasant as it is, let His cursing of that fruitless fig tree sink in for a moment.)

The life of a true Christian is a life of being blessed (not necessarily in the ways of the World - the fleeting and temporal ways, but in the ways of God - the lasting and eternal ways).  It is not so for those with a false faith.

The psalmist writes:
How blessed is the man [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord. He will be like a tree planted by streams of living water, which yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away.Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.  For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish."  (Psalm 1 selections)
Oh dear ones, a hypocrite will not find a home in heaven.

A life of only leaves has never truly known Jesus as Lord and Savior, and thus will not find Him a King of comfort, but One of cursing condemnation - justly deserved, righteously received cursing condemnation.

Real faith will produce real fruit and a life that has been grabbed by God's grace will yield a garden full of the produce of God's grace.

To that barren bush, that thing so full of foliage yet utterly empty of anything else, Jesus said, "No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you."  And immediately the tree withered away.  

Christ uttered an anathema.

The fruitless fig shall ever be what it once was!

It was created to bear fruit, but it bore none
     - and now it never shall, for as a result of it's fraud it withered away!  

The cloak collapsed.
     The showmanship shriveled.
          The fabrication faded - it even lost it's leaves.   

How frightening a thing this should be to us.
What if our sin were to become our destiny?
That's the ultimate outcome for the hypocrite who does not repent. 

So, what shall we do?  What shall we do with a cursing Christ? 

Well, I believe this text gives us the answer as it shows us what the disciples did.

Let us reflect on the response to Christ's rebuke.

As the disciples saw this act unfold their reaction was to "marvel."  They saw that Christ's curse took hold immediately, and in that they must have been reminded of His omnipotent power which had in an instant performed so many other mighty miracles.  

How many times prior to this one had He done a divine deed immediately?  
  • He'd stilled a stormy sea immediately. (Matthew 8)
  • He'd cleansed a leper immediately. (Matthew 8) 
  • He'd healed two blind beggars immediately. (Matthew 21) 
  • He'd dried up the bleeding spigot from a weak widow immediately. (Mark 5)
  • He'd raised Lazarus from the dead immediately (John 11) - and much, much more!
Oh, we should stand in awe of this One who has the "power to save and to destroy" immediately!!

Do we?

My friends, my loved ones, what is our reaction to a cursing Christ?  

Not liking the image, do we prefer and promote the Picasso, seeking the ruin of the Rembrandt?  Do we curse back at this Christ because He makes us mad?  Do we rail at His rebuke, or will we repent because of it?

The most barren sinners can become the most bearing saints, if they will come to Christ!

Beloved, let us ever examine our own hearts for hypocrisy (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Doing so, let us pray that our gracious God would help us see those areas where our foliage is false. For, the leaves of religion can not cover us from Christ's curse - but His blood does!  Our words won't save us - but His work will! Our profession shall not deliver us from destruction - but His propitiation perfectly protects!

Salvation comes, not from going to church but by being in Christ. Assurance is found, not by having your name written on a roll, but by having it inscribed in a Book - "the Lamb's Book of Life."   And you will know that it is indeed inscribed there, not by your lofty leaves, but by your faithful fruit - fruit that comes from being grafted into God's holy root!

On the day of this story Christ cursed a lying tree.  A few days later, Christ was crucified - cursed on a tree for a lying me.

Jesus took my well-deserved anathema upon Himself, and if my faith in that act of His perfect propitiation is sincere, then fruit will follow.

So, perhaps we should ask, how are our figs, my friends?

Come to Christ, and see them flourish!!


  1. This is the best explanation I have ever heard of this passage. Thank you.

  2. I agree with Donna. You have moved and convicted me today Lori. I'm looking at my figs and seeing that I need God to help me with my garden. There are a lot of weeds and a lot of rotten things. As I've seen you write several times, I'm glad there's a Redeemer and he will make a harvest even out of my life. You bless my soul with your words.

  3. I read this off a facebook share because the title intrigued me. I'm not much of a fan of religion and less of a fan of alot of the church people I run into. Alot of it because of the things i see coming out of their lives. This was an interesting post. I may look around this sight a little more today.

  4. That Picasso and Rembrandt picture is BRILLIANT!