Nisan 5774 April 2014
Passover: April 14 and 15: Shema will host two Passover Seders this year, the first on April 14 and the second on April 15: The Seders will start at 6:00 p.m.; and seating for each will begin at 5:30 p.m. at the Farmington Hills Manor, 23666 Orchard Lake Road, Farmington Hills. Tickets are $27 for adults and $15 for children 12 and under. You can make a reservation and pay using Paypal on the Shema website, at http://shema.com/passover. Or, you can pay by check. Along with your reservation, please indicate which night or nights you want to attend and how many adults and children for whom you are reserving places. Please include your phone number and email address with your reservation. We will send you a confirmation email or letter. You need to make your reservation by April 7. Please keep in mind that each Seder will last about three hours so the evening may be unsuitable for young children.
THANKS VERY MUCH!
Did you know that Passover is the longest continually celebrated holiday in all of human history? It’s true! For nearly 3,500 years, without interruption, our people have observed this annual remembrance of our having been set free from four centuries of Egyptian slavery. Passover is a holiday doubly rich in meaning! On the one hand we celebrate Israel’s redemption from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt, and on the other hand we celebrate mankind’s redemption from slavery to Satan, sin and the sin nature, death, and Hell through the Greater Passover Lamb, Messiah Yeshua! Yet we must also acknowledge the fact that far too few people have experienced this freedom and are on a trajectory toward eternal separation from God. So Passover affords us a wonderful opportunity to proclaim the Good News! Understand, then, that we are grateful for those of you who consistently pray for Shema and give financially so that we may continue to be Messiah’s ambassadors. May the Lord God of Israel bless you, as you join with us in declaring that the Lamb who was killed is alive forevermore!
CURSING THE FIG TREE
By Rabbi Glenn
Because human beings think in pictures, the prophets of Israel often compared individuals, nations and situations to objects that people could picture in their minds. One of the symbols most commonly used to represent Israel is the fig tree. I want to consider an incident involving a fig tree that skeptics love to attack and one that some believers are at a loss to explain. But, correctly understood it produces some delicious spiritual fruit! This incident took place near Jerusalem shortly before Messiah died. Now in the morning, when Yeshua was returning to the city, He became hungry. Seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it except leaves only; and He said to it, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.” And at once the fig tree withered. Seeing this, the disciples were amazed and asked, “How did the fig tree wither all at once?” And Yeshua answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matthew 21:18-22). The day before this incident, Yeshua had entered Jerusalem riding a donkey with thousands of people hailing Him as the “Son of David.” This, of course, was in fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. When He arrived at the Temple, He kicked out the exploitative, price-gouging merchants with a stern rebuke. The leaders understood that the act of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and ridding the Temple of profiteers were Messianic claims. But having long since made up their minds that Yeshua wasn’t the Messiah, they rebuked Him for accepting accolades from the people. Yeshua, in turn, rebuked them for their unbelief and left the city. He spent the night in Bethany, just beyond the crest of the Mount of Olives – probably with his friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary. In the morning, Yeshua returned to the city, and along the way saw a fig tree on the side of the road with leaves showing. In contrast to a fig tree that someone intentionally plants in his vineyard and carefully tends, a fig tree on the side of the road would not be as certain to bear good fruit.
A little-known but important fact is that one might expect to find fruit on a fig tree in Israel at almost any time. According to historians and commentators (including Alfred Edersheim, drawing on rabbinical sources – see The Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947, Vol. II, p. 374), some fig trees in Israel might produce as many as three crops per year. If there were three crops, two of the crops would produce very nice figs, while the quality of the third crop was poor; the figs were edible – but just barely. In light of this, when Mark’s account informs us that it was not the season for figs, he probably meant it wasn’t the season for good figs. Here is another important fact: The same historical sources attest that fig trees in Israel produced fruitbefore producing leaves. So when Yeshua came to that tree, seeing that it had leaves, and knowing that fig trees produce multiple crops each year, He had reason to expect fruit on it. Those who argue that it wasn’t possible for there to be figs around Passover, when this incident occurred, are uninformed. (Bullinger provides an outstanding explanation of why this was so. See E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, © Reprinted 1968, 2003 Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, pp. 123-124) And so are those who suggest that Yeshua cursed the fig tree in anger. Nothing is said about Yeshua being angry. This isn’t anger at all … it’s an amazing prophecy!
The Fig Tree (As Well As The Olive And Vine) Is A Symbol Of Israel
The literal and symbolic use of figs and fig trees goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Moses informs us that having rebelled against the Creator and eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve were ashamed of their nakedness. In a vain attempt to cope with their embarrassment, they sewed fig leaves together as coverings. So fig trees were there in Eden, and their leaves become a symbol of mankind’s futile attempt to cover the effects of sin. Other inspired writers used vine and figs and fig trees to represent the Jewish nation. In Psalm 80, Asaph pictures God as having brought a “vine” out of Egypt and after driving out the nations, “planting” that vine in the land. The prophet Isaiah sang a sad song describing Israel as a choice vine that Adonai planted and tended, but instead of producing good grapes, it yielded worthless ones (Isaiah 5). Jeremiah described the nation as having become a “degenerate vine.” Figs were used as a symbol of a lovely and fruitful land into which the Lord God was bringing His people. The spies whom Moses sent into the land brought back an enormous cluster of grapes, as well as figs and pomegranates. Deuteronomy 8 reinforces this: The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything. During the Golden Age of Israel, under the kingship of Solomon, we are told that Judah and Israel lived in safety, every man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba (1 Kings 4:25). In fact, that expression, “every man under his vine and fig tree,” is repeated by the prophets Micah and Zechariah, and became synonymous with Israel’s future Golden Age of prosperity. So vines and figs and fig trees were used by the prophets in a positive way to describe Israel’s blessedness.
The Vine And Fig Tree Were Also Used To Describe Israel’s Unfaithfulness
Jeremiah described a vision of two baskets of figs – one with very good figs and the other with very bad figs. The good figs were those who listened to his warning and went willingly into exile. The bad figs stood for those who disobediently stayed in Jerusalem. Wicked king Zedekiah was compared to disgusting, unripe, inedible figs. Hosea and Joel declared that God would lay waste to Jerusalem and Judah’s vines and fig trees because of their disloyalty. While there are more examples like these in the Prophets, these suffice to illustrate the use of the fig tree and the grape vine as symbols of the nation.
Messiah Curses The Fig Tree
So, why did Yeshua curse a fig tree that had leaves but no fruit? If Matthew’s purpose was to persuade people that Yeshua is the long-awaited Messiah, and if, as the skeptics claim, cursing the fig tree shows that Yeshua was having a temper tantrum (and therefore was a flawed human – and not divine), then why would he include it in his narrative? Wouldn’t it undermine his very purpose? Let me ask another question: Do you think Yeshua was surprised to not find any fruit on this lone fig tree? Wouldn’t the One who saw Nathanael three years earlier under another, distant fig tree and knew everything about him have already known that this tree was barren? So then, why go up to the tree, if not for the benefit of His disciples? There was something for them (and for us) to learn. Matthew, who was inspired by the Holy Spirit, included this incident because it reveals that Yeshua is the greatest of Israel’s prophets! In the tradition of the prophets, He used a physical symbol to depict a spiritual truth. A leafy but disappointingly fruitless fig tree symbolized Israel’s outward façade of goodness, masking its spiritual barrenness; and its withering was a portrayal of the coming destruction of the nation, which would take place within 40 years.
Yeshua’s use of a fig tree in a parable about the nation reveals the same truth.“A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-7). The esteemed biblical and rabbinical scholar, the late Alfred Edersheim, helps us understand: “God called Israel as a nation, and planted it in the most favored spot: as a fig tree in the vineyard of His own Kingdom. ‘ And He came seeking,’ as He had every right to do, ‘fruit thereon, and found none.’ It was the third year that He had vainly looked for fruit, when He turned to His Vinedresser – the Messiah, to whom the vineyard is committed as its King – with this direction: ‘Cut it down – why should it also deteriorate the soil?’ It is barren, though in the best position; as a fig tree it ought to bear figs, and here the best; it fills the place which a good tree might occupy; and besides, it deteriorates the soil. And its three years’ barrenness has established its utterly hopeless character” (The Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947, Vol. II, p.246-247). Yeshua’s three-year ministry gave Israel’s leaders ample time to evaluate His messianic claims. But it didn’t occur to them that they were the ones being weighed in the divine scales. And, they and the nation they represented were found wanting. Just as the fig tree was fruitless and would soon wither, the nation would soon be judged.
So there you have it: the cursing of the fig tree explained. But there’s more to the fig tree than Israel’s failure. The vine and the fig tree also represent God’s plans to restore our nation! Matthew (24:32-33), Mark (13:28) and Luke (21:29) all record Yeshua’s teaching comparing a fig tree putting forth its leaves to the rebirth of the nation of Israel in the Last Days as a precursor to His return in power and glory and the restoration of the Jewish people!
A Final Thought
The fig tree presents each of us with a personal challenge. Our lives are like a fruit tree. Messiah taught us: Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit … Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Like a gardener, the Lord is examining our lives and expects to see good fruit on those branches! Are we producing the good fruit of godly character and spiritual values? Are we truly serving the Lord? Are we building up His Community and bringing the Good News to the lost? Yeshua gave us the secret to a successful, fruit-bearing life. It’s so simple! Abide in Him! Stay close to Him. Talk to Him. Learn about Him through His Word. Be an active member of His Community. If we remain close to Him, we will bear good and lasting fruit. If we don’t remain close to Him, like the fig tree that was cursed, we will be useless and our lives will wither – because apart from Messiah, you and I can do nothing. But the reverse is also true: You and I can do all things through Messiah who strengthens us!
Rabbis Loren and Glenn