A typical Saturday afternoon. Dad stays at home to watch football on the telly while mother and toddler goes out to the local superstore to restock the pantry and the refrigerator with the coming week's groceries. Once the car is parked safely, both stroll through the aisles, passing a shelf stocked with all manner of confectionery, tempting candy bars, sweets and chocolates which had been purposely placed at the level intended to catch the child's attention. The youngster starts to tug at his Mum's sleeve, then protests loudly when she says "No!" with a firm tone.
Unfortunately, the child does not think to himself, Of course, how silly I was. Mum's budget is limited and food items which are best for my health and well being must be prioritised. Besides, confection is not only bad to my teeth but adds no nutritional benefit, leading, if unchecked, to obesity.
Rather, the child will start crying, possibly stamping his foot on the floor and causing an embarrassing scene at a public place. Maybe a passing shopper pitying the boy may think to herself, Come on, it's only a little treat, not that expensive, or takes the mother's side, Tut tut, what an ill-disciplined child! The bottom cause of the commotion was that the youngster did not get what he wanted and he made sure his mother was well aware.
When I first started to read the Gospels, one particular thing which Jesus did that struck me, so contrary to his image of "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild" was to curse the fig tree. It was early morning and holiday crowds in the city were beginning to stir. Jesus was hungry as he made his way down the hill to the city, and he passes a fig tree in full leaf which happened to have been beside the road. It was Spring and fig trees don't fruit until the Summer. So it must have looked rather surprising to his disciples when he began to comb through the branches hoping to find something to get his teeth into. When he found nothing to pick and eat, he said, in full earshot of his followers, Let no one ever eat fruit from you again! - Mark 11:12-14, Matthew 21:18-19.
A childish whim? Was this incident much different from the boy crying and stamping his feet in the superstore? Because Jesus didn't get what he wanted? The only difference between Jesus and the small boy was that the former had power to punish the tree while the child was powerless to take revenge on his mother other to create an embarrassing scene.
Atheists and sceptics would love to get their teeth into this episode of Jesus' life to prove that all religion is bad. Richard Dawkins, the outspoken atheist and author of a bestselling book, The God Delusion which has sold millions across the western world, would use this as bona-fide proof that God's goodness is not what he seems to be, therefore his existence is highly questionable. After all, was it the fault of the tree itself that it could only bear fruit at a certain time of the year? Then to add to this, would the One who created the fig tree in the first place, and set its genome to function in a specific order, then curse it when the tree's health was at it's peak, and it was plain bad luck for it that it's Creator was hungry at the wrong time of year? In other words, as God and Creator, Jesus should have known better and found alternate ways to have breakfast without the need to condemn the tree to wither from the roots up. After all, Judas Iscariot had the money bag and plenty of bread and other fruit were available.
If I, as a believer, had difficulty in swallowing such an incident which seemed to have created a blip in Christ's love and goodness, how much more would the unbeliever, whether he was a die hard sceptic or a genuine doubter or even an interested enquirer? Or even among believers, thinking that their Lord is not always happy with their performance and his petulant, truculent character would have his believers punished for the smallest misdemeanour, with loss of salvation a possibility. Again, its worthwhile asking; if you were hungry in Israel, would you curse a fig tree, or any fruit-bearing tree at the wrong time of the year? Or would you simply go to a shop or market?
The incident of Jesus cursing a fig tree reminds me of one of his parables he spoke earlier in his ministry of Luke 13:6-9. It was about a barren fig tree planted in the middle of a vineyard. The landowner, who went regularly to the tree with a hope to collect its fruit, and finding it barren, eventually got cheesed off with it standing there in his field and taking up much of the soil's goodness. So he ordered it to be cut down, apparently leaving a stump with its roots still intact underground. It is an exact parallel to the withered fig tree, which dried up from the roots up. This would mean that the roots of both fig trees remain intact underground. They are the parts of the trees which people don't see.
When it comes to application of the trees to symbolise the nation of Israel, the meaning becomes clear. When Jesus was hungry on that road to the city, he was not being petulant - he was teaching his disciples a very important prophetic lesson - the dissolving of Israel as a nation sometime after the crucifixion, the resulting destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the scattering of the Jews across the globe. Since AD 70, when the armies of Rome under General Titus razed the city to the ground, the Jews wandered around the world with no homeland of their own for nearly two millennia. It was during this long period that the fig tree was merely a stump with its roots underground, out of view from the world - symbolising the nation of Israel, invisible around the world but actually still in existence.
Contrary to the atheist's great learning, the Bible is written in such a way that usually the unbeliever fails to understand it. Then not having understood it, he then dismisses it as such nonsense. He may even, for example, accuse the prophet Daniel of being high on the hallucinate drug LSD. One piece of Scripture which is shrouded in mystery, which for a while I did not understand, was Daniel chapter 7. But after prayer and reading, the veil was removed. Here he wrote of four beasts arising from the sea, here itself a symbol of non-Jewish nations. The first beast was a winged lion, the second a bear with three ribs in its mouth, the third was a four headed leopard and the fourth an unidentified beast with ten horns on its head.
The four beasts are interpreted as four kingdoms, one rising after the other - yet what were those kingdoms and what relevance have they to do with us - especially if their remains are long buried in the sands of the bleak desert? The key of understanding is the nation of Israel. Only when one is aware of the history of the Jews does one realise that the four kingdoms were Babylon, the Medes and Persian kingdom, the Greek and the Roman empires. All four ruled over Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel and the place where God has put his name there forever. But again, why was Babylon seen as a winged lion then having lost its wings, stood upright as a man? The same with the leopard, the Greek empire, having four wings and four heads?
The history of Israel provides the answer. The wings represent territorial expansion. The Babylon empire had conquered the Promised Land and Egypt; after this, its territory remain static, but stood proud as a man. It was the Greek empire, under Alexander the Great, which expanded its territory to cover the whole known world. Alexander died early in his life, in his thirties. After his demise, the kingdom was divided into four sub-kingdoms, each ruled by one of the four generals who saw themselves as the new kings, with one of them having direct rule over Jerusalem.
Then the bear, with three ribs in its mouth. This creature was the Mede/Persian empire, which too ruled over Jerusalem. This empire had conquered Babylon in 538 BC, but before then, Jerusalem was ruled by three Babylonian kings; King Nebuchadnezzar, who razed Jerusalem to the ground in 587 BC, his son King Avil-Maruduk, and his son King Belshazzar (Nebuchadnezzar's grandson) each ruled over Jerusalem before King Cyrus of the Mede/Persians took over. Those final three Babylonian kings were the three ribs in the bear's mouth of Daniel 7:5.
Then the unidentified fourth beast which had rule over Jerusalem, the Roman empire, its rule in full swing during the life of Jesus Christ. Upon the head of this creature, ten horns grew. History does not bear any record of ten kings co-reigning over the empire at the same time. In Daniel 7:23-25 an explanation is given of this phenomenon, describing another horn growing after the other ten and subduing three of them. If this 11th horn or king is the future Antichrist and his worldwide government, then these verses are about the future from this present point in time.
So very academic, but a very important truth here. Sometime in the future, unknown by any of us, the kingdom of Antichrist will rule over Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews. Israel plays an important role in unfulfilled future prophecy. Furthermore, one can only understand the many symbols recorded in the book of Revelation if seen in the light of Israel, as when the Lord Jesus returns to destroy the Antichrist, he will then reign as King of kings and Lord of lords in Jerusalem, which will then be not only the capital city of Israel, but the entire planet.
The cursing of the fig tree, a prophetic symbol of the nation of Israel, demonstrates the sheer power of God; his sovereignty, his omniscience and his omnipotence. The cursing of the fig tree was a symbol of the future state of Israel from after the crucifixion. Basically, what's this was all about was the omniscience of God. Nothing can take God by surprise! God knew absolutely every detail of history from eternity past. Absolutely nothing can happen without God 's foreknowledge. God is God. God is infinite. God is all-knowing. God cannot be outwitted.
That's why I believe in eternal security of the believer. You call upon God to save you and he saves you. Your name enters the Lamb's Book of Life (if by his foreknowledge it wasn't written therein already) - you are adopted into his family. You became a child of God. You became a new creation. You have a regenerated heart. That means you lose desire to pursue sin and develop a desire to pursue holiness. God becomes your joy, your hope, your encouragement, your strength. Therefore, would God allow you to lose your salvation sometime after all this? If you have turned from your faith or have committed a grave sin, and you have lost your salvation as a result, would God have foreknew this? If so, would he have gone through everything to save you? If he did not foreknow, then God wasn't omniscient after all, was he?
Whatever you may believe, we can be sure of one certainty:
God is not petulant.
In the coming week, access to a computer may be restricted. All comments will be welcomed and received but may be a delay before publication.