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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
 www.oaklawnurc.org/
 
Title:The Leaves and Fruit of a Professing Christian
Text:Matthew 21:18-27 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ
 
Added:2024-04-17
Updated:2024-04-17
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

O Come My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord
Before Thy People, I Confess
Before the Throne of God Above
Be Thou My Vision

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


“The Leaves and Fruit of a Professing Christian”
Matthew 21:18-27
 
The casual reader of Scripture could easily get the wrong impression of Jesus if they read just the passage concerning this fig tree that did not bear fruit. The skeptic might say, “What type of person would curse a fig tree just because he was hungry and there was no fruit on the tree?  That’s drastic! That’s mean! And it takes away the opportunity for others in the future to get figs from that tree. It might have borne a lot of figs if it had been given more time!”
 
But those who are more familiar with Scripture understand that the judgment Jesus pronounced on the fig tree carries great significance. One commentator notes: “That withered fig tree stands as one of the most comprehensive objects in sacred history, an object lesson forever.”  (John A. Broadus, Commentary on Matthew, pg. 435)
 
The object lesson, and the significance of the withered fig tree, is seen in its relation to a number of areas. First, the withered fig tree relates to Old Testament Israel, who went through the motions of external godliness – the leaves of an outward religion, but had no real evidence of godliness, that is, fruit.
 
In the previous passage we read about the worship in the temple. We read that it had become so corrupt that Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling pigeons and doves. (Matt. 21:12)
 
The Israelites in the Old Testament era, as well as the Jewish leaders in the first century, had an outward form of worship: They did their sacrifices. They offered prayers. They presented tithes. In other words, they went through all the motions and as such they had “leaves.” To the casual observer, looking at temple worship, it seems as though the religious leaders and the people were doing what God would require. The “leaves” were there.
 
However, there was no fruit. There was certainly no compassion. As we read in the previous passage, the chief priests and the teachers of the law were upset that Jesus healed the blind and the lame. They were upset that children sang praises to Jesus. They were looking out for themselves and for the vendors who sold sacrificial animals and they were looking out for the money changers who made a profit as they transferred currency into temple coins. From a distance you would see all this external activity, and it might look as though the temple worship was authentic, biblical, and God-honoring. 
 
But if you were to look past the leaves – past the externals – you would see that there was no fruit. There was no love for the Lord and no love for others. People were looking out for themselves, not for the interest of others or for the glory of God.
 
Yet the Lord had been so very patient with Israel. Jesus had expressed that patience in a parable that he told about another fig tree. In Luke 13:6-9 Jesus described a man who had a fig tree in his vineyard, but it produced no fruit. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’” ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
 
That short parable teaches the great patience of God. But the time comes when his patience is over. The time comes when there is no longer a day of grace, no longer an opportunity to repent and believe and be saved. There comes a time when the Lord brings judgment, as he did with Israel, as he used their judgment to bring the gospel to the nations – to the Gentiles. 
 
However, the significance of the withered fig tree doesn’t end with Old Testament Israel. The New Testament church often has an outward show – many leaves that look attractive, yet beneath the leaves there is no real fruit. We see that in the early church. Consider the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Only two of the seven churches were commended, and they were churches that in the eyes of the world were weak. The church at Philadelphia and Smyrna were churches that didn’t appear to have many “leaves” – there was no showy grandeur or great wealth in those churches, but they produced spiritual fruit because they were faithful. 
 
By contrast, the church at Laodicea seemed to be a church in full bloom, a prosperous church with beautiful leaves on every outstretched branch. Yet the Lord said to that church, You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Rev. 3:17)
 
Many commentators have pointed out that those churches are no more. They point out that God will take a church that does not produce fruit and allow it to wither away. J.C. Ryle writes: “Where are the once famous churches of Ephesus, and Sardis, and Carthage, and Hippo? They are all gone. They had leaves but no fruit. Our Lord’s curse came upon them. They became withered fig trees...” (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Vol. 1, pg. 270)
 
That wasn’t just a first-century phenomenon. The mainline churches of America today – churches that once were faithful and produced spiritual fruit to the glory of God – now deny the reality of the virgin birth, the necessity of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the reality of his miracles and his true identity as the eternal Son of God and other basic biblical truths that flow from Scripture. They, too, have outward leaves, but no longer do they produce godly fruit. They are withering away. Unless they repent and return to the teaching of Scripture, judgment will come upon them fully, not only now, but in eternity.
 
And what was true for Old Testament Israel, and what is true for the New Testament church also is true for individual professing Christians. Many people in the United States still profess to believe in Jesus. The percentage of those who say they are Christians has dropped, but it is still a strong majority. And many of those professing Christians have an outward show of faith (leaves), but, like Israel of old, no real fruit in their lives.
 
What the Lord said to Ezekiel, about 587 years before the birth of Jesus, forms a snapshot of many churches and professing Christians today. In Ezekiel 33:30-32 the Lord said: “As for you, … (Ezekiel), your countrymen are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the LORD.’  My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.”
 
That was the case for Old Testament Israel. They heard the word of God from Ezekiel and all the other prophets, yet they did not put that word into practice in their lives. Unfortunately, that also describes much of the New Testament church. Many churches today have the same message as the world, even in areas such as same-sex marriage. They have not put into practice the Word of God in their lives.
 
But unfortunately, it also applies to many professing Christians. Perhaps you heard about the young pastor who was just out of seminary. He had received a call to a church and preached his first sermon to the congregation. The next Sunday, as the congregation gathered to hear their new young minister, they were surprised that he preached the very same sermon to them.
 
“Perhaps he has had a busy week,” the people thought, and they let it go at that. But the next week this young pastor again preached the same sermon, and the week after that again, and the elders went to him and said, “Son, when are you going to give us a different sermon? The people are really upset and so are we. We want to know, when are you going to give us another sermon?”
 
And the young minister, fresh out of seminary, said, “When you begin practicing what I preach, I’ll move on to another passage. But since I haven’t seen anyone practice what I preach, I have continued to repeat, praying that the message of the Lord won’t fall on deaf ears but will produce fruit.”
 
We might smile at that story, and it is, I’m sure, just a story. But there is truth in the point that as professing Christians we often don’t practice what we hear preached. And that’s not just true for congregations, that’s true for pastors. One of the many frequent prayers that I pray for myself is that I would practice what I preach. I found out long ago that standing behind the pulpit and preaching – although it is much harder than it looks and takes a lifetime of work and untold hours of preparation – is still far easier than actually living out what you preach to others.
 
Producing Fruit, Not Just Leaves
 
And that brings us to our first application: When we, by God’s grace and indwelling Spirit, put the Word of God into practice in our lives, we produce fruit. God has given us this promise in Isaiah 55:10-11: As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
 
Have you noticed how the Word of God hardens the unbeliever?  That may be God’s purpose, just as it was with Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17). Peter describes it this way; in 1 Peter 2:7 where he writes, concerning Christ, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone, and then in verse 8, he adds: “‘And a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the message which is also what they were destined for.”
 
But by his grace and Spirit’s indwelling power, God’s Word also produces spiritual fruit in the lives of believers. And producing spiritual fruit is the purpose of our lives. It is the reason for our election. In John 15:16, Jesus says: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide…”
 
There is the specific fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” But there is also the broad-based fruit – that is, evidence of Christianity – that comes when we live out the gospel in our lives. It is what Jesus spoke about when he said, “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matt. 7:16) And again he said, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.” (Matt. 12:33) And again, in Luke 6:44, Jesus said, “For each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.”
 
Our purpose in life – the reason for God, in electing love, predestined us to be his blood-bought children – is to bear spiritual fruit to his honor and glory. And we do that by putting the Word of God into practice in our lives. If we don’t put it into practice we wither, just like that fig tree.
 
The Power and Focus of Prayer
 
There is a second application, which at first may seem far separated from the first, but it is clearly there in our passage. In verse 20 we read: When the disciples saw this, (how the fig tree had withered), they were amazed. ‘How did the fig tree wither so quickly?’” they asked.
 
Jesus didn’t go into a discussion on how he withered the tree or why it would no longer bear fruit. Instead, in verses 21 and 22 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, 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.”
 
The illustration of moving mountains is used, not so that we would try to literally move mountains, but rather it is used as a figure of speech. This mountain” would refer to the Mount of Olives. If it were to be cast into the depth of the sea, it would mean an initial drop of some 4,000 feet.
 
Jesus used this same figure of speech in Matthew 17:20 as he removed a demon from a boy when the disciples were unable to do so. The purpose in both places is to show that what is impossible for us is possible through the power of prayer which is prayed in faith. 
 
And when Jesus says, in verse 22, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer,” we understand that means whatever we ask that is in accordance with God’s will. Our prayers are always to follow the pattern of our Lord, who in Gethsemane prayed, “Father, not my will, but your will be done.”
 
The power that we have in prayer is far greater than we can comprehend. The reason why is that we pray in the name of Jesus; he is our Mediator, the one who intercedes for us and he has all authority, in heaven, and on earth.
  
We see the authority of Jesus, not only in his ability to wither a fig tree with one sentence, but over the Jewish leaders as well. In verses 23-27, the chief priests and elders came to Jesus and asked him by what authority he did these amazing things. Jesus turned the question around on them, asking them whether John’s baptism was from men or from heaven.
 
Jesus wasn’t evading their question. He was simply turning it around on them so that their lack of authority would be plainly evident, even as his authority as the Son of God was and is clearly discerned. His authority is from his Father in heaven, and as Jesus said to his disciples just before his ascension into heaven, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
 
When we confront a problem, we seek an authority. If it’s a legal problem, we seek out a lawyer, hoping that we might find an honest one. If it’s a medical problem we seek out a doctor, recognizing his authority to prescribe the medications or direct the surgeons to do what needs to be done to help us heal.
 
But the human authorities are nothing compared to the authority of Jesus Christ. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, even the authority to forgive sins and impute his righteousness to the life of everyone who by his grace has true saving faith in him alone. And it is to him that we are to pray with adoration and thanksgiving as well as petitions. We are to pray that by his sanctifying Spirit we would produce fruit for his glory and honor.
 
Because of who Jesus is, we are to pray with great confidence: Not only does he have all authority, he also knows every aspect of being human. Did you notice in verse 18 what led to this whole object lesson of the withered fig tree? It was human hunger. Verse 18, Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry.”
 
You can relate to that, I’m sure. If you and I wake up hungry we have eggs in the refrigerator, a frying pan and a stove, toast, and maybe some bacon and hash browns too. But Jesus had nothing. He had no home of his own. He had no stocked pantry or cold refrigerator. And he was walking to the city, early in the morning, and in his stomach was that gnawing hunger that grows and grows.
 
Verse 18 is a reminder that Jesus Christ is not only the all-powerful God to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given, but he is also truly human. He knows what it’s like to live on this earth with all its sorrows, struggles, and temptations. He knows the human experience completely, even the gnawing pain of hunger.
 
The author of Hebrews focuses on both the divinity of Jesus and the humanity of Jesus as being an incentive for our prayers. He writes: Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)
____
 
The casual reader of these verses, someone who knows little of the Bible and about Christ, might say, “What type of person would curse a fig tree just because he was hungry and there was no fruit on the tree? That’s drastic! That’s mean! And it takes away the opportunity for others in the future to get figs from that tree. It may have borne a lot of figs had it been given more time.”
 
But those who are more familiar with Scripture understand that the judgment Jesus pronounced on the fig tree carries great significance. As John Broadus wrote, “That withered fig tree stands as one of the most comprehensive objects in sacred history, an object lesson forever.” 
 
May it be an object lesson imprinted in your life and mine, focusing us on the purpose of our election, to produce spiritual fruit as we live out the gospel in our lives. 
 
And may it be an object lesson for prayer, as we faithfully and fervently pray to the Father through the name and merits of Jesus the Son, who has all authority in heaven and earth, and who knows the human experience completely and thus represents us flawlessly before his Father’s throne! Amen.
 
 
bulletin outline:
 
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. – Matthew 21:19
 
             “The Leaves and Fruit of a Professing Christian”
                                        Matthew 21:18-27
  
I. The significance of the fig tree with leaves but no fruit (19) is evident
    in its relation to:
     1) Old Testament Israel, who went through the motions of external
         godliness (leaves), but had no real evidence of godliness (fruit)
         (Ezekiel 33:30-32)
 
 
 
 
     2) The New Testament church, which often has a form of godliness
          (leaves), but denies it’s power (2 Timothy 3:5; Revelation 3:17)
 
 
 
 
     3) Professing Christians who may have an outward show of faith
          (leaves), but don’t produce the fruit of a Christ-centered life
          (Matthew 7:16, 12:33; Galatians 5:22-23; James 2:14, 17)
 
 
 
 
II. Applications:
     1) The purpose of our lives is to bear fruit (19, John 15:16)
 
 
 
 
     2) The power of prayer is far greater than we can comprehend (21-
          22); because our Mediator has all authority, in heaven and on
          earth (23-27; Matthew 28:18)
 
 
 
 
     3) We are to pray with great confidence: not only does Jesus Christ
          have all authority, He also knows every aspect of being human
          (18; Hebrews 4:14-16)
 
 

 

 




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright, Rev. Ted Gray

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