The Lord taught the disciples and the people that gathered about Him outdoors, as they walked, taking lessons from the birds and flowers and from the fields and vineyards, and at times He taught in the synagogues where the people gathered on the Sabbath. He told them a story of a man who had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. A vineyard is where grapevines are growing, usually in rows trained on supports to keep them off the ground. A fig tree is a low irregular tree, with sweet fruits. We all know figs dried, and some of us live where they grow in our gardens and we can pick them and eat them fresh from the tree. The fig tree in the story was not bearing fruit; three years the owner had come looking for fruit, and found none. "Cut it down," he said. But the gardener begged to keep it one year more. He would dig about it and enrich the ground. If it did not bear fruit then, it should be cut down. The Lord is very patient in helping us to be good and kind and useful; but if we put off and off, we shall lose the power and the chance to bear good fruits.
Now the Lord was in the synagogue, a Jewish church, and it was the Sabbath day. There was a poor woman in the synagogue, bowed down for eighteen years and unable to stand up straight. What would the Lord do? He said to the woman, "Thou art loosed from thine infirmity," and He laid His hands on her and she was made straight and glorified God. The ruler of the synagogue said that the Lord should not heal on the Sabbath. The Pharisees at other times said the same. They thought that the commandment meant this, which begins, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." But the Lord showed them that it is right on the Sabbath to do works of kindness. They would loose their ox or ass from the stall on the Sabbath and lead him away to watering (see also verse 5 of the next chapter); how much more was it right to loose this woman who had been bound for eighteen years! By such words and by His own kind works the Lord taught that it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath days.
The Lord thought of Jerusalem, the great city, to which He was going, where there were many Pharisees and others like them who were proud and thought themselves holy and would not listen to His words or let Him help them to be really good and happy. Read the last two verses of the chapter. They are full of love and sadness.
"And he went through the cities and villages teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem." It was in the country east of Jordan. If the Lord had already visited Mary and Martha He had gone away again to this beyond-Jordan country; and when He visited Bethany again to raise Lazarus from death, again He came back to this country where many simple people were glad to hear Him.
One day as they walked, one told Him of some pilgrims from Galilee who had been killed by some soldiers of Pilate the governor while they were sacrificing in the temple courts. They had heard, too, of eighteen persons who were killed by a falling tower at Siloam near Jerusalem. Some may have thought that these were very wicked men, that such things should happen to them. The Lord told them that they themselves were perhaps as wicked, and that every wicked person would lose his heavenly life. They should take warning. Read verses 6-9.
What does the parable of the fig tree teach? Read with it Isaiah 5:4.
Read verses 10-17, and with this verses 1-6 of the next chapter. Do you remember other times when the Pharisees condemned the Lord for healing on the Sabbath? (Matthew 12:1-13; John 5:1-17 and John 9) Repeat the command about the Sabbath day. And there were other laws about the Sabbath, especially one which forbade making any fire on that day. (Exodus 35:2, 3) The Jews had multiplied such laws until they made the Sabbath a day of formal piety and little more. Even the Old Testament told them that this was not the keeping of the law which the Lord desired, but rather works of kindness. Read Isaiah 58:5-7. The Lord was showing and teaching, still more plainly, the love and mercy that make a real Sabbath. Even the strict Jews would show some kindness to the animals on the Sabbath. How much more should they be kind to people needing help! It is good to think of our Sunday as a day for church and Sunday school, and a day for doing kind things.
Notice the question, verse 23: "Are there few that be saved?" and the Lord's answer. He does not tell how many, but He tells the kind of life which saves and the kind that does not. One does not come into heaven by knocking at the door and demanding to be let in, if he is a worker of iniquity. The answer given here is the same that is given to the foolish virgins in Matthew 25:11, 12. Those who keep the Lord's commandments and do the works of kindness find the door open and can feel at home in heaven. Were there more such people among those who prided themselves on being holy, or among the simple and ignorant people who had no pride? How do you understand verse 30?
Read verses 34, 35. What was the Lord's feeling toward the proud people who would not let Him help them?
1. Who was Pilate? Who were Galileans? Where was Siloam?
2. What parable did the Lord speak about a fig tree? What did it mean?
3. How did the Pharisees keep the Sabbath? How did the Lord keep it?
4. How is the kingdom of heaven like a mustard seed? How is it like leaven?
5. Who will be received into heaven? How will last be first, and first last?
The first verses of the chapter teach the need of repentance and give warning of spiritual death if we do not repent. The manner of natural death may also represent the kind of spiritual death. The mingling of blood with the sacrifices seems to picture the defiling of sacred things with self. A tower represents knowledge of interior things, and may stand for intellectual pride. Of both we must repent. (A.4599)
The vine and the vineyard are types of spiritual intelligence. The spreading fig tree with its sweet fruit represents knowledge of sweet uses of natural kindness. (A. 4231; E. 403) The vineyard with the barren fig tree in it is a church or a mind with abundant knowledge of heavenly things, but no good works of kindness. The pleading of the vine dresser is a beautiful expression of the Lord's patience in doing all that Divine love can do, giving us every possible chance to bear the fruits of good works. But the truth remains that if we do not bear them we cannot live in heaven. (Isaiah 5:4; Mark 11:12-14, 20)
The physical infirmities that the Lord healed were types also of spiritual infirmities. The woman represents especially the heavenly affection in the church or in any heart. Satan had bound her, which means that the affection is constrained and helpless on account of false teaching, for Satan means all that is false. The loosing of the ox and ass and leading them to watering means the freeing of simple natural affections for what is good and true, giving them refreshment and lifting them up if they have fallen. This is right on the Sabbath and a beautiful use of the day, but it is still more right to loose the spiritual affections represented by the woman. (E. 342, 537)
The two little parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, found also in Matthew 13:31-33, tell of the great expansion of life when from natural it becomes spiritual, and of the development of spiritual character through prompt and faithful meeting of temptations. The leaven in itself is a suggestion of evil, but good may result if it is promptly resisted. (T. 290; P. 25)
When we read of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God, we think of the elements of heavenly character which the patriarchs represented, heavenly affection, thought and life. We think also of the Lord as He is known to celestial, spiritual and natural angels. The east, west, north and south remind us of the gates of the holy city; what do the quarters represent? (A. 2187; H. 324)
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem." The last verses of the chapter express most tenderly the Lord's care for His church. Wings associated with the Lord are emblems of the power of His Divine truth watching over and protecting. "He shall cover thee with His feathers, and under His wings shalt thou trust: His truth shall be thy shield and buckler." (Psalm 91:4) The eagle's wings (Deuteronomy 32:10-12) are grand emblems of providence. The sheltering wings of the hen suggest in an even tenderer way how the Lord's providence enters into all the common things of daily domestic life. (E. 281, 283)