Matthew 21:18–22: “If You Have Faith”

by May 20, 2024Premium, The Gospel of Matthew

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Now that Jesus has entered the final week of his life, everything he does takes on special significance. It is not that our Lord has wasted even one moment from his life up to this point. Even so, his actions were often characterized by waiting and delaying the very events that he must take up this week. For this reason, it is perhaps surprising to see Jesus in a dispute with an inanimate object: a fruitless fig tree. Even this disappointing encounter in the midst of his hunger, however, is something that Jesus uses to declare an important message to his disciples: spiritual fruitfulness comes by faith, not by formalism.

Discussion Questions

1. What does the hunger of Jesus suggest to us about his humanity (v. 18)? What does Jesus’ unsatisfied hunger by failing to find figs on the tree remind us about his estate of humiliation as he approaches the cross (v. 19a)? Why does Jesus think that a leafy fig tree would have figs on it? How, then, does this leafy, but fruitless, tree reflect something about the hypocritical and barren nation of Israel?

2. In what ways did Old Testament prophets act out their messages in bizarre and attention-gaining formats? How does Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree relate to those methods of proclaiming God’s warning of judgment (v. 19b)? What does Jeremiah 8:13 tell us about how God had specifically sought to find “figs” from his people unsuccessfully? How does that prophecy inform how we should understand Jesus’ actions?

3. What kind of question do the disciples ask when they see Jesus withering the fig tree (v. 20)? What should we infer from the way Jesus states the qualification “if you have faith” twice in his response, both at the beginning and the end of his answer (vv. 21, 22)? Why does Jesus contrast faith with the formalism of Israel? What exactly does he mean by critiquing formalism, and what does he want from the faith of his people?

4. When you come to worship, what would it look like to worship formalistically? What would it look like to worship by faith? How often are you tempted to go through the motions, and how much does your pride suggest to you that your being there is a significant sacrifice on its own? What does the Third Commandment teach us about how to worship? What do you need to repent from in the way you worship the Lord?