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How to Bear Fruit

A sermon on Mark 11:12-12:12 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, 5/7/00


This morning we consider one of the strangest actions of Jesus in his entire ministry. Every one of Jesus’ miracles recorded in the Bible focuses on serving others – except one: Let’s read it now:

12 ¶ And on the next day, when they had departed from Bethany, He became hungry. 13 And seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And He answered and said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again!" And His disciples were listening. (skip to verse 20) 20 And as they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. (Mark 11:12-14, 20 NASB)

Jesus curses and destroys the fig tree because it had no figs -- even though it was not the season for figs. It almost looks as if Jesus is peeved; hungry and hopeful that this green tree will provide nourishment, upon finding the tree empty of fruit, he curses it in a fit of pique. We might act that way if we had the power; but Jesus? This story seems completely out of character.

Recall that Jesus has just entered Jerusalem, acting out the role of the returning Davidic king. We saw last week that Jesus is our perfect king, performing all the roles of government:

Why would such a king act in this way? Jesus is the King who is in control of everything that happens; he always works all things together for His glory and our good. How could this event fulfill those requirements?

The answer to this question provides a key for understanding the next two chapters of Mark. In cursing the fig tree, Jesus provides a visual parable of the necessity of bearing fruit for all who claim to follow Him. He then provides us both positive and negative lessons concerning how to bear fruit, lessons we must take to heart if we are going to glorify God, if we are going to show the world what God is like. In relating the continued conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, Mark teaches us vital lessons about how to become a dry, withered vine – and, in contrast, how to become a healthy vine, full of heavy, juicy fruit. This topic extends through the end of chapter 12; we’ll look at the first four lessons today, and consider the remainder next week.

Let’s begin by looking more at the story of the cursing of the fig tree.

Jesus is hungry; he sees in the distance a tree full of leaves. Many trees produce leaves and flowers simultaneously, but the fruit always follows the leaves. The nourishment provided by the sun via the leaves is necessary for the production of fruit.

Figs appear to be an exception, though in reality they are not. Fig trees produce flowers simultaneously with their leaves. But the flowers are encased in a fleshy, protective coverings which have the same shape as ripe figs, giving the false appearance of fruit. The fruit doesn't develop, however, until later. When pollination occurs inside these coverings (which requires the assistance of a special type of wasp), fruit develops. But the fruit, too, remains inside the fleshy covering. So the skin of a fig is actually the exterior, protective covering of the flower.

The tree that Jesus saw was unusual in two ways. First, it leafed out early. It looked to be especially well-watered by an underground spring or stream, and thus likely to produce abundant fruit. But when Jesus approached the tree, he found that it had neither ripe figs nor the precursors of figs, the fig-shaped flower modules. The tree appeared to be flourishing, but in reality it was producing nothing of value -- and never would.

So Jesus curses the tree. He curses the appearance of fruitfulness without the reality.

He’ll elaborate on this later this same week, as recorded in John 15:

5 "I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing. 6 "If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. (NASB)

So God wants much more than the appearance of fruitfulness: He wants us to become like Christ; for that’s what it means to be fruitful. To display the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, -- to be like Him as we depend upon him. That’s what this passage is about.

We’ll see how Jesus applies this concept to our own fruitfulness as we go through the other stories.

The Fruitbearer is God-Focused in Worship

15 And they *came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to cast out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves; 16 and He would not permit anyone to carry goods through the temple. 17 And He began to teach and say to them, "Is it not written, ‘MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL THE NATIONS’? But you have made it a ROBBERS’ DEN." 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for all the multitude was astonished at His teaching. (Mark 11:15-18 NASB)

Recall that the temple had an outer court, the court of the Gentiles. No Gentiles were allowed to go any further into the temple. While God intended this area to be a place of prayer for the nations, the religious leaders had allowed it to become a strip mall. Merchants sold animals for sacrifices; moneychangers converted foreign currency into the coinage required to pay the temple tax. Others, not wanting to carry their merchandise around the large temple area, used the Court of the Gentiles as a shortcut between the city and the Mount of Olives. So this area had become like Main Street instead of a place to praise and glorify God.

Note that this was a deliberate action by Jesus; he had surveyed the scene the previous day, and decided what he would do on Monday (Mark 11:11). He throws out the merchants and turns over the tables of the moneychangers, scattering their nicely-piled coins all over the ground. Undoubtedly this caused a great commotion: "What do you think you’re doing?" "Hey, where are the authorities when we need them? There’s a crazy man in here!"

But then Jesus does something interesting: In the midst of all the commotion, he teaches (v. 17)! Jesus had to make clear that his were not the actions of a vandal, but those of the nation’s true King and High Priest.

In this teaching, he quotes Isaiah 56:

"Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath, And holds fast My covenant; 7 Even those I will bring to My holy mountain, And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples." (NASB)

Do you see what Jesus is doing here? Temple-worship was ordained by God to picture the intimate relationship between the Lord and His people. It was to be a picture not only to the Jews but also to foreigners – and this particular part of the temple was designated for the worship of those foreigners. They were to be joyful in their prayers, as God reached out to all peoples.

But this Court had become a convenient place for doing business – a business that had lost all connection with the worship of the one true God. The entire system of temple worship had become only a set of rituals, requirements necessary to appease God rather than expressions of an intimate relationship. They would approach the temple with the attitude, "Oh, I have to do this, so that God won’t punish me. I’ll meet my needs here – get this over with, change my money, and I’ll be fixed until next time." You see the focus? "I, I, I; the temple worship exists for me." They did not focus on God. As we saw in our series on Leviticus, God instituted the sacrificial system to provide a series of pictures of His love and mercy – temple worship was never intended as a way to gain brownie points with God.

This leads us to our first principle for fruitbearing: The fruitbearer is God-focused in worship.

We worship to glorify God, to show through our teaching and our praise and our prayer what a mighty, loving, just, holy, and perfect God we have. Worship that loses this focus on God, services that become people-oriented rather than God-oriented, are in great danger of becoming like 1st century temple worship.

How do we stay God-focused in our worship? These matters deserve a full sermon to cover; let me just briefly note three points here:

Jesus tells the woman at the well that those who would worship God must worship in Spirit and in Truth. That is what we want to do: To focus on the truth as proclaimed in God’s word; to exalt His name in God-honoring music, and to pray together fervently and deeply from the heart.

In sum, the central goal of our worship is to glorify God; A fruitbearer focuses on God in his worship.

A Fruitbearer Has Faith in God, Shown in His Prayers and His Forgiving Spirit

20 And as they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. 21 And being reminded, Peter *said to Him, "Rabbi, behold, the fig tree which You cursed has withered." 22 And Jesus *answered saying to them, "Have faith in God. 23 "Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it shall be granted him. 24 "Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they shall be granted you. 25 "And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions.

Remember the context: Jesus has just judged the fig tree for giving the appearance of fruitfulness when it was really barren, and has rendered a judgment on the Jews for approaching temple worship like pagans, relying on a ritual to avert God’s wrath. So when Peter exclaims that the cursed tree is dead, Jesus summarizes the lessons about fruitfulness: "Have faith in God." He then shows that our faith extends to believing that our good God will fulfill His promises, so we can pray confidently in accordance with His word and know that He will answer. This statement is a further parallel between this account and Jesus' conversation with the disciples the night He is betrayed, as recorded in John 15:

7 "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you. 8 "By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.

Furthermore, as is brought out in verse 25, our faith must extend to our confidence in God's justice. As we saw last week, God will wreak vengeance when vengeance is due; He will right all wrongs, so we are free to love and forgive everyone who annoys us, everyone who does evil against us.

The principle here:

A fruitbearer has faith in God, as shown in his prayers and his forgiving spirit. If we really believe God works together all things for our good and His glory, we will pray with power according to His promises, and can forgive whatever slights or evils done to us.

Ray Stedman puts it this way:

The one thing above all else which seems to block the flow of the life of God to an individual, to a church, or to a nation, is this unwillingness to forgive, this holding of grudges, this desire to put somebody down in order to feel good yourself, this unwillingness to set these things aside and let God heal all the hurts of life. That is why Jesus puts his finger on this one thing. Is this not amazing? The nation Israel lost its life because it would not forgive the Gentiles, the Romans, who had offended and grieved it. Instead, it gathered its robes of self-righteousness about it and looked with pride up to God and said, "I thank God I am not like these other people." God says that is what ends the life of a nation. That is what ends the life of a church. And that is what ends the spiritual life of an individual, cuts him off.

Do you want to bear fruit? Trust God to right wrongs. Have faith in His promises. And pray for those promises in the lives of yourself and others.

The Fruitbearer Speaks the Truth, Regardless of the Expected Response

27 ¶ And they *came again to Jerusalem. And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, and scribes, and elders *came to Him, 28 and began saying to Him, "By what authority are You doing these things, or who gave You this authority to do these things?" 29 And Jesus said to them, "I will ask you one question, and you answer Me, and then I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 "Was the baptism of John from heaven, or from men? Answer Me." 31 And they began reasoning among themselves, saying, "If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ 32 "But shall we say, ‘From men’?" —they were afraid of the multitude, for all considered John to have been a prophet indeed. 33 And answering Jesus, they *said, "We do not know." And Jesus *said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."

The scribes, elders, and chief priests cannot believe Jesus' audacity. They think, "Who is this itinerant preacher who thinks he can come in here and cause a scene in the temple?" So that's what they ask Him: "Who do you think you are? We are the authorities here; if anything is wrong in the temple, we'll take care of it. Who gave you the right to come in here and do this?" Understand that they've already answered the question in their own minds: No one gave Jesus this right; in their minds, He's a nobody, stepping on their turf.

Think about this: do the chief priests and elders have a right to ask Jesus this question? Perhaps not in these demeaning words, and probably not in the tone of voice they used, but surely the religious authorities do have a right to ask about Jesus' authority. They can't let every Tom, Dick, and Harry (or every Nathaniel, Joshua, and Zechariah) enter the temple and turn over tables.

So why does Jesus avoid answering their question? Why doesn't he simply say, "My authority is from God"?

The reason Jesus doesn't answer is that these men are not interested in the truth. And Jesus exposes their lack of interest through the question He asks. In effect, He asks, "You ask me about my authority; let me ask you about John. Was his authority from God or from man?"

Look again at verses 31 and 32. Are they concerned at all with the truth? In their discussions, does the true source of John's baptism arise at all? No. Their entire discussion is framed in terms of the response of the crowds. They care not one whit for the truth, only for the political ramifications of their reply.

So Jesus' answer to them is this: "You don't care for the truth, so why should I answer you? But if you do care, remember: The source of my authority is the same as the source of John's -- as he himself indicated."

The positive lesson for us from this interchange is this principle:

The fruitbearer speaks the truth, regardless of expected response. We must not be like the politicians of ancient times (the chief priest, scribes, and Pharisees), nor the politicians of modern times, scripting our remarks to play to whatever audience is in front of us. If we are to bear fruit that lasts, if we are to take on the character of Jesus, we must be willing to speak the truth of the gospel, whether it is popular or not, whether we are in the midst of great revival or bitter persecution, whether it will lead to our being honored or our being put to death. We must be men and women of our word, as James reminds us:

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but let your yes be yes, and your no, no; so that you may not fall under judgment. (James 5:12 NASB)

This thought leads directly into the last section of today's text, where Jesus tells the parable of the tenants of God's vineyard.

The Fruitbearer Loves the Word of God

Let's get a little background from the Old Testament prior to looking at the story itself. In 12:1 Jesus quotes from Isaiah chapter 5, where Israel is compared to God's vineyard. Let's read the first seven verses of that chapter:

1 ¶ Let me sing now for my well-beloved A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard. My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. 2 And He dug it all around, removed its stones, And planted it with the choicest vine. And He built a tower in the middle of it, And hewed out a wine vat in it; Then He expected it to produce good grapes, But it produced only worthless ones. 3 "And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, Judge between Me and My vineyard. 4 "What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones? 5 "So now let Me tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard: I will remove its hedge and it will be consumed; I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground. 6 "And I will lay it waste; It will not be pruned or hoed, But briars and thorns will come up. I will also charge the clouds to rain no rain on it." 7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, And the men of Judah His delightful plant. Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; For righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress. (Isaiah 5:1-7 NASB)

God does everything one can expect of the owner of a vineyard to produce fruit, but in the end the vines produce only worthless grapes. Isaiah explains the parable: God looked for justice and righteousness among his people, but found instead bloodshed and distress. He looked for the qualities that would show that the people were being conformed to His image, but instead finds them acting completely contrary to His character.

In Mark 12, Jesus makes a clear reference to this passage of Isaiah, but adds new characters, the tenants of the vineyard, those in charge of keeping, nourishing, and helping the vines to bear fruit. To whom do the tenants correspond? Who is supposed to make the nation fruitful for God? The religious leaders: the scribes, teachers of the law, and Pharisees.

With that understanding, let's read the passage:

1 ¶ And He began to speak to them in parables: "A man PLANTED A VINEYARD, AND PUT A WALL AROUND IT, AND DUG A VAT UNDER THE WINE PRESS, AND BUILT A TOWER, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. 2 "And at the harvest time he sent a slave to the vine-growers, in order to receive some of the produce of the vineyard from the vine-growers. 3 "And they took him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4 "And again he sent them another slave, and they wounded him in the head, and treated him shamefully. 5 "And he sent another, and that one they killed; and so with many others, beating some, and killing others. 6 "He had one more to send, a beloved son; he sent him last of all to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 "But those vine-growers said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours!’ 8 "And they took him, and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 "What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vine-growers, and will give the vineyard to others. 10 "Have you not even read this Scripture: ‘THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, THIS BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone; 11 THIS CAME ABOUT FROM THE LORD, AND IT IS MARVELOUS IN OUR EYES’?" 12 And they were seeking to seize Him; and yet they feared the multitude; for they understood that He spoke the parable against them. And so they left Him, and went away. (Mark 12:1-12 NASB)

Why had the owner put the tenants in the vineyard? Both for the good of the vineyard -- as they care for it and make it fruitful -- and for their own good. They were expected to share in the productivity of the vineyard.

Just so, God put the religious leaders in charge of Israel for their good and His glory. Yet they rejected Him, and act as if their own selfish interests are all that matter. Ironically, by selfishly guarding "their own interests," they themselves miss out on the greatest joy of all: a loving relationship with King of Universe.

So God will do away with the existing tenants – the Jewish religious leaders – and will give to others the task of leading His people. Matthew's account makes this explicit; these words follow after the quotation from Psalm 118 concerning the chief cornerstone:

Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it. (Matthew 21:43 NASB)

What is the lesson of this parable for us? How can we ensure that we bear fruit instead of being dried and worthless branches, like the scribes and Pharisees?

Consider the error of the tenants. They received numerous messages from the owner, but rejected the messages and harmed the messengers. Indeed, they rejected the owner’s son, thinking that they then would have vineyard to themselves.

Do you see what this means? They rejected the Word of God: the Word in both its written form and personal form. So God rejects them, creating His church, and destroying both the temple and Jerusalem by the hands of the Romans 40 years later.

Yet the stone they reject becomes the chief cornerstone. Jesus himself is the cornerstone of the new building, the church, which brings glory to God.

This then is our final principle from today's text for fruitbearing: The fruitbearer loves the Word of God, the Bible, and the Word made flesh, Jesus. The fruitbearer loves the truths proclaimed through the written word, and Truth as manifested in Jesus ("I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life").

We are completely dependent upon the Word of God if we are to produce any fruit. Remember again Jesus' warning in John 15:5: "Apart from me you can do nothing."

So we must love His word, devour it, asking God to open it up to us, asking God to make His word dwell in us richly,

Conclusion:

Jesus curses the fig tree as a severe rebuke to the religious people of His day. Is there a parallel for the religious people of our day? Are we in danger of emulating the fig tree: having the appearance of fruitfulness without real fruit?

Undoubtedly the answer is "Yes." If we are to avoid becoming cursed fig trees, we must avoid at least four pitfalls:

Now, doctrinal purity, emotion, and God-ordained rituals are all vital parts of the Christian life; if these are absent, there will be no fruitfulness. And in many cases growth in numbers accompanies fruitfulness. But the passage today gives us these keys to true fruitfulness:

May we be a church overflowing with fruit -- and may each of us here this morning bear fruit, to the glory of God.


This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 5/7/00. The Ray Stedman quote is from the first of his excellent sermons on this passage.

Copyright © 2000, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, copied for resale or incorporated in any commercial publications or other products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, tpinckney@williams.edu, c/o Community Bible Church, Harrison Ave, Williamstown, MA 01267.

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