As I mentioned a couple posts back, Jesus would make three moves that declare His Messianic identity upon His arrival at Jerusalem; the first two were public, His triumphal entry, and His clearing of the Temple. Now we come to the third, His private demonstration to the disciples who, it would seem, missed the point just as much as the Jewish leaders did.
Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. (21:18-19)
Make no mistake, Jesus wasn’t having a temper tantrum because there was no fruit on the tree; His actions were quite illustrative of the situation they were in. He, the son of David, the Messiah had entered the Holy City of Jerusalem on the previous afternoon, headed directly to the Temple, the very dwelling place of God and the symbol of God in the midst of His people, and He had found only corruption and vice. Israel, as represented by its capitol looked healthy and productive from the outside, but the inside was rotten to the core.
The fig tree looked good, and it should have had fruit, but upon closer inspection, it was barren; Jesus pronounced judgment on that tree for its lack of fruit, and it withered and died. This action is prophetic, for like His actions in the Temple on the previous day, it was an illustration of what was in Jerusalem’s future: God’s judgment.
It would seem from their reaction in verse 20 that the disciples didn’t see the prophetic aspect of this, at least not at first, and as we probably would have been in their place, they were amazed at how Jesus said the words, and the tree had withered right before their eyes. I must admit that would be something to see. Jesus responds to their amazement by speaking to them of faith, a commodity they would need quite a bit of in the very near future:
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (21:21-22)
If you’ve been following along in our journey through Matthew, you will recall that this is not the first time Jesus has spoken to them in this way about their faith. In the days ahead, the disciples will need to have faith, for they will find themselves in a position where they will need to depend mightily on God; thus He reminds them that in doing so, nothing will be withheld from them. The obvious contrast is the Jewish religious leaders, who rely entirely upon their own abilities and self righteousness, even to point of having their long-awaited Messiah nailed to a cross, thus sealing their doom.
In the next scene, the indignation of the Jewish leaders finds its voice; see you then!