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The Gospel of Mark: Fig Trees And Phonies

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In cursing the fig tree and cleansing the temple, Jesus reveals the bankruptcy of the Jewish religious system. It is a reminder that today’s believers must regularly evaluate their own spiritual lives to make sure we are not merely “going through the motions” of religiosity.

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Text: Mark 11:11-26
Theme: In cursing the fig tree and cleansing the temple, Jesus reveals the bankruptcy of the Jewish religious system. It is a reminder that today’s believers must regularly evaluate their own spiritual lives to make sure we are not merely “going through the motions” of religiosity.
This is a momentous event in the life of our Savior. In effect, he pronounces a curse on the Jewish Temple and it’s sacrificial system. That curse consigns it to God’s judgment, and by extension includes the corrupt religious leaders and the entire nation. In a shocking turn of events, Israel — the covenant nation, the people chosen by God, was cursed by God’s Messiah, because of its rejection of him. That rejection would surge to a climax four days later when the crowd, urged on by the religious leaders, called for the crucifixion of the Son of God. In Jesus' time, the religious establishment had become little more than legalistic ritual that was devoid of true worship. It was devoid of power. It had become barren and without fruit. It only appeared to live externally. Through ceremony and pomp and outward show, it still gave the appearance of true faith. But inside, there was nothing real. Our text today is the account of Jesus confronting that religious establishment and judging it for what it was. We see Jesus cursing a fig tree and cleansing the Temple because of fruitlessness and phony appearances. He came to where faith should have been found, and found instead lifeless ritual, devoid of God's power. They were just going through the motions.
If we are not careful we can find ourselves there as well. It is so easy to be lulled into spiritual apathy. As Christians we must recognize the danger of phony, fruitless religion. We must refuse to be deceived by outward appearances. There was a time in church life when a congregation might debate what color hymnals to use. Now churches are debating about weather-or-not to install fog machines and mood lighting. Years ago, I had a friend tell me that in his seminary preaching class, they spent several class period learning how to dramatically read the Scriptures. It seems that what the crowds prefer are glitzy presentation over gospel presentation. Many are more obsessed with a show that will entertain them for an hour than with a Savior that will transform them for a lifetime.
We must look deeper than the outward rituals in our lives. Is there more than merely an appearance of Christianity about us? Is there real spiritual substance to our lives as believers? Is there real fruitfulness for Jesus Christ? As we look at our text, may God grant us the ability to more clearly see the phoniness of appearances and not to trust them; but rather to cultivate faith in Jesus alone. As we look at our text, notice the dramatic implications of each action Jesus takes as He curses the tree, cleanses the Temple, and challenges each of us.

I. A CURSED TREE

vv. 12-14 "And on the next day, when they had departed from Bethany, He became hungry. And 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. And He answered and said to it, 'May no one ever eat fruit from you again!' And His disciples were listening."
1. notice that in vs. 11, that the night before, Jesus entered Jerusalem, came into the Temple and took a good, long look around
a. then He returned to Bethany
b. I'm sure His heart was grieved over what He saw
1) the Temple was now in a shameful condition
2) it was filled with moneychangers and animal sellers — people taking the holy place of God and making a market out of it
c. what He would do would have to wait for the next day?
2. the next morning, on the way into the city, Jesus spotted a fig tree
a. fig trees are very common sights in that part of the country
b. fig trees in the Middle East produce two crops
1) the early figs are smaller and grow from the sprouts of the previous year, and begin to appear at the end of March and are ripe in May or June
2) the later figs are much larger figs that develop on the new or spring shoots, and are gathered from August to October
3) the earlier figs, which are what this passage is referring to, begin to appear simultaneously with the leaves, and sometimes they even precede the leaves
b. because this fig tree was in full leaf, it should have had figs on it — it held the promise of a quick snack on His way to Jerusalem
3. it appeared like it was a vibrant tree — but appearances can be deceiving!
a. when Jesus looked at this tree, He saw that it was barren — there were no figs at all — nothing but leaves ... it was fruitless
1) it looked good, it held a promise for figs, but the promise was unfulfilled
4. when He saw the fig tree was fruitless, He decided to use it as an example
a. He gives them an object lesson that they will never forget
b. Jesus cursed the tree
1) He says, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again."
ILLUS. Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree is the only destructive miracle recorded in the Gospels. It serves as a symbol previewing the coming destruction of the Jewish Temple.
c. Jesus himself would interpret the figure the next day
1) in Matthew’s Gospel account of the same events, Jesus tells a parable to explain the now lifeless fig tree
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. 34 “When the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. 35 “The vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. 36 “Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. 37 “But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 “But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ 39 “They took him, and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 “Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” 41 They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, This became the chief corner stone; This came about from the Lord, And it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43 “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it." (Matthew 21:33-43, NIV)
5. the barren fig tree graphically illustrates the empty pretense of worship in the temple — it looked good, but was fruitless

II. A CLEANSED TEMPLE

vs. 15-18 "And they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to cast out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry goods through the temple. And He began to teach and say to them, 'It is not written, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?" But you have made it a robbers' den.' And the chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for all the multitude was astonished at His teaching.”
1. the Jewish Temple of Jesus’ day was a magnificent structure
a. technically it was the third Jewish Temple
1) the first was the Tabernacle, the portable Jewish Temple that Israel built in the wilderness and brought with them into the Promised Land when they conquered it
2) the second was planned by King David and built by his son Solomon on the pinnacle of Mt. Moriah, the very place where Abraham had brought Isaac to sacrifice his one and only son
a) after centuries of apostasy and rebellion, God withdrew His presence from the temple, and it was destroyed in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians
3) the third temple was built by Zerubbabel after the Jews were allowed to return to the land after their 70-year captivity in Babylon
a) it was a simple, modest temple, and those elder Jews who could remember the glory of Solomon’s Temple would lament about the plain, unadorned temple that Zerubbabel built
2. in 20 B.C. Herod the Great began the restoration and expansion of Zerubbabel’s temple
a. it was still under construction in Jesus’ day and was not finished until A.D. 64 — a mere six years before the Romans destroyed it
ILLUS. The Jewish historian Josephus writes: “The exterior of the building lacked nothing that could astonish either the soul or the eyes. For, being covered on every side with massive plates of gold, the sun had no sooner risen than it radiated so fiery a flash that those straining to look at it were forced to avert their eyes as from the solar rays. To approaching strangers it appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain, the reason being that whatever was not overlaid with gold was purest white”
ILLUS. The Rabbis of the 1st century had a saying, “Those who have not seen the Temple have not seen a building.”
b. as far as the Jewish leaders were concerned, what God would not be please with such a Temple
2. but Jesus was not pleased with what was going on in the Temple area
a. after He curses the Fig Tree, Jesus continued His journey into Jerusalem
b. by the time He reached the Temple, the decision had already been made — He knew what He was going to do
c. He entered the Temple and immediately began to drive out the den of thieves that had taken up residence there
1) this was God's holy place — a house of prayer
2) what Jesus saw was a desecration of holy ground
d. he wasn't going to sit idly by while it continued to happen
1) this was His Father's house
2) the merchants had turned this holy avenue to God into Jerusalem’s Wall Street
3. when Solomon dedicated the Temple, a thousand years prior to this account, God's glory fell in power upon that place
a. as the people prayed upon the day of dedication, the Shekinah glory of God descended in such awesome majesty that no one could even enter that holy Temple
1) God claimed that place for Himself
b. He received it as His house, and it would be a place where He would meet with His people
ILLUS. Seven hundred fifty years before, on that very spot the Prophet Isaiah, in the year Uzziah died, was transported into the very presence of Almighty God. As he stood in that holy place, he saw the Lord high and lifted up. His glory filled the Temple. The train of his robe was like carpeting on the Temple floor. Above the majestic presence of the Lord, the burning seraphim were hovering. They were glorious six-winged creatures. With two they beat the air as they hovered above the Lord. And with the remaining wings they covered their faces and feet in humble recognition that they were in the presence of the awesome God of perfect holiness. As Isaiah watched, in stunned silence, they chanted to one another, "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory." (Isaiah 6:3) As Isaiah looked on, the foundations of the Temple shook at the awesome majesty of God. The smoke of the incense filled the Temple. The holiness of God was as thick as the smoke. At one glimpse of that glory, Isaiah fell to his knees. And in humble confession cried out, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips. For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts." (Isaiah 6:5) Isaiah was smitten with the awareness of his unholiness in the presence of the holy King. The awesome God was there.
c. that was what kind of place the Temple was
d. now, instead of being inhabited by holy worshippers, it was filled with moneychangers, and animal merchants
4. so what’s the big deal here?
a. first, you could not pay the Temple tax, which was a half-shekel for every male over twenty years of age, with just any kind of money
1) it had to be paid in Temple coinage
2) the money changers, of course, were more than glad to exchange any foreign money for the required coinage — for a price; overhead don’t ya know
b. second, there were those who would sell you animals that were guaranteed to be accepted as sacrifices
1) remember, there could not be any animal offered that had a spot or blemish on it
2) now, these animals were not, by any stretch of the imagination spotless, but they were guaranteed to be accepted by the priests
c. by the way, it was the Temple Priests who ran the concessions
1) by Jesus day, many of the Temple Priests were more interested in turning a profit than in offering a sincere sacrifice to God
2) even the High Priest was getting his kickbacks
5. Jesus saw that they were hypocrites, and phonies
a. they were going through the ceremonies but not knowing God
b. Jesus saw this desecration and could not contain Himself
c. John 2:17 records how the zeal of God's house would consume Jesus
1) Jesus walked in to that place of merchandise and turned over the tables
2) He physically drove out the moneychangers and the animal merchants
d. Jesus could not abide this hypocrisy and so He drove them out

III. A CHALLENGING TEACHING

vv. 19-26 "And whenever evening came, they would go out of the city. And as they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. And being reminded, Peter said to Him, 'Rabbi, behold, the fig tree which You cursed has withered.' And Jesus answered saying to them, 'Have faith in God. 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 shall be granted him. Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they shall be granted you. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.'"
1. the next day, as they were passing the fig tree, the disciples saw that it had withered from the roots up
a. Peter commented about the withered fig tree
b. to Peter's comment, Jesus gave a very surprising answer. He said, "Have faith in God ... forgive others"
1) here is the core of New Covenant religion that Jesus is going to establish ... it rests on faith and forgiveness
2. Jesus was always giving surprising answers
a. instead of commenting on the fig tree, He made a point about faith
b. what is Jesus getting at here?
3. he is revealing the foundational principle for the Christian life — it the dynamic of a life of faith
a. faith is the priority of our lives
b. through a relationship with Jesus Christ, we come to know God
1) through daily communion with Him in prayer and reading His word, our faith is built and grows strong
2) the stronger it grows, the more we come to trust Him
3) the more we come to trust Him, the more willing we are to discover and do His will
c. this, I think, is what Jesus is getting at
4. a priority of a dynamic faith is the willingness to forgive
a. when Jesus talks about a faith that can move mountains, He is talking about the power of forgiveness (11:25)
1) He was not holding out false hopes of the free use of power to one’s personal advantage
2) instead, He was showing the significance of moving heaven and earth with another power — forgiving one’s enemies
b. unforgiveness is certainly one mountain which needs to be moved out of the way in the lives of many believers

IV. LESSONS FROM MARK 11:11-26

A. A CURSED TREE TEACHES US THE DANGER OF A FRUITLESS PROFESSION

1. along with the grape vine, the fig tree in Scripture is a symbol of Israel
a. Israel had become barren like this fig tree — fruitless in her vain attempts at the worship of God
b. they had forgotten what true religion was all about — that it was a relationship with a living God
c. the Hebrews were not like the peoples surrounding them — they did not worship gods of wood and stone and gold
1) they worshipped a living God
2) but they had forgotten that their worship was more than an outward ceremony
2. when we only go through the motions of our religion, we're in grave danger
a. if we are not careful, we will be lulled into spiritual slumber
b. if we are not careful, we will begin to think that ceremony is a substitute for communion with God
c. if we are not careful, we will assume that ritual is reality
d. if we are not careful, we will become like the barren fig tree, luxurious but fruitless

B. A CLEANSED TEMPLE TEACHES US THE DOWNFALL OF A FALSE PIETY

1. Jesus did to the Temple what He did to the fig tree — He judged it for what it was
a. it was supposed to be a house of prayer for all people
b. it was supposed to be a place to meet with God
c. it was supposed to be a place of worship, and a place of communion
2. what we have here is also a dramatic statement about the importance of worship
a. God is after a seeking heart
1) He is more interested in communion than in ceremony
2) God wants our fellowship, our prayer, and our communion in worship
3. church should be more than merely “going through the motions” of worship
a. it is coming into a divine encounter with the living God, one which changes our lives
b. a mark of true Christianity is that we press on in our walk with God, that we are never content to stay where we are, but that the fire of God burns in our bones
c. a true Christian loves Jesus passionately and will worship him in sincerity of heart

C. A CHALLENGING TEACHING TEACHES THE DYNAMIC OF A FAITH PRIORITY

1. Jesus is clear that an unforgiving heart is a road block to our receiving forgiveness
v. 26 "But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father, who is in heaven, forgive your transgressions."
a. unforgiveness blocks our relationship with God
b. unforgiveness blocks our faith
c. unforgiveness blocks our power in prayer
d. unforgiveness begins a downward spiritual cycle in which we spiral further and further away from God
2. when we choose to be unforgiving, sin comes between us and God
a. our fellowship is broken
b. we become hard
c. we become even more unwilling to forgive, which hardens us in our sin even more
3. but we can avoid lifeless, fruitless religion by cultivating a life of faith, by developing our relationship with Jesus, by rekindling our first love, by coming to Him in humble repentance, by being willing to forgive and receive His forgiveness
a. this is why Jesus says, "Have faith in God"
1) that's where it all begins
2) in the final analysis, Jesus is really all we need, and He is exactly what we need
Let me ask you: Where are you in your relationship with God right now? Do you see the emptiness of religion without a vital faith relationship with Jesus? Is there more than an appearance of Christianity about you? Is there real substance to your walk with God? Is there real fruitfulness? Are you just going through the motions? Have you left your first love? If you've lost that fire, by God's grace He can rekindle it right now. While God judges phony religion, He receives with open arms those who come in humble surrender. Come to Christ and He will make you a fruitful tree, blessed by God.
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