Mat 21:19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, "May no fruit ever come from you again!" And the fig tree withered at once. Mat 21:20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, "How did the fig tree wither at once?" Mat 21:21 And Jesus answered them, "Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' it will happen. Mat 21:22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith."
The account of cursing the fig tree is interesting for a couple of reasons. It comes on the heels of Jesus cleansing the Temple because they had turned it into a house of merchandize rather than a house of prayer. It is not difficult to see that he uses the fig tree to illustrate Judaism during his day. When a fig tree had leaves fruit should have been present. Since it wasn’t this tree wasn’t living up to its purpose and so is cast aside; it was claiming to have fruit but did not. Similarly Judaism had a show of religion but it was not producing any fruit and thus was cursed by God and was about to be abandoned by God both its house and covenant.
The more difficult part is Jesus’ response to the Disciple’s question. They clearly didn’t get the connection at that time but Jesus doesn’t try to explain further but makes a short statement about faith and prayer and one that he has made before. Why does he do this? I will suggest one possibility.
The Context is the misuse of the Temple that was supposed to be a place of prayer, or a place in which God’s will is sought after, not a place where man does his own will. The Jews as many today had gotten this completely backwards. Church and religion has become a tool for us to ask God to give us stuff. But the fruit of true religion is sinners getting right with God, listening to him and obeying him all with the purpose of honoring him in all things.
Jesus is teaching that what is important about genuine religion is not how prosperous our “temples” have become but whether we are actually communing with God and growing spiritually by it. Biblical faith is not just belief in the power of God to do what we want him to but it is based on the revelation of God. It doesn’t just believe he is but that he is truly as he reveals himself. Simply put, the faith of the Bible is not so much believing God can do what we want him to do but believing we can do whatever he wants us to do by his strength.
This is why so many have been disillusioned by false teachers that have told them if they believe hard enough God will give them the desires of their hearts. The problem is that to approach God with your agenda shows the desires of your heart is evil; it is asking “amiss”. Yes, the Bible does say that he will give us the desires of our heart but notice the conditions set forth, Psa 37:4 Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psa 37:5 Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. A true saint who is bearing fruit has a new heart that comes to God for help to do his will, not their own. A true saint’s heart’s desire is for the very things God wants to give.
Another way to illustrate the new heart of a Christian is with the old charge legalists sometimes make against others when they call them antinomians. They say that the antinomian believes that since they are saved by grace alone they can do whatever they want to. The mature Christian realizes that in a very real sense this is true. We have been freed to do whatever we want but the reason this doesn’t result in more sin but instead less sin is because we have been given a new heart that desires to do all for the glory of God. The person who tries to use grace to sin more has never known grace.
Thus proper prayer that produces fruit is that which approaches God in faith for help to serve him, not for help to serve self. If we make faith some sort of ticket to get God to serve us, we sin just like the Jews of the first century as they merchandized in the Temple. We make our faith one of merchandize but not one of fruitfulness unto the Lord. True faith removes the leafy but fruitless show and gets to the heart of the matter.