The Time for Repentance is Now
1. The master demands fruit
2. The servant tries for time
People of God,
This puzzling parable comes at the very end of a series of teachings. We read in chapter 12:1 that many thousands have gathered to hear Christ speak. There are so many, in fact, and there is such an eagerness to hear what He has to say, that people are actually getting trampled. At times He only speaks to His disciples, and at other times He lifts His voice and addresses the whole crowd. He teaches His disciples the importance of courage and confession, and not to be anxious but to be always alert. He teaches the crowds to be wary of covetousness, to settle matters out of court, and He accuses them of ignorance. But He saves the most important teaching for last. We know that throughout much of Christ’s ministry, mystery surrounded His relationship to the Jewish people. Was this the long-awaited king? For six hundred years there had been no king on the throne in Jerusalem. If we look back six hundred years, the printing press hadn’t been invented. Six hundred years ago Christopher Columbus hadn’t even been born. Six hundred years is a long time to wait for something, a long time for hope to burn. So you can imagine that whenever the subject of the nation of Israel came up in Christ’s teachings, people listened.
Somebody asks Jesus about a group of Galileans recently butchered by Pilate for offering unlawful sacrifices on the altar. It’s a political question that touches upon the ever-sensitive issue of the relationship between the Jews and their imperial overlords. “And what do you think about them?” is Christ’s response. “Were they worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?” He leaves the political challenge unanswered and instead maneuvres the discussion toward the goal He has in mind. “And those killed by the tower of Siloam in Jerusalem,” He asks again, “were they worse sinners than everyone else living in Jerusalem?” These are the sorts of universal probing questions that don’t lose their edge over time. A few weeks ago a couple young people died at an all-night rave after taking a tainted dose of ecstasy. Did they die that way because they were worse sinners than anyone else at that rave, or anyone else in this room, for that matter? Do the people who die over in Syria die because their sins are worse than the sins of anyone else living on the planet today? And in response to these probing questions Christ levels a universal and devastating warning: “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Our text today is the parable that accompanies this teaching. It shows just how close to destruction the Jewish people at the time really were; but it’s a message that is no less pregnant, no less potent, no less practical for the world today and for us right here. For the message of this passage is that the time for repentance is now.
There may have been some raised eyebrows when we read through this passage. It isn’t quite what we expect, is it? In these few short verses we have an introduction, a conflict, some rising action. . . the end. This kind of structure offends that basic storytelling sense that lives in each one of us, the part of us that demands some sort of resolution. Why didn’t Christ tell us exactly what was the master’s response? Or whether or not the tree eventually bore fruit? Or maybe the servant was reprimanded for being insubordinate? But it’s like being told a riddle, and then coming up with a great question, that one question that will blow the whole thing open, and then being told that it’s irrelevant. Well whatever questions we feel haven’t been answered by the parable, haven’t been answered because the answers are irrelevant. Christ gave this parable the precise number of details necessary to deliver its message, both for His audience there in Judea, and for us today.
So who exactly was His audience there in Judea? We saw in the introduction to the sermon that while there were many people present, Christ wasn’t always addressing everyone there. Well, that’s not the case here. Chapter 13 begins by saying that “some were present who told him about” the murdered Galileans, and Christ responds to what they told him. However, His response was directed toward the whole assembly, as seen in the repeated refrain: “repent, or you will all likewise perish.” Christ was addressing everybody there, which means that there was nobody for whom that command did not apply. It applied equally to the crowds as to His own chosen disciples.
To understand what the parable would have revealed to those crowds, we need to have the ears that the Jews would have had, ears conditioned by the Old Testament. You see, Christ doesn’t arbitrarily choose the fig tree, as though it were one random fruit tree among many others. No, He chooses it because everybody there will recognize it as a symbol of national prosperity. It’s a symbol of the Lord’s favour in the past: “Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel,” says Hosea. “Like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season, I saw your fathers.” It’s a symbol of present blessing in 1 Kings 4:25: “And Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon.” And it’s a symbol of future blessing in Micah 4:4: “in the latter days… they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” The fig tree symbolizes national prosperity, but it symbolizes more than that. That tree is about them and the favour of their God.
However, the way in which Christ uses the fig tree is also found in the Old Testament. In contrast to the above passages, Jeremiah 8, which we read earlier, sounds a much darker note. It’s a passage in which the Lord lays out the nature of Israel’s sin. And at the end, in verse 13, we read something similar to our parable. The Lord, the one seeking fruit in our parable, also comes to Israel in the time of Jeremiah, and also then finds a fig tree with no fruit. But the fig tree here is a symbol of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Those Jews listening to this parable will understand immediately that the fig tree represents Israel, and that its barrenness is an accusation of their unfaithfulness to God. What will offend them, no doubt, is the thought that God would come to His fig tree, and not find fruit. They believe that they are doing everything the Law requires of them. They understand that God expects fruit from His people, and they believe that they are providing it in their exact obedience to the Law.
But this fig tree isn’t just missing the odd fruit. It’s not a matter of a few branches here or there being unproductive. No; it is so bad that the master can’t even find any shriveled remains. The tree is completely dead, and has been so for three years. Three years is more than enough time for a fig tree to bear fruit. Christ is telling the Jews that whatever it is they think they are doing, they are dead before their God. They’ve been dead a long time, and they are likely to stay dead.
So the master does what any other vineyard owner would do, and he orders the fig tree cut down. There’s no remorse, no sense of counting his losses; no, he simply performs a cold calculation: why should this dead tree take up any more space? The message that Christ delivers to His audience is very simple: You are the fig tree, God has found you fruitless, and God will destroy you.
But what does it mean that the Jews are without fruit? How can it be that they so carefully follow God’s law, yet are still completely dead? What is the fruit God is looking for? We have to understand that fruit here is not being used the way that it’s normally used in the New Testament. In most other cases fruit is used as an image for our works, as the necessary result of the faith in our hearts. Scripture teaches us that when your heart is right, you will do what is right. But you can’t necessarily flip that around. Just because a person looks like they’re doing everything right, doesn’t mean that their heart is right. God in this passage is not looking for those external fruits; He’s not looking for the fruits of the Spirit. He’s not looking for outward actions but He’s looking inward at the posture of the heart. The one fruit that the Jews did not produce was the only fruit that could save their souls. Because, while we know from James that our faith is dead without works, we are taught here that our works are dead without repentance. All of the works of the Jews are dead branches in the sight of God because they have not repented.
Repentance. Charles Spurgeon wrote of repentance that it “is a discovery of the evil of sin, a mourning that we have committed it, a resolution to forsake it. It is, in fact, a change of mind of a very deep and practical character, which makes the man love what once he hated, and hate what once he loved.” If we want to see what this looks like, the description applies well to one of the most famous accounts of repentance in Scripture; that of Nineveh in the book of Jonah. Chapter 3:5 says, “And the people of Nineveh believed God;” a discovery of the evil of sin. “They called for a fast and put on sackloth;” a mourning that they have comitted it. And in verse 8 the king says: “let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands;” a resolution to forsake it.
Where Nineveh was called to repent of their violence, we know from elsewhere in the New Testament that the Jews are being called to repent of the belief that they can satisfy the requirements of the Law, and so be made righteous before God. The Law had been given, as Paul writes in Romans 7, “in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.” The Law was given to humiliate the Jews, to force them to recognize their sin and misery. But they were using it in the exact opposite way. They were living the inverse of Micah 6:8. They were using the Law to do injustice, to love cruelty, and to walk arrogantly with their God. They were using it to exalt themselves. I was in a conversation recently, and someone put it that it’s possible to use the Law illegally. The Jews were guilty of the unlawful use of the law, of dressing up death with the disguise of life. Christ is calling them, then, to love what once they hated: to love humility, and to hate what once they loved: their own pride.
People of God, we are no more exempt from this command than the Jews were. When Christ was hung upon Calvary, His death turned that cross into a megaphone. Where the call to repentance was initially announced to the four corners of Palestine, it now goes forth with power to the four corners of the planet. He demands repentance of every living man, woman, and child. Brothers and sisters, Christ demanded repentance from His disciples, and your master demands repentance from you. Although Christ was calling the Jews from darkness to light, His command still applies to us who walk in the light, who already live in covenant with our God.
Because what Scripture calls the “old nature” still lives within us. John Calvin said that every believer goes to his grave with an unbeliever living inside. Like radiation shrinking a tumor, repentance actively corrodes the old nature, putting it to death. But it’s also like Moses with his arms in the air; the moment his arms came down, the Israelites began to lose to the Amalekites. Israel was either winning or losing – there was no neutral ground. So, too, there is no neutral ground in our hearts. The old nature is either gaining ground or losing it, it never stands still.
So repentance is not a one-time thing. As one theologian has put it, repentance happens in layers. Even once you’ve confessed Christ as your Lord, and repented of a life of darkness, you’ve only taken the first step. There you repent of the big, general sins, the ones you can see from a distance. But the more you repent of a general sin, the more you see how particular and nasty it can be. Repentance is a process by which you peel back the layers and look with divine clarity into the dark and twisted swamp of deceit that is your own heart. It is a process that will continue as long as you continue to sin. It is a process that you will take to your grave. So we can also understand the command of Christ to repent as “Be repenting!” Be actively putting to death the sin in your heart, in whatever form it takes. Do not give it up. Do not let sin form that deadly crust around your heart. Be repenting, or you will perish. Be repenting, or God will cut you down.
But the parable does not end here. It doesn’t end with the tree being cut down. It ends with a servant’s request, with a plea for leniency. “I will give the tree some extra care,” says the vinedresser, “and maybe that will change things for the better.” Now it seems at first glance that this good-willed servant represents Christ. But this gets us stuck very quickly. Does Christ only redeem us one season at a time? Are His efforts in cultivating our hearts wasted efforts? Further, the way the servant’s request is phrased in Greek suggests that he doesn’t actually think it’s very likely that the tree will bear fruit. Does Christ ever doubt whether His work will achieve exactly what it was meant to achieve? The answer to these questions is obviously ‘no.’
The servant in this parable isn’t meant to represent a specific person, but to represent a specific type of person. Throughout Israel’s history there have been men who have stood in the middle – they have mediated – between God and man, and they have pleaded to God to show mercy in His judgment. Abraham was such a mediator. He stood in the middle, between God and Sodom and Gomorrah, and pleaded with God on behalf of God’s people who may have been living in those cities. Moses was such a mediator. When God declared that He would destroy Israel and begin a new nation through Moses, Moses pleaded with God to have mercy on His people. In fact, the point of the priesthood was to provide Israel with men who through the rituals and the sacrifices would stand between them and God. So this vinedresser, too, fits right into a major theme of the Old Testament, a major theme of Israelite history, and serves as an instrument of diplomacy on behalf of the fig tree.
And this is where we begin to see Christ in this parable. For that long line of mediators was meant to whet the appetites of God’s people for Christ. As imperfect mediators they were meant to make Israel long for the perfect Mediator. Because Abraham died; Moses died; the priests died. Not only that, but in their short time on earth they were such failures. Abraham lied to save his skin; Moses had a short temper; the priests, as the KJV puts it, went “a-whoring” after who knows what perverted gods. Only by understanding that history of unfulfilled longing, only when we begin to feel within ourselves that desire that God’s people must have had for that Mediator, only then can we feel the weight of Paul’s words in Ephesians: “[God] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” There in that privileged position, our immortal mediator enjoys complete and unrestricted access to the heart of the Father; “for there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
So in the servant as mediator we begin to see Christ; we begin to understand the significance of what we confess in the Apostle’s Creed when we say that He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty. But this parable also reveals something else about Him, which we find in the next line of the Creed: From the right hand of the Father, from there He shall come to judge the living and the dead. For the servant was also the one who was expected to carry out the judgment of the master. The servant himself was to cut down the fig tree. Revelation 14:14-16 shows us the terrifying scale of the judgment this represents. [READ].
We are left, then, with the final question. What was the fate of the fig tree? We’ve seen that the vinedresser is both a mediator and a judge, so which of these two themes comes out in the end? That would depend, of course, on the master’s response, which Christ never gave. He doesn’t include what seems like the most important part of the story, but He does this on purpose. He wants to provoke the Jews into immediate repentance, and perhaps by leaving them in suspense He hopes to give them that push. Don’t wait around for the master’s response, because you might not want to hear it. Whatever time the servant has gained, that time is ominously short. The time for repentance is now!
Neither can we lose this sense of urgency in our own lives. The next big event in history is the second coming of Christ, and we have no idea when that is; we also don’t know the time of our own deaths. But even if Christ doesn’t return in the near future, and even if you have many years left in your life, there’s still the warning that God gave to Cain when he had murder in his heart: “Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must master it.” We are four chapters into the 1189 chapters of the Bible, and already we are shown in all its ugliness what hardened and unrepentant sin can do. As we read on we see Moses harden his heart in frustration, we see David harden his heart in lust, and we see Peter harden his heart in cowardice. We see God’s own people fall, and fall, and fall. So look to the One who is Risen. He’s not demanding repentance for nothing; he’s not demanding repentance because it’s beyond your reach.
Brothers and sisters, we have the full story today. We know now what the Jews who heard this parable could not have known. We know that what Christ bought on the cross was the privilege for everyone on earth, for Jew and Gentile – for us! – to have our hearts pierced by this message. God pierces our hearts, He calls us to repentance because He calls us to reconciliation with Him. After all, what was the reason the master had a fig tree? He had the tree so he could enjoy its fruit! When we bear the fruit of repentance, God Himself takes pleasure in it. The chief end of man is to be like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season. So we aren’t just escaping death, we aren’t just escaping that massive sickle; we are embracing life, the only fully human life that there is. So take hold of this repentance lest sin master you. Be repenting, or like Cain you will perish. The time for repentance is now!