Matthew 21:18-22 Part 1

Jesus has entered the city; and He is, as we continue this morning, in the midst of a lengthy (five chapter) series of discourses and parables concerning the judgment of Israel and Jerusalem.

We have taken note of the fact that the Gospel written by Matthew has become more and more intense as the days before the crucifixion shorten.  Every word and deed (as Matthew intends it) is packed with the “fullness” of prophetic Scriptures.  It is now day two of Passover week – Monday, five days before Jesus gives His life a ransom for many.

He has spent the night up on the Mount of Olives, in the city of Bethany – we don’t know exactly where; maybe at the home of Lazarus who He raised from the dead – nobody’s sure.  Matthew didn’t give us those kinds of details.  And, knowing the nature of man, if the apostle had written some human interest things, most people probably would have spent more time on the personal things than they would have on the Gospel!

But early in the morning, probably before first light, Jesus gets up and gathers His disciples to Him (we know that because they are with Him at the fig tree); and He proceeds down the side of Mount Olivet.  And over against them, at the first hint of light in the sky, is Mount Zion – the Mountain of God – and the city of Jerusalem at the top.  Its great walls bending and flowing with the terrain; the palace of Herod rising up over on the west side, the great height of the temple dome to the east….

Thirteen men – one of whom is the sacrificial Lamb of God – look across the valley and up at that beautiful city which God had commanded to be “paradise” on earth; twelve of them no doubt filled with awe and wonder (as any ordinary man would have to be); but one of them, Whose heart was already beating with dread at what was soon to take place, looks at the mountain by way of the Word of God through the prophets.  And what He sees is not at all the same as what His disciples see.

The Mountain of God (significant of the nation of Israel) with the formidable City of David at the top is the eternal city which would soon ascend to even greater glory under the leadership of God’s Messiah!  That’s what the disciples anticipated.

But… what was filling the mind of David’s greater Son and David’s Lord?  In the Song of Moses, Exodus chapter seventeen, we read this:


“Thou shalt bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of thine inheritance, in the place, O Lord, which Thou hast made for Thee to dwell in; in the sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy hands have established.”


As the people of God redeemed from bondage, Israel was called the “mountain of God’s inheritance”; and they were being brought back to Eden, the paradise of God, “heaven and earth”.  And throughout their history “Mount Zion” would be the symbol for the nation and their inheritance.

But there had been continuing rebellion and idolatry and adultery in God’s new Eden!  They had broken God’s covenant just as Adam and Eve had done in the first Eden!  And instead of being a mountain of light and beauty and peace and communion with God, Israel had become worse than all the pagan nations!  And just as the first “Eden” had become a place of sin to the world, having been invaded by Satan the Destroyer, so Israel and Jerusalem became a place of sin with its effect on the world!

And by the time Jeremiah the prophet writes, this nation is called a destroyer of the world rather than a paradise of glory to the world!  Listen to the prophet Jeremiah in chapter fifty-one:


“’Behold, I am against you, O destroying mountain – destroyer of the whole earth,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will stretch out My hand against you, and roll you down from the crags; and I will make you a burnt out mountain… the sea has come up over Babylon; She has been engulfed with its tumultuous waves….’”


This is what Jesus sees as He looks across the valley and up to Mount Zion; and that’s the connection we must make as we read Jesus’ words in verse twenty-one:


“…but if you should say to this mountain, ‘be lifted up and be thrust into the sea….’”


Jesus’ disciples had not yet made that connection between the prophetic Word through Jeremiah and Mount Zion!  But they certainly would – after the resurrection.  The apostle John would write later, in the Revelation, of those things which would shortly come to pass – chapter eight:


“…and the second angel sounded, and something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea….”


So John saw, in his Revelation, the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah.  And it was, as he said, soon to take place.  But coming down Mount Olivet this Monday morning, the disciples, John included, had no such ideas in their minds.  Even with Jesus’ statements of His impending suffering and death, they did not understand what was about to take place.  What they saw concerning the mountain and the city before them was not at all the same as what Jesus saw.

Now.  Having said those things about the Mountain of God, let’s go back to the text.  At the beginning of verse eighteen, the word that Matthew uses for “in the morning” indicates that it was very early – daybreak.  There is no mention of the crowds that were so evident the day before, so it is assumed that most everyone is still asleep – having lodged in local facilities or sleeping out in the open – in camps.  (Pretty cool to do that since Israel is located at about the same latitudinal position as the state of Okalahoma!)

In the other Gospels there is reference to the early Spring, the winter solstice of the northern hemisphere occurring after the third week in (what we now know as) March; so the time of the year in the text was likely to be the last week in March or the first week of April.  Jesus and His disciples are coming down the Mount of Olives by themselves (that is, absent the crowds), and, as Matthew says, Jesus was hungry.

And His hunger was the prompting for this prophetic declaration concerning the “City of God” across the way on Mount Zion.  So beautiful – and yet so ugly; so rich, and yet, now, so destitute; paradise on earth, but, now, demon-possessed; once pure and virginal, but, now, a filthy and diseased prostitute.  This city had received a pronouncement of Almighty God that His glory would reside here, but the very place of His residence had become a sanctuary for thieves!

And the patience and longsuffering of God toward Israel had reached its terminal point, as it had with the Canaanites before.  God’s house and His city and His mountain had been polluted and desecrated.  The people of His promise – the one nation of all those among the earth where God had chosen to reveal His Own Character and His Law – the people from among whom His Own Son, the Messiah, would descend; this people were so full of iniquity that their sin was destroying the pagan, Gentile nations of the earth!  Not only was the remnant of God scattered and in bondage and poor and sick and blind and crippled; but the whole world had been affected by the degradation of this nation!

So Jesus took the event of His hunger to, once again, pronounce its doom.

Now, according to what I’ve been able to find, the fig tree (at least the varieties found in Israel at the time), flowers late.  And you never see the flowers unless you bite into the fruit, because the fig is the receptacle and encasement for the flower!  It’s inside!

There are some uses for green figs, which we wont’ take any time with, but the normal ripening and availability for harvest is in about July.  And once the fruit (with the flower inside) begin to appear, then the leaves come out.  I think most fruit trees are the same – first the flowers and then the leaves.  If there are no flowers, then the tree bears no fruit.

Well, the leafing of the fig tree, as we just noticed, is a sign that the tree has already flowered, which means there’s fruit there – because the flower is in the fruit!

Now Matthew’s text says that Jesus saw one fig tree on the way (beginning of verse nineteen).  The other versions say “a fig tree,” but that’s an interpretation rather than a translation.  The text clearly says one fig tree.  And what Matthew means is that there was one (among all the others) which had fully leaved!  It, among all the others, was gloriously green, and its leaves verified the fact that it was also full of fruit!  Here it was early Spring, and all the other fig trees were still bare – no fruit, no leaves; nothing except bare limbs!

But one was arrayed in glory among all the others.  And the flower of virgin fruit would be under all its beautiful greenery!  Adam and Eve, after they sinned, covered themselves with fig leaves; Moses, before the entrance of Israel into the promised land, Deuteronomy chapter eight, describes the land as a “good land” of vines and figs and pomegranates.  And when the spies came back from Jericho they brought with them grapes and figs and pomegranates!  In First Kings and in the prophecy of Micah, the fig trees were the symbol of home and repose and tranquility.  You may also remember that one of Jesus’ disciples, Nathanael (God’s Own), was under a fig tree when he was called to come and be one of Christ’s disciples.

There are other examples of the covering and the lushness and the peace and blessings of God inherent in the language of Scripture with regard to the fig tree.  And this is the very metaphor which Jesus now uses to prophecy the end of all those things which the fig symbolized!

You see, when Jesus approached the tree, wishing to partake of the goodness which it, itself, had verified that it had, it didn’t have it!  As Matthew says here in verse nineteen, Jesus came to this one, beautiful, glorious tree, and there was nothing in it except leaves!

And how could it have leaves unless it had already flowered; and since the flowers are in the fruit – where was the fruit?!  None of the other trees bore leaves – and no fruit, either.  So how was this tree so arrayed in glory when the others displayed nothing?  They had nothing – so they displayed nothing!

Bu this one fig tree had nothing, as all the others, but it displayed that it did!  Its array of greenery was conspicuous from a long distance, and that was a verification of fruit to all who saw it.  But it had none.  It proclaimed itself as “the one” among all the others, but it was only a pretender.  There was an obvious invitation to partake of its goodness, but it was an imposter.

When Jesus saw that it had no fruit, He said, “fruit may no longer come from you into the age.”  And Matthew said that the fig tree was inevitably dried up.

The analogy is obvious here that Jesus is using this event to portray all that is about to happen concerning the house of God.  The symbol of the blessings of God, this fig tree, is an imposter; the nation is a hypocrite – an imposter, a pretender.  It distinguishes itself from all others as possessing the blessings and love of God eternally, singled out by covenant, standing alone in glory in the barren wilderness of the earth’s Gentile nations.

But in reality it is worse than all the nations among whom it arrays itself!  They are all barren, and there is no pretense of fruit; Israel is also barren, but it glorifies itself as having the virgin fruit of God, possessing the eternal blessing of God!  So therefore it is worse than the others!

Now, the curse that Jesus pronounces upon the symbol is analogous of that which will happen to the nation.  And therefore we have to pay close attention to the language in order to discern what the analogy means.

The popular translations, for example, say that the tree withered away – as if the heat of the onslaught of Jesus’ words was more than it could bear.  But the word is not “withered”, but “dried up”; and it is passive – meaning that the action was done to it.

And what that means is that the conditions under which the fig tree was arrayed as the symbol of the glory and blessings of God upon Israel were coming to an end.  At its very source, the roots and the core and the life of Israel was about to become barren desert!  The very land itself, and all the “trappings” of pretended glory were to be dried up.  Even that façade which the hypocrites displayed in their hypocrisy would be ruined.  And the “drying up” of the symbols of the blessings of God would match the reality of the case, because Israel was a barren pretender.

And, of course, the implication is that when Israel is dried up at its very root, the nations of the earth will then begin to bear fruit.  And the further implication is that, that which dried up is also that which causes the nations to bear.

Just one further comment here about Jesus’ curse of the tree, and then we have to come back to this word “dried up” for some final comments.  But Jesus says, “fruit may no longer come from you” … ‘eis ton aion’ – Into the age.  Not, as the versions say, “forever”.  Or “eternally”.  Aion has to do with the “age” – not eternity!  It’s obvious that the tree won’t produce any fruit – it’s dried up at its roots!  The core of its life has been removed!

And the Jews of God’s covenant have not been dried up eternally – there was a remnant!  And Paul let’s us know, clearly, in his letter to the Romans, that Christ would bear much fruit among the Jews, as all the nations of the earth repent and believe!  So “eis ton aion” doesn’t mean “for eternity”.

What Jesus means is that the age is being brought to a close in the destruction of this reprobate old covenant nation.  All the signs of blessing upon old Israel were being removed – not to bear again into the age.  Why?  Because they were no longer needed.  Why have the signs and symbols of old covenant blessing when there is no more old covenant Israel?  Why have the fig tree as a sign of repose and peace and covering in the land of promise, when the land of promise is to become a wilderness?  If that which the signs signified is removed, then why have the signs?  Therefore the “drying up”.

Now.  Finally, there is another reason why we must use “dried up” rather than “withered” with reference to this tree.  Because in the prophetic writings concerning these events, that’s what the prophets say!  If it’s mistranslated, you miss what the prophets say!

Remember Isaiah chapter fifty-six from last week?  Speaking of the Gentiles whom God would gather to Himself, Isaiah says this:


“Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My ‘house of prayer’.  Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon Mine altar; for Mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”


We said that this was a prophecy concerning the New Covenant Church, brought in from among all the nations, whose “newborn babes” give praise to God; and their prayers would be a sweet savor in the nostrils of God.  And their praise would be perfected to the end that it becomes a “fortress” and “bulwark” against all who would oppose the Kingdom!

Well, in verse three of that same chapter, Isaiah also says that these heathen and outcasts of the nations would not say, “I am a dried up tree,” but God would gather them, also, with the outcasts of Israel!

So the event of the fig tree here in our text is not only a curse upon Israel; but with the same words of the prophet Isaiah, Matthew relates the “dried up” tree to the gathering of the Gentiles into the mountain of God!

The disciples didn’t understand any of this, not making the connections with the words of the prophet, and they begin to inquire of Jesus what it all meant (verse twenty).  But we have to leave Jesus’ remarkable answer until next time.

Until then you might begin to wonder and ponder all of the issues regarding pretense – for that is the primary focus of the incident with the fig tree.  Is your household displaying all the signs of the blessings of God in His New Covenant?  If so, is there obedience underneath all that foliage?  Or is it just “barren” under there?

It’s obvious that the core of this event is the completion of the prophetic Word from Isaiah fifty-six, and that’s where the focus of the preaching must be.  At the same time there are things to learn and investigate with regard to Israel’s pretense and hypocrisy, aren’t there?  Israel, and more centrally Jerusalem, displayed itself as the glorious city of God for all the world to see; while it was really the destroyer of nations due to its idolatry and adultery.  Its “display” was altogether different from reality.  But what our God expects from those of us in the body of His Risen Messiah is to have the fruit promised by the glorious greenery!  If the glory of the Christ is displayed in your household’s profession, then the fruit of His Spirit will be underneath all those beautiful leaves.