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Lessons from the Fig Tree (Part 1 of 4)

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg
The Truth Network Radio
July 9, 2024 4:00 am

Lessons from the Fig Tree (Part 1 of 4)

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg

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July 9, 2024 4:00 am

Why did a fruitless fig tree incur Jesus’ wrath? And how does it concern God’s kingdom? Before examining this incident, Alistair Begg shares some principles of interpretation that help in understanding such difficult passages. Listen to Truth For Life.


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Why did a fig tree with no fruit on it provoke the wrath of Jesus, and what does that have to do with the kingdom of God?

We're looking at the lessons we can learn from the fig tree incident today on Truth for Life, but first Alistair Begg walks us through some principles of interpretation that will make it easier for us to understand difficult passages like this one. Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit.

When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, May no one ever eat fruit from you again. And his disciples heard him say it. Then follows the encounter in the temple, and verse 20, In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, Rabbi, look, the fig tree you cursed has withered. Have faith in God, Jesus answered.

I tell you the truth. If anyone says to this mountain, Go, throw yourself into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your sins. Thanks be to God for his Word. Father, help us now as we turn to this passage of Scripture that we might both understand it and believe it and live in the light of it.

For Christ's sake. Amen. Well, these verses that I have just read have been described as a narrative which bristles with difficulties—a narrative which bristles with difficulties. And these verses have actually proved to be a breeding ground for irrelevant questions and implausible answers—not least of all in home Bible study groups, where people have decided to pull their ignorance when it comes to the matter of Jesus and the cursing of the fig tree. In order that I don't contribute to that, it is imperative that I remind you of how important it is to hold tightly to the principles that guide our interpretation of the Bible—not just this passage but of any passage. And it is the unique privilege of the individual who has been appointed pastor-teacher to unfold the story of the Bible. The reason that the church has called me and my colleagues and has decided to graciously provide for my needs is in order that I might be diligent in studying my Bible and in seeking to come to an understanding of it in such a way that I would be able to expound it to the congregation and to others, and to do so in a way that is helped by both illustration and by application. And the task that is granted to an individual such as myself is aptly summarized in the encounter between the Ethiopian man, who was in a chariot riding back to Jerusalem, as is recorded in Acts chapter 8, when Philip was sent by God to run alongside the chariot. He encounters the man reading from the scroll of Isaiah the prophet, and as the man is reading out loud, Philip says to him, Do you understand what you're reading?

And the man replies, How can I unless someone explains it to me? And that is the responsibility of the pastor and the teacher. And part of that responsibility is not simply to provide food but is to help those who are the recipients of the food to learn how to cook for themselves. And it is of interest to me, although I don't watch these programs, I see them in passing, that we seem to have a deluge of cooking programs, that everyone and their uncle has decided that they are a chef or a chefette, and the best they can do is just explain to us—and I have watched them a little bit, I'm always intrigued by the way in which they do it, we'll put that in the oven, and then all of a sudden I have another one over here that came out just perfectly, which is probably pretty good, because there's no saying what has happened to that one that has gone in there. And so it goes on. But there's benefit in that.

I suppose I would do well to watch some of them and actually learn. And so, when you are the beneficiary of the Word being taught to you, there is a sense in which you ought to be able to say increasingly, after time, well, I can see how he did that. I can see where he got that. As opposed to saying, I don't understand how he did that, and I don't know where he got that. So if you were to come with me into my study and look over my shoulder when I sit down with my Bible and read, then Jesus saw a fig tree in the distance, and he said to the tree, may no one ever eat fruit from you again.

And his disciples heard him say it, and you see my Bible, and you see a big blank sheet of paper in front of it, and you're sitting beside me at the desk, what do I do? Well, I do a number of things, but one of the things that I did this week was I had to remind myself of certain principles of interpretation so as to guard me against a bizarre explanation. What principles?

Well, at least these. I wrote down, I must interpret the obscure by the clear and the partial by the more complete. That's a principle of interpretation—that you come to a passage of Scripture that is immediately obscure. You have to then set that within the context of other passages of Scripture which are more complete. Because some passages of Scripture, immediately and especially on first reading, seem to be so difficult to understand.

And one of the things to do is to say, This is difficult to understand. Then you can start from a position of humility rather than, Well, I'm sure I understand this. Secondly, I noted to myself, I have to be sure that I am comparing Scripture with Scripture and that I'm going to let Scripture check my interpretation.

Okay? So that I'm going to make sure that the passage of Scripture that is before me is set within the context of the entirety of the Bible, and that when I reach a point of interpretation, that I will be able to take that interpretation and check it against the Bible. Because if I come up with an interpretation that runs contrary to the clear and plain and obvious teaching of the Bible, then I and everyone else may be absolutely certain that I'm wrong in my interpretation.

And you then will be able to say, Aha, we got you. Thirdly—and this is particularly important in this reference—I must make sure that I use the Old Testament as a guide to understanding my study of the New Testament, and I must, when I read the Old Testament, read it in relationship to and in subordination to the New Testament and its fulfillment in Jesus. You got that?

So when I read the Old Testament, I see that the Old Testament is like I've gone into, like, an older map of Scotland, and it has certain roads and highways in it, and they're pointing forward, and then I come to a new map where all of these things are present, but they have now come to fulfillment in the present situation. And then I am able to take that which is in the New in Act 2, as we put it last week, and realize that my understanding of Act 1 must be in subordination to the way in which things have been fulfilled in Act 2. You still with me? Three of you are? That's good. And fourthly—and this will be my last one, because this is not exhaustive, this is just selective—fourthly, I have to make sure that I am working to understand the particular significance of each separate passage.

All right? So that the particular significance of each passage needs to be understood. Not understood in isolation—that's why we've already gone through points one, two, and three—but nevertheless understood. So when you come to a passage like this, you have to then start scribbling down on your pad. You say, Now what are the things I'm going to have to investigate?

Well, I'm going to have to investigate this matter of the fig tree. I'm going to have to investigate whether Jesus ever has another miracle of destruction or whether this is unique. I'm going to have to look and see whether Jesus is represented anywhere else in the Bible as doing something out of a fit of pique, as apparently is happening here. And I'm going to have to ask myself the question, whether the form of expression in this particular passage is literal or whether it is figurative, whether what is being described is actual or whether it is metaphorical. I'm going to have to ask of the passage, Is the language in this passage figures of speech, like hyperbole and metaphor and simile—that's why you need the English language, incidentally—and is the language largely proverbial? So, for example, Jesus has already said, after the encounter with a rich young ruler, Jesus says to his disciples, I'm going to tell you something. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle and for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

What is that? That is a proverbial statement. That is a proverbial statement. Well, then, when we come to this question of the mountain being cast into the sea, which we won't get to this morning—not if I keep on at this rate—but if we deal with the mountain cast into the sea, we have to ask, Is this proverbial language? And for those of those who want to jump up on their hind legs and start talking about how they take the Bible literally, then we're going to have a good discussion with you after we've had a coffee about how many times you've seen a mountain actually being thrown into the sea—apart from an act of God himself, not an act of somebody who was believing that it was possible to do. Well, it takes nothing away from the truth of the Bible to understand when things are used figuratively or metaphorically. And one of the ways in which we understand the Bible literally is to understand it in the literal context of the language as it's used. So when Jesus says, I am the door, we understand that it is a metaphor. He's not saying that he's a door.

He's a human being. When he says, This is my body, he is using the bread as an indication of that which represents his body, and so on. So when we come to this, we must apply it in the same way. Now, I recognize that that's a long introduction. In fact, there's a little more introduction, because you will notice in verse 11 that Jesus' actions there seem to be rather anticlimactic—that after the drama of his procession into Jerusalem, it all seems rather sleepy at the end of the day. He has entered Jerusalem as the Messiah King riding on a donkey. But in actual fact, if you see verse 11 not so much as the end of the procession, as the reconnaissance for the next day, then you realize that he is actually planning for the events that are to follow. And the events that are to follow, we might say, begin there in verse 11 of chapter 11 and go all the way through to the beginning of chapter 13. Because if you look carefully, you will discover that all that unfolds between here and the beginning of 13 takes place within the context of the temple. So the events begin with the cleansing of the temple and the end with the prophecy of the destruction of the temple. So you have, for example, in verse 21 here, Peter says, Look, the fig tree you cursed has withered. In verse 1 of chapter 13, Luke, teacher, what massive stones, what magnificent buildings, Jesus says, not one stone here will be left on another, everyone will be thrown down. So in other words, this is set within the context of the prophecy of the judgment that is coming.

And therefore, this is the framework. You have the same thing, for example, in Luke 19, where Jesus says that he wept over Jerusalem. How often would I have gathered you? And so on.

But you would not come to me. And he says there is a dreadful judgment that is coming your way. I have to make note of that and keep that in my mind as I come, then, to this particular passage. I have to also recognize that although the issue of the temple may not mean much to the Parkside congregation, we have to understand that Mark was written initially for first-century dwellers, for whom the temple meant everything.

When they were confronted by the issues of the temple, they recognized that the temple was the heart of Israel's religious life, and the temple was the symbol of its national identity. This past week I heard on National Public Radio that they were looking for twenty-five million to restore the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It made me also wonder whether anybody really cared about the National Cathedral.

I don't mean that in an unkind way. I just mean, I wonder how many people are really interested in the National Cathedral. Have you ever been in the National Cathedral? I have.

But I would wager that most people haven't. It's just the National Cathedral, wherever it is. But for the Jewish person, they didn't regard the temple in that way.

The temple identified them among the nations, and the temple was the very center, was the very apex of their spiritual activity. Now, when you understand that, and you realize that what we have here is the description of the Messiah King, the one who is the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament expectations—here we have the Messiah King, the fulfillment of all that has been provided in the Old Testament. He is riding into Jerusalem gentle and riding on a donkey in fulfillment of prophetic passages from the Old. He is coming into the center of religious life looking for spiritual fruit and looking for true worship. And what does he find? He discovers a tree that makes a promise that it can't fulfill, and he discovers a temple that is full of activity that incurs God's wrath. Now, you're sensible people. You follow my line of thought.

Is this accurate? The King comes into the center of religious life, and what is held out as an apparent expression of fruitfulness is not there. And what should be the very exaltation of the living God as a house of prayer has actually been turned into a marketplace and into a bazaar. And although we chose to study these two incidents separately, they really belong together, and they help to explain each other. So I think you'll constantly find yourself moving back and between them as you seek to think this out.

Now, I then decided that the best way I could approach the passage was to try and summarize our thinking under three words, each of which begins with the letter F—that's just the way my mind often works—and they're all there. First of all, the issue of fruit, then the question of faith, and then the matter of forgiveness. We will only be able to tackle the question of fruit for this morning.

So there we have it. Seeing in the distance a fig tree, verse 13, he went out to find if it had any fruit. So that's why my point is fruit. Nothing particularly brilliant in that, is there?

You have to spend a long time on that. Jesus is teaching something about fruit. Why don't we put that down? He reached it, he found nothing but leaves. He went looking for fruit, found nothing but leaves. And so he said to the tree, May no one ever eat fruit from you again. Well, what's happening here? Are we then to assume that Jesus is simply employing his supernatural power in a way that is destructive, and he does so arbitrarily, and he does so cynically? In other words, he was hoping that he would find some of the little green figs that would be present before the fullness of the fig tree emerged, and when he found that it wasn't present, he just said, Oh, well, forget that tree.

I hope you'll never ever bear any figs at all. And you will notice the disciples heard him say it. Okay, well, here we go. We must go to our principle.

What's our principle? We take a statement that is difficult to understand, and we set it within the context of everything else we know about the individual who has just said what he said. Is it legitimate then for us to conclude that Jesus is acting in a way that is callous?

The answer is no. Why not? Because of everything else we know about Jesus. Because of all of the way that his character unfolds.

Because all of the way in which he works. Now, of course, if we're opposed to the notion that Jesus, in the totality of the revelation of himself, helps us to reach this conclusion, if we are looking for a way to oppose Christ, then for sure we can say, Well, the only way that I could possibly understand this is in that way. But no. The staggering thing about it is that it is a miracle of destruction, and everything that we've seen of Jesus has been a miracle of transformation, or of restoration. So it ought to make us sit back and go, Whoa! So we have to say, Well, would I be able to conclude that Jesus is just acting in this way? Has Jesus ever acted in this way? No.

Therefore, it would be a complete aberration. Yes. Okay, let me hold that thought. Now, let me go to this question of the fig tree. What do I know about the fig tree?

I get a concordance. I look up fig tree. I see, where do you get fig trees? Well, you find that when you read the Old Testament—and you're gonna have to trust me on this and follow up on your own—when you read the Old Testament, you discover that both the vine and the fig tree are used routinely as metaphors of the status of the people of Israel before God. It runs all the way through into the New Testament, as I hope we will see.

For example, in Hosea chapter 9, Hosea writes—God writes through the prophet Hosea—"When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert. When I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the earthly fruit on the fig tree." And if you go and search your Old Testament, you will discover that the prophets spoke of this fig tree in reference to Israel's status before God. Far from the response of Jesus being arbitrary, it makes me wonder whether Jesus—who probably knew the entire Old Testament off by heart—whether Jesus looks on this scene, the occasion of it is a natural occasion. There, I wouldn't mind a fig right now.

He gets there, there's no figs. Does his mind go to Micah chapter 7 verse 1? You say, well, I don't know what Micah 7 verse 1 is.

I'm gonna tell you what it is. This is what Micah 7 1 says. What misery is mine? I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard. There is no cluster of grapes to eat.

None of the early figs I crave. Jesus looks on this scene, having ridden in as the king to the headquarters of religion, observing the ceremonialism, observing the legalism, observing the utter emptiness that is represented in the activities of religion in the temple. He says, this is exactly it.

Look at this thing. You're listening to Truth for Life with Alistair Begg. We'll learn more lessons from the fig tree tomorrow. Now I hope you're enjoying and learning from the stories and parables of Jesus told in Mark's Gospel. This teaching from Alistair has a study guide you can download for free. There are 10 sessions that correspond with the messages Alistair preaches in this series. It makes a great 10-week Bible study for your small group if you're looking for a new topic to explore. Again, download the messages and the free study guide at slash kingdom. One of the core beliefs of the Christian faith that distinguishes us from other religions is that Jesus is God. We acknowledge that he came to earth as God in human form and he now reigns supreme in heaven. But how can we know that's true?

Where does the Bible teach that? Well, if you're looking for clarity or you'd like some help explaining the answers to others, ask for a copy of the book 100 Proofs that Jesus is God. It's a book that provides a comprehensive examination of the evidence that leaves no doubt about the fact of Jesus' divinity. For example, when you read 100 Proofs that Jesus is God, you'll explore Jesus' relationship to God the Father, how he's recognized as God by angels and demons. You'll get a better understanding of how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah and about the victory over Satan. Ask for your copy of the book 100 Proofs that Jesus is God when you donate today to support the Bible teaching ministry of Truth for Life. You can donate through the Truth for Life mobile app or online at slash donate or call us at 888-588-7884. I'm Bob Lapeen. Hope you can join us tomorrow when we'll look at why Jesus is looking for fruitfulness that goes beyond being religious and fulfilling religious duties. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life where the Learning is for Living.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-07-09 07:36:10 / 2024-07-09 07:45:05 / 9

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