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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, January 18 2024

The fig tree: a lesson in the patience and judgment of God

The parable of the barren fig tree offers both good and bad news. The good news is that God is merciful and willing to forgive. The bad news is that even God's patient mercy has its limits.

The parable is as follows: "A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, 'Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?' But he answered and said to him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down'" (Luke 13:6-9).

Before delving further into the parable, we need to look at what Christ was saying before He gave it. At the beginning of Luke 13 we see Christ had been informed about some "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices" (Luke 13:1). It was an atrocity committed by the Roman ruler of the province upon the Galileans. We're not told whether there was provocation, or it was just a display of Roman ruthlessness to keep the locals in fear. However, Christ used it to teach a profound lesson.

In verse 2 Jesus asks: "Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish." Solomon once wrote that time and chance happen to everyone (Ecclesiastes 9:11). We can’t always control what happens to us. Jesus said the Galileans were just like everyone else, with weaknesses and strengths, going about their daily lives, when suddenly disaster struck.

Jesus then refers to another recent event, the collapse of a building on unsuspecting bystanders: "Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:4-5).

In both these stories from everyday life there is a call to repent, and change the direction of one's life. Jesus was warning that they could be like those who, unexpectedly caught up in circumstances beyond their control, had their lives snuffed out in an instant.

Every day we hear news reports of accidents, natural catastrophes and attacks that take innocent lives. People suffer loss of property, lands and rights because of actions taken by others with little thought about what's right or wrong or just. Events happen over which you have no control, and sometimes good, well-meaning people get hurt. Time and chance could unexpectedly strike at any time.

Repentance is not a fashionable word today. Its basic meaning is to change, to stop going in a direction that can be self-destructive, and turn around and go in a way that's productive and godly. It means to begin to obey God's law, as Christ taught in Mark 1:15: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." We are to "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Matthew 3:8).

An unproductive fig tree is pretty much useless. It hasn't had the proper care and feeding and is just there, marking time. It's like a lot of people—alive and breathing, but not really going anywhere. If we are not aware of the purpose for our existence, or are unsure about it, the unproductive fig tree could be a symbol of our life. The vineyard owner's solution to this unproductive fig tree was blunt: "Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?" (Luke 13:7). God is patient, loving and full of mercy and compassion, but He is also a God of judgment, and Christ is warning that a time of final judgment will come.

The remainder of the parable shows us what we should do. The keeper asks for one more year in which to work with the tree and make it useful and productive: "Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down" (Luke 13:8-9). God is in a dual role here as both keeper and owner of the vineyard, expecting us to produce "fruit"—the product of a life of good works of righteousness.

Galatians 5:22-23 defines the kind of fruit God wants to see produced in our lives: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law." These are the fruits of God's Spirit, and they can be produced in our lives by God when we repent, believe the Gospel message, and surrender ourselves to Him, allowing our lives to be led by His Holy Spirit.

This parable of a barren fig tree is meant to teach us a vital truth: repentance is necessary, and possible with God's help. He is patient and grants us time to change and bear fruit. Yet at the same time, none of us knows how much time we have left, so we should not put off developing our relationship with God. God is always just, and He understands what we are dealing with on a daily basis. His desire is that none perish (2 Peter 3:9), but that all produce abundant fruit and inherit eternal life.