Why do I call Romans 8 the best chapter in the Bible?
Because it is. Christians for centuries, I think, have turned to Romans 8 because it gives us the gospel in one chapter. It talks about the doctrine of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And I had a deacon one time saying to me that this was in some way calling into question the inspiration of all of Scripture. And isn't all of Scripture?
Great and the greatest. And I said, well, just answer this question. If you've got two minutes to live, do I read the first few chapters of Chronicles, which is a list of names, or do I read Romans 8? And I think the answer is always going to be Romans 8, because it says everything that needs to be said about the gospel in one chapter. In Mark's gospel, we read about Jesus cursing a fig tree. The reason why people have such consternation about this is because of the little phrase that Mark inserts in the text that it was not the season for figs.
Why should He curse a tree that's a fig tree for not bearing figs when it wasn't even the season for figs? What is this passage in Mark's gospel all about? Was Jesus angry?
And if so, why? Well, as is the case with all of Scripture, understanding the context is vital to interpreting a passage so that we avoid reaching wrong conclusions. We're studying the hard sayings of Jesus on the Saturday edition of Renewing Your Mind, and this episode in the earthly ministry of our Savior certainly falls into that category. As we continue now with our study of the hard sayings, we remember that we've looked at the hard sayings of the prophets and now we're looking at some of the hard sayings of Jesus. And you'll recall that what we mean by this phrase hard sayings is that it refers to those passages in Scripture that could be hard in one of two ways, either because the message comes across to us as being somewhat harsh and difficult for us to accept, or they could be called hard sayings because they're real posers, they're puzzling, they're difficult for us to understand.
Let's look at the text and see what it says. Seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. And when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response, Jesus said to it, Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.
And His disciples heard it. Here in this brief episode, we have the record of Jesus approaching a fig tree, and finding no figs on the tree, He becomes annoyed and announces a curse upon the fig tree. And because of that curse on the fig tree, the fig tree withers and dies, and thereafter never again is able to bring forth fruit. Now, what's so controversial about this?
Well, there are several matters that come into view. One is that people read this text and have said that in this episode, Jesus reveals a side to His character or a side to His personality that is somewhat dark. And some have even gone so far as to say that in this occasion, Jesus sins and disqualifies Himself from the role of sinless Savior because He behaves in a manner that is capricious and arbitrary, and He has a mini temper tantrum directed against this poor, innocent tree that He curses simply because it doesn't have any figs. And the reason why people have such consternation about this is because of the little phrase that Mark inserts in the text that it was not the season for figs. And Jesus, after all, knew it wasn't the season for figs, so why should He curse a tree that's a fig tree for not bearing figs when it wasn't even the season for figs?
And I think you can feel the weight of that particular problem. I remember when I was a student in seminary taking a course that at the time was a nightmare. It was a course in the customs and geography of Palestine, and it was one of those courses that was quite detailed in the technicalia that we were required to memorize.
We had to learn all the different regions of Palestine and the average rainfall in the Shepilah and in the Negev and all about the different seasons of harvesting and planting and so on, and it was one of the most boring courses in that regard I ever had to take. And yet at the same time, we would experience vignettes of marvelous insights to the Scripture that came about as a result of gaining an understanding of the geography and the customs and the climate and so on of the land in which all of these redemptive historical episodes took place. And it was a great privilege to be able to take that course because it was offered by a gentleman who was in his 80s at the time and had long since retired from active seminary teaching and had been a colleague of William Foxwell Albright. And if you know your history, you know that Albright is to archaeology what Einstein was to physics in the 20th century. William Foxwell Albright was considered to be the greatest archaeologist ever to live. Well, the teacher of this course was not Professor Albright, but it was a man who had been his partner and colleague, and his name was James Calso, and he would be perhaps the second greatest archaeologist of the 20th century. And to have the opportunity to sit at his feet and gain insights into the land of Palestine from his direct tutelage was something I will always treasure. But Dr. Calso took us to this text, and in his way, you know, he said, What are we to think about this when Jesus is running around cursing fig trees when it isn't even the season for figs?
And he gave us the explanation, which was a very simple one and one I had never thought of before. Dr. Calso explained to us that in Palestine there is a definite season for figs, but there are several different varieties or species of fig trees. And one particular variety of fig tree bears figs at a different time of the year from all of the other varieties of fig trees.
And this particular tree is coveted in the Near East because it provides this delicacy out of season. And so when one would stumble upon that particular variety of fig tree outside of fig season, it would be a particular delight so that they could enjoy the fruit of the tree. And what Dr. Calso went on to say was that when that particular variety of fig tree had leaves present on it, that was a sure sign, a clear indication of the presence of figs.
And so let's recapitulate this. The absolute principle by which one determined whether figs were available was not what season it was, but whether the fig tree that you saw had leaves upon it. And Jesus and His disciples are walking, they're hungry, and Jesus notices in the distance this particular variety of fig tree. And obviously He could see that it had leaves, which meant to Jesus and to the disciples that they could enjoy a serendipitous treat of out of season figs. And so as Jesus draws near to the tree, lo and behold, there are all these leaves but no figs. And so Jesus then curses the fig tree. Now the reason why He curses the fig tree is twofold. In the first instance, the tree was supposed to have figs and it didn't. It had all the outward signs of bearing figs, but it had no real fruit. Now it's not as if a fig tree is a moral agent that could be guilty of the sin of hypocrisy.
Trees are not hypocritical because they don't make conscious decisions to lie or to deceive or defraud and to play act the way hypocrites do. But what Jesus does on this occasion is He takes advantage of this situation from the realm of nature to make a point to teach a lesson. And the kind of lesson that is being taught here we call an object lesson. There is a grand tradition among the prophets of the Old Testament not only to speak their messages but at times to dramatize them by the use of external objects or external signs. Isaiah went through the city naked on one occasion to dramatize a point that God was trying to communicate to His people.
And the prophets frequently would use such object lessons to illustrate the divine message. And that's simply what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is demonstrating a truth of God by using the fig tree as an object lesson. If we look further in the text, we will see that at the end of verse 14, we have a sort of interruption in the episode where we have the account of Jesus coming to Jerusalem and cleansing the temple. And then in verse 20, Mark comes back to the business of the fig tree.
Now in the morning as they passed by, this is the following day, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter remembering said to Him, Rabbi, look, the fig tree which you cursed has withered away. And so Jesus answered and said to them, Have faith in God, for assuredly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, be removed and be cast into the sea and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.
Therefore, I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them and you will have them. Now this explanation in a sense muddies the waters all the more because it's obvious that in the first instance, the point that Jesus is making is a point about hypocrisy. The fig tree manifested something that was not true. And so we can gain from that incident without Jesus further elucidation on it the point that Jesus makes consistently with the Pharisees about hypocrisy. You understand that the Pharisees were consistently criticized by Jesus for what we call their externalism. That is, outwardly they had a tremendous show of piety and of righteousness. They paraded their piety before men, and Jesus said that they were like whited sepulchres that were whitewashed on the outside.
They were unblemished, but underneath the surface inside the sepulcher were dead men's bones. And so Jesus frequently makes this criticism of the Pharisees whom He addresses as hypocrites for displaying one thing on the surface that was not a true manifestation of what was really there inside. Now you can see then the analogy between that and the fig tree that on the surface displayed the presence of leaves. But there was no fruit of any value in the tree. So I think that that exonerates Jesus from any charge of irrational anger or will stop having letters from ecological societies that are protesting this waste of a perfectly good tree and so on. But again, Jesus illustrates from nature frequently the spiritual truths that He wants to say. He says that a tree that does not bring forth fruit is worthy to be cut down and cast into the fire. And then He turns around and uses that to illustrate the necessity of the Christian to bear fruit in the Christian life, and those who do not bear fruit will be cut down and cast aside.
And again, this is illustrated by His cursing of the fig tree. I'm reminded of an incident that took place at the very beginning of our ministry at Ligonier when we started this ministry in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, twenty-four or five years ago. We were given land and buildings to begin this ministry by a wealthy woman from Pittsburgh, Mrs. Dora Hillman. And she was a lover of the things of God, but she also was a lover of things of nature. And she lived on a farm, and she loved to plant things, and her particular love was the planting of trees. When we built our campus in western Pennsylvania, it seemed like Mrs. Hillman was there every day with her shovel and with her little seedlings and the little trees. And she would insist that we planted them, and I had to plant most of them, and she would bring them there unannounced. And she would always give me these instructions.
Two things that she was always concerned about was the size of the hole you dig when you plant the tree and the amount of water that you give it to nurture it along. In fact, Mrs. Hillman was a little bit eccentric. You would see her at some of these high society meetings at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, when she donated the library to the University of Pittsburgh, the Hillman Library. She was all dressed up in this magnificent outfit. And during a break in the ceremony, she was seen wandering around the grounds of the campus, and she opened up her purse and she pulled out a pair of pruning shears and began to prune some of the bushes on the campus at the University of Pittsburgh. This is how dedicated she was to the proper growth and treatment of flowers and trees and bushes. In fact, she liked to plant trees so much we used to call her Dora Appleseed. Well, she would insist that if you buy a one-dollar tree, you have to dig a ten-dollar hole, and if you buy a ten-dollar tree, you have to dig a hundred-dollar hole.
And she made sure that the holes that I dug were hundred-dollar holes. Then, of course, we had to water it, and she would plant these trees in the middle of the fields, and I would have to string hoses forever to where we could water the trees. Well, on this one occasion, she planted a tree that was rather sizable, and I tried to put a lot of water on it, but it didn't work. And the tree started to lose its leaves, and it started to wither, and it looked to me like it was dying. So she called her foreman from her farm to come over and look at this poor tree. And she instructed that foreman, she said, now I want you to give water to this tree and save this tree. And this man looked at her and says, I can't. She said, why not? He says, it's dead, boss.
She kept saying, I want you to pour water. She said, no, ma'am, that tree is dead. And there's nothing we're going to be able to do to save that tree, and he was right. And I noticed that even Dora Hillman, with all of her concern, was not able to save that tree. The tree was dead. It would never bloom. It would never blossom. It would never have leaves again. And that's the state that Jesus left this tree outside of Jerusalem in.
It was finished. Nothing could bring it back unless Christ Himself were to exercise His power to bring it back. But the thing that is so often missed in this incident, where we get caught up on why did Jesus curse the fig tree, is the remarkable fact of what actually happened. Our Lord manifests His humanity in several dimensions here. One indicates that the reason He went to the fig tree in the first place was because He was hungry. We also indicate that He didn't know in advance that the tree would not have figs.
And so, in His human nature, He was not omniscient. And yet, when He wants to demonstrate the message of the object lesson, He calls upon the supernatural power with which He had been endowed to wither the tree on command. And this is one more incident in the life of Jesus where Jesus demonstrates His power over nature. It's not dissimilar from the occasion on the Sea of Galilee when by command, He caused the storm to cease and the waters to become calm. He said to the sea that was raging, Peace, be still, and instantly the sea was calm.
Well, in like manner, He now addresses another part of nature, and by the sheer power of His command, He causes that tree to die. I've tried that in reverse. I've had plants at my house that haven't flourished, and I've talked to them. I've cajoled them.
I've pled with them. I've tried to give them tender, loving care and say, Now, if you will just now begin to bloom, I'll make sure that you get all the nutrients that you need. And sometimes I've scolded those plants, and I've heard my wife do it. My wife came in, and I'll say, Where's that plant that was here yesterday? She says, I put it in the closet. I said, In the closet? She said, It'll die.
Why did you put it in the closet? She said, I told that plant that if it didn't start doing better, I was going to put it in the closet, and she did. But I've never been able to just look at a plant and say, Bear fruit, and have it bear fruit. Or conversely, I don't have the power to look at a plant and say, Wither, and have it wither. But once Jesus addresses this piece of nature, this tree, and said, You will no longer bring forth any fruit, the tree died, which is an astonishing display of the power of Christ. And so that when He interprets it the following day for His disciples, He says to them, This is the power that is available to those who put their trust in God, that we have the power to move mountains. He doesn't mean that we have the power to cause fig trees to wither and so on, but He used it to illustrate not only the sin of hypocrisy, but also to demonstrate the power of Almighty God. Such a helpful explanation from Dr. R.C.
Sproul. We're glad you joined us for Renewing Your Mind on this Saturday. I'm Lee Webb. Each week we return to R.C. 's series, The Hard Sayings of Jesus. And it's true, there are many ways we misunderstand the words of Christ. Sometimes what He says may seem harsh to our modern sensibility.
Or as we heard today, it's simply hard to know what He means. We'd like for you to have the complete series so you can continue your study on your own. With your donation of any amount, just request a digital download of The Hard Sayings of Jesus.
Whether you're struggling with some of these questions or you're simply desiring to understand God's Word more completely, this five-part series will be a great help to you. There are a couple of ways you can reach us. One is by phone at 800-435-4343. But you can also give your gift and make your request online at renewingyourmind.org. And just a reminder that our app is another resource to study God's Word. You'll find articles, video posts, free e-books, and free streaming of this daily Renewing Your Mind program.
Just search for Ligonier in your app store. What is the lesson for us from the fig tree? Again, the emphasis on this episode is the lesson that God is not interested in our giving outward signs of producing fruit, but He wants to see real fruit in our lives. And it's not enough simply to go through the motions of prayer and of Bible study and of church attendance and even of preaching and teaching. God wants to see the fruit of His grace, the fruit of the Holy Spirit being brought forth in abundance in our lives because there is a sweetness to the fruit of the Spirit, a sweetness that can be enjoyed by all who are hungry and by all who are mourning and by all who are troubled. And I know that sometimes in our nation we get an over-concern about productivity, and sometimes we disclaim the Protestant work ethic. But Jesus frequently exhorted His followers to be productive, to bring forth the fruit of the labors of the kingdom of God. And that's our lesson from this episode. And we have more lessons to learn as Dr. Sproul will continue looking at some of the hard sayings of Jesus next Saturday. His focus will be on the unpardonable sin. Just the mention of that strikes fear in many people. What is the unpardonable sin, and can a true believer commit it?
I hope you'll join us next week for Renewing Your Mind. Copyright © 2020 IFA Productions
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