The Barren Fig-tree
William Bacon Stevens, 1857
"A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?'
"'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'"
This, like several other of our Lord's parables, has a double signification:
one immediate, pertaining to the Jews;
one ulterior, referring to all time.
It primarily refers to the nation of Israel as a people whom God had chosen to be "His people," whom he had assiduously cultivated by special and long-continued mercies, and from whom it was very natural that He should expect fruit in some measure answerable to the blessing and labor bestowed.
They proved, however, barren and unfruitful; and when He looked that they should have borne fruit, He found nothing but the most aggravated barrenness! In consequence of this, they were cut down as "a barren fig-tree;" rooted up from their ancient home, and scattered, like autumn leaves, by every wind under the expanse of Heaven.
In a more enlarged sense, this parable evidently refers to the unfruitful professors of Christ's religion, or to those who are barren of all fruit of righteousness, under the influences and within the enclosure of the Gospel vineyard.
The professors of Christ's religion are emphatically "planted in the vineyard of the Lord," the Church; for under the figure of a vineyard, the Bible represents both the Old and New Testament Church. In this spiritual vineyard they have better soil, better care, better protection, than in the world without.
There the Gospel is fully preached;
there the sacraments are duly ministered;
there the dews of the Spirit more surely descend;
there the early and the later rain of reviving grace falls;
there the Sun of Righteousness shines with full-orbed splendor, and the winds of the Spirit blow, and the gardeners of God labor, to bring the trees of His planting to maturity and fruitfulness.
Whatever is necessary to enrich the soil, has been abundantly lavished, so that when we find any therein who are barren, we know that it is no fault of the ground, or of the sun, or of the rain, or of the gardener — but of the tree itself — it is sapless, graceless. And a professor of religion, whose heart is devoid of spiritual vitality, and in whom there are no pulsations of a godly life, can no more bear fruit than a tree planted in the richest soil, and tended by the closest care, which yet has no sap, no vegetable blood vitalizing its trunk, and circulating through all its branches. The one case is just as impossible as the other.
What Christ seeks, and what He has a right to expect of all the trees of His vineyard — is fruit, good fruit; not the leaves of profession only, which fall with the frosts of time; not the blossoms of promise merely, which drop off before they come to maturity; but "fruit fit for repentance," "fruit unto holiness," "fruit unto eternal life."
That there are unfruitful professors, is evident to all who look into the condition of the visible Church. We see them occupying the same position year by year — yet never discover any fruits of righteousness. Their lives give no evidence of piety; they are indeed outwardly moral and religious, decent in all the externals of Christian duty — but there is an evident lack of inward grace. You discover . . .
no ardent love for Christ;
no kindling up of soul under the preaching of Divine truth;
no warm out-springings of heart towards fellow Christians;
no generous liberality in the cause of Jesus;
no delight in talking about the Savior;
no enjoyment in private prayer or meditation;
no desires after greater conformity to the Divine likeness;
and no strong cryings of soul after more faith, more love, more grace, more consecration of spirit.
Where we mark the absence of these things — we have indubitable evidence of an unfruitful professor, a barren fig-tree.
But, giving to the parable a wider scope, still we may say that all who live in Gospel lands, and within the sound of the church-going bell, are, in one sense, planted in the vineyard of the Lord, in contrast to those who dwell in heathen lands, where the Gospel of the Son of God has not been proclaimed. All those who live in Christian countries, and within reach of the means of grace, even though they do not avail themselves of it — dwell, as it were, under "the droppings of the Sanctuary," and partake more or less of its influence.
The influence of the Bible,
the influence of the Church,
the influence of Christian institutions,
the influence of a sanctified press,
the influence of the godly lives of individual Christians
— have a power fully molding effect upon society. These influences combined, shape and fashion to a great extent the views and opinions of the people; and restrain, modify, and govern even those who are ashamed to acknowledge their power. Nay, even the skeptic, the licentious, the profane, the rabid infidel, deny it as they may — are under their potent sway, and are kept from committing the gross outrages which their brutish morals permit — by the overawing power of Christian principle. It is a blessed thing to be connected by any links with the people of God, for the streams of mercy which flow to them, and the streams of godly influence which flow from them — make broad bands of verdure on each side of their borders.
From each one upon whom God has bestowed these numerous favors, the Master of the vineyard expects and seeks for fruit. It was to make us fruit-bearing — that He surrounded us with these privileges and blessings, and we are guilty of great ingratitude if we allow ourselves to be barren; for if we yield no fruit of righteousness after so much has been done — the fault is all our own.
Yet, in the midst of the concern of the Lord of the vineyard to obtain fruit, He manifests the greatest patience. "For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any!" implying that He had given ample time for it to manifest its fruitfulness if it had any — days, months, years have passed, and yet no fruit appears.
He does not, at the first indication of barrenness, cut us down. There is no hasty procedure with our Lord — He is long-suffering and full of forbearance, waiting to be gracious. Men act in hot haste, and repel injuries with prompt chastisement; but God arises to judgment only after long delay, and when the overtures of mercy have been signally disregarded.
Beautifully has the Psalmist illustrated this, where, speaking of the perverseness of the children of Israel, and God's longsuffering towards them, he says, "Yet He was merciful; He forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time He restrained his anger and did not stir up His full wrath."
Thus is it now. You have perhaps been receiving blessings and mercies from your youth up, and many a blossom of hope has cheered the eye of watching friends. You have been watered and nursed as tender plants in the heritage of our Lord, and many a bud of promise has indicated the beginning of spiritual life. Yet manhood, and mid life, and old age have been reached, while, as yet, no fruit appears. During all this while, Christ has waited to be gracious. He has stood by looking at you in pity, calling to you in love, making the ground around you fertile with the rich blessings of the Gospel — but the barrenness is not removed — the fruit does not appear. When the angels sinned, there was no patience and forbearance exhibited towards them; their punishment followed close upon their sin, for such high-handed rebellion required highhanded justice.
But He has not dealt so with us. His bearing has ever been that of a God waiting to be gracious. "The patience of God," says Peter, "waited in the days of Noah while the ark was being built, even one hundred and twenty years;" and the entire history of the Jews is a record of God's forbearing mercy. In the days of Moses the Lord inquired, "How long shall I bear with this evil congregation which murmur against me?" Hundreds of years afterwards Nehemiah exclaims, "Many years did you forbear them." And later still, the Prophet Jeremiah adds, "The Lord could no longer bear, because of the evil of your doings." The New Testament exhibits the same feature of the Divine goodness. "God endures," says Paul, "with much patience the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction!" And Peter declares that the Lord is patient to us, not willing that any should perish — but that all should come to repentance.
Thus is it now. God patiently waits upon sinners, to be gracious. He kindly stands at the door of their hearts knocking for entrance, and there you have kept Him until He says, "My head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night." But mercies having failed, forbearance being no longer a virtue — God now comes to some determination: "For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?"
There are two reasons why God should cut down the barren fig-tree:
1. its own uselessness, and
2. its using up the soil that might be better occupied.
It was worthless in itself, and made the ground worthless on which it stood. The spiritually unfruitful man, be he a professor of religion or not, is useless in himself, and takes up room in the vineyard with his presence. For as there is no middle ground of action, all who are not doing moral good, are doing moral harm; according to the striking words of Christ, "He who is not with me — is against me."
Life is wasted to him who brings forth no fruits of righteousness. It may be crowded with what the world esteems noble and generous deeds; it may teem with the fruits of honor and fame; the life of such a man may call forth praises, and his death eulogies, while his name may be given to applauding history. Yet, if he has been toiling for the glories of time alone; if he concentrated his energies upon the ever-changing present; if he has made no provision for his soul, and secured no peace with God through Jesus Christ — then he is a barren fig-tree, a useless cumberer in God's moral vineyard.
The test of spiritual usefulness consists in doing works which shall survive the things of time and sense. The region of such labors is the soul — the higher and eternal interests of our being. Here, is where fruitfulness must be seen. We must do deeds that shall live after the trumpet of the Archangel shall sound; deeds that conscience can approve in the hour of death — deeds that Christ can applaud in the day of judgment — deeds that will be remembered with delight through eternity.
It will not be asked in the last day, did you build a city, or erect a kingdom, or lead an army to victory? But did you bring forth fruits of righteousness, did you cultivate the graces of the Spirit, did you do the humble works of a child of God. Have you labored to extend the kingdom of Christ, and win souls to His scepter? And if you have, though poor in this world's goods, and looked down upon by this world's nobles — you shall prove yourself to be a tree of God's planting, soon to be transplanted into the Paradise above!
Not only are the lives of unconverted men useless as regards their souls, they are also wasters of the ground. Their lives and their influence prove a hindrance to the Gospel. They oppose its progress in their own hearts, and throw the whole weight of their authority and example upon the side of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Every unrenewed man virtually and publicly declares, that he is opposed to the religion of Jesus Christ; that he has no confidence in the ordinances of the Church, no belief in the revelation of God. This, we repeat, is the virtual declaration of each unrenewed man; it is the language of his daily life. This may seem harsh judgment — but it is only plain Bible truth.
Suppose an individual should present himself before you, and show you title-deeds properly drawn up and duly authenticated, which were to place you in possession of a great yet distant estate. You listen to his story, read the deeds, examine the seals; if now you proceed no further, and take no steps to secure this property — but on the contrary turn away from the whole subject — you say as strongly as actions can say, that you do not believe the report of the messenger, and that you discredit his pretended titles; and by your neglect of him, you virtually give the lie to all that he has said and shown you. This would be the judgment of every unbiased mind.
Apply this to the Christian religion. The ambassador of Christ comes to you with the Word of God. He points out in it the title-deeds to an inheritance reserved in Heaven for you; he shows you the means by which to secure it; he offers to conduct you through the processes necessary to attain it; he solemnly pledges the veracity of God to its truth; and he establishes the genuineness and authenticity of his message by evidence that cannot be overthrown. If now you turn your back upon Christ, and refuse to believe on His name — you virtually declare your disbelief in the whole thing. Or if, professing to believe it with your lips, you put off the work of salvation to a future day, you in effect say, I do not believe that God will be as strict as He says He will; I will try His patience a little longer; and though the Holy Spirit says, "Now is the accepted time, behold, now is the day of salvation," yet I will run the risk of postponing repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, because He knows that I intend some time or other to become a Christian, and He will not therefore cut me down as a cumberer of the ground.
In this delusion, many sinners pass months and years, until they are "suddenly destroyed, and that without remedy!" We are too apt to forget that there is a time beyond which God's Spirit will not strive — there is a boundary line over which mercy never steps.
At the very point when the forbearance of God seems to end, an intercessor appears. Christ comes into view, and pleads for "one year" more of probation. "Let it alone this year also — and if it bear fruit, well; if not, after that you shall cut it down!" He does not pray that it should never be cut down — but not now. Every sinner is at this moment under the condemnation of eternal death; and the reason why he is not executed is, that Christ pleads, "Let him alone this year also!"
This, however, is a reprieve, not a pardon — a reprieve for a short time — yet long enough to make full trial. During this reprieve God is giving him the culture and tillage necessary to fruitfulness: the means of grace, the bleeding Savior, the striving Spirit, the ordinances of the Church.
His position is one of extreme peril, and of extreme solicitude. Of peril, because the time is short — the isthmus of probation between the land of hope and the world of despair is very narrow, and his feet stand on slippery places. Of solicitude, because upon his resolves this year, may hinge the destiny of his soul forever.
If, through the renewing influences of the Holy Spirit, sought for and received as the free gift of God, that he becomes a "tree of righteousness," and "brings forth fruit" — then it is well.
"Well" in life,
"well" in the hour of death,
"well" at the day of judgment,
"well" throughout eternity!
If not, then, after that probation ended, he shall be "cut down" as a "cumberer of the ground." And a fearful thing it will be to be "cut down," after having been by baptism planted in the vineyard, after having had years of spiritual culture under Gospel vine-dressers, and especially after having been spared yet longer on probationary ground, through the intercession of Christ Himself as the Master of the vineyard; for to the guilt of disobeying the commands of God, and of slighting the ordinances of the Church — there is superadded the despising of the Lord Jesus, under circumstances of the most deliberate contempt, which cannot fail to call down the wrath of the Almighty.
To all such we commend the declaration of Paul to the Hebrews, "How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!"