Rev. Daniel Penn Kim
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
Traveling east to west, Jesus is en route to Jerusalem from Bethany (about 1.5 miles). The holy city is visible in the distance, teeming with travelers from afar to offer sacrifices and celebrate Passover. At the epicenter stands the recently renovated and expanded “second temple.” Thanks to Herod the Great, the temple’s grandeur was restored to a glory unseen since Solomon’s reign (“first temple”) and the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Babylonians (586 BCE). Outwardly the city is abuzz with life, but all is not well within.
Look through Jesus’ eyes: in the far distance he sees a lively Jerusalem; in the near distance he spots a leafy tree. Jesus is hungry, and leaves are a tell-tale sign a fig tree has fruit, however, “when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves.” Lesson: appearances can deceive. Jerusalem, in the distance, in all its splendor, is a leafy yet fruitless tree. The city has all the looks and sounds of vibrant worship; however, if you peel away the impressive packaging you discover merchants and money-exchangers profiteering at the expense of the sojourners and poor, and the outer court (reserved for Gentile worship) is occupied by capitalists. All leaves.
Jesus is looking for fruit. Fruit is the visible, Spirit-wrought qualities that mark all true believers (ref. Galatians 5:22-25, Romans 12:9-21). Beneath the leaves, will Jesus find fruit in our churches and in our lives? What would Jesus find in our churches if he unwraps the flashy websites, peels open the well-funded programs, and visits the well-attended small groups? Is there desire for God? Is there love for neighbors? Is there grace for sinners? Is there humility of spirit? Is there heartfelt repentance? If not, we soberly read that the fruitless fig tree was cursed and soon perished, and the fate of fruitless people will be no different. Jesus says, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). At the end of our lives, when we stand before God, fruit will be the final determining factor: “Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20).
Maybe God is calling you to shed the leafy religious costumes that impress but are fruitless, and therefore powerless to save. In our fallen, sinful state, our best performances and appearances will never merit God’s love, earn His approval, or gain entrance into heaven. The Good News is that Jesus saves us from self-salvation – “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). This eternal rest is ours if we repent of our sinfulness (rebellion against God and inability to save ourselves), and place our full trust in Jesus’ perfect life, sin-atoning death, and death-defying resurrection. Then we begin bearing the fruit Jesus is looking for.
Fruit is born out of faith – it’s the heart’s joyful overflow of having experienced the sin-canceling, shame-covering, prodigal-embracing, life-giving loving kindness of God. The more joy we have in our salvation, the more fruit we bear to the glory of God. Let’s pray the Spirit would guide our meditations this Passion week in such a way to increase our joy, stir our affections, and deepen our love for Him so that there might be more fruit than ever before.
“May [God] give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ.”