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Grow Some Fruit–Don't Wither

 

 

In Mark 11:12-19, Jesus curses a fig tree for not bearing fruit and then he immediately drives the moneychangers and merchants out of the temple. In verse 14, he says to the fig tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” At first glance, it would seem unreasonable of Jesus to curse the tree for being fruitless when, as Mark says in verse 13, “it was not the season for figs”. But upon closer examination there is a lesson here for us all.

 

W. M. Christie sheds some interesting light on this story in The Barren Fig Tree. Christie points out the time of year at which Jesus cursed the fig tree was probably toward the end of March considering that Jesus was likely crucified during the first days of April. In light of this he offers the following explanation: 

 

Toward the end of March, the leaves begin to appear, and in about a week the foliage coating is complete. Coincident with this, and sometimes even before, there appears quite a crop of small knobs, not the real figs, but a kind of early forerunner. They grow to the size of green almonds, in which condition they are eaten by peasants and others when hungry. When they come to their own indefinite maturity they drop off. These precursors of the true fig are called taqsh in Palestinian Arabic. Their appearance is a harbinger of the fully formed appearance of the true fig some six weeks later. So, as Mark says, the time for figs had not yet come. But if the leaves appear without any taqsh, that is a sign that there will be no figs. Since Jesus found "nothing but leaves"—leaves without any taqsh—he knew that it was going to be an absolutely hopeless and fruitless fig tree and said as much. [1]

 

When our Lord’s actions in this parable are contrasted with his spoken parable in Luke 13:6-9, we begin to understand why Jesus cursed the fig tree. In Luke we have a parable about a landowner who came three years in succession expecting fruit from a fig tree on his property, and when year by year it proved fruitless, he told the man in charge of his vineyard to cut it down because it was using up the ground to no good purpose. In both the acted parable and the spoken parable, it seems obvious to conclude that the fig tree represents the city of Jerusalem, unresponsive to Jesus as he came to it with the message of God, and thereby incurring destruction. 

 

By cursing the fig tree, Jesus was showing his anger at religion without substance. By simply appearing to be fruitful but having no evidence of fruit, Israel was spiritually barren. Just as the fig tree looked good from a distance but was fruitless upon closer examination, so the temple looked impressive at first glance, but its sacrifices and other activities were hollow because they were not done in sincere worship of God (see Jeremiah 8:13; Hosea 9:10, 16; Micah 7:1). 

 

If today’s churches spend large amounts of money on their physical buildings and yet ignore missions, evangelism, and care for the poor, they will likewise also come under God's judgment.

 

A church with an inward focus becomes like the moneychangers in the temple: it becomes self-seeking. The tragic result of this is that inward-focussed churches bear less and less fruit. I’ve seen churches like this, and you can understand why Jesus wept over Jerusalem.

 

Why do churches fail to bear fruit? I believe it’s because they miss the meaning in the passage of Scripture that follows this story.

 

The next morning as they passed by the fig tree he had cursed, the disciples noticed it was withered from the roots. Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, “Look, Teacher! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I assure you that you can say to this mountain, 'May God lift you up and throw you into the sea,’ and your command will be obeyed. All that’s required is that you really believe and do not doubt in your heart. (Mark 11:20-23)

 

Somewhere along the way, churches have failed to “curse some figs trees” –those things that do not produce fruit–and we have stopped believing in a mountain-moving God!

 

In order for our churches to be blessed and bear fruit, we must stop focusing on ourselves, our feelings, our needs, and our wants. We need to rid ourselves of all those things in the church that are hindering us from our mission. Instead, we need to focus our attention on the amazing power of the living God! 

 

Let us believe that our churches can be amazing places of spiritual transformation! 

 

Let us be confident that our churches can witness mountain moving firsthand! 

 

Let us choose to believe that God can and will do the impossible! 

 

In this new year have your church honestly assess their current health. Identify those things that are making your church ill and resolve to take steps to improve your spiritual health. I have noted some things below that can help your church become fruitful. Why not begin to address these things so that your church can experience real revitalization: 

 

1. Speak Up with Conviction

 

When churches avoid such cardinal truths as sin and hell, those churches are dying churches. They have made a decision to be more socially acceptable than biblically faithful. And it always follows–there will be little motivation for outreach and evangelism in those churches when there is little conviction over the realities of these biblical truths.

 

In spite of Jesus speaking frequently about hell, many churches are choosing to ignore the subject altogether. In an interesting article by John Horvat, a Catholic scholar, he says, “Anyone who wonders why the Catholic Church is in its present crisis need only read Dr. Scott Bruce’s “Do We Still Need to Believe in Hell? which appeared in a Wall Street Journal article (9/15-16/2018).” [2]

 

Horvat notes the following about the article: 

 

The author [Dr. Scott Bruce, a professor of history at the Catholic Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York City] believes Hell is a medieval invention adapted from the ancient myths that talk about a place of punishment for evildoers in the afterlife. Dr. Bruce recognizes the sociological value of Hell as “a frightening deterrent for sinful behavior,” however, he claims that Hell was (and no longer is) a cornerstone of Christian doctrine and that it was (and no longer is) something about which priests preached. The author looks forward to a day “in some, better future,” when the idea of Hell might be retired from use.” [3]

 

This blatant departure from biblical orthodoxy not only plagues Catholic institutions but it plagues evangelical churches as well. I don’t believe Jesus presented hell as a myth and I certainly don’t believe he wanted his churches to avoid the topic.

 

The reality of hell should serve as an impetus to evangelism and missions; it is a reminder to us of what is at stake with the gospel. Praise God “there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), but may we as believers be gripped with the urgency of the gospel message. Might we pray like Charles Spurgeon, who said, “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies. If they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees. Let no one go there unwarned and unprayed for.” 

 

Ironically, in a survey conducted by LifeWay research of unchurched persons across America, they found that non-Christians were much less likely to attend churches with weak doctrinal beliefs than those with strong ones. People want to know if you really believe the Bible, and if you do–then stop cherry-picking just the pleasant things. LifeWay went on to quote Amy, a 29-year-old unchurched individual, as follows, “Why should I waste my time in a place that does not have much certainty of belief.  I can find plenty of uncertainty in the world.” So, for the sake of all the Amy’s in the world, “don’t clam up, speak up!”

 

2. Start Leading the Charge

 

It is no surprise that declining and dying churches have little evangelistic passion. Over the years, I have seen many senior pastors who have either never had an evangelistic desire to reach people for Christ or have lost their evangelistic passion somewhere along the way. They just end up keeping the sheep happy. Paul’s advice to a young pastor named Timothy still applies to every pastor today, “do the work of an evangelist” (2Tim. 4:5).

 

Congregations tend to follow the passion and vision of their pastor. Pastor, if you have been hesitant, it’s time to start leading the charge for evangelism. If you are a lay person reading this, you need to see to it that your pastor is given every opportunity to help the church lead this important charge. Get behind your pastor! Your church’s future and people's salvation depends on it.

 

3. Step Into the 21st Century

 

Unfortunately, many churches are just plain out of touch with the changing trends and values of today’s culture. And here is the most disturbing part–dying churches are not bothered by that! 

 

When churches are woefully unaware of the realities, hopes and pains of those around us, they are not healthy. While failure to be true to doctrines of the Christian faith leads to apostasy, failure to understand the world in which we live and serve leads to irrelevancy.

 

People want to know why they should come to your church of all places. Would they see a church that is in touch with their world or a group of people holding on to their idyllic past?  

 

4. Resist the Urge to Become Insular

 

In a recent survey conducted by LifeWay research they found that nearly 95% of the churches’ ministries were for members alone. Sadly, these churches just heap one program upon another to meet the needs of the already churched. And the outcome is often unhealthy.

 

Robert Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America's New Quest for Community, found that almost two-thirds of the “support groups” in the United States are focused on Bible Study. While on the surface that sounds like a good thing, Wuthnow’s characterization of such groups revealed only a weak representation of Christian community. Persons join and participate primarily to “feel better about themselves,” which ranked first in a list of reasons for belonging, while “feeling closer to God” itself, still a therapeutic description – only ranked eighth. [4]

 

Reflecting on the primary desire to “feel better about themselves,” Wuthnow said the groups are asked to offer support to people but never to challenge them to repent of their sin or to change their life. Incredibly, Wuthnow found that if such a group makes demands on people’s lives, suggesting specific disciplines and practices, members will leave to find another more supportive and "less challenging" group. Hence, though “Bible study” groups are ostensibly gatherings of Christians, and as such they should be seeking to become holy people through the study of Scripture, the ways in which too many of these groups are organized and structured actually perpetuate a therapeutic gospel. [5]

 

While there certainly should be ministry available for church members, the balance between external and internal ministries is often heavily skewed toward the internal. When churches seek to care for, minister to, and even coddle their own, it’s a sign that decline is in motion and that death may be imminent for that church. It’s much easier for a church to always do things the way they have always done them, rather than to get uncomfortable outside the walls of the church. But it’s time to shed the layers of our comforters”! Stop being insular! Get outdoors! Meet the people Jesus died for!

 

5. Be Informed & Biblically Literate 

 

In the mandate Jesus gave to the church called the Great Commission–disciple-making was at the heart of it. But what exactly is disciple-making? Jesus said, “Teach them to obey everything that I have taught you”. Everything? Yes, everything!  That’s disciple-making. But unfortunately, according to LifeWay research only 3% of churches in North America have a planned method of instructing their members to learn the Bible in its entirety. Biblical illiteracy is a growing concern. [6]

 

Obviously, biblical illiteracy means that Christians may not be obedient to the calls of Scripture because they don’t know what the Bible says. And what’s worse, in whatever small groups a church may have operating, that lack of biblical literacy could be perpetuating a therapeutic gospel and further exacerbating people’s ignorance. 

 

A sure-fire way to put a church on the road to decay, is to keep them biblically illiterate. Hosea 4:6 says, “my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge”. 

 

This year, I am optimistic that churches can turn around and become fruit-bearing! Many churches have taken steps to do something about their declining health. It is truly amazing to watch churches renew their focus, to exhibit a new determination and passion for God and his Word, to show a strong resolve to pray more and to begin to believe in a mountain moving God.

 

Can I challenge you this year to “curse some fig trees” and move some mountains? Why not fling open your doors and get outside! There are people out there that need you and the good news you bring. 

 

Start believing in a mountain moving God! Let’s not wither, let’s produce fruit this year!

 

 

[1] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., et al, Hard Sayings of the Bible, Inter Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1996.

 

[2] John Horvat, Save Us from the Deniers of Hell, http://www.returntoorder.org/

2018/10/save-us-from-the-deniers-of-hell/ (accessed January 19, 2019)

 

[3] Ibid.

 

[4] Robert Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America's New Quest for Community(New York: Free Press, 1994).

 

[5] Ibid.

 

[6] For more insight into this troubling trend see: 

https://lifewayresearch.com/2012/09/06/bible-engagement-in-churchgoers-hearts-not-always-practiced/.

 

 

 

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