WWJD (what would Jesus do)? Disciples do what the Master does, so do we curse fig trees and cast mountains? Why would Jesus do things like that? The meaning is in the context.
After centuries of oppression, Jerusalem had finally seen her peaceful king arriving in the capital (21:5). Crowds acclaimed him as the son of David making his entrance with the authority of Israel’s God, the one who saves his people (21:9).
His first act was to overturn the temple. The house of God’s throne was controlled by bandits (21:13), bandits who were angry at the proclamation of his authority (21:15). They controlled the city, and they did not recognize him as their king. The day of his triumphal entry ends with the king outside the city again (21:17).
In the morning, Jesus left Bethany no breakfast, eager to return to the capital. Hungry, he wondered if a wild fig on the roadside might provide for her king, since the leaders called to tend God’s garden had no place for him. But the uncultivated tree had no fruit for her king either. The king decreed that this fruitless tree would not have a place in his kingdom (21:19).
The servants of the king were astounded to see the tree wither at his word (21:20). Jerusalem’s leaders may not know it yet, but this son of David already has authority in Jerusalem. He needs no axe to cut down those who are unproductive. His decrees are enough: heaven’s authority is in heaven’s anointed.
His disciples still had doubts about how he would assert his authority. Yesterday’s confrontation with the temple rulers wasn’t over. At the end of the day, it was Jesus who had left the city, and they were still in power (21:17). Jesus had said some scary things about how the Jerusalem authorities would treat him (16:21; 17:23; 20:19).
So, while they were still astounded by his authority over the fig tree, the king made a further declaration regarding the capital. Approaching from Bethany (just east of Jerusalem), the temple mount dominated their view. Jesus spoke of this mountain:
Matthew 21:20-22 (my translation compare NIV)
20 Seeing what happened, his followers were astonished, asking “How come the fig tree withered so quickly?”
21 In reply, Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth. If you [plural] have faith without doubting, you’ll not only do this to the fig tree but you could also say to this mountain, ‘Be uprooted and thrown into the sea,’ and it will be so. 22 And whatever you might ask for in prayer believing you will receive.”
Mount Zion, occupied by bandits (21:13), could not stand. Despite their plot to assassinate the Son anointed by God to reign, they would not hold God’s mountain.
By the end of that week, it will seem that the rebels of Mount Zion had won, casting Jesus down to the depths of death. By divine decree, he will rise from the depths, overturning the rebellion against God’s kingship. Like the withered fig tree, those in power on Mount Zion will sink to the depths.
This upheaval would be the unseating of the coup against God’s kingship. In the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of his Son, God has brought down the rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble (Luke 1:52).
That’s why the king instructs his servants to keep trusting his authority, not to doubt his kingship. They will fear that his life has withered like the fig tree, but his body will not see corruption. While it seemed Mount Zion had triumphed over the Galilean prophet, God will raise him up while the existing Mount Zion sank to the depths.
Faith is not authority over God to get whatever you want out of him. Faith is trusting his authority over the earth in his Anointed, presenting our petitions to him.
Followers of the Lamb share in his sufferings when evil seems to triumph over God’s authority. Our king calls us to keep trusting him, to present our requests before his throne, to speak with his authority, making declarations of his kingship.
What would Jesus do?
- Decree the end of the unfruitfulness.
- Declare the demise of the rebellion against God’s kingship.
- Empower the people who give allegiance to his kingship, as we present our requests to his throne and speak with his authority in his realm.
Update 2022-04-07: Original translation added (instead of NIV).