In our last lesson we saw Jesus make a formal declaration of kingship in Jerusalem. He rides in on a donkey just like Zechariah prophesied the Messiah would do. His first act as the proclaimed king is to cleanse the temple. The temple was supposed to be the place where people drew near to God and worshiped God. Instead, the religious leaders had turned the temple into a place to cover over their rebellious sins. It is now the next day and Jesus is going to go back to Jerusalem and back to the temple. The demonstration and discussion is going to be all about authority. Jesus is going to begin with a physical, visible parable. Open your copies of God’s word to Matthew 21 and we will begin in verse 18.
Fig Tree Parable (21:18-22)
It was not unusual for God’s prophets to do physical acts to make visuals for the prophetic sermon. Ezekiel and Jeremiah both perform many acts to show the people what God was going to do. Now Jesus is going to perform a prophetic action. Verse 18 tells us that Jesus is hungry as he is on his way to Jerusalem. We should never forget the humanity of Jesus as it is presented in the gospels. On their way to the city Jesus sees a fig tree by the road. Now before we can move forward in what happens, we need to understand the symbolism of the fig tree. The fig tree and the vine were commonly used by the prophets to symbolize the nation of Israel (cf. Jeremiah 8:13; 24:1-8; Hosea 2:12; 9:10; Micah 4:4; 7:1-2; Zechariah 3:10; Isaiah 36:16). Understanding this will explain what Jesus does.
Jesus comes to the fig tree. The tree has leaves but there is no fruit on the tree. Leaves on the fig tree indicates that there should be fruit. But when Jesus comes to the tree there is no fruit to be found. The imagery of Israel’s condition strongly comes forward. Israel has the looks of health and fruitfulness when in fact it is fake and false. We can see that this image fits what Jesus did the day before when he cleansed the temple. This is why Jesus lays a curse on the fig tree. It will never bear fruit again. Jesus is proclaiming his judgments against Jerusalem and those judgments will not be averted.
Then the fig tree immediately withers. The disciples are absolutely stunned when they see this happen. Now we have two choices to consider for the disciples’ amazement. The first option is that the disciples are amazed that Jesus can immediately wither a fig tree. I am inclined to believe that this is not the reason for the disciples’ amazement. It is the last week of Jesus’ life and these disciples have seen so many miracles that are far more stunning than a fig tree withering on command. They have seen Jesus raise people from the dead. They have seen all kinds of healing of diseases and sicknesses. I think the reason for the disciples’ amazement is because they understand the prophetic meaning. This is the second option. They understand that the fig tree represents Israel and Israel is not going to slowly wither away in judgment. Rather, Israel is going to be judged and fall suddenly and quickly.
This also explains what Jesus answers to his disciples. In verse 21 Jesus tells his disciples that if they have faith they will also be able to make the same declarations. They also will be able to do what Jesus did to the fig tree and also be able to tell a mountain to be thrown into the sea. Mountains frequently represent nations and powers in prophecy. Isaiah 2:2 is a good place to see this imagery.
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it…. (Isaiah 2:2 ESV)
Isaiah uses mountains to show that God’s kingdom will be higher and greater than any other kingdom or nation. The apostles are going to do the same thing that Jesus does. They are also going to proclaim judgments against Israel and against all nations that stand against the Lord. We see this in the book of Acts and in the various New Testament letters. “This mountain” is likely referring to the mountain that Jerusalem sat on as they were walking to Jerusalem. Israel’s rule and power will be judged by God. What Jesus tells his apostles here goes back to what he told them in Matthew 16:18-19. They will possess the authority of Jesus and will continue his work when Jesus returns to his rightful place on the throne.
Challenging Jesus’ Authority (21:23-27)
This action prepares us for the encounter Jesus is about to have in the temple. Verse 23 tells us that Jesus is teaching in the temple complex. But now the religious leaders challenge Jesus. “By what authority are you doing these things?” “Who gave you this authority?” Jesus has cleansed the temple. Jesus is has proclaimed judgment against Jerusalem and against the religious leaders. Jesus has called this temple his father’s house. So the leaders are questioning Jesus and wanting to know where he gets his authority from.
Now we need to think about this question that they ask because Jesus does not dismiss their question. Jesus is willing to show where he gets his authority for what he is doing. He is going to show his authority by making them answer a question. Jesus does not say that he does not need to have authority for what he does or teaches. Jesus does not say that authority is irrelevant. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Proving his authority is supposed to cause everyone to obey him and worship him. Matthew will end this gospel by recording Jesus proclaiming that all authority on heaven and on earth had been given to him. Authority is a very important question. Jesus has just indicated with the fig tree that he will give his apostles the same authority that he has.
One of the reasons we see so many religious groups and so many denominations and so many distinctions in Christianity is because people do not ask this question. Do we have authority to do what we are doing? We do not have a right to do whatever we want to do. There is no place in the scriptures where we find people doing what they want to do and worshiping God how they want to worship him and God accept it, receive it, or approve of it. If God is God, then we must find out what he wants. Somehow we have come to a point where we think we can worship God however we feel like. Even asking if we need authority before God should be a self-evident answer. The only reason we could possibly think that we do not need authority is we think that we are God and we are in charge. But Jesus is the authority, not us. Therefore we must look to his word to know what he wants and not look to ourselves. The whole issue between Jesus and the religious leaders is who has authority. The religious leaders thought they had the authority to do what they were doing for worship in the temple. They are challenging Jesus about his authority. Who gave you authority for what you are doing? We have authority. We are in charge.
So I want us to see the major flaw in their thinking because it is the same flawed thinking today. We do not claim authority. We must look for God’s authority for God’s house. This is really important because here is the problem. There are so many, like these religious leaders in Jesus’ day, who look religious and look right but lack God’s authority for what they are doing. They are not following what the scriptures teach about worship. They are not following the scriptures regarding salvation. They are not following the scriptures regarding forgiveness.
Now how these religious leaders respond to Jesus tells you all that you need to know. Jesus asks them a question in verses 24-25. If they will answer his question then he will explain the authority by which he does these things. So Jesus asks them if John’s baptism was from heaven or from human origin. The question is very simple. Was John’s ministry sent from God or not? Was John’s proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins through baptism authorized by God or did he make it up?
The answer is obvious. John was clearly sent from God and these religious leaders know it. You see this in verse 25. They confer with each other and know that if they admit that John was sent from God, then Jesus has them. Jesus will simple ask why they did not listen to John and repent. Why didn’t you believe him and follow him? But they have another problem. If they say that John was not sent from God, then they know they will be rejected by the crowds because the crowds in Jerusalem and Judea did consider John to be a prophet. So rather than be honest, they bail out and answer, “We do not know.” So Jesus does not answer their question about Jesus’ authority. These leaders are going to be that dishonest. When challenged on the question of authority, they simply skip the question.
These leaders know that they are wrong but they are unwilling to admit it. The authority of John was clear but they refused to believe him or follow him. The authority of Jesus is clear but they are refusing to believe him or follow him. You see that they do not want Jesus to be the authority. They want to be the authority.
This is the big question that is being posed to us. Do you want Jesus to be the authority for your life or do you want to be the authority? Will you listen to Jesus and do what he says for your life and for your worship to God or will you listen to yourself and do what you want for your life and for your worship? But do not answer this question too quickly. If Jesus had asked these religious leaders if God was the authority over their lives, I think they would have clearly said that God was. But Jesus is showing that they were wrong, though they thought God ruled their lives. The real tragedy here is that these leaders were self-deceived. They refused to see that God was not their authority even though Jesus asked them a question to help them see it. This is why they were worthy of judgment as symbolized by the fig tree. They lack integrity and honesty about their spiritual condition. They are faking a spirituality but do not have God and his word as their ultimate authority.
Friends, we must be convicted by the authority of Jesus. We must desire to submit to the authority of Jesus. This temptation to not listen to God’s authority goes all the way back to the beginning. Listen to how Satan frames his temptation in the garden.
“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1 ESV)
Satan is saying that you don’t really need to listen to God. You don’t need to follow that. You get to be the final evaluator of what God says. You are the final authority, not God. But we are not final authority. When we make ourselves the final authority, we are faking our spirituality. We are as fake as the fig tree with leaves but without fruit. We claim to follow Jesus but we actually are following our desires and our own wisdom. We are not in the position to tell God our thoughts about his authority. When Job made himself the authority, God had a simple question for him. “Who is this who obscures my counsel with ignorant words?” (Job 38:2 CSB) Who do we think we are when we stand against God’s plain teachings in his scriptures? So please answer the question with some reflection. Do you want Jesus to be the authority for your life or do you want to be the authority? Will you follow Jesus? Or will you just pretend to?