The next passage we will consider in Matthew involves a miracle Jesus performs which seemingly had no intrinsic blessing and goodness associated with it. Jesus curses the fig tree because it had no fruit for Him, and it immediately withers away (Matt. 21:18–22). On the surface we have to admit this event was somewhat unusual. We could classify it with other miracles in which He showed divine power over nature – walking on water, calming a storm, catching a boat-load of fish, or catching just one with a coin in its mouth. The Creator has control over His creation. But these examples had a positive blessing associated with them. We don’t readily see that with the cursing of the fig tree.
The occasion did provide the Lord the opportunity to teach His disciples a simple lesson on the value of faith.
“…if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and cast into the sea,’ it will be done.”
In practice, one’s faith must be in God. Faith will always have an object, and for the Christian that object must always be Jesus Christ. This is true for salvation (Gal. 3:26, Rom. 3:24–26) or for his walk in this world as a disciple (Gal. 2:19–20, 1 John 2:6). Some Bible passages on the subject might not directly say this because they may be speaking of a certain aspect of faith, but it is always implied in Scripture (Mark 11:22, John 14:1). The Lord’s lesson is not to have faith and confidence in yourself and what you think you can accomplish. What is required for the effectiveness of faith is actually the opposite of this. The believer must understand that in himself he is nothing and has no intrinsic value or ability. In Adam we are weak and without any resources. Our faith is in God, in what He is willing to do (Rom. 4:16–25). The secret to a sound walk of faith is having no self-reliance, but total dependence on God (2 Cor. 12:9–10). The believer is nothing, while God is everything.
Matthew 21:18–19 (NKJV)
18 Now in the morning, as He returned to the city, He was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away.
But there is far more to the Lord’s cursing of the fig tree than this practical lesson on faith. This is especially so when we’re mindful of the dispensational theme of Matthew’s gospel. It is the common understanding of Bible students that the fig tree is symbolic of the nation of Israel. God, in the Person of Jesus, comes to the Jews looking for fruit. But the nation didn’t produce any. All they showed were leaves, the outward adorning of the flesh produced by ritualistically performing the carnal ordinances of the law (Heb. 9:9–10). Fruit refers to their responsibility; it is produced by obedience in doing the will of God. As a nation, Israel produced no fruit for God, although they were given incredible privileges and advantages. Under the old covenant and given divine requirements, they miserably failed. In result, God curses the nation and sets them aside. The implication is that the Jewish dispensation would definitely soon come to an end. As for Israel’s own responsibility, God will never again look to them for fruit.
It is important to understand the position the Jews held at this time before God. They were God’s chosen people. All the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were in reference to them as a nation. In Romans, the apostle Paul describes some of the distinct privileges and advantages they were given.
“…who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came…” (Rom. (9:4–5)
“What advantage then has the Jew…much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God.” (Rom. 3:1–2)
There wasn’t a Gentile who possessed any of these things. No one can deny that Israel was made special to God during the Jewish dispensation (Ex. 19:4–5, Deut. 7:6).
Although the Jews were exalted by God above all the Gentile nations, their state in Adam remained the same. As his children, they were fallen sinners. God had placed all mankind on probation, and this included Israel. From the time Adam and Eve were chased out of the garden by God, man’s responsibility was being tested. This time of probation lasted until the cross. The Jewish dispensation was a big portion of this period where the Jews, with all their privileges and advantages, served before God as the test-case representing all mankind. By the remarkable figure of the fig tree, Jesus not only demonstrates the judgment which was about to fall upon the nation, but also upon all mankind. The odd miracle of the fig tree represents God ending man’s probation period and condemn the whole world (John 12:31, Rom. 3:19, appendix B). The fig tree symbolizes the judgment and condemnation of man in Adam.261
261 [Except for the advantages the Jews enjoyed, their state during their dispensation was equal to that of the Gentiles. Their privileges were only outward blessings of the flesh. By giving the Jews such advantage, God provided everything He possibly could to bless man in the flesh and to set him up for success. But the Jews proved that man in the flesh, man in Adam, regardless of the advantages, could never please God (Rom. 8:8). It didn’t matter whether one was born a Jew or Gentile. The failure of Israel in their given responsibility proved that all men in Adam had to be condemned]
“Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” (Matt. 21:19)
The probation period for man in Adam was over. God would never again look to him for fruit. God’s testing of man in the flesh had proven that he was eternally fruitless, depraved, and sold under sin (Rom. 7:14). In mankind’s flesh dwelt nothing good (Rom. 7:17–18). The fig tree represents Israel under the old covenant, man cultivated by God, but in vain. With the rejection of Jesus by the Jews, all was now complete for the Jewish dispensation. According to the Lord’s lesson, the mountain that was the nation of Israel would be removed and scattered into the sea of the Gentiles (Luke 21:24). Looked at as a corporate body on the earth, Israel should disappear, and be lost among the Gentiles. Being accepted by God according to their faith, the ministry of these disciples to the Jews after Jesus had left would be the main impetus for this removal.
The theme of rejection continues in Matthew. Jesus had returned to Judea and Jerusalem for the last time.262 But beyond His entry into the city, the next few chapters show mostly conflict (Matt. 21, 22, 23). Different classes of prominent Jews come to question and challenge Jesus – the chief priests and elders of the people, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians, lawyers and scribes all take their turn. But in truth, as the true Judge of man, Jesus pronounces the judgment of God on them.
262 [Jesus returns to Jerusalem for the last time by way of Jericho, the place where Joshua had entered the land. It was the city so long under the curse of God. The final circumstances of Christ’s life leading to the cross are marked in each of the synoptic gospels with the healing of the blind man near Jericho, who cries out and acknowledges Jesus as Messiah, Son of David (Matt. 20:29–34, Mark 10:46–52, Luke 18:35–43). The people acknowledge the same when He entered Jerusalem on the back of the donkey. I have no doubt these testimonies, His last presentation to Israel as their true Messiah King, were arranged by the sovereignty of God as the Father’s acknowledgment of His Son as such. The healing of the blind man is symbolic of His opening of the blind eyes of the few of Israel who believe in Him and receive Him as the Messiah. They follow Him – a type of the true remnant of Israel who will wait for Him. But we know the beloved city of Jerusalem would reject Him (to their ruin), although He entered as their King and the power of God disposes the hearts of the people to give a true testimony of Him (Matt. 21:9, 23:37). The people quote Psalm 118, which celebrates the millennial blessing brought in by Messiah. Blessed are those whose hearts may have been changed by God to retain this testimony of Him]
The chief priests and elders see the things Jesus does in the temple and come before Him to challenge His authority. In doing so they set themselves as the guides and protectors of the nation, assuming to judge the validity of any claims that might be made (Matt. 21:23). But when asked by Jesus and not being able to decide on the source of John’s mission, they prove themselves incapable of passing judgment on the Lord’s ministry. They confess their own inability. Jesus then dismisses them as not qualified to be the valid leaders and guardians of the people (21:24–32). They had judged themselves. He reveals by His comments and parables what their behavior had been as heads of the nation,263 and what the Lord’s dealings with them would be.
263 [The parable of the two sons shows the hypocrisy of the leadership of Israel. They are represented by the second son who professed to do the will of God, but in fact did not, while the openly wicked had repented and done His will (Matt. 21:28–32)]
Matthew 21:33–39 (NKJV)
33 “Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. 34 Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. 35 And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. 37 Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him.”
This parable is significant because it rehearses the history and failure of the Jewish dispensation. The Jews had two responsibilities – keep the covenant and to receive Messiah when He came. God had sent numerous prophets to Israel whose primary purpose was to call them back to the law and covenant (Neh. 9:29–30, Jer. 7:21–28, 2 Chron. 36:15–16). These were rejected, being abused in various ways by the nation. The last thing God would do in the dispensation was send His own Son, saying “They will respect My Son.” They took Him, cast Him out of the vineyard, and killed Him. The rejection of Jesus sealed the fate of the nation and the dispensation. Representing the Jews, their leaders had rejected the stone which would become the chief cornerstone (Ps. 118:22–23, Matt. 21:42).
Jesus applies the parable to them (21:43–46). God’s judgment would be to take the kingdom away from Israel. In their unbelief, the Jews would fall on the stone and be broken. This was taking place in Israel at that time. But those on which the stone would fall would be the rebellious nation in the last days, the stone grinding them to powder. This is God’s version of the history of Israel’s responsibility, even to its end, along with the judicial consequences from God.
In chapter twenty-two Jesus tells another parable, only this isn’t about the responsibility of Israel in their dispensation. Rather it refers to the conduct of the Jews in response to God’s invitation of grace (Matt. 22:1–14). Therefore, the parable is a simile of the kingdom of heaven, and the Christian dispensation. The first part of the parable implies that the Jews were the guests already invited to the wedding of the king’s son. The purpose of God, the King, is to honor His Son by celebrating His marriage.
Matthew 22:1-14 (NKJV)
“And Jesus answered and spoke to them again by parables and said: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, 3 and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come. 4 Again, he sent out other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding.”’ 5 But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business. 6 And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them. 7 But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. 8 Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. 9 Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.’ 10 So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. 12 So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
14 “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The first seven verses of the parable take place in the period of transition between the first two dispensations. The Jews are notified that it is time to come to the feast. They simply refused to come. We could say this was done during John’s and the Lord’s earthly ministries. Afterwards, when the feast is made ready, the King again sends more messengers to convince them to come. This is the ministry of the apostles to the nation of Israel after the work of redemption was completed. The Lord’s disciples became the apostles of the circumcision (Gal. 2:7–8). The Jews either show contempt for the message or kill the messengers. The result is the King destroys those invited and their city. Certainly, we see here the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 AD.
These events of transition are well documented in Scripture. The fact that the nation rejected Christ is taught in all the gospels, culminating in His trial and crucifixion. But while on the cross Jesus asked His Father to forgive them, for they knew not what they were doing (Luke 23:34). Israel was given one last chance to repent and except God’s invitation of grace. This is represented by the narrative in the first seven chapters of the book of Acts and the apostles’ testimony among the Jews.264 Peter preaches to Israel about their guilt in crucifying this Man, Jesus of Nazareth, whom God has now raised from the dead and exalted to His right hand. Therefore, the whole house of Israel should be assured that God has made this Jesus both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:22–36). Then later, Peter preaches that if Israel would repent and be converted, and their sins blotted out, the times of refreshing would come from the presence of the Lord. God would send Jesus back from heaven (Acts 3:12–26). These invitations of mercy and grace for the Jews are generally rejected. Only a small remnant of Israel believes and forms the beginning of the church.
264 [Stephen’s martyrdom at the hands of the Jews in Jerusalem marks the end of Israel’s chances of experiencing God’s mercy and grace as a corporate nation at that time. The Jews had always resisted the testimony of the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). After his stoning, God immediately turns with the gospel to the Gentiles – Philip witnesses to the Samaritans and an Ethiopian; Peter is sent to Cornelius’ house after a remarkable vision given him by God concerning the Gentiles; Saul, who persecuted and imprisoned the church, has a vision of Jesus Christ in glory, and is raised up as Paul, apostle to the Gentiles]
When the Jews reject the invitation in the parable, the King turns to the destitute to fill the wedding hall. This represents God turning to the Gentiles with the gospel of grace. Notice the Lord’s description of these. They were considered those who were outside (in the highways). The gospel, being somewhat indiscriminate in forming Christendom, is the gathering of as many as the messengers could find, both good and bad.265
265 [This is another example of Scripture speaking of Christendom instead of the church that Christ would build. When God builds, His work is perfect, eternal, and will not fail. He only uses living stones to build His house (1 Pet. 2:4–5). But in many of the parables about the “kingdom of heaven” we are referencing Christendom, Christianity, and the work of men in the Christian dispensation. By the preaching of the gospel, both good and bad enter the corporate body of Christendom. This is similar to other parables that are similes of the kingdom of heaven: the dragnet in Matt. 13:47–50 is the gospel net that gathers out of the world (sea) some of every kind; the wheat and tares in Matt. 13:24–30 are interpreted by Jesus as being the work of God mixed with the work of Satan in the same crop in the field (Matt. 13:37–43). There are also wise and faithful servants compared to evil servants in Matt. 24:45–51. The key to understanding is that they all are called His servants by the Lord, just some good and some bad as we would expect to find in Christendom. Again, in the ten virgins parable (Matt. 25:1–12), there are five wise and five foolish virgins, showing us the corporate mixture of Christendom. These distinctions are also found in the second parable in the same chapter about the talents (Matt. 25:14–30) – again you have all servants, some profitable and some unprofitable]
Because it is a simile of the kingdom of heaven,266 when it is time for the feast at the end of the Christian dispensation, the bad of the body of Christendom are separated from the good. The false profession of Jesus Christ will be separated from the true. The wedding garment, the proper and necessary apparel for the feast, is the true Christian clothed with Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26–27, Eph. 4:24, Col. 3:10). If the Son is to be glorified, everything must be according to this glory. One must be fit for the occasion; those who are not clothed with Christ Himself are cast out. Otherwise, all is provided for the feast by the King, the guests are not required to bring anything.
266 [As a reminder to the reader, all the parables in Matthew that are similes of the “kingdom of heaven” are about some aspect of the Christian dispensation. This parable is significant because it adds the prophetic history of Israel’s response to God’s offer of mercy and grace to them, after the work of the cross. Verse seven of the parable (22:7) is equivalent to what Jesus declares in Luke 19:41–44 when He weeps for Jerusalem. It is also significant that this parable in unique to Matthew, showing the purpose of God in writing this gospel – dispensational transition]
Therefore, the parable shows the invitation of grace to the nation of Israel. This was during the transition between the Jewish and Christian dispensations. It shows the judgment of Israel for their refusal of the invitation, ending their dispensation. But it also declares the bringing in of the Gentiles, the gathering of both good and bad into Christendom by the Christian gospel. The Christian age or dispensation ends by the separation and judgment of Christendom at the end of the age.