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Fig Leaves and Pharisees

July 01, 1997
Fig Leaves and Pharisees

by Doug Batchelor

Perhaps you have heard the expression "face the music"? It is said to have originated in Japan. According to the story, there was once a man in the imperial orchestra who couldn’t play a note. Because he was a wealthy person with great influence, he demanded that a place be given him in the group because he wanted to "perform" before the emperor. The old conductor agreed to let him sit in the second row of the orchestra and hold a flute, even though he couldn’t read a dot of music. When a concert would begin, he’d raise his instrument, pucker his lips, and move his fingers. He went through all the motions of playing, but never made a sound. This deception continued for two years.

Then the old conductor died, and a new conductor took over. He told the orchestra that he wanted to audition each player personally. One by one they performed in his presence. Then came the phony flutist’s turn. He was frantic with worry, so he pretended to be sick. However, the doctor who was ordered to examine him declared that he was perfectly well. The new conductor insisted that the man appear and demonstrate his skill. Shamefacedly he had to confess that he was a fake, a hypocrite. He wanted the prestige of being part of the orchestra, but since he never took the time to learn his instrument he was unable to "face the music."

The word "hypocrite" comes from the Greek word "hupokrites." It is defined as "the practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess," or "an actor under an assumed character."

Someone has said that "the number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim God with their mouths and deny Him with their lifestyles are what an unbelieving world finds simply unbelievable."1 Oswald Chambers said, "The world is glad of an excuse not to listen to the gospel message, and the inconsistencies of Christians is the excuse."2

Man-made Coverup
The Lord hates hypocrisy. Jesus made this painfully clear in His sermon on the mount. He told the people, "Take heed that ye do not your alms [charitable deeds] before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men." Matthew 6:1, 2, emphasis added.

He continued, "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men." Verse 5, emphasis added. "Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast." Verse 16, emphasis added.

The Pharisees were experts in the art of faking true religion. They fasted, prayed, and gave to be "seen of men."

Now I said that the Lord hates hypocrisy, and it’s true. But thank God that He loves the hypocrites, or we would all be in trouble! Arthur R. Adams said, "Don’t stay away from church because there are so many hypocrites. There’s always room for one more."

The famous actor Robert Redford was walking through a hotel lobby one day. A woman followed him to the elevator. "Are you the real Robert Redford?" she asked with great excitement. As the doors of the elevator closed, he replied, "Only when I am alone!"

If truly honest, we would all admit that at times we manufacture feelings and attitudes that are less than genuine. A "public relations" image. In fact, we can see that from the very beginning of this world’s history, hypocrisy has been man’s feeble way of cloaking sin.

The Bible records: "When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons." Genesis 3:6, 7.

Keep in mind that before sin, Adam and Eve were not streaking around the garden of Eden in their birthday tuxedos. In the garden, man had the privilege of talking with God face to face. Thus he was clothed with an aura of light—the same type of light that shone from Moses’ face after he spent time in the presence of God (Exodus 34:29-35). But after Adam and Eve sinned, the light went out and they sensed their nakedness.

Notice that their first reaction to sin was to manufacture a coverup. When they lost their garments of light as a result of disobedience, Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their shame. Before sin, they had never seen anything die, so when they plucked the fig leaves from the tree, I’m sure they expected longer-lasting results. When I picked some fig leaves for our cover illustration, I was amazed how quickly they became limp and shriveled. In addition, I found their pungent odor offensive. How very sad that our first parents traded living robes of light for limp, stinky leaves that soon withered and died.

When God spoke to Adam and Eve, He explained that in order to cover their sin, something besides fig leaves would have to die. At this point, God established the sacrificial system. "Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them." Genesis 3:21. Adam and Eve made skimpy belts of fig leaves, but God gave them robes of skin, thus symbolizing that Jesus would have to die to cover the sin and nakedness of the lost.

When we sin, one of two things will happen. We either start looking for fig leaves to make our own flimsy coverup, or we look to Jesus for His robe of righteousness.

Merely Ornamental
Throughout the Bible, fig leaves are a symbol for man-made religion and false righteousness. The fig tree is a symbol of God’s people.

Please read the following passage carefully: "He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down." Luke 13:6-9.

Year after year, the owner of the vineyard was disappointed because all he found on his fig tree was leaves. It bore no fruit. It looked like a healthy tree, but he did not plant it for mere ornamental beauty. He wanted fruit.

I believe there may also be a time prophecy hidden in this parable. The vineyard mentioned in verse 6 is the land of Israel (Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 12:10; Psalm 80:8-16), in which the vine and fig tree—both symbols of Israel and Judah—were planted. The parable of the fig tree gives a total of four years from the time of planting to the final chance for the tree to bear fruit. Now a year in the Bible is 360 days, because the Jews operated on a lunar calendar. Four years would be a total of 1,440 days. A day in prophecy equals a year (Numbers 14:34; Ezekiel 4:6). According to many chronologists, Joshua crossed over the Jordan and took possession of the promised land at approximately 1407 B.C. If you extend 1,440 years from that point in time (keeping in mind that there is no zero year), you come to the year A.D. 34. This important date in history is the same ending point for the 490-year prophecy given in Daniel 9:24. The angel says, "Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city," and in fact the word "determined" is better translated "cut off." The parable of the fig tree said, "Then after that thou shalt cut it down." Luke 13:9, emphasis added. It was in A.D. 34 that the Jews forfeited their place as God’s covenant people. Then in A.D. 70, both Jerusalem and the temple were completely destroyed.

Missing Fruit
One week before His death, Jesus cursed a fruitless fig tree to illustrate what was going to happen to the Jewish nation and the apostate church.

"Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!" Matthew 21:18-20.

Why would Jesus curse a fig tree? Surely the Lord was not so petty as to retaliate against a tree because it didn’t give Him breakfast! We need to examine this story closely, because it is the only place in the Gospels where Jesus is credited with being directly responsible for killing something.

Fig trees are unique in that both mature leaves and ripe fruit appear at the same time. The tree Jesus cursed had all the outward signs of bearing fruit, yet the tree was a hypocrite. It was a fitting symbol of the Jewish nation. With its temple, priesthood, and sacrifices, Israel had all the trappings of true religion, but the genuine fruits—justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23)—were missing. Remember that withered fig leaves are a reminder of man’s failed attempts to cover his own sins.

Notice the sequence. The same day Jesus cursed the fruitless fig tree (Matthew 21), He later had a showdown with the phony Pharisees and exposed their hypocrisy. "But all their works they do for to be seen of men." Matthew 23:5. Seven times Jesus called them hypocrites and then pronounced a curse on them—just as He had the fig tree earlier that day. Here is the curse: "Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation." Matthew 23:34-36. Please don’t miss the fact that Jesus said the curse would "come upon this generation."

In the next chapter, when Jesus describes the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world, He gives fig leaves as a sign. "Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." Matthew 24:32-35.

A generation in the Bible is 40 years (Numbers 32:13). Jesus made this prophecy in A.D. 31, and by A.D. 70 it was fulfilled!

Christ’s illustration of the fig tree that put forth leaves but no fruit is also a very plain prophetic sign for the last days. In the same way that literal Israel had all the outward forms of true religion before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, so spiritual Israel (the church) will in the last days put forth leaves but no fruit. There may be all the outward appearances of revival—lots of praise, miracle-healing services, big attendance, and talk of love and acceptance, but no fruit of the Holy Spirit. In other words, "having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof." 2 Timothy 3:5.

One of my favorite Christian authors made a clear prediction more than a hundred years ago: "Before the final visitation of God’s judgments upon the earth there will be among the people of the Lord such a revival of primitive godliness as has not been witnessed since apostolic times. The Spirit and power of God will be poured out upon His children. At that time many will separate themselves from those churches in which the love of this world has supplanted love for God and His word. Many, both of ministers and people, will gladly accept those great truths which God has caused to be proclaimed at this time to prepare a people for the Lord’s second coming. The enemy of souls desires to hinder this work; and before the time for such a movement shall come, he will endeavor to prevent it by introducing a counterfeit. In those churches which he can bring under his deceptive power he will make it appear that God’s special blessing is poured out; there will be manifest what is thought to be great religious interest. Multitudes will exult that God is working marvelously for them, when the work is that of another spirit. Under a religious guise, Satan will seek to extend his influence over the Christian world."3

This fig-leaf righteousness and false revival are the characteristics of the last-day Laodicean church. "Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing [recognize the fig leaves?]; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent." Revelation 3:17-19.

Jesus is calling us to lay aside our filthy, self-righteous fig leaves and—like the prodigal son—come home and put on the royal robe of the Father. Only then will the fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance (Galatians 5:22, 23), be evident in our lives. There will be no people in God’s kingdom who are merely ornamental trees. Everyone must have fruit.

"Let love be without hypocrisy." Romans 12:9, NKJV. Hypocrisy hurts the church, and it hurts us. Many hypocrites have been acting for so long that they have come to believe their own performance. We have a tendency to mold our faces to fit our masks. But God wants us to be honest with others and ourselves—Israelites in whom there is no guile or deceit (1 Peter 2:1; Revelation 14:5).

Here is the challenge I want to present to you: "The greatest want of the world is the want of men—men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall."4

Jesus says, "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." Matthew 5:8.

 

  1. Karl Rahner, quoted in Draper’s Book of Quotes for the Christian World, compiled by Edyth Draper (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.), 1992, entry #487.
  2. Oswald Chambers, quoted in Draper’s Book of Quotes for the Christian World, compiled by Edyth Draper (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.), 1992, entry #1334.
  3. E.G. White, The Great Controversy (Pacific Press Publishing Association: Mountain View, CA), 1950, p. 464, emphasis added.
  4. E.G. White, Education, (Pacific Press Publishing Association: Mountain View, CA), 1952, p. 57.
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