Commentary on Matthew 21:18-22

by Dr. Knox Chamblin

THE CURSING OF THE FIG TREE. 21:18-22.

I. THE CURSING ITSELF. 21:18-19.

A. The Condition of the Tree.

Returning with his disciples from Bethany to Jerusalem on Monday morning, Jesus sees a fig tree by the road. On inspection he finds "nothing on it except leaves" (v. 19a).

1. Three kinds of figs. According to NBD, 422, s.v. "Fig, Fig-Tree," fig trees in Palestine bore successively three kinds of fruit: (a) Late or autumn figs, which furnished the main crop from August till winter; (b) green or winter figs, "which, having had no time to ripen, spend the winter on the branches and grow ruddy at the first touch of spring, yet remain small and are easily blown off by the wind"; and (c) the first-ripe figs, those of the second kind that stay on the tree and ripen from June onwards (see the article for Biblical references to all three kinds).

2. What Jesus expected. The Markan parallel to Mt 21:19 reads, "Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs" (11:13). Gundry thinks that Jesus, as portrayed in Mt, expected to find figs to satisfy his hunger (v. 12b): "Jesus must have hoped to find green winter figs which, not having ripened before the tree lost its leaves in the autumn, had stayed on the branches through the winter and were ripening with the leafing of the tree in the spring" (p. 417; cf. 1. b. above). Accordingly, says Gundry, Matthew has deliberately omitted Mark's note about its not being the season for figs. In my judgment, to speak of such an omission is to testify to the weakness of the position. It is preferable to take Mark's factual statement, "It was not the season for figs," as a helpful guide to understanding Jesus' actual intention on this occasion - as recorded in both Mk and Mt (neither Luke nor John reports this episode; but see Lk 13:6-9). In saying "it was not the season for figs," Mark may be speaking of "first-ripe figs" (c. above) and/or "late or autumn figs" (a. above). Cf. C.-H. Hunzinger, TDNT 7: 753, "The early ones begin to form in March and are ripe at the end of May. As the first crop of the year they are much appreciated, cf. Isa 28:4. But the late figs are the main crop. These develop on the new shoots. They ripen in late summer and are gathered, not all at once, but from the middle of August to well on in October." If Mark has "early figs" in mind, then he is telling his readers that such figs are not ripe by Passover (it falls in March or April; they do not fall till late May). If he is thinking (also or instead) of "late figs," then he is reminding his readers that fall, not spring, is "the [main] season for figs." In either case, Jesus went to the fig tree not expecting to find figs, but on the contrary expecting that there would not be figs (or at least desirable figs) to satisfy his hunger.

B. Jesus' Judgment upon the Jewish Nation. Finding nothing but leaves on the tree, Jesus pronounces the curse, "May you never bear fruit again!" whereupon the tree immediately withers (v. 19b).

1. The background. The OT prophets frequently used the fig tree and its fruit as images of Israel's relationship to Yahweh and her experience of his judgment: Isa 34:4; Jer 8:13; 29:17; Hos 2:12; 9:10, 16; Joel 1:7; Mic 7:1-6 (references are from Lane, Mark, 400).

2. The Matthean context. This passage is surrounded by words and acts of judgment. (a) The cleansing of the temple. Reflected in Jesus' expulsion of the merchants is a judgment upon the priesthood - and indeed upon the temple itself. This last idea is closer to the surface in John's account of the Cleansing (2:12-22) than in the Synoptics (Jn 2:19, "Destroy this temple ...," while referring directly to Jesus' own body, implies that with his resurrection from the dead the temple in Jerusalem will have served its purpose - and that there is now nothing to prevent the execution of the divine judgment pronounced upon it). Cf. also earlier remarks about Jesus' abandoning Jerusalem's religious leaders. (b) The debate over authority, 21:23-27, where the chief priests and elders are indicted for failing to recognize the source of Jesus' and John's authority. (c) The three parables of 21:28-22:14, which combine as a powerful pronouncement of judgment upon Jewry (see that discussion).

3. Jesus' shocking action.

a. The fact of the curse. Jesus' very cursing of the tree, quite apart from the time of the curse, is terribly shocking. His miracles characteristically heal and restore God's creatures. Here, and here alone, he deliberately curses and destroys something that God has made!

b. The time of the curse. As though the fact of the curse were not enough, Jesus seemingly pronounces a curse upon an innocent victim. For at the time of the imprecation, fig trees are not expected to bear fruit! How can the poor tree be blamed for not having figs? The very fact that Jesus goes to the tree to look for fruit that could not be expected - and then proceeds to pronounce the curse because there was no fruit - is a most effective way (with OT antecedents) for him to grab the disciples' attention and to point them to the reason for his action.

c. The message of the curse. This miracle is an enacted parable, a visible parable corresponding to the verbal parable of Lk 13:6-9 (see L. Goppelt in TDNT 6: 20). Like a verbal parable, this visible one serves to jar witnesses into serious thinking and spiritual probing: "Why should Jesus do such a thing? Why should he show such seeming disrespect for God's creation? Why should he show such apparent pique? He has been hungry before but has not reacted like this. This act seems so out of character." It is most significant that Jesus offers the disciples no interpretation of the cursing itself. He does draw a lesson, but it concerns a different matter (cf. below on 21:20-22). The disciples will surely remember the incident (how could they shake it off?). And as they ponder it, and relate it to other events and teachings of Jesus' ministry, they will come to understand its meaning: that Yahweh is responding to Israel's unfruitfulness (3:10; Lk 13:6-9), unbelief, and in particular her rejection of Messiah, with the severest judgment. Just as Jesus - "God with us" - here curses the fig tree so that it immediately withers, never to bear fruit again, so the present generation of Jews - together with their land, their capital, and their temple - is to suffer sudden and irretrievable judgment at the hand of God (cf. commentary on ch. 24).

II. LESSONS FOR THE DISCIPLES. 21:20-22.

A. The Transition.

"When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. 'How did the fig tree wither so quickly?' they asked" (v. 20). The disciples focus on the miracle itself rather than its spiritual meaning. Rather than dismissing their question, Jesus uses it as an opportunity to teach a lesson about faith and prayer. But in doing so, he maintains a link both with the immediate surroundings ("this mountain" is the Mount of Olives) and with the parable that he has just enacted.

B. Faith and Prayer.

We approach v. 21 by way of the more general statement of v. 22: "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." The Markan parallel (11:24) is yet stronger: "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."

1. The problem. In this promise there is no limitation on the petitions ("whatever you ask for") and no qualification attached to the divine response (Mt, "you will receive"; Mk, "it will be yours"). The only condition attaches to the petition (is it a prayer of faith or not?). What are we to make of the promise of v. 22 (together with its parallel in Mk 11:24)? - particularly in anticipation of Gethsemane, where Jesus himself considers that the Father's response to his prayer is conditional ("Yet not as I will, but as you will," 26:39) and where Jesus' request is denied rather than granted (the cup is not taken from him). For efforts to come to grips with this problem, see C. S. Lewis, "Petitionary Prayer: A Problem without an Answer," in Christian Reflections, 142-51; ibid., Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, 80-85.

2. The prayer of faith. The prayer of 21:22 expresses dependence upon God; cf. the parallel in Mk 11:22, "Have faith in God." "True prayer takes hold of God's strength" (Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer, 2). Prayer is "impotence grasping hold of omnipotence." One is to "ask for" certain things, and to "receive" them. Things are "done for" the one who prays (Mk 11:23). The sovereign God remains in control. His sovereignty is not supplanted by a sovereign faith to which God in turn is forced to yield. The unqualified and comprehensive promise, does not alter the fact that the response to the prayer is a gracious gift of God to his children. "The power to believe a promise depends entirely, [and] only, on faith in the promiser" (Murray, Prayer, 57). Not merely the account of Gethsemane, but this passage too, teaches submission to God's will. Could one really trust God without depending on his will?

3. Interpreting Scripture by Scripture. A cardinal principle of Biblical interpretation is that Scripture must interpret Scripture. Thus the promise of Mt 21:22 must not be divorced from the rest of Mt. This means, e.g., that it must be taken together with the the petition of 6:10 ("Thy will be done...") - which occurs in fairly close proximity to the promises of 7:7-11. It is also helpful to compare 1 Jn 5:14-15: "This is the assurance we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of him." Prayer's true freedom depends upon the protection of God's will.

4. The uniqueness of Jesus' experience. In a certain respect the experience of Jesus in Gethsemane is unique, and does not provide a model for our prayers (see comments on 26:36-46).

5. Claiming the promise. Perhaps we in the Reformed tradition find it easier to pray "Thy will be done," than to claim the promise of Mt 21:22. It is possible to resign oneself to the will of God without first wrestling and struggling with him in prayer (for a healthy emphasis on the latter, see Donald Bloesch, The Struggle of Prayer, and John White, Daring to Draw Near). There is a place for persistence in prayer, even clamor in prayer, beseeching God to be true to what He has revealed about himself, to honor his promises and be faithful to his covenant people. Let us not minimize the call to faith imbedded in the promise of Mk 11:24b, "believe that you have received it...." The use of the aorist verb elabete implies that one prays as though the petition were already granted; such is the confidence of faith. Writes Andrew Murray: "We have become so accustomed to limit the wonderful love and the large promises of our God, that we cannot read the simplest and clearest statements of our Lord without the qualifying clauses by which we guard and expound them" (p. xii). As a statement such as Mk 11:22, "the keynote of all true prayer [is] the joyful adoration of a God whose hand always secures the fulfillment of what His mouth has spoken" (p. 51).

C. Faith and the Kingdom of God.

Mt 21:22 relates to prayers in general (note "whatever"). Yet the teaching must not be divorced from its immediate context.

1. Jesus' act of faith. The disciples' exercise of faith is to be modeled on Jesus' own. So we ask: Just what was it that Jesus believed, upon precisely what was his faith in God focusing, as he invoked the miraculous power needed for destroying the fig tree? From the preceding discussion the answer is clear: Jesus acted in the conviction, not merely that God would supply the power needed to kill the tree - but also that God would surely accomplish what this episode symbolized, namely the judging of rebellious Israel. In other words, Jesus exercises faith concerning promises related to the coming of the Kingdom of God. The prayer in view in v. 22 must include, or at least be based upon, the foundational prayer of 6:9-13. For the citizens of the Age to Come, prayer must be historical and eschatological, as well as personal, in character (cf. comments on Lord's Prayer).

2. Removing the mountain. Jesus moves from the figure of the fig tree to "this mountain," which in this context must mean the Mount of Olives. It would, I think, be going too far to limit the present promise to prayers concerning this particular mountain; for in the very similar promise of 17:20, "this mountain" is the Mount of Transfiguration (17:1) - a site other than the Mount of Olives. I think it probable, nonetheless, that Jesus speaks here of the removal of "this mountain" in conscious allusion to Zech 14:4, "On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west...." The reasons for thinking so: (1) The influence of Zech on Jesus and the Evangelists at several other places in the Passion Narrative; and (2) the occupation of Zech 14 with the coming of the Day of Yahweh for both judgment and salvation, a dual theme that fits well within the present context of Mt (see earlier discussion). Bruce is attracted by this reading of Zech 14:4 (OT Themes, 107-8, following William Manson); Gundry rejects it (p. 418). If (as I believe) there is merit in the view, then Jesus is underscoring the point made with reference to the fig tree - namely that disciples should fervently pray for the swift and final coming of the Kingdom of God.

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