Mark 11:12-14… Now the next day, as they went out from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 After noticing in the distance a fig tree with leaves, he went to see if he could find any fruit on it. 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 heard it.
In Mark 11:1-11 Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem was explained. He entered the city by the east gate on Monday March 30, AD 33. A multitude had followed him and shouted in joy believing the long awaited Messiah had come to sit on David’s throne. Jesus then went into the temple that night, looked around, and went back to Bethany some two miles away where he was staying with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Now in Mark 11:12 Jesus has gotten up from a night’s sleep (Tuesday morning March 31) and proceeded onward again toward Jerusalem. The text says that he was hungry, one of those passages that proves Jesus’ humanity.
As Jesus looked, in the distance he saw a fig tree “with leaves,” but when he got to the tree he found no figs, for it was not the season for figs. Then he cursed the tree, loud enough for his disciples to hear it, so that it would never bear fruit again. Now this is peculiar because even the last clause of v. 13 says that it was not the season for figs. So why would Jesus take such an action? The answer is that Jesus was using the fig tree as an illustration for Israel, the Jews. They had the outward appearance of piety, like the fig tree with leaves, but inwardly they had no fruit to show that they were God’s chosen people. Fig trees begin to grow leaves in late March and early April – the time in which Jesus was there. If it had leaves it should have also had fruit. The point of v. 13 was that Jesus noticed a fig tree “in the distance,” and it gave the appearance of having figs. Once Jesus was upon it, however, it was clear that this wasn’t the case. So Jesus used it to illustrate Israel. So it was with Israel then – so it is with the church today. Because it wasn’t the season for ripe figs Jesus was making the point that because the tree had leaves – which meant it should have had figs too – it was only pretending to have good fruit.
The OT prophets oftentimes spoke of Israel’s relationship to God as a fig tree (Jer. 8:13; Joel 1:17). The destruction of the fig tree in the OT is associated with judgment. The curse that Jesus put on the tree was a foreshadowing of the future fate of Jerusalem which was destroyed 35 years later. The Jews honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him (cf. 7:6).
In the next context Jesus goes into the temple in Jerusalem and in righteous indignation cleanses it from the corruption there. The fig tree in this context foreshadows that incident, and when he walked outside the city the tree had withered from the roots in response to his curse on it. Jesus was patient towards Israel. While in Jerusalem at the beginning of his ministry he made himself known and was rejected. When he went in three years later he was rejected again. So, the Jews were put under a curse – a curse that was implemented some 35 years later when the holy city was destroyed. Today the Jews today are still under a curse. They’re preserved but unblessed (cf. John 1:11). Though back in the Promised Land they have yet to inherit God’s full blessings.
Food for Thought
Christians are called to bear fruit year-round. There’s no “off-season.” A tree is always measured by its fruit. So an effective Christian is always producing – just like an effective fruit tree. Some churches and Christians look real spiritual on the outside (their clothes, buildings, numbers, clerical vestments, etc.), but these, like the fig tree with leaves and no fruit, are cursed. There may be lots of prayers, crying, loud and beautiful music, but inside there is no life. So let us take inventory of our “tree.” Is there any fruit in your life that proves you are truly saved?
Mark 11:15-19… Then they came to Jerusalem. Jesus entered the temple area and began to drive out those who were selling and buying in the temple courts. He turned over the tables of the moneychangers and the chairs of those selling doves, 16 and he would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 Then he began to teach them and said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have turned it into a den of robbers!” 18 The chief priests and the experts in the law heard it and they considered how they could assassinate him, for they feared him because the whole crowd was amazed by his teaching. 19 When evening came, they went out of the city.
Jesus strolled into town after the incident with the fig tree, and his actions at the temple that day clarify why he did what he did to the fig tree. Jerusalem was teeming with people for the annual Jewish Passover feast. Pilgrims traveling from all over came to make the necessary sacrifices at the altar, but because they were not permitted by Jewish law to bring their sacrificial animals from far away, the merchants in the temple provided them for a price. This practice was not only beneficial but biblical. Merchants, however, began to take advantage of people, and this is what Jesus took exception to. You see, trade was controlled by the priestly nobility who profited greatly at the expense of ordinary pilgrims. Some of these people needed their currency converted for use in the temple, but the charge for doing so in some cases was up to 25%! And those who needed to purchase a lamb for the sacrifice were sometimes charged ten times the amount it would normally cost. Truly the temple courtyard was filled with corruption.
Furthermore, some folks, loaded with merchandise, were taking shortcuts through the temple area and using it as an access road from one part of the city to another. This brought further confusion and chaos to an area that was supposed to be devoted to prayer and worship. And Mark makes special note of those who sold doves, for the dove was one of the few sacrifices that the poor people could afford and that God allowed them to offer (Lev. 14:22). But they too were being victimized by the greedy merchants. So Jesus went on the attack.
Jesus cited two texts as the basis for his attack on the temple merchants. The first is Isaiah 56:7 where he reminds them that God’s temple was to be a place of worship for all nations. The second text he cited was from Jeremiah 7:11, where Jeremiah condemns the notion that the temple provides protection for the Jews in their sin. On the contrary, God would destroy his temple (Jer. 7:3–15), and this He did at the hands of the Romans some 35 years later. Jesus was furious over the fact that God’s temple was being used as a place to profit instead of worship.
Food for thought
Though our bodies are called the new “temple of God” (1 Cor. 6:18-20; Rom. 12:1-2) we still worship in buildings we call church and “houses of prayer.” These are simply buildings, however, for they are not like the Jewish temple where God’s presence was in the days of Jesus. The place where God’s Holy Spirit dwells, and where He Himself is present, is in the body of Christians. We are the temple of God. But just like the temple that Jesus angrily cleansed of its corruptions, our bodies too become corrupted when we fill our minds with filth, selfishly pursue wanton pleasure, and fail to use our bodies for God’s glory. It was Martin Luther who came to hate the indulgences of his day just – the supposed buying and selling of God’s grace. His disdain for this practice ushered in the Protestant Reformation and moved people back to the study of the Scriptures. We too should cry out today for Christ to expose our sins and cleanse us just like he did in the temple that day. Only then can we truly reap God’s eternal blessings.
Mark 11:20-25… In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter recalled and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered.” 22 Jesus said, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly I say, if one says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 24 For this reason I tell you, whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 When you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your sins.”
On Monday March 30 Jesus came to the Jerusalem temple, looked around, and made his way back towards Bethany where he was staying. On Tuesday morning he went to Jerusalem from Bethany, and on the way he cursed the fig tree for not bearing fruit. When he got to Jerusalem he cleansed the temple in an angry rage because the Jewish leaders there, like the fig tree, had the appearance of life but in reality were dead in sins and bore no fruit. Now in v. 20 it is the next morning – Wednesday April 1, AD 33. Once again Jesus is making his way towards Jerusalem from Bethany, and when they walk past the fig tree that Jesus cursed the previous day they notice that it is dead. This astonishes Peter who calls attention to it prompting Jesus to reply.
Jesus’ reply in v. 22 was to remind Peter and the rest of the disciples that what he did they too could accomplish. Jesus told them, “Have faith in God.” Then in v. 23 he explained what he meant by telling them that if they had pure faith without doubt they could actually command a mountain to be uprooted and be thrown into the sea – and it would! Now it’s important to note that this actual feat can be accomplished through faithful prayer, but “moving mountains” was a phrase used by the rabbis in that day for overcoming great difficulties. It shouldn’t be viewed here as literal per se, but great faith can actually move mountains. God has put the mountains where He wants them, and if He wanted them moved He’d move them. By the same token, Christians sometimes want things done that God has not ordained, and their requests are at times denied. The point is that prayer must have faith that it can be done, and it will.
Now there is another condition for prayer to be effectual as given in v. 25. God’s children must forgive each other when they have been offended. No one can effectively pray in the name of Jesus and yet hold a grudge against another person. Those who do can expect a denial of their prayers. The passage teaches that God’s forgiveness is released when the person praying has forgiven those he needs to forgive. This too is a fruit that is manifest only in God’s true children. His true children pray in faith according to His will, and the only thing that prevents their every request is God’s sovereignty. And sometimes His children’s requests are outside of His plan.
Food for Thought
C.S. Lewis said, “It seems to me that such promises about prayer with faith refer to a degree or kind of faith which most believers never experience. A far inferior degree is, I hope, acceptable to God. Even the kind that says, ‘Help thou my unbelief!’ may make way for a miracle. Again, the absence of such faith as insures the granting of the prayer is not even necessarily a sin; for our Lord had no such assurance when he prayed in Gethsemane… There are, no doubt, passages in the NT which may seem at first sight to promise an invariable granting of our prayers. But that cannot be what they really mean. For in the very heart of the story we meet a glaring instance to the contrary. In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from him. It did not. After that, the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.”
U Nathanael was sitting under one when Jesus saw him (John 1:48). Part of the fruits of the land flowing with milk and honey was fig trees (Deut. 8:8). The presence of the fig tree was a symbol of blessing; its absence a symbol of judgment. Israel’s landscape, though at one time filled with these trees of blessing, was in Jesus’ day a far cry from its former glory due to many battles.
U Only early green figs would have been growing at that time, for they actually precede the leaves, but they aren’t ripe until June, then they fall off.
U Just as the leaves on the fig tree concealed the fact that there was no fruit to enjoy, so the magnificence of the temple in Jerusalem conceals the fact that Israel has not brought forth the fruit of righteousness demanded by God.
U The phrase, “for it was not the season for figs” should be translated, “and the significant thing about this is that it wasn’t even the season for figs.” This is a key feature in Mark’s message, for it shows that Jesus is taking issue, not with the tree, but with Israel. Since her “figs” (a metaphor for the fruit of her righteousness) were supposed to be enjoyed year-round, and because they were not, Jesus cursed them – illustrated in the allusion to the fig.
U These were the early figs that preceded the main crop of late figs, which were ripe for harvest from mid-August into October. If only leaves appeared, without the early figs, that tree would bear no figs that year—early or late. Because everyone would know that it was “not yet the season for [real] figs,” Jesus is making a point about trees that only pretend to have good fruit (cf. Jer 24).
U The dead fig tree represents all who look like believers but aren’t (Rom. 10:2; 2 Tim 3:5).
U It was in the Temple of God, that God had erected for His name, that His name was trampled on and mocked. Jesus was outraged by that, and it was there that he began to “clean house.” We too must begin with our own temples, namely our own bodies, to purify and cleanse ourselves of our pet sins that keep us from perfect fellowship with God. As long as things are wrong with our own temples things will not be right in our relationship with God, and consequently, because we are a part of the larger church of Jesus Christ, they won’t be right in the holy catholic church either. Let the cleansing needed for perfect fellowship with God begin with you.
U When the scribes and chief priests heard the report of our Lord’s activities, they kept seeking some way to arrest Him (see Mark 14:1–2). Judas would solve the problem for them. Before we quickly condemn the Jewish religious leaders for their sins, we should examine our own ministries to see if perhaps we are making merchandise of the Gospel. Do the outsiders in our community think of our church buildings as houses of prayer? Are all nations welcomed there? Do we as church members flee to church on Sundays in an attempt to cover up our sins? Do we “go to church” in order to maintain our reputation or to worship and glorify God? If the Lord Jesus were to show up in our house of worship, what changes would He make?
U Those who choose to disobey God, even though they may maintain an outward form of piety, if they live in a continual state of rebellion without repentance, are cursed down to the root. The fig tree was illustrative of Israel. They were like whitewashed tombs – beautiful on the outside but full of dead bones on the inside (Matt. 23:27).
U First, there is a lesson on failure: Israel had failed to be fruitful for God. In the Old Testament, the fig tree is associated with the nation of Israel (Jer. 8:13; Hosea 9:10; Nahum 3:12). Like the fig tree our Lord cursed, Israel had “nothing but leaves.” Note that the tree dried up “from the roots” (Mark 11:20). Three years before, John the Baptist had put the ax to the roots of the tree (Matt. 3:10), but the religious leaders would not heed his message. Whenever an individual or a group “dries up” spiritually, it is usually from the roots.