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The Peril of Fruitlessness

Mark 11:12-14, 20-23

12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:

13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.

14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.

20 And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.

21 And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.

22 And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God.

23 For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.


Sometime ago I read a slogan that captured my imagination. It said, “The main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.” It is talking to us about the priorities of life. There is an experience in the gospel of Mark 11:12-14 that speaks to us about making the main thing the main thing. It happened in the last week of Jesus’ life. It is interesting when you look at the gospels to see how the Gospel writers organize their words in teaching us about the life of Jesus.

The first 10 chapters of the gospel of Mark relate to us everything from the beginning of Jesus’ life until his last week. But from chapter 11 on, the writer is dealing with the last week in Jesus’ life. It is evident when you read the gospels that the center of gravity in apostolic preaching is not in Bethlehem but in Calvary. It is not in the life of Jesus, but in the death of Jesus. It is not in the teachings of Jesus, but in the atonement of Jesus. The most important thing to the Bible writers was the fact that Jesus Christ came to die for our sins. As a result, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each devote at least one third of their space to the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

Chapter 11 of Mark’s gospel begins that last week. Jesus and his disciples are coming to the city of Jerusalem in what we know to be the triumphal entry. This experience was a bold and a deliberate announcement on the part of Jesus that he was the Messiah. It was the fulfillment of the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 that said that the king would come in the city of Jerusalem, riding upon a colt. Up until this time, Jesus had concealed the fact that he was the Messiah. When he had talked to his disciples about it, he told them not to tell anyone because the time had not yet come for him to announce publicly and openly that he was the Son of God and the Promised One of the Old Testament.

But now the time had come. He sent his disciples to find a colt of a donkey, to tell the owner that the Master hath need of him. The owner gave them the colt, and Jesus rode that colt into the city of Jerusalem. As he came into the city, the people lined the streets and they shouted out hosannas, praising him who had come in the name of the Lord. They spread their coats and they spread leaves on the ground before him; the leaves and the clothing served as a royal carpet for the coming king. Not only did the triumphal entry announce the fact that Jesus was the Messiah, but it helped to portray the kind of Messiah he was to be. He did not come into Jerusalem as a conquering king—he came in as the suffering Savior. He did not ride in on a warhorse like a white steed—as though he had come to rule over them. He came in on a humble donkey to deliver them from their sins. 

The Bible tells us that when Jesus came into Jerusalem, he looked around to see what was going on. There is no indication as to what he saw or the impression it made on his mind—at least not at this time. But Jesus conducted a careful investigation as he looked over the Temple, as he watched the people, as he searched deep into the hearts to see what was going on in the capital city of Jerusalem. 

That very night, he and his disciples traveled back to Bethany—a little town about a mile and a half from the city of Jerusalem. Early the next morning, Jesus and his disciples started back toward Jerusalem again. They left before breakfast, and as they traveled the brief journey, Jesus became hungry. He looked over into the distance and he saw a fig tree that was literally covered with leaves. He and his disciples walked over to that tree to pick some fruit. I want you to notice what the scriptures have to say about that experience.

“And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet” (Mark 11:12-13).

I want you to underscore in your Bible, if not in your mind, that phrase, “he found nothing but leaves.” It is tremendously significant in understanding what is said here, for the time of figs had not yet come. Jesus answered and said unto the tree, “no man eat fruit of thee hereafter forever.”

This experience of Jesus pronouncing a curse upon the barren fig tree has been a disturbing one for people for many years. It has disturbed and puzzled people for two reasons: first, the fact that Jesus would curse the tree at all distresses people. It is the only recorded miracle of destruction that Jesus ever performed. Now there were many times when Jesus made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk. He even raised the dead. He used his miraculous power to help, to heal, and to bless. But here is the only time in the Gospel record that Jesus used his miraculous power to destroy something, and that disturbs some people.

Second, the little phrase at the end of verse 13 where it says, “the time of figs was not yet” is also bothersome. Now Jesus came to the fig tree to find figs, but it wasn’t the fig season. So how could he reasonably expect to find figs? How could he hold the tree accountable if the time of figs was not yet? You must understand several things in order for this experience to have meaning to you.

First of all, I want you to consider the phrase “for the time of figs was not yet.” This experience took place during the Passover. The Passover was usually in the middle of March or the first part of April. The season for figs in Jerusalem was at the end of May or the first part of June. The fig season would still be about six weeks off from the time when this took place. Even though it was not the regular fig season, it was altogether possible that fig trees could be bearing at this time. If a tree had been planted in the sheltered ravines of the Mount of Olives—out in the sunshine where there was plenty of water, and protected by the hills from the cold winds—then it was possible for the figs to grow earlier than the usual season. In addition to that, the fruit always preceded the leaves. The leaves on a tree never came first.

First comes the fruit and then comes the leaves. If this tree had leaves, Jesus had every reason to believe that it would also have fruit, for the fruit always came first. But when he got there, he found nothing but leaves. No figs, no fruit, no production. Profession, yes. The leaves an open display and a profession that the fruit ought to be there, but inspection revealed that there was no fruit; there was nothing but leaves.

When Jesus saw the fig tree displaying leaves and proclaiming to the world that it was fruitful and productive but it was not, he pronounced a curse upon it and it withered down to its roots. What Jesus saw in that fig tree was the same thing he had seen in Jerusalem the day before. He had seen leaves without fruit. He had seen in Jerusalem all of the outward trappings of religions. He had seen the beautiful Temple. He had seen the priests in their elaborate garments and vestments. He had seen the ritual of the sacrificial system. He had seen pilgrims coming to Jerusalem from all over the world.

He had seen rules, regulations, and restrictions that had to do with the ceremony and the ritual of the Jewish religion. Sadly, however, in the midst of all of those outward signs of religion, Jesus saw no real genuine faith in God. He saw no compassion and concern for other people. He could see that the people of Israel were not going to accept him as the Messiah, that he would be rejected by the chief priests and the rulers, and he would be crucified on the cross. He would not be acknowledged, accepted, and worshipped as their Messiah—they would reject him.

Jesus saw in the religion of Judaism in that day as nothing but leaves. The outward show of religion. The lack of the inner fruit. There was no faith in God. There was no love for one’s fellow man. There was no acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. He saw Judaism as a dead barren tree. When he saw the hypocrisy of their religion—the show of leaves without production of fruit—he pronounced a curse upon it. In doing so, he gave to all of us a warning that if we live barren and fruitless lives, the judgment of God is going to come upon us. It is not enough to have the outward show of leaves. It is not enough to have the ritual and the ceremony and all the evidence of religion unless there is at the same time fruit underneath. 

Jesus just enacted a parable, and it was a dramatic object lesson to his disciples. That’s why he did it—not out of anger and not out of frustration—he did it so he could teach his disciples the peril of fruitlessness lives. He did it to say to them, “If you have all of the show of religion and none of the content of religion, then you are inviting the judgment of God upon your life. As it came upon this fig tree, so it shall come upon Judaism and the nation of Israel.” 

He left this experience and went to the city of Jerusalem where he cleansed the Temple. When he got there, he found that the Temple—which had been intended as a place of prayer and a place to meet God—had been turned instead into a place of merchandising. Men had set up booths within the Temple and they were buying and selling and bargaining and haggling, and there was so much noise and so much confusion that nobody could pray and worship God if they wanted to. To make matters worse, all of that bargaining and haggling was taking place in the courtyard of the Gentiles—the outer courtyard that had been intended as a place where people from foreign nations could come and meet God.

The religion of that day had become sinfully exclusive. Religious people cared only about themselves. They had become arrogant and indifferent toward other people. They excluded everybody else from the kingdom of God except those of their own nation, so there was no evident faith in God nor visible love for their fellow man. Jesus turned over the moneychangers’ tables. He drove them out of the Temple saying that it was God’s will and plan that his Father’s house should be a place of prayer—a place where people meet God.

The rulers set their hearts and minds against Jesus to crucify him. The parable of the fig tree is set between the triumphal entry and the cleansing of the Temple to show us the peril of an empty religion. It shows us the peril of a fruitless life—a life that gives all the outward display of being real and genuine but underneath there is nothing but emptiness and barrenness.

Jesus comes to warn us that our lives must be real, and that our religion must be genuine. It must be more than a profession. It must also be production. If your life and your religion is nothing but leaves without fruit, watch out! You are inviting the judgment of God. Everywhere in the scriptures, God is concerned about fruit. 

Do you remember that John the Baptist came preaching, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2)? There came to him soldiers who said, “We want to be baptized by you.” John replied, “You go and bring forth fruit worthy of repentance.” They said, “What shall we do?” He answered, “If you have taken anything wrongfully from any man, return it. Be content with your wages. Don’t abuse your authority. Be kind and gentle to all men.” John talked about the fruit of practically living the right kind of daily life.

God is interested in the fruit of righteousness in your life and mine. It is not enough to go through the ritual of baptism. The fruit of repentance should be evident. Show that there has come a change in your life by the way you treat people and by the way you relate to God. Bring forth the fruits worthy of repentance. Jesus said, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20). 

You’ve heard it said that God is looking for spiritual fruit, not religious nuts! We are not to be known simply by our rituals, by our ceremony, by our church attendance, or by the observance of all that is a part of our religious life. We are to be known by the fruit we produce: the life that we live, the way we relate to God, to other people, and to the fruit that we produce.

Paul spoke, led by the Holy Spirit, of the fruits of the Spirit. There is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—all of those vital characteristics of the Christian life that make us more like Jesus Christ the Son of God. God is never satisfied with the fact that we just go to church and go through the forms of religion unless there is being produced in your heart and mine the fruit of the Holy Spirit that is a Christlike character within us. 

Jesus said on another occasion, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit” (John 15:5). What the Lord is interested in is the production of your life, not just the showy display of religion. One without the other is to court disaster and judgment in our lives. We need to honestly and sincerely search our heart and ask, “If Jesus looked at my life today, would I be like that fig tree—nothing but leaves? Or would the fruit of the Christian life to be found in me?”

What is the fruit that Jesus wants and looks for in the lives of believers today? When he rakes aside the leaves, the showy display, the ritual, and the ceremony of our religion and he looks underneath, what kind of fruit does Jesus look for?

There are three fruits that he wants to find in every believer’s life. First, he wants to find the fruit of faith. He wants to see in us a genuine trust in God. He wants to see that we trust him not only for our salvation, but for our daily bread as well. He wants us to believe in him and trust in him for eternal life, and then he wants us to walk with him in our daily life. He wants the fruit of faith. Would he find faith in you?

Second, he wants to find the fruit of love—not only that we are rightly related to God, but that we are also related to one another in the right way. We are to not only love God, but we are to love our fellow man as well. God wants to see the fruit of love in us.

Third, he wants to find the fruit of acceptance. He wants us to believe that he is the Son of God, and he wants us to acknowledge and accept him as our personal Lord and Savior. We need to believe in God, we need to love our fellow man, and we need to confess Christ. Those are the fruits he is looking for in the heart and life of every one of us.

1. The fruit of faith

Amazingly, when Jesus came to Jerusalem, he did not find faith in God. He found a lot of religion. He found the signs of religion everywhere: the Temple, the priest, the sacrifices, the pilgrims, the rules and the regulations. There was all the ritual, all the ceremony, and all the outward expression of religion, but there was no genuine faith in God. You can have religion without God.

It is altogether possible to have a godless religion. You can go to the place of worship and go through the forms of worship, have leaders of worship and have no real genuine contact with God himself. When Jesus went to the Temple in his day, that’s what he saw. The house of God was to be a place of prayer—a place where men met God. Prayer is the simplest and yet the most supreme expression of faith. If you pray, you believe in God.

The more you pray, the more you believe in God. The more you rely upon prayer, the more you rely upon God. Prayer is an expression of faith and trust in God, but the house of God had been turned into a place of merchandise, and people no longer pray. The measure of your faith is the measure of your prayer life.

If you want to know how much you believe in God, how much you trust in God, and how much you rely upon God, then all you need to do is to measure your prayer life. The more faith you have, the more you believe in God, and the more you trust in him, the more you pray. The more you trust yourself, the more self-reliant you are, the more independent you are, then the less you pray and trust in God. The whole thrust of scripture is that God wants you not only to believe in him for eternal life, he wants you to trust in him for your daily life.

The evidence that this is one of the fruits that God wants to see in your life and mine is found in the statement of Jesus. The next time they passed this fig tree, they found it withered to its roots. Simon and the other disciples were startled by it and Jesus said to them, “Have faith in God.” Faith is an essential ingredient to any kind of orderly life. If you are going to have a marriage, a husband and wife must have faith in one another. If you are going to have a home, then parents and children must believe in one another. If you are going to have commerce, then you must have trust in the banks and in the insurance companies. If you are going to have medicine, there must be confidence in the physician and in the pharmacist, and if you are going to have friendship, then you must learn to trust one another. We cannot have any kind of reasonable life without faith and trust at the very center. The object of faith and trust in religion is God himself, and Jesus said, “Have faith in God.”

In your daily life, do you trust God? Do you pray faithfully and regularly to him? To the degree that you pray, you believe. The absence of prayer is evidence of the absence of faith. God never made you to live life on your own. He never made you to live by your own wits, your own cunning, your own charm, your own skill, or your own intelligence. He made you to live in relationship with him. You are to live by faith and trust in him, and if you do not exercise faith, then your religion is nothing but leaves. There is no fruit to it. 

God tells us in the book of Hebrews that without faith it is impossible to please him. When he looks at your life and mine, he is not looking for a self-made man. He is not looking for somebody who is self-reliant in every way. He is not looking for the person who can put his thumbs in his vest and say, “Look at me, I’ve pulled myself up by my bootstraps.” He is looking for a person who lives his life in reliance on the Lord Jesus in his daily life. He wants that kind of faith. That is one of the fruits of the Christian life. Is your life more than leaves? Does it also have the fruit of faith?

2. The fruit of love

He wants us not only to be related to God—he wants us to be related to one another. Israel had lost her passion for other people. The Israelites had desecrated the court of the Gentiles that had been intended as a place where foreigners could meet God. Israel had become so self-centered, arrogant, and indifferent toward other people that she cared only for her own wants and needs. It is possible for us to live our lives in such a way that we never give thought and concern to other people. We can build our world around ourselves and our needs and our interests so much that we couldn’t care less about others. And yet if we bear in our lives the fruit of Christlike character, we shall be concerned about others.

Years ago in London, England, there was a convention of the Salvation Army. William Booth was the founder. He was the heart and soul of the Salvation Army and he had attended every convention that they’d ever had up until that time. But because of his health and age, it was going to be impossible for him to attend that convention. Someone suggested that since he could not be there, maybe he ought to send a telegram to the convention, to greet them and to encourage them. At their insistence, William Booth sent a telegram to the convention to be read at the opening session. 

The beginning day of the convention came and the moderator called to order and he said to them, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have some sad news for you. Our founder William Booth cannot be present at this convention, but he has sent a telegram.” Deliberately he opened the envelope and started to read the telegram to the convention. Here is what it said: “Ladies and gentlemen of the Salvation Army Convention,” and then just one word: “Others. Signed, William Booth.” Nothing else. Just “others.”

That is the heart and center of a life related to God. First we get our relationship with God in order, and then we begin to reach out to get our relationships with other people in order. We must have faith in God and love for our fellow man. Those are the twin roots of the Christian life.

The more you study the life and the ministry of Jesus, the more you realize that Jesus was ever and always concerned about others. See him as he meets with Nicodemus under the shadow of the night. He is thinking about others. See him as he calls Zacchaeus down from the tree. He is thinking of others. See him as he meets the woman at the well. He is thinking about others. See him as he resurrects Lazarus from the dead. He is thinking about others. When he comes to the end of his life to die upon the cross, he is still thinking about others.

Jesus made seven statements when he died on the cross. Three of those statements express his concern for others. He said to the thief, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” He died saving others. 

He said to his mother, “Woman, behold thy son.” He said to John, “Behold thy mother.” He committed his mother to the care and the keeping of John the apostle. He charged John with the responsibility of taking care of his mother. 

Even when Jesus was dying on the cross, he was thinking of others. When he finally died he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He died forgiving others. 

The whole life and ministry of Jesus was divided into two parts and both of them intertwined so they could never be separated. He was rightly related to God and he reached out in concern for others. That’s the fruit he wants in your life. So I ask you, “Is there more to your religion than leaves? More than showy display? More than ritual and ceremony? More than coming to church and giving an offering, saying a prayer, and carrying a Bible? Is there faith in God and love for others?”

3. The fruit of acceptance

Though he was clearly the Son of God, Israel rejected him. The biggest danger we face today is not that we shall regard Christ as untrue, but that we shall regard him as unnecessary. None of you here would probably say that Christ is untrue, but many say he is unnecessary. We will go through the form. We will observe the ritual. We will take part in the ceremony. We will have all the leaves of religion, but no genuine daily faith in God, no reaching out to others, and no humble acceptance of the Savior. As a result our lives become like the fig tree—leaves without fruit. 

Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Abide in me and you shall bear much fruit.” He is not only the object of our faith. He is the source of our fruitfulness. The more we believe in him and trust in him, the more fruitful our lives become.

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Paul W. Powell - www.PaulPowellLibrary.com

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