The King having entered His own city to be crucified, He now uses various opportunities to show the true state of the Jewish nation as a whole, and of the Gentiles who would be brought in under grace. In our first paper, we pointed out that there is a similarity of thought in the remaining sections.
Verses 18-22: The Lord’s authority in cursing, no fruit in Jerusalem, only in Bethany.
Verses 23-32: The Lord’s authority in cleansing; no fruit from the disobedient, only from those who repent.
Verses 33-46: The Lord’s authority in choosing; no fruit from the Jews, only from the “nation”, v. 43.
Verses 1-14 of chapter 22 continue the theme, showing the Lord’s authority in clothing.
The Fig Tree, vv. 18-22. The summer season for figs was well after the passover; as Mark 11. 13 tells us, there were leaves but “the time of figs was not yet”. Figs are a peculiarity amongst the wide variety of created things. Cultivated fig flowers are only fertilised for fruit bearing by pollen from the wild fig tree, the pollen being carried across from the wild fig flower to the cultivated fig flower by the small fig wasp. Lack of knowledge of this cycle brought failure when only the cultivated fig was introduced into America. Moreover, the flowers are inside out, the flowers being inside the pear-like green shapes on the tree. There can also be two crops of figs. Those in spring are called “the hasty fruit before the summer”, Isa. 28. 4, or “the firstripe fig before the summer”, r.v. This former crop precedes the leaves, which precede the summer crop.
These details reflect upon the many facets of interpretation found in the incident where the Lord found no fruit but only leaves. The Lord longed for early fruit from His people, but apart from the remnant previously noticed, there was none. There may be leaves produced over the years since then, and more certainly in future days, which will herald the future restoration of the nation when “summer is nigh”, Matt. 24. 32.
The fig, vine and olive are distinct. In one sense, the vine refers to the past, Ps. 80. 8; Isa. 5. 1-7; the fig to the present, namely the leaves representing the state of the Jews without fruit, and the olive to the future, when the branches will be grafted in again, Rom. 11. 19. From another point of view, the following differences may be noted.
All three are found in Habakkuk 3.17, and in Judges 9. 8-13, where the olive, fig and vine refer to fatness, sweetness and wine to cheer respectively.
Moreover, the fig may speak of God’s national interests on earth, since the fig was cursed in Mark 11. 21, something that could never come upon God’s spiritual interests. The Jewish national pre-eminence in Deuteronomy 28. 13, where they would be “the head, and not the tail”, would come under the curse, vv. 15-19^ so that the nations would be the head and the Jews the tail, v. 44. In the Lord’s time, there were leaves only, leaves of outward show, Gen. 3. 7, but in a.d. 70, even these withered, and they ceased from being a nation before the Lord, even though a remnant had looked for “redemption in Israel”, Luke 2. 38] 24. 21; Acts 1. 6. But at least, the promise of restoration in His times and seasons, Acts 1. 7, was promised when summer was come.
The vine would speak of God’s spiritual interests on earth. In Isaiah 5, the Lord looked for spiritual fruit from His people, His husbandmen in His vineyard being the sphere of service of the priests, prophets, Levites and shepherds, Matt. 21. 33. This service would pass to others who would bring forth fruit, this activity now being represented by the branches abiding in the vine, which is Christ Himself, John 15. 1-5.
Finally, the olive would represent the testimony of God maintained on earth by the Spirit of God (of which the oil speaks). The public testimony was first in the hands of the Jews, and then in the hands of the Gentiles in the local assem-blies. Romans 11. 11-26 traces the history of the transference of this testimony, showing clearly the position occupied by believers today.
Hence the leaves in our passage in Matthew 21 speak of a show of religious activity throughout the period of the Lord’s ministry, and indeed throughout the present age wherever the Jews conduct their religion without Christ. Since there was nothing for the Lord, He pronounced the words of judgment, “Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever”, that is, while in their conceited state of unbelief and national pride. The words “for ever’ do not exclude the blessing of future restoration; this is not visualised in the event of the fig tree. We may compare this with Coniah (king Jehoiachin) who, before restoration, was pronounced to be childless, with no hope of prosperity, and with no further son sitting on the throne of David, Jer. 22. 30. But mercy is promised imme-diately, that a righteous Branch would be raised to David, 23. 5-6. So, after all, Jehoiachin had a son in the genealogy of the Lord, Matt. 1. 12, after his restoration, 2 Kings 25.27-30; 1 Chron. 3. 17. In other words, we see with a wider vision than that indicated in the incident of the fig tree; we see the great mercy of God that “all Israel shall be saved”. The Lord uses this occasion for a lesson on the power of prayer. There is a particular condition attaching for prayer to be answered, namely “faith, doubt not, believing”. The mountain may well be a physical mountain, if this were necessary in the will of God. But it may refer to judgment upon a stony heart of unbelief prior to restoration, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh”, Ezek. 36. 26. See Luke 17. 6; 1 Cor. 13. 2.
Authority from Heaven, vv. 23-27. The teaching of the King is now called into question, since He taught “as one having authority, and not as the scribes”, 7. 29. The people recognised this in a measure, since they were attentive to hear Him as He taught daily in the temple, Luke 19. 47-48. It was this fact that caused the leaders to withhold their hands from Him until His hour was come. But the Lord had no man-given authority to teach, no licence from the Rabbis; rather “as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things”, John 8.28. The Jews may consider the Lord “having never learned”, 7. 15, but it was with envy that the priests watched His authority. As it was then, so it is today. Unspiritual religious leaders always question any spiritual authority in others. Ordination by rite and by man is a denial of the liberty of the Spirit amongst His people.
Chapters 21-22 of Matthew represent the Lord’s final conflict with formal religion, which He condemns in chapter 23. It is quite clear in chapters 21-22 that the Lord openly had the victory. The leaders sensed this, as their arguments were reduced to silence, but their engendered antagonism led to his crucifixion.
Service from heaven, whether of John the Baptist or of the Lord Himself, is the basis of all true achievement, but this is thoroughly disliked by men who refuse to recognise this divine origin. Believers today should also have a sanctified sense of the origin of their service. It is always true that “a man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven”, John 3. 27; the Baptist said this of the Lord but it also referred to himself. Similarly as ascended on high the Lord gave gifts unto men, Eph. 4. 8. Hence our testimony, as was that of the apostle Paul, should be “I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision”, Acts 26. 19.
The Repentant Son, w. 28-32. We now have the first of three parables, followed by three questions. Their common subject refers to those who thought they were in the kingdom, though they (the self-righteous religious Jews) were not really in it. Others morally outside were brought in by grace. In verses 28-32, they would not obey unto repentance; in verses 33-46, they would not serve unto fruitfulness; in verses 1-14 of chapter 22, they would not have their affections set upon the Lord’s things. In verses 28-32, we have the Jews not in, and the Jews (a remnant) coming in. Conversely in verses 33-46, the Jews are not in, but the Gentiles are brought in.
Those not in. A certain man’s second son said, “I go, sir: and went not”. This had been the original intention of the nation, “we will do”, Exod. 19. 8. But they went not, for in practice they broke the law though boasting in it, Rom. 2. 23. Later, the Lord said of the scribes and Pharisees, “they say, and do not”, Matt. 23. 3. This is religious humbug. Many may appear to acknowledge the “way of righteousness”, 21. 32, but although they know this way, yet they turn from it to become entangled with the pollutions of the world, 2 Pet. 2. 21-22. Such are not walking in the way of the Lord, making His paths straight, Matt. 3. 3, neither are they on the way of holiness that the unclean shall not pass over, Isa. 35. 8. . Those coming in. By contrast, the first son repented and went into the vineyard. This is typical of those who recognise their sin and need, and have faith. For example, in Luke 3. 12 publicans came to John saying, “what shall we do?”, and without doubt, Matt. 3. 6, they followed the instructions of John. Similarly, the Lord received publicans and sinners, Luke 15. 1-2, leading to repentance and faith as in the parable of the prodigal son. Hence in Matthew 21. 31-32 the Lord shows publicans and harlots entering the kingdom of God by faith, something the Pharisees never desired to do. The Lord does not say the “kingdom of heaven”, rather the “kingdom of God”, the all-embracive sphere of His rule, being “righteous-ness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost”, Rom. 14. 17.
Finally, we note that the Lord expects repentance in verse 29 followed by faith in verse 32. As Paul said in Acts 20. 21, “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ”. This is the divine order available today in the Gospel, namely repentance towards the One offended, and faith in the One who saves.
In our next paper, we consider the parable of the vineyard and the Stone.