November 20, 2022 Dilemmas


Read 21:18-22.


Jesus curses the fig tree because it had no fruit. Some are bothered by Jesus not only cursing, but killing the tree. We saw in the last lesson that Jesus is not the pacifist that modern people try to make him out to be. If we are bothered by this incident this means that we need to align ourselves with Jesus and not try to align him to our mistaken sensibilities. However, Jesus did not curse the tree out of spite because he could not get fed. Rather, he cursed it to teach his disciples two things.


That the fig tree represents Israel is clear not only from the OT (Jeremiah 24) but from the parable Jesus tells about the vine-growers later in this chapter. There, he concludes the parable with this:


“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation, producing the fruit of it.[1]


The fig tree is symbolic of Israel. Just as this fig tree did not bear fruit, so the nation of Israel did not bear fruit for God. Just as the fig tree was cursed, so Israel would be cursed. This curse was fulfilled in 70 AD when Titus destroyed the temple and all of Jerusalem. The nation would be no more (withered) for nearly 1,900 years! It would not be until 1948 when the tree would finally grow again – when Israel was once again made a nation in its homeland.


So, the first thing that Jesus taught was the coming destruction of the nation. He will teach this more explicitly in chapters 23 and 24. The second thing that Jesus taught, once again, is the power that is available to his disciples through prayer. Consider: Jesus only spoke a very few words and then, of course, his disciples would expect the Lord’s words to be fulfilled. But, how would one usually expect them to be fulfilled? Since Jesus said that there would no longer be any fruit upon that tree, the disciples certainly would have believed that would come to pass. Maybe for the next two months it would be noticed that the tree bore no fruit (Mark tell us that it was early in the season for figs, anyway). Or, maybe the tree would wither. But plants in general take many days to wither as they, usually, are deprived of water. Yet, the tree withers right before their eyes! What great authority our Lord had (and has)!


The disciples are flabbergasted!  Then Jesus says something amazing. He tells them that, not only can they do this to the fig tree, but they could even ask for a mountain to be lifted up and cast into the sea and it would be done! It seems that some commentators fall over themselves in trying to explain why we never see this happen. However, it also seems that this misses the point. The “mountain” represents those things that block our path to fulfill the Lord’s will. It is anything that frustrates our carrying out what we desire when our desire is in line with God’s. Jesus uses the figure of a mountain because a mountain is very large and seemingly unmovable, just like some of the things that we come face to face with in our life. Yet, if we have faith, whatever that thing is will be overcome and cast into the sea (never to block us again).


Jesus taught this back in chapter 17.  If you would like more encouragement from this teaching of our Lord, see the sermon, Faith Like a Mustard Seed, from August 28, 2022 on the church website.


Read 21:23-27.


The religious leaders come to test Jesus again. They challenge his authority. They think that whatever answer he gives will be inadequate to support his actions (overturning the tables of the moneychangers). They think they will be able to challenge whatever claim to authority he makes and, thus, to make him look foolish. Whereas the Lord Jesus had just physically overturned the tables in the temple courtyard, now he will turn the tables again, metaphorically speaking, upon the designs of these leaders.


He asks them a question that puts them in a dilemma. A dilemma, of course, is being placed in a situation where only two courses of action (or two answers) are available, both of which are undesirable.


I think most of us have been faced with dilemmas in life. A true dilemma is when you have only have two courses of action. A false dilemma is when it seems that there are only two courses of action but there actually more. You just have to discover them. To be in the midst of a true dilemma is a very unpleasant experience. You must make a choice and you already know that, whatever choice you make, it is not going to go well for you. So, one must weigh the consequences of each choice and determine which results are the least burdensome. That process, in itself, is miserable.


Dilemmas can appear in our life through no fault of our own. Circumstances can arise by which we had no control. However, most often, dilemmas arise because of poor choices we make. They could just be foolish choices or they could be sinful choices. This is another reason why we must avoid sin at all cost: because sin may lead, and often does, to moral dilemmas. Do you want to avoid dilemmas? Then flee from sin with everything that is in you, meaning, rely on the indwelling Spirit to empower you. And, call upon the name of the Lord in times of temptation out loud!


Do you want to avoid dilemmas? Then make wise choices rather than foolish choices. This means we ask the Lord for wisdom. It also means that we carefully weigh our words before speaking or writing, considering the potential consequences. We consider the ramifications if everyone would learn of what we plan to say or do (for we often presume that no one else will know of it, or that maybe only one person will know). This simple step – imagining what will happen if the whole world learned of our words or our actions – is often all we need to keep us from doing something foolish or sinful. As simple as this step is, so few people do it! They rush ahead, just assuming that their words or actions will remain a secret!


This is what you must do in order to avoid sinful and foolish decisions. Ask yourself, “What if what I am writing will be seen by everyone?” Or, “What if what I am about to do would become known by the church?” That is a good question to ask yourself! Because if the church would be severely disappointed in what you have done then, more often than not, you ought not to have done it!


Returning to our text, Jesus places the Jewish leaders in a true dilemma.


The antagonists recognize this and Matthew explains their dilemma for the reader.


Jesus asked them where John the Baptist got his authority. If they say that it was merely from men then they were afraid of the crowd because the people recognized that John was a prophet sent from God. It could be that the crowd might physically assault them because they were sure that John was a prophet and would be incensed that these haughty elders denied it. More likely, they thought they would be ridiculed and called names by the crowd and would, thus, lose their standing of respect. If they said that John’s authority was from heaven (meaning from God) then this would further expose them as disobedient to heaven (disobedient to God).


They said they didn’t know. Then Jesus tells them, since they cannot answer, neither would he answer them. Thus, he passed their test. Yet, the answer subtly showed that his authority was from God. Because John publicly claimed that Jesus was greater than him, showing that, if John’s authority was from God, so is the authority of Jesus.


In our personal lives, dilemmas are miserable. But, they can also be our friend. We can place the opposers of God’s truth into a dilemma in the same way that our Lord did.


 If someone were to ask us where we get our authority to call sin as sin or “Who are you to say that so-and-so is not a Christian?” Or, “Who are you to tell me I am going to hell?” We can say, “Let me ask you a question. Is the Bible the word of God or is it not?” If they say it is then we respond by saying, “That is where I get my authority from – the word of God.” If they say it isn’t then we say, “Jesus affirmed it to be the word of God (Matthew 4:1-10; 19:4-6; Luke 24:25-27). Do you think Jesus was wrong?” (If they say “yes” to this – few will – just respond by saying, “You really think you know more than Jesus about eternal matters?”) If they say, “I don’t know whether the Bible is the word of God or not,” we reply: “Neither will I tell you how I have received my authority.”


 Jesus replied in that way because he knew that these Jewish leaders knew better. Most of the people that we speak with don’t know better. They know, everyone knows, that there is a God and that we are accountable to him (Romans 1), but may have legitimate doubts or plain unbelief about the Bible being the word of God. So, for us, a better reply is: “Since you do not know let me ask you, if you could know, would you want to know?” This last question is very revealing and puts them in another dilemma. If they say “no” then this reveals their hatred for truth. And, we can be bold enough to tell them that. If they say “yes” then we ask when would be a good time to sit with them so you can show them.


I know that many Christians do not feel equipped to prove to someone that the Bible is God’s word. But it is easier than you might think.


First, you do not have to memorize anything. All you have to do is have a resource and sit down and read it with someone. Second, what if the resource was short, just a few pages? I think, then, that anyone could use it. Well, we have such a resource! It is a sermon I preached three years ago entitled, Has God Spoken?


This is available on the church website and you can print it. Go to and click on the Sermon Notes tab. Then scroll back to May 26, 2019.  Once you print it, you can sit down and read it with anyone who is interested. (There will also be a few copies already printed waiting for you in the foyer.)


Has God Spoken? uses fulfilled prophecy as a proof of divine inspiration. If you, or the person to whom you will speak, wishes to investigate further there is also Has God Spoken, Part Two. That message provides two more proofs for the Bible’s inspiration. Thus, if you read both of these messages to someone, they would be faced with three proofs for the Bible being the word of God.


Let us rehearse what we have learned today.


  • Dilemmas come into our lives and they are unpleasant. They are more than unpleasant. They are wretched and full of anguish.
  • Although they are wretched, they can be used to reveal truth. Jesus formulated a dilemma and placed his opposers into it.
  • When people oppose us, we can follow the example of our Lord and use a dilemma to prove the truth of God’s word.


What, then, ought we to do?


  • We must prevent dilemmas from coming into our lives. Some cannot be prevented because they arise from the actions of others. But many arise from our own sins. Flee sin with everything within you. Think about what would happen if everyone knew about what you are about to do. By feeling from sin you will not only please the Lord but you will avoid a dilemma.
  • Be prepared to give an answer to those who challenge your authority to speak on God’s behalf. (You have this authority!) To this end, I have created a flow-chart to assist you. (Pass out.)
  • Be prepared to show them that the Bible is inspired by God. A printed copy of the sermon, Has God Spoken? is useful to this end. All you have to do is read it with them.


And, do not forget that the mountains in your life will all be removed if you trust God and do not doubt!




[1] Legacy Standard Bible (2021). (Mt 21:43). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.