Fig Trees, Moving Mountains, and Forgiveness

After a long walk on a hot day, Jesus was hungry and wanted a snack. He walked up to a fig tree that was starting to sprout green leaves even though it wasn’t the season for figs. He immediately curses the tree: Woe to you, figs! (speculation, of course). The disciples hear the curse and probably wonder if Jesus woke up on the wrong side of his rock that day (see Mark 11:12-14).

Well, Jesus wasn’t in a bad mood and he didn’t wake up on the wrong side of anything. This curse was an object lesson for the disciples—immature, hardheaded, impressionable men who so often failed to get it. Immediately after the fig tree incident Jesus and the disciples enter the temple and Jesus starts to “clear out” the temple (Mark 11:15-19). That means he got fired up, tipped over tables, threw coins on the ground, and told the hypocrites who did not truly love God to leave God’s building.

So immediately after cursing the fig tree, Jesus enters the temple to curse the Jews, essentially saying, “I don’t want your lip service and legalism.” How does this connect to the poor, inanimate tree? The reference of the fig tree implicated Israel, who was often referred to as a fruitless fig tree by God (see Jer. 8:13; Hos. 9:10; et al.) Israel often appeared righteous (remember the green leaves?), but was actually wicked and dead. Not much had changed by Jesus’s day, and, in prophetic fashion, he exposes their idolatry again.

In Mark 11:20-25, Jesus fully explains why he cursed the tree. By cursing the tree (and clearing the temple), Jesus teaches the disciples that they are to do whatever is necessary to remove obstacles to fruit in their lives. The point was, “Have faith in God,” then he added that faith will throw mountains into the sea. “Moving mountains” is a hyperbolic expression and was historically used for what seemed impossible to accomplish (Isa. 40:4; 49:11; 54:10). Faith in Christ overcomes seemingly impossible obstacles (cf. 1 John 5:4). The implicit point also is that faith is in God. It does not take much faith to move a “mountain”—faith only the size of a mustard seed, actually (Matt. 17:20). Therefore, it’s not the amount of faith that matters, but the object of faith. Jesus then tells the disciples the oft-quoted popular line, “Whatever you ask in prayer,  believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Jesus is not giving an un-qualified promise for a certain kind of “prayer of faith.” He simply says, “If there is something that is standing in the way of you bearing fruit in the Christian life, pray that it will be removed and God will do it for you.” Sin, suffering, or whatever. When we seek to desire more of Christ, and we pray for it, God will do it. Maybe not immediately or the way we imagine, but he will do it.

At his conclusion (Mark 11:25), Jesus points out one major hindrance to producing fruit at: lack of forgiveness. When we pray for obstacles to be removed, but we are unforgiving toward someone, there will be no victory over our obstacles. An unforgiving heart is the greatest obstacle to bearing fruit because it shows that we truly do not understand the gospel. When we fail to forgive, we assault God’s character, grace, and sovereign work. Being habitually and resolutely unforgiving may actually prove that we have not actually experienced God’s grace at all. On the other hand, an evidence (fruit!) of God’s gracious saving activity in our lives is that we forgive others just as God in Christ forgave us (Col. 3:13).

Here are some penetrating questions to make this applicable for today:

  1. What obstacles must I overcome to bear fruit?
  2. Where am I not truly believing the gospel, focusing on Jesus as the object of my faith, and thus failing to move these “mountains”?
  3. Am I resorting toward coldhearted legalism or I am delighting in God as my supreme Treasure and letting my actions/fruit flow from that?
  4. Am I actively praying for fruit that comes out of a new identity and a true love for Jesus (see John 14:15)?
  5. Is there anyone in my life that I have not forgiven?
  6. Am I truly resting in the forgiveness I have in Christ so that I am free to quickly, sincerely, and lavishly forgive others?

How Can We Be Sure Moses Wrote the Pentateuch?

John Calvin:

I am aware of what is muttered in corners by certain miscreants, when they would display their acuteness in assailing divine truth. They ask, how do we know that Moses and the prophets wrote the books which now bear their names? Nay, they even dare to question whether there ever was a Moses. Were any one to question whether there ever was a Plato, or an Aristotle, or a Cicero, would not the rod or the whip be deemed the fit chastisement of such folly? The law of Moses has been wonderfully preserved, more by divine providence than by human care; and though, owing to the negligence of the priests, it lay for a short time buried,–from the time when it was found by good King Josiah (2 Kings 22:8; 2 Chron. 34:15),–it has continued in the hands of men, and been transmitted in unbroken succession from generation to generation. Nor, indeed, when Josiah brought it forth, was it as a book unknown or new, but one which had always been matter of notoriety, and was then in full remembrance. The original writing had been deposited in the temple, and a copy taken from it had been deposited in the royal archives (Deut. 17:18, 19); the only thing which had occurred was, that the priests had ceased to publish the law itself in due form, and the people also had neglected the wonted reading of it. I may add, that scarcely an age passed during which its authority was not confirmed and renewed. Were the books of Moses unknown to those who had the Psalms of David in their hands? To sum up the whole in one word, it is certain beyond dispute, that these writings passed down, if I may so express it, from hand to hand, being transmitted in an unbroken series from the fathers, who either with their own ears heard them spoken, or learned them from those who had, while the remembrance of them was fresh.

– Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.8.9


The Jews’ Misplaced Hope for a King

In the passage that we may call the foundation for church discipline, Jesus took care to tell his disciples that a person cannot be condemned without two or three witnesses (Matt. 18:16, 20).  Jesus accusers at his trial were not as careful, of course.  Indeed, the chief priests could not even find two witnesses whose testimonies agreed (Mark 14:56)!  Even when the false witnesses arose, Mark tells us their testimonies did not agree (14:58-59). Jesus’ whole trial was fishy on the part of the chief priests and Council.

The Jews could not condemn Jesus by their own law, so they took him to Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea at the time.  Turning Jesus over to the “Roman phase” of his trial, the Jews used loaded vocabulary to deceive Pilate.  The Jews hated Jesus because he was claiming to be God (John 10:33).  During the Jewish phase of the trial before the Council, the chief priests and scribes were angry because in response to the question, “Are you the Christ?” (Luke 22:67), Jesus responded, “You say that I am” (Luke 22:71). Their true concern was religious and spiritual.

However, when they brought Jesus to Pilate, they twisted their accusation against him. They cleverly said, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2, emphasis added).  This statement is loaded with political and nationalistic jargon!  When Pilate said, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (v. 3) he primarily had a political and military perspective in mind, not a cosmic, universal, spiritual perspective.  Pilate didn’t care about being saved from sin. He did not want Caesar, or himself, to be deposed. It is true that Jesus is a King–he is the King.  But the Jews did not want him killed because he was a king.  In fact, had Jesus come to overthrow Rome as a conquering national king, they would have been quite pleased with him.

They simply wanted a physical king like their ancestors did centuries before (1 Sam. 8). The thought of a God-Man who reigned as King over all creation and discerns and judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart was far to heavy to bear.


Passion Week – Maundy Thursday Meditation

Part 4 in a 7 part series. View series intro and index.

John 18:28-32

Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

Just hours after Jesus had celebrated Passover with his disciples, washed their feet, and instituted the ordinance of communion, he was on trial before angry Pharisees and an oblivious Roman governor.  What strikes me about our passage from John 18 is one line about the Pharisees.  It’s in verse 28: “They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. So Pilate went outside to them.”

Though Passover was observed the night before (Thursday), it existed as part of a week long celebration that the Pharisees wanted to continue through the Sabbath (Saturday).  Jesus’ accusers, in the midst of murdering an innocent man, were never more rigid in their observance of the law.  All that mattered to them was their moral checklist.

In Matthew 23, Jesus condemned the legalism of these same Pharisees, saying, “You have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (vv. 23-24).  The Pharisees were not just or merciful toward Jesus, and they were drastically unfaithful to God’s message and kingdom.

On the brink of murdering the Son of God, the Pharisees refused to enter a Gentile’s courthouse to discuss the case for fear of being “unclean.”  How often do I find myself in this position? I care more about maintaining a pristine image than I do about a holy heart.  We are like the Pharisees.  In their neglect of mercy and love in favor of sacrifice and external religion, they were already as unclean as they could be. So are we apart from Jesus. They did not see that the Passover they celebrated was being fulfilled before them. Jesus, the ultimate Passover Lamb, was being sacrificed for them, and for us, so his blood might cover our sins and make us  right with God.

Father, forgive me for me plastic, external religion. Help me see the big picture and know what is precious in your sight instead of simply trying to be ‘good’ and ‘moral.’  Wash me continually with your blood, Lord Jesus. Thank you for being my Passover Lamb.


Separation of Church and Sport?

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was critiqued in a USA Today editorial for believing Jesus is the only way to God.  Erik Raymond and Kevin DeYoung (among others) have written responses.

The USA Today writer, Tom Krattenmaker, said in the editorial:

According to a December 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, 65% of American Christians believe that many religions can lead to eternal life.  Our pluralism is a defining and positive reality of American life — but not one that is much valued by those who define the faith coursing through the veins of sports culture.

The comments about this in particular have been interesting.  Here are two:

  • From Dale LaRoy Splitstone: “Honestly, do you really think God gives a damn what the majority of American Christians think about salvation? At the judgment day, there’s only one opinion that’s going to matter.”
  • From DonAW: “The 65% of American Christians who believe that many religions can lead to eternal life had better take a closer look at their ‘playbook.’  Someone is wrong, and I am betting it is not the Maker of the World.”

HT: Justin Taylor