Study in Mark’s Gospel. Presentation 36. Promise without Performance Chap 11v12-26. Presentation 36. Introduction.
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A TV report introduced families who had purchased holiday apartments in Spain! Responding to a hard sell, they had cashed in their insurance policies, emptied their bank accounts and made their purchase. But when they went to visit their new home they discovered not only had the building contractor not started building but he retained their cash and the courts would do nothing to help. They had become victims of 'Promise without Performance.’ There is nothing more disillusioning but this is common in every area of life. Our level of investment is often proportionate to level of heartache produced. However, the most dangerous scam we can fall victim too is not one that affects our enjoyment of this life but of life to come.
With this in mind we approach incident with the fig tree. This incident has puzzled many people. It appears to be a callous, spiteful, malicious action on the part of Jesus towards a tree. Jesus did nothing without a reason and so what caused him to act as he did towards the tree?
The story of the fig tree is interleaved with the narrative of the temple cleansing. Both incidents are closely related. In both cases, Jesus is clarifying his attitude towards a false profession – it angers him. Why get so upset with this tree? Unlike the majority of trees, the fig tree produces leaves at the same time as it produces fruit. And the presence of green foliage, which could be seen from a distance became a signal, a promise, to those who ate its fruit that the fruit was now ready.
The leaves were, if you like, the tree’s public profession that it bore fruit for eating. The fig tree in question professed what was clearly not true. There were leaves but no fruit. Jesus' reaction to this false claim was to speak a word of judgement to the tree cf. v14.. It was blighted not because of its unpleasant shape but because of its fruitlessness.
The next day as the disciples passed by the cursed fig tree. They found it withered from the roots. Its false claims had been judged and the words of judgement spoken by Jesus had been fulfilled.
Jesus engages in a prophetic parable. In the O.T. the fig tree was a symbol of Israel. The nation had shown all the outward signs of bearing fruit and was given every incentive for doing so. She possessed God's covenants. She had been entrusted with God's Word, including God's moral law. She had been given a sacrificial system, which pointed forward to a coming Saviour. There was a great abundance of green leaves sprouting from Israel's religious life. But those who approached her in their spiritual hunger found no spiritual reality. She was guilty of deception and therefore subject to judgement. The withering judgement of God took place in 70 A.D. when both the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed by the Romans and the people were dispossessed.
This application of this passage is illustrated in John Bunyan's ‘Pilgrim's Progress’. Pilgrim's wife, Christina, and her children are shown a strange tree at Interpreter's house. Inside its trunk, the tree was rotten to the core and yet leaves grew on its branches. They want to learn its meaning and are told, "the tree is like many which grow in the garden of God, who with their mouth speak high of God but in deed will do nothing for him." People often say in defence of their behaviour, 'I haven't done anyone any harm'. But a person doesn't need to be openly wicked to fall under God's condemnation. You simply have to do nothing, in order to be barren, fruitless!
We mustn't confuse 'doing' with church activism. Our Christian profession and service can be a mere external thing. We can bear the leaves of Church membership, church attendance, of taking the sacraments, we can even serve the church in some capacity, sit on her committees, and be involved in her government.
When God examines our lives his principal concern is not with the leaves. He looks for fruit. He wants evidence of the inward reality of our outward profession. Jesus told his disciples that they would be known by their fruit not by the outward leaves of their profession and service.
Do people see the fruit of God's Spirit in our lives? Do they find, ‘love joy and peace, patience, kindness and goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’? This fruit can only be produced by God's indwelling Spirit. Are we all leaves? Is there a spiritual dichotomy in our lives? Do we swear allegiance to one set of principles and live by another? Do we extol self-control and practice self-indulgence. Do we proclaim brotherhood and harbour animosity and prejudice towards our fellows? Do we attend worship services,
while reserving our true worship for the shrine of our
work, our hobbies, our pastimes? Have we made a
distressing gulf between the truths we say we hold
dear and the values we daily live by?
If you were arrested for being a Christian would
there be enough evidence to convict you?
A fruitless person is not a failed Christian but a false one - in other words, not a Christian at all! There is purpose in the calling of God, 'I have chosen you that you might
bear fruit’, Jn. 15v16.
Jesus' treatment of the fig tree teaches us both how seriously he views hypocrisy in the lives of those who profess to belong to him, and also how much store he places upon fruitfulness in the lives of his people.
This twofold subject hypocrisy and fruitfulness occupied much of his teaching in his last week of ministry. This is seen, not only in the parables he taught over this period, but also in the instruction given privately to his disciples. cfJn. 15v1-8
“The Christian should resemble a fruit tree not a Christmas tree. For the gaudy decorations of a Christmas tree are tied on, whereas fruit grows on a fruit tree.
In other words Christian holiness is not an artificial human accretion, but a natural process of fruit bearing by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Why did Jesus give so much prominence to this matter of fruitfulness during the last week of his life? Let me suggest three reasons.
First, is his loving concern to awaken the hypocrite to the seriousness of his condition. The hypocrite is invariably a self-deluded person. They see no danger in their position. They are comfortable with their external religion and with its’ associated respectability. The punishment of the fig tree, which failed to bear fruit was a permanent reminder of this dangerous position.
When we choose fruitlessness, while shunning the probing, questioning work of God's Spirit who points out, 'you are all leaves', then there will come a day when we will be confirmed in our choice to remain fruitless.
It is an awful prospect. It is a state of permanence,
which will not and which cannot be changed.
Our repeated actions in response to Christ
and his Word will settle our destiny
People will become permanently what they
have chosen to be. It is sheer folly to cling
to the hope which says, ‘I'll get around to
changing one day!’ Jesus longs to find fruit
in our lives now before it is too late!
A second reason for majoring on hypocrisy and fruitlessness is the great damage which it can do to the cause of evangelism and to the witness of the church. The biggest obstacle to the advance of the church is not to be found in the lack of profession of belief in the hearts of men and women on the outside but the false profession of men and women inside it.
Do people approach us in the hope of finding some spiritual refreshment but depart disappointed and disillusioned? Do they come hungering after spiritual reality and find only leaves? Nothing discourages a serious enquirer after God as much as fruitlessness.
The severity of Jesus’ judgement upon fruitlessness had a shattering effect upon his disciples. They began to panic and thought themselves incapable of living fruitful lives. However, with remarkable pastoral sensitivity Jesus dealt with their fear. cf. v22 'have faith in God'. We are unable to produce the fruit that Jesus is looking for. It is only through faith in Jesus that we can become fruitful. This point Jesus would explain in detail in Jn. 15v1-17. Here he reminds the disciples that they are branches and he is the vine supplying all of the fruit-producing nutrients they need. Their faith union with him is of such great importance that he says, 'without me you can do nothing'.
Clearly, we can do a great deal without Jesus, but whatever else we may do could not be described as producing spiritual fruit. Without him we are incapable of manufacturing christlikenessof character.
It is worth noting that the N.T. makes it clear that the gifts of the Spirit can be counterfeited but the fruit of the Spirit is do distinctive, so bound up with the believer’s union with Christ that it is the one thing that can't be counterfeited. It can only be produced in one way, as we abide or remain in Christ and he abides and remains in us.[ Jn. 15v5]
But what does it mean to ‘abide’ in Christ? There are two Greek words that are used to describe staying somewhere. One describes where you might stay when you are on holiday. It is a temporary abode. This word is used to describe a visit for a few days made by your mother-in-law!
The second word describes a permanent residence. Now if a furniture van stop outside of your door and are greeted by the smiling face of your mother-in-law you know that this time she has come to stay! Hers is no fleeting visit. It bears all the hallmarks of permanence!
Now it is this second word that is used of our abiding in Jesus and his abiding in us. We make him our ‘permanent residence’. We are to invite him to make his permanent residence in our hearts. Then, and only then, can fruit be produced. Oh it will appear to be a costly process as he strips away the dead wood in our lives and prunes back other parts. But all this has a purpose in view. Fruit is produced, christlikeness of character is formed.
This points to a third reason for Jesus teaching on this subject at such great length - the Father is glorified. When the family likeness begins to take shape in the lives of believers, God is glorified. Jn.15v8
Jesus is not changing the subject when he talks here in Mark 11v23ff about a faith that removes mountains! Jesus is still thinking of fruitfulness and of the obstacles to fruitfulness which so often appear to us as mountains in our lives. 'Ah', we say, ‘How can we make any progress in Christian fruitfulness with these great obstacles before me?' No matter how mountainous the obstacle, God can remove it.
You say, 'I am addicted to drugs, to alcohol, to pornographic literature, to gossip...’ Ask believingly! Believe that God is more committed to producing fruitfulness in your life than you will ever be. The mountain will be removed.
There is however, a conditional element associated to our prayers and this is expressed in v25... cf also Matt.6v14. Jesus is not saying that we earn answers to prayer by forgiving others or that we can earn forgiveness by forgiving others. God's forgiveness and mercy are freely bestowed.
However, if we are unwilling to demonstrate love, mercy and forgiveness in our dealing with others we have no right to assume that God will be gracious to us when we ask for his help, mercy and forgiveness.
There is no prayer request that delights the heart of God more than the one that asks to be made more like Jesus. Some of our petitions may cause us to ask, ‘Is this really in line with God’s will?’ But we need not have such misgivings, when we ask for christlikeness of character. We can be absolutely sure that God will grant such a request for our faith is resting on the published will of God that we bear fruit and become like his Son.
What verdict will we hear when we stand before Jesus’ court? Will he say, 'I have searched in vain and found nothing but leaves?' Or, will he find fruit that brings enrichment to your lives, blessing to others and great glory to God?