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Study Notes:

Matthew 21:18-22

Why Doesn’t God Answer My Prayers?

Summary: Jesus pronounces judgment on those who are more show than substance, and promises there is incredible power in righteous prayer.

Here at City Gates we emphasize expository teaching – that means teaching that exposes what the Bible says. We look at what a passage says, work to understand what it means, and then consider how that affects our understanding of God, our world, and ourselves.  And we do that verse-by-verse, chapter-by-chapter through whole books of the Bible.

So this morning, we pick up where we left off last week looking at the culmination of Jesus’ life and ministry when He entered the city of Jerusalem and later the Temple, presenting Himself as King and Messiah.  This should have been a moment of great celebration and rejoicing, and for some it was, but others, especially those in leadership, opposed and resisted it.  Now we see Jesus act out a parable that explains what was going on. 

Before we dig in, let me refresh your memory of what’s happening in the background – it’s Passover week in Israel, the time of year when the Jews celebrate their largest national holiday.  Jews, including Jesus and His disciples, have traveled to Jerusalem from all over the Middle East, Southern Europe, and North Africa for the event.  Jesus is staying two miles outside of town at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany – each day He visits the city and returns to their house at night.  So,

Matthew 21:18 Now in the morning, as He returned to the city, He was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away.

20 And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither away so soon?”

21 So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”

So, what’s going on here?  This doesn’t seem like the Jesus we know. It’s nothing like healing a blind man, or raising a widow’s son from the dead.  This is nothing like feeding hungry crowds or casting out a demon.

Was Jesus just hangry?  Was His blood sugar a little low?  It says this happened in the morning, did He miss His morning coffee?  Too many people staying at Mary and Martha’s house and by the time He got to the pot it was empty? 

Well, you need to know that at this time Jerusalem was planted with numerous food-producing trees: walnuts, olives, figs, and palm trees which provided dates, just to name a few.

Fig trees were actually planted along the road because people thought the dust kicked up by travelers helped them grow and when they bore fruit it was considered common property.  If you saw some, and you were hungry, you were welcome to it. We have the same thing in many of our state and national parks and even along roadways, where anyone is welcome to pick the berries they see and eat them so long as you know what you’re eating and it’s not poisonous.

But getting back to figs you need to know: they usually begin to produce their fruit in the  spring and the fruit begin to grow before the new leaves really take off. They start off as little, green, under-ripe fruit that take several months to reach peak maturity in May-June and as they ripen the tree produces more and more leaves. 

Matthew is telling us about events that happened during Passover, which usually occurs sometime during March or April on our modern calendars, a time when it was unusual to see a fig tree full of leaves.  In fact, that’s why this one tree catches Jesus’ attention – it seemed to be growing ahead of schedule, and if it was showing leaves, then it certainly should have had some more mature fruit, perhaps fruit that was close to ripe and ready to eat. 

And then you have to know that producing fruit is a common metaphor in the Bible for demonstrating the kind of life and behavior that God expects of His people.  In fact, back in Matthew Chapter Three, when we met John the Baptist, His message to people was: Repent (or stop doing things that God says are wrong) and “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:8)

Next week we’ll listen as Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard and the wicked tenants who rent it.  In the parable the owner says that since the renters aren’t producing any fruit, he’s going to will kick them out and bring in someone who will – and Jesus makes clear, God is landowner and He’s upset because people aren’t producing spiritual fruit with the lives He has given them.

So, bearing fruit is a metaphor for living the kind of life that produces things that please God.

And then, you need to know the Old Testament pictures the nation of Israel as a fig tree.  You can read about this in the prophets, especially in Jeremiah 24, Hosea 9, and Micah 7 where the KJV and NKJV refer to fruit, but every other translation mentions figs.

So, when Jesus condemns the fig tree for not having any fruit, He’s condemning the nation of Israel for not producing anything in their spiritual lives even though they look really good from a distance. 

Remember, Jesus was just resisted during the Triumphal Entry by the Pharisees, a Jewish denomination. They told Jesus to tell the people to stop crying out Hosanna.  And then, He went to the Temple and the priests, told Him the same thing.  As John put it in his account:

John 1:11 [Jesus] came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.

Just like this tree Jesus saw, the religion of Jerusalem looked promising from a distance, it was full of leaves – you could see the Temple dominating the city’s skyline, shining brightly in the Mediterranean sun, it was spectacular to behold – a project that would take over 60 years to complete. In the Temple you had the daily services every morning and evening, a whole cycle of yearly feasts like Passover that was just about to be celebrated. And serving in the Temple  you had the Levites and the priests and of course, they had the OT Scriptures.  Things looked good from a distance….but there was no fruit.  It looked like a house of prayer for all the nations, but it was actually a den of thieves.

And, Jesus rarely had anything good to say about the religious leaders of His day – most often He had corrections for them or flat out rebukes.  And when you read about them, they don’t seem like the nicest people.  They isolated themselves from those in need.  They were proud.  They were rigid and harsh, and they made rule after rule about exactly how you should live and what you should do. They looked good from the outside, but they were dead inside.  Jesus is going to call them white-washed tombs in just a few days.

And because they are all leaf with no fruit, all show with no substance, this whole city and system are going to wither and die just like the fig tree. 

In just a few years, the Romans would come to Jerusalem to silence a rebellion and effectively end the Jewish state and the life-less machinery of it’s religious system.  The Temple where Jesus stood would be completely torn down and burned.   Eventually it would become illegal for two Jewish men to be seen talking to each other in public in the land Israel.  As a result, they will begin to migrate all over the world in a global exodus that was only effectively reversed when the nation was reestablished in 1948 following the tragedies of World War II – nearly 1900 years after it’s destruction.

So let’s consider a few things about all of this.  One of the major themes of the Christian faith is the idea of Christ in us, the hope of glory.  Jesus taught that He is the vine and we are the branches, that we produce fruit as we abide in Him because we receive all our nourishing and nutrients from Him.   But this fig tree withered, or literally was made dry, and died – it’s the same term used for plants which die for lack of moisture. If you’ve ever had a potted plant that you forgot to water, you know what this is.  You look at the potting mix the plant was in and it’s all stiff and hard – there is no moisture, and the plant has gone from soft and green, to stiff, hard, and brown.

The religious system in Jerusalem lost it’s connection with God and so it withered and died.

Notice too that the judgment is not for being barren, but for appearing to be fruitful while actually being barren.  For having appearance WITHOUT substance.  God doesn’t expect you to produce fruit on your own, He wants to produce fruit through you.  Health and vitatlity come from a vibrant connetion to God which also results in producing fruit.  Their religious system made it looked healthy but wasn’t producing anything of substance, and that’s why it was judged.

But, you also need to know that this was not a judgment against all Jewish people – Jesus’ disciples went on to establish the Christian church and they were all Jewish. In fact, for the first several decades of the Church’s history Jewish-background Christians were the majority.  And, God still loves the Jewish people. He has not forgotten them. He has a plan for their salvation.

But what about us?  What can we learn from this?  Well, we need to heed the obvious warning to beware hypocrisy in our churches and personal lives.

In the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, Jesus sends letters to seven churches full of warnings and promises.  And He warns some of them that they’re already trending in the wrong direction – they’re full of leaves, but bearing no fruit.  They look good from a distance, but they’re hollowing out within.

I remember noticing this in Budapest where St Stephen’s Basilica is a major tourist attraction with thousands of people coming each day to admire the architecture and take selfies outside, but few coming on Sunday to worship inside.  You have a massive building, a beautiful building, full of leaves, but where is the fruit?

Today a lot of so-called Mega-churches employ branding throughout their campus so it seems more like a theme park than a church with cheery signage and clever architecture and design, even a Starbucks kiosk in the foyer.  I’m not saying all of that is sinful or definitely wrong, but it’s easy for us to be wowed over the details and the services they provide us as religious consumers. It’s easy to focus more on being trendy, cool, and comfortable than on bearing fruit.  When you are choosing a new church, appearance, vibe, and fun should not be heavily weighted factors in your criteria.  Grade them on prayer, fellowship, teaching, and the substance of worship, not just the style. Grade them on their fruit, don’t just assume it’s there because you see a lot of leaves.

And finally, look at your own life – are you bearing fruit?  Is Jesus producing the fruit of the Spirit in you?  Do you even know what that means?  Just like a tree grows and matures over time, are you doing the same?  Is God getting more and more fruit off you every year?  Are you increasingly available to Him, increasingly fruitful?  Don’t place confidence in your presence at your church or the surface level appearance of your spiritual life. Where is your repentance, your faith, your desperate pursuit of holiness, and where is the fruit that such things produce as you let God have more and more of His way in You?  Fruit, not leaves, are the proof of our relationship with God through Christ.  Proof that we are abiding in the vine. 

Now, keeping all of that in mind about WHAT has happened to the fig tree, let’s consider what Jesus has to say about HOW it all happened.  The disciples ask the question and Jesus tells them it’s all related to prayer.

Matthew 21:21 So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”

Moving mountains was a common expression at the time, a way of saying, ‘to do the impossible.’  Jesus never actually moved a mountain or a tree, and there’s no record of any Christian ever doing this in history – it’s not meant to be taken literally.  But He is making a point – He’s saying that if you are in a relationship with God, if you have faith and belief in Him, you’ll see Him do amazing things through you.

It’s a stunning counterpoint to the barreness of the fig tree. 

Jesus is saying your life can produce stunning, shocking, ridiculous displays of fruitfulness, IF you have and retain a connection with God. If God is at work in you, you can have both appearance AND substance, both leaves, and fruit because you’re not just you going through religious motions on your own.

So now consider the question that I used as the title for today’s sermon – why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

If we don’t pay attention to the whole story that is unfolding, we can read what Jesus says here and walk away with the idea that we’ve been given an unlimited promise – that all I have to do is ask God for whatever I want and if I believe that I’ll receive it, I will.

It’s possible to see this as a blank-check from God. But when we try to start writing checks with this promise we run into problems and wonder what’s wrong.  We ask for all kinds of things, even good things, and we don’t receive them – what’s going on?

Did Jesus lie?  Do we just need to have more faith?  What’s the problem?

There are many things that need to be considered as we answer that question, but one of the biggest just might be the fact that we often pray for the equivalent of leaves instead of fruit.  We pray for things that will make us, or others comfortable, when God may be working to make us holy instead.

If you’re praying for, or asking this Christmas for something that will make you look good from the outside, ask yourself – will it also produce fruit?  Ask, are you abiding in Christ?  Are you rooted and grounded in Him?  We’re told to pray “in Jesus’ name,” so are you asking for the kind of things He would put His name on? 

God is calling you to live a life of purpose anchored in Him, and He will empower you for THAT purpose. 

But He does not want us to live life on our own.  He wants us to come to Him, He wants us to ask Him for things.  He wants to be approachable and He wants to give us good gifts – but He also wants to bear fruit through us.  He wants to put things in us and in our lives that will be a blessing to others.  He wants us to be a bumper crop of love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness and self-control.

OK, but what about prayers for good things that go unanswered?  Why don’t all the Christians just get together one time and ask for a cure to childhood cancer?  Why wouldn’t God answer that prayer?  Well, I don’t know and yet I do.  Jesus had His own prayer go unanswered in the Garden of Gethsemane – when He asked if there was any way to avoid what He was about to go through.  He prayed for a way out.  And there wasn’t any other way.

This helps me remember two things – sin causes all the pain and suffering we experience in this world, and Jesus came to save us from it.  As Christians we have no promise that we will escape temporary suffering, but we are guaranteed through Christ that when this life is over, we will escape it forever in eternity.

So pray for a cure to cancer.  Pray for a miraculous cure.  I believe God can do that.  But also pray and ask God if He wants you to study medicine and use you to develop a cure.  Make yourself available for Him to produce fruit in your life, just as He produced the fruit of salvation through the life of His Son.

If you have Christ in you pray that God would move mountains through you.  Pray for impossible, extraordinary things.  I love what John Piper said one time, he said, “I only pray for impossible things, if it was possible, I would do it.”

James 4:2 you do not have because you do not ask

God is big, and generous, and willing to work – to produce fruit and not just leaves in our lives.

One last thing – the promise here is in the plural form.  He tells the disciples to all pray, together. This is not just about your private interests and it’s one reason we pray together, collectively, at several points in the Sunday morning worship service.  There are things in the Christian Faith that you CANNOT do alone.

So we’re going to pray together now, and then we’re going to take communion together, we’re going to remember why Jesus came into Jerusalem, why we celebrate Christmas, and we’re going to make ourselves available to God to make as much fruit as He wants to through our lives.

Let’s pray.

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