In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11: 20-21 NIV).
Jesus had much to accomplish and so little time. It was on one of those last mornings that the story of the withered fig tree is presented in Mark Chapter 11. While the encounter with the fig tree provides another example of Jesus’ command over the physical world, it seems almost petulant. Jesus was hungry and a fig tree observed in the distance looked to be ripe and ready with figs. But appearances were deceiving and the tree was barren.
My wife and I use the acrostic H-A-L-T to describe our emotions and avert an argument because one of us is not at full capacity (read “reason”). “H” stands for “hungry”—one of my triggers. Perhaps Jesus had an “H” going because He cursed the tree and proceeded on into Jerusalem where He drove out the money changers from the Temple and further cemented in the minds of the authorities that Jesus must be stopped. We are not told where He had breakfast.
But of course there is much more to this story. Peter’s incredulity over the withered fig tree the following morning invites us into deeper contemplation of this event, beginning with presenting us with the same question that has been asked of Jesus since His birth: “Who do you say I am?”
Almost every contemporary of Jesus answered that question incorrectly. Even when confessing a correct answer, as when Peter proclaimed Jesus to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” human reason just wouldn’t allow the truth of His Deity—His Oneness with God the Father—to stick. Observing the withered fig tree Peter calls Jesus “Rabbi” rather than “Lord” or even out of friendship and love just “Jesus.” Rabbi was a term of respect, but after being with Jesus for nearly three years, after all they had seen and witnessed together, after all of the miracles, after all of Jesus’ testimony of what this week in Jerusalem meant to Him and His ministry, “Rabbi” seems to me to be out of place, particularly the incredulity that seems to accompany it.
Perhaps to refocus Peter Jesus said simply, “Have faith in God.”
But Jesus never did anything that did not have real life-giving and life-changing implications, and so the story in the eleventh chapter of Mark continues. First, Jesus informs Peter that faith can move mountains, echoing other conversations where Jesus says “with God all things are possible.” Second, Jesus curiously ends His conversation with Peter with an admonishment that all prayers must include introspection about forgiveness; if you are holding anything against anyone you must stop praying and forgive them; otherwise God will not forgive you your sins.
And then Mark includes a third element: Immediately following this story, Jesus and the Disciples return to Jerusalem where the Jewish leaders demand that Jesus tell them plainly “by whose authority” He had been doing the things He was doing, such as running the money changers out of the Temple. Jesus knew further words would not matter to them—they refused to believe their own eyes and ears, so He traps them in their disbelief and refuses to answer—instead speaking a parable of what is in their hearts—murder, and what is in their minds—disbelief.
What can we learn from figs and mountains? Here are seven observations.
- Appearances can deceive, but God judges each of us by our actions and fruitfulness, not outward appearances.
- Time, for us and barren fig trees, will run out. Therefore, be alert to the times, doing good while it is still day.
- Because God is active in our world, miracles are all around us. It is important to take note of all circumstances—chance meetings and the serendipity of life, to see God and to seek Him. In seeing we can offer our adoration, awe, and honor. If we do not see, we are prone to stumble and fall. Learn to be led by the Spirit.
- Desire is stronger than we imagine. Bertrand Russell, echoing biblical truths said, “Be careful what you set your heart upon—for it will surely be yours.” From Eve in the garden, to Cain in the field, to Amnon with Tamar, to Judas in Jerusalem, our desires, firmly set, will impel us to achieve them, “come hell or high water.”
- Thus, Jesus’ speaking of casting mountains in the sea does not assert the correctness or morality of casting the mountain in the first place, nor does it limit mountain moving to godly faith alone; mountains can still end up in the sea where they do not belong—our sheer force of will can make that happen in spite of what God would have us pursue and achieve.
- Pursuit of carnal desires will hurt someone. Perhaps Jesus’ linking prayer to mountain moving was further instruction about the power of our will that first cast us out of Eden and an admonishment to not attempt to move mountains without consulting God. Standing before God with our desires is godly and may constrain us from wrong motives and choices.
- Consequences follow mountain moving. When aligned with God’s will, the result will be for our good; but apart from His will they will lead to pain and loss. The consequences of going our own way, according to Proverbs 14:12, is death, but Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”
Jesus asks “Who do you say I am?” I know Him to be a “life-giver.” If you are suffering consequences from ill-advised mountain moving, or questioning the adequacy of your faith or perhaps even God’s goodness because your mountain remains unmoved, recall all that you know of God—His compassion, His truthfulness, His mercy, His faithfulness, and His sovereignty, then bend your mind to understand His will, and bend your will to be His will.
Jesus went to the cross while we were yet sinners—proving God’s love for us. A few days after the fig tree withered, Jesus rolled away a stone and moved the biggest mountain facing all of us—death.