Sunday September 10th
Here’s a little knock-knock joke to start off your Sunday morning:
Figs the doorbell, it’s broken!
Chapter 11 of the Gospel of Mark has several references to figs, including in the very first verse. See if you can catch it as I read verses 1-3:
As they approached Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples, 2 and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, on which no one yet has ever sat; untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ you say, ‘The Lord has need of it’; and immediately he will send it back here.”
Did you catch the reference to figs? Probably not, but that’s okay.
You see the name of the town of Bethphage in Hebrew means “house of unripe figs.”
The prefix “Beth” in Hebrew means “house”. Bethlehem was actually the “House of Bread” and Bethany meant “house of sadness”, but Bethphage was known as the “house of unripe figs” which will have a significant meaning as this chapter unfolds.
Jesus tells two of his disciples to go ahead into town and there “you will find” a donkey colt. This simple statement is an example of the supernatural prophetic knowledge of Jesus. He is already aware that a donkey will be waiting.
The Old Testament had prophesied about Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry in Zechariah 9:9
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
These verses clearly identify this donkey-riding king as the Messiah, coming to bring salvation to Israel.
But a prophet is only recognized if his words come true. Here we see that both Zechariah’s words and Jesus’ words were being fulfilled:
4 They went away and found a colt tied at the door, outside in the street; and they untied it. 5 Some of the bystanders were saying to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They spoke to them just as Jesus had told them, and they gave them permission. 7 They brought the colt to Jesus and put their coats on it; and He sat on it. 8 And many spread their coats in the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields. 9 Those who went in front and those who followed were shouting:
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord;
10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David;
Hosanna in the highest!”
11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and came into the temple; and after looking around at everything, He left for Bethany with the twelve, since it was already late.
The idea of throwing palm branches and coats on the road ahead of the donkey was a recognition of Jesus’ royalty.
The word Hosanna is a Greek translation of the Hebrew words for “Save us . . . O Lord” The crowd is basically shouting phrases from Psalm 118:25-26
“O Lord, do save, we beseech You;
O Lord, we beseech You, do send prosperity!
26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord;
We have blessed you from the house of the Lord.”
Okay, so now let’s get back to the figs!
12 On the next day, when they had left Bethany, He became hungry.13 Seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And His disciples were listening.
It’s interesting that one writer described two events as a couple of Jesus’s most misunderstood actions:
(1) cursing the fig tree
(2) driving out the money changers from the temple (which comes next)
But Mark apparently tells us these two stories back to back because these two events help explain each other. It has been said that Mark used a sandwich technique to tell these stories, where he starts with the one story, goes to a different story, and then comes back to the original story. Mark starts out telling the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, then interrupt that story to describe Jesus driving out the money changers from the temple and then he returns to the story of the fig tree. This is Mark’s way of telling us that these two events are connected to each other, and that if we understand the fig tree thing, we’ll understand the meaning of the cleansing of the temple as well.
Many people have wondered why Jesus even cursed this particular fig tree. This is Jesus’ last recorded miracle in Mark’s gospel, and it seems a bit odd that it’s kind of a miracle of destruction. Since Mark tells us that it wasn’t even the season for figs, the fact that Jesus is expecting to find figs on this tree seems unreasonable to us at first.
But fig trees are unique from most other trees because they sometimes produce fruit before they produce leaves. So the fact that this tree had leaves on it does suggest that some kind of fruit might still be left over on it. So it wasn’t all that unreasonable after all for Jesus to expect to find some figs on this tree.
Jesus’ actions here with the fig tree, just like the action of cleansing the Temple which is coming next, are pointing to a greater, deeper meaning, concerning what will soon happen to Jerusalem, Israel and the Temple itself.
The Old Testament prophets spoke about fig trees as referring to Israel’s status before God:
The destruction of the fig tree is associated with God’s judgment in Hosea 2:12 “I will ruin her vines and her fig trees, which she said were her pay from her lovers; I will make them a thicket, and wild animals will devour them.”
Jesus curses this fig tree for making a display of being alive but having no fruit, just as He will now judge the temple and predict its destruction for the same reason.
Remember that Jesus is on his way to the temple, and what happens here with the fig tree is symbolic of what Jesus is about to do in the temple. There’s a passage from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah that’s especially relevant to what’s happening here. This passage is found in Jeremiah chapter 8, verses 11-13.
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. "Peace, peace," they say, when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when they are punished, says the LORD. I will take away their harvest…There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them.
The people of Jeremiah’s day were minimizing the seriousness of their sins. So God says he’ll judge Israel, and that like a fig tree with no figs, Israel will wither.
Now Jesus is going to use that same image from Jeremiah and he is applying it to the temple in his own generation over five hundred years later. By having lots and lots of leaves on it the fig tree showed promise to be fruitful, but in the end it didn’t produce anything. This was also true of the temple. There was a lot of image, but no substance.
The Jewish temple at that time looked quite impressive. The temple courts were five football fields long. During the Passover celebration well over 200,000 sacrificial lambs were sacrificed on the altar of this incredible temple. But the temple wasn’t producing the fruit of godly people. The temple had become all leaves and no fruit (all show and no go).
Okay so let’s see what happens next:
15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; 16 and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. 17 And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbers’ den.” 18 The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching.
So, as I said, sandwiched in the middle of the story of the cursing of the fig tree is this cleansing of the temple.
Jesus was judging the temple because of the dishonesty of the people who were selling sacrificial animals and exchanging coins there. Jesus is upset because they’ve commercialized the act of worship at the temple for profit. So in his anger, Jesus calls the temple "a den of thieves," because of these salesmen and money changers peddling their wares for a profit.
But if the fig tree symbolizes the temple, then it’s important to recognize that Jesus isn’t just cleansing the temple, he’s actually condemning it. In fact, two chapters later Jesus is going to tell his followers plainly that this temple is going to be destroyed soon. Remember, Jesus didn’t cleanse the fig tree, he cursed it. He’s doing the same thing here to the temple by pronouncing judgment on what it has become.
The key to understanding Jesus’ action here are the two passages from the Old Testament that he quotes in verse 17. The first Old Testament passage he quotes is Isaiah 56:6-7, which promises a future time when people formerly excluded from temple worship will be welcomed.
“And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD and serve him, to live the name of the LORD and to worship him…these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations"
God wanted the temple to be a house of prayer for all nations, but the Jewish temple excluded all foreigners.
The other text Jesus quotes here comes from Jeremiah chapter 7:
Do not trust in deceptive words and say, "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!"…Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods…and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, "We are safe"-safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? (Jeremiah 7:4, 9-11 NIV).
In Jeremiah’s day, the people were living like heathens throughout the week, and then believing that they were safe from God’s judgment because they went to the temple on the Sabbath. They were trusting in the temple for their safety, rather than trusting in God.
Jesus is saying that the temple of his generation has degenerated into the same sorry state of affairs that it had in Jeremiah’s generation. Instead of being a place of prayer for all peoples, it was turned into a place where disobedient people thought they could hide safely from the wrath of God.
They no longer worshiped God in the temple, they worshiped the temple itself. The temple had the same problem that the fig tree had: it looked all leafy and alive from a distance but there was no fruit inside its walls. Jesus didn’t go there just to reform or cleanse the temple. He went there to pronounce a final judgment on it.
Jesus is there to declare that this temple is doomed and there’s now a new temple for God’s people. Jesus himself is that new temple; he’s the place where people can find forgiveness and cleansing from their sins. And ultimately we ourselves have become the temple of God’s presence by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.
1 Corinthians 6:19
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?
Okay, are you ready to see the other half of the sandwich? Here comes the fig tree again!
19 When evening came, they would go out of the city.
20 As they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. 21 Being reminded, Peter said to Him, “Rabbi, look, the fig tree which You cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered saying to them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him.
24 Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. 25 Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. 26 But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.”
So let’s review this “story sandwich”:
First, we have the start of the fig tree story. Jesus sees a fig tree that has no figs so he curses it. He wants to make it absolutely clear to his disciples what he is about to do in the temple. Jesus was basically giving them an object lesson about fruitfulness. If something wasn’t going to produce the fruit it was supposed to, it was going to be destroyed.
Next, Jesus declares God’s judgment that the temple has become a den of thieves. Essentially, because the people of Israel did not repent, God was going to destroy the temple for its unfruitfulness.
Then when they leave the temple, they see that the fig tree has already withered and died, which is a prophetic statement about what is going to happen to the temple in the near future.
Jesus tells his disciples that if they tell this mountain to throw itself into the sea then it will be done. Notice that he says “this mountain”.
Jesus was obviously pointing at a particular mountain. There is only one mountain he could possibly be referring to; the mountain that the temple was built on. This was soon going to end up destroyed, or “cast into the sea”.
So given all of this what we might say is that Jesus was acting out a prophetic parable in these two events. By turning over the tables, Jesus was stopping the temple from functioning temporarily. For a brief period of time no one could buy or sell anything, and therefore the sacrifices would have to stop. Without the sacrifices the temple had no purpose to exist. Jesus was acting out what would happen after the destruction of the temple because it no longer had any purpose in the New Covenant. Jesus’ sacrifice would put an end to the need for temple sacrifices and even the temple itself.
And ironically it was probably this very act that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Why? Because the temple was also the power base of the Jewish leaders. Jesus was essentially condemning their whole system, not just the temple. And this obviously did not go over too well with them!
Jesus was not just talking about the destruction of the temple but God’s plan to replace the temple with him.
We can see the confrontation building in the last few verses of this chapter:
27 They came again to Jerusalem. And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to Him, 28 and began saying to Him, “By what authority are You doing these things, or who gave You this authority to do these things?” 29 And Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question, and you answer Me, and then I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Was the baptism of John from heaven, or from men? Answer Me.” 31 They began reasoning among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘From men’?”—they were afraid of the people, for everyone considered John to have been a real prophet. 33 Answering Jesus, they said, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Nor will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
By asking whether John the Baptist received his authority from heaven or from man, Jesus perfectly silences the claims of the chief priests that He needed to get His “official” authority from them.
Look at what the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 1:11-12
“For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ answer to the chief priests is actually a way of asking them this ultimate question:
“Why don’t you recognize and submit to My authority?”
That’s what we all need to ask ourselves once in a while, isn’t it? Are we walking in obedience to the authority of Jesus as the true Lord of our lives? Am I living according to the truth that he has revealed to me about who he is and who I am in him?
When I am living in complete submission to his will and plan for my life, then I will be fruitful for his purposes.
In John 15:4-5 Jesus tells us:
Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.
We abide in Jesus when we yield our lives totally to his authority. That’s when we learn to produce more than just leaves – not just the appearance of Christianity, but the real thing – we have figs!