Sunday, October 9, 2022

The Barren Fig Tree: Personal, National, and Universal Applications of Fruit Bearing

“Mordecai was seven years old when he decided that God had called him to be an evangelist. He started by preaching to barnyard animals. He even tried to immerse a cat in a water trough. When the feline began to scratch and claw, the budding evangelist threw him down and screamed, “Go on . . . go to hell!” It’s no wonder Mordecai grew up to be a “hog-jowl and turnip-green preacher” —country slang for a parson who gets in people’s faces. Whenever he brought his gospel tent to town, he would ask the locals to identify their most notorious sinner. He would then make a beeline for that person. Atheists, agnostics, and backsliders went into hiding when Mordecai Ham came to town.

In the twilight of his “hog-jowl and turnip-green” ministry, handsome Hollywood preachers came selling a softer gospel using Madison Avenue techniques. Folks stopped listening to the hellfire and brimstone of old Mordecai Ham. It seemed that he was washed up.

One night a pitiful handful in a half-filled service came forward. Mordecai Ham went back to his hotel room and wept in despair. Maybe he should have paid attention to one of those converts that night: a gangly North Carolina boy by the name of Billy Graham. In an age that measures success by the numbers, we need to step back and reevaluate what really matters. The impact we can have through a single prayer, a single conversation, a single act of kindness, or a single [you fill in the blank] —on a single child, man, or woman —is both incalculable and underrated. A child learns to walk one step at a time, and a race is finished by putting one foot in front of the other. Mordecai Ham died years ago, but what happened that one amazing night should encourage us with this truth: A single person doing the right thing, for the right reason, at the right time has the power to change the whole world.” -James Petterson, The One Year Book of Amazing Stories

Mordecai Ham was one who bore fruit for the kingdom of God. He was a fruit filled fig tree, you might say. And people came to know Jesus because he bore fruit in keeping with his faith.

Today we’re talking about the parable of the barren fig tree. It’s found only in the gospel of Luke, in chapter 13. This parable is very interesting because we’re going to see there are multiple layers of meaning here.

Jesus when he told parables, being the King of the universe, told parables with multiple layers of meaning, so as you dig into it, you’ll find deeper and deeper truths as you examine what he’s saying.

The three layers we’ll see are first, being applicable to our salvation journey personally. A message for individual believers. The second level is a message to Israel as God’s chosen people. The third layer is universal, it’s a message about the fabric of reality itself.

First let’s talk about the context, at this point in the gospel of Luke, Jesus had sent out the 12 disciples to do ministry work, then he sent out the 72 to do ministry work. Later they had gathered again, and Jesus had taught crowds, then he had rebuked the pharisees and teachers of the law openly, after this the pharisees began openly opposing Jesus. But crowds of thousands began following Jesus, it says at the beginning of chapter 12, he’s teaching his disciples there as well, and he begans teaching many parables, and truths. Then at the beginning of chapter 13, we see our context, and it says this,

From Luke 13:1-5, “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Jesus is teaching his disciples, teaching to the crowds, thousands of people in fact, and people are coming to him telling him about recent events in the news. Apparently Pontius Pilate had executed several of the jews while they were making sacrifices at the temple. Obviously this news is going around in the newspapers on the tv, and the people are talking about it. Similarly another event is being talked about, a tower was being built in Siloam, and it fell, killing 18 people.

It was common in those times to assume the people that were killed must’ve been sinners and God was judging them. Jesus says no that’s not necessarily the reason these events happened.

They happened because life on Earth was and is tough and random, and terrible things happen. And Jesus gives the crowds of thousands a warning, unless you repent you’ll perish too, like those who died in those events.

You don’t know when your day will come, death can come for us at any time. When we hear news stories we focus on other people and their sins. It’s a great way to get the focus off ourselves and onto others problems. We do that even when we listen to sermons or read the Bible, we think oh I know someone who needs to hear that my sister or a friend or someone at work. But Jesus says what about you? What about your own sins? Examine yourself first.

Immediately following this statement Jesus tells our parable for today. It says this:

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

What is your chief job as a Christian on planet Earth? Your chief duty is to bear fruit. Bear fruit, bear fruit, and bear more fruit. You are a fruit tree. You are a fruit bearer.

It says in Psalm 1:3-4, “That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.” –Psalm 1:3-4

In Psalm 1 we see a believer pictured as a tree planted by water. The stream of water is God almighty you might say, or for us Christians, the stream of water is Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit surging through our veins.

And that tree surging with the power of God produces fruit. That fruit is pleasing to God.

Similarly in John chapter 15 verses 1 and 2 Jesus talk about how the disciples are like branches in a grape vine. It says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” –John 15:1-2

If a branch bears fruit, it’s pruned so that it produces even more fruit. That pruning we understand to be the guidance and correction of God in our Christian lives.

But we also see it says if a branch doesn’t bear fruit, it’s cut off. Later it says branches that do not produce fruit are cut off and burned.

Similarly in our parable today the believer is pictured as a fig tree. A fig tree produces fruit, it produces figs, a wonderful fruit common in Israel in the middle east.

Could Jesus be talking about a wicked sinner here as a fig tree? No. Unbelievers do not produce good fruit, only bad. No one can please God unless they are in Jesus Christ.

Jesus is saying here, a believer, is like a fig tree, watered and cared for by God. And God expects there to be evidence of belief on the branches of the believer. That evidence is good fruit.

What do you think Jesus would mean by fruit? He could be talking about the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. Could be. Those would be internal fruit, fruits of your character. He could be talking more about good works, things like loving people, witnessing to others, feeding people, clothing people, visiting those in prison, caring for widows, caring for the elderly, inviting in the homeless, and so on. It could be both, one in turn must produce the other right? If the Holy Spirit is producing the fruit of the Spirit of love in mean, that love must manifest itself as practical actions in my life.

As it says in the book of James, faith without works is dead. My faith cannot be put under a basket, like a candle, it would burn out from lack of oxygen.

In James 2:14-17 it says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” –James 2:14-17

So we know that the evidence of our faith is found in good deeds. But without deeds, faith dies. The word of God, in the book of James even says that if we know the good work, the good thing, the help we’re to provide, we know we’re supposed to do it, we feel the Holy Spirit convicting us to do it, and we don’t it is sin to us.

From James 4:17, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”

So Jesus tells this parable of a man going to his vineyard and checking a particular fig tree for fruit, and he’s really frustrated, it’s been 3 years and still there is no fruit on this stupid tree. He’s put money and time into it, he has workers there who have been caring for it, and still nothing.

I remember growing up my mom planted an apple tree in our yard. But there was something wrong with the soil in that yard, and nothing would grow well. But the apple tree actually did grow, and it produced all sorts of leaves. But no fruit. Nothing of any value. And we had such high hopes for that apple tree, but it just wouldn’t produce any fruit.

Similarly, Jesus comes to us as believers to see if we are bearing fruit for his kingdom. And obviously any Christian ought to be bearing fruit. But he tells us that he does find that some Christians become lazy, or mired in sin, or they stop caring, or they drift away from the message, and they aren’t producing fruit.

And what does Jesus say he will do? He says I’ll cut down that tree because it’s useless. I’ll pull that branch off the vine myself and toss it in the fire. Serious stuff, he expects his people to bear his fruit. And if we don’t, we’re in danger of being cut off. For three years this fig tree produces nothing. But still the master is merciful. He has his servant fertilize it, water it, work the soil around it, give it one more year to produce fruit.

God is very merciful and patient with us. Even if we do get lazy as Christians and stop producing fruit, he’ll come to us and fertizile our soil, stir us up, convict us, to that we do produce fruit. Yet if we remain stiffnecked and refuse him, he will deal with us. We can be assured of that from this parable.

If it bears fruit next year, it says, fine, great awesome, you’re set then. No crime, no fowl for those 3 years of failure. It’s forgotten you’re bearing fruit now, that’s all that matters. But if even after that fourth year theres still no fruit, well, what does that mean? The believer will then fall away, perhaps without the possibility of returning? We know from Hebrews that in a particular situation, when someone falls away, not in all circumstances but in some, that they are not able to return because they would be “crucifying again the Lord Jesus Christ and holding him up to public shame.” Would that be the case in this situation? I don’t know. Perhaps they would “fall away” but could return again to the Lord in the future, if they came again to repentance and faith in Christ? Hard to say, I’m not sure how all this fits together. But it’s wise to study this parable carefully.

So that’s the first layer of this parable, the layer of personal application.

The second layer, is that Jesus is also talking about Israel. We’ve seen this in numerous parables that Jesus is often giving multiple layers of truth in one parable. It gives us a picture for our own lives, but also speaks to larger topics.

Israel had rejected God’s prophets, had rebelled time and again, worshiped false gods, and now Jesus had been with them for 3 years, preaching and teaching the truth. The image of the fig tree is often referred to in the Old Testament as representing Israel, as well. So 3 years of Jesus ministry, and they’ve still rejected him. But wait even a fourth year, even after Jesus is crucified, and resurrected, the early church would minister in Israel, but would also be rejected, mistreated, martyred, and they would take their message into the Roman empire. And eventually Israel, as the fig tree of God, was cut down, in AD 70 when Rome destroyed Jerusalem, and burned down the 2nd temple, after Israel rebelled against Rome. So the fig tree was after everything, cut down.

Though just as prophecy predicted, after WWII, the Jews returned to Israel, and are there right now, having rebuilt the nation, though they have not yet rebuilt the temple. Maybe that’s a picture for us, that perhaps believers who fall away can return, though only through God’s mercy.

So this parable is a rebuke to the pharisees, and the religious leaders and the nation of Israel in general, saying you are not producing the fruit I require, the fruit of repentance and turning to me, to Jesus, and so you will be cut down.

Thirdly, this parable is speaking about a universal reality.

This is a principle of wisdom you can apply to numerous situations. You’ve got an old car that’s been on the fritz for years, it’s having engine issues, oil is leaking, the brakes are bad, etc. Apply the principle in the parable, you could give it another chance, look for the underlying issue with the vehicle, fix it up again one more time, give it another chance, if it runs well again great, if not, get rid of it. You’ve got a friendship that’s been causing you problems for years, ups and downs, fights and make ups, but you have the option to give it another chance. Sit down with the friend let’s find the underlying issue here, let’s fertilize the situation, let’s go down deep and work up the soil itself, and give it another chance, but if not, after that, it’s time to end the friendship. You’ve got an old barn, or an old house, it’s given you problems, for years, once again, you can give it one more chance, go to the underlying issue, turn up the soil, fix the foundation, and hey, you try your best, and it’s fixed, it’s good again for another 20 years. Or, the fix didn’t hold, time to give it up.

I’m sure it’s a principle you’ve probably already used in numerous situations without realizing it. In layman’s terms, “one last try.” But just take that now, as a tool in your wisdom tool box. 3 years, no fruit, last try, one more year, end. Now if it’s only been one year, in these situations, you don’t want to prematurely give up either. Then again there may be situations where you know, this isn’t going to work from the start. That’s all the rub of wisdom and discernment.

So in conclusion today, what should our response be to the parable of the barren fig tree?

Should it cause us to fear God and tremble before His holiness? I think it certainly should.

Should it cause us to fear falling away, or fear losing our faith, or fear that we won’t be able to measure up in our own efforts? Or fear we won’t produce enough fruit to make God happy? Absolutely not.

It should remind us of the example of Mordecai Ham, that even in a half filled service, there may be a future Billy Graham in the room. It should remind us that fruit bearing is not able numbers, but about quality. It’s about faith in God. It’s about trusting in Jesus Christ. It’s about falling so madly in love with Jesus that we bear fruit naturally, because we love God so desperately.

So cultivate your love with God, your relationship with God, your dependence on God, and you will bear fruit in it’s proper season, like the tree planted by streams of living water. But if you get lazy, become complacent, hardly pray, hardly witness, hardly seek God, then you should be concerned, you should fear God, and tremble, and repent, and be at work for His kingdom and His glory. Amen.