April 19, 2020

Lessons from the Fig Tree – Mark 11:12-25

Passage: Mark 11:12-25

Good morning! If you have a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark. If you can grab a Bible, we are going to be in Mark 11, this morning. I trust that you all had a blessed Easter. Even though we weren’t able to physically gather together with our families, there are ways that technology has made it possible to virtually gather together, which was what we did with my family on Easter Sunday.

We used a program called Zoom, which is a video calling service that allows you to connect with people over video. And so, our four families were able to see each other and talk with each other on the computer, which is better than nothing, I suppose.

But what was really different for us was not having Easter dinner with anyone. Helena puts together this delicious meal, and then we try to invite a number of people over to our house to eat with us, and it’s always a good time. But we weren’t able to do that, this year, which was weird for us.

But on Easter Sunday evening, we let Liam stay up with us to watch the stage production of the story of Jesus by Sight & Sound Theatres, which I thought was very well done, even though I didn’t entirely agree with how they portrayed some parts of the biblical story. It was still really neat to be able to see the story of Jesus acted out on the day set aside to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, which is what our focus was on, last Sunday.

But after a short pause for Easter, we return to our sermon series in Mark. And if you remember, a couple of weeks ago, Jesus has just entered into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, and the people have laid down coats and palm branches as a sign of them welcoming their king. They’re excited, They’re hopeful. They’re expectant. But things seem to come to a rather anticlimactic end, as Jesus goes first to the temple, looks around, and then leaves the city, because it was late.

And in our text, this morning, we discover that Jesus didn’t like what He saw in the temple, and He is going to use a fig tree to show us what God is really after.

So, I’m just going to read our passage for us, and then we will dive in. Mark 11, beginning in verse 12: “On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.

“15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying 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 den of robbers.’ 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.

“20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ 22 And Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 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 trespasses.’ [And then, verse 26, which may not be in your translation of the Scriptures.] ‘26 But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your trespasses.’”

In our text for this morning, we come to a difficult and challenging story of Jesus. This is the only place in the Gospels, where we see a miracle of destruction in the cursing of the fig tree.

Up till now, the miracles of Jesus have been transformational and restorative. Jesus has healed many people of their diseases, from a woman with a fever to raising a dead girl back to life; He has cast demons out of people; He has calmed not one but two storms; on two occasions, Jesus has fed thousands of people from a few loaves of bread and some fish.

We have been seeing Jesus giving us glimpses of the kingdom of God, and what it looks like when the kingdom of God invades earth. But then, we see Jesus curse a fig tree, and it dies. This story has caused many scholars, even those of the Christian faith, to question the character of Jesus. New Testament scholar, T. W. Manson, called the story “simply incredible,” saying that “it is a tale of miraculous power wasted in the service of ill-temper.”

What do we do with that? Are we to conclude, like so many others, that Jesus is acting here in a way that is out of character? And the answer is no, because of everything we know about Jesus. We have to understand that everything Jesus says and does is intentional, including the cursing of the fig tree.

Look at verse 12. Jesus and His disciples are coming from Bethany to Jerusalem, and Jesus sees a fig tree in the distance with leaves on it. So, Jesus goes to the tree, searching for fruit, but He finds nothing but leaves. At which point, Jesus says to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”

Now, we might think that it’s unfair of Jesus to expect fruit from a fig tree, when Mark clearly points out that it “was not the season for figs.” It was Passover, which would make this late-March to early-April, and the fig harvest was from mid-August to mid-October. You could potentially get figs in May, but this would still be really early for figs.

And so, we need to ask: What is Jesus doing here? If Jesus knew that it wasn’t the season for figs, then why would He expect them? Again, we need to understand that everything Jesus says and does is intentional.

Jesus is observing the leafy fig tree with all of its promise of fruit—it looks like it should have figs on it, but it doesn’t—and Jesus is connecting this fig tree to the people of Israel. Jesus is using this fig tree as a parable—an illustration—for those who are rich in religion, but who lack the fruit of the Spirit. And if you look at the Old Testament, you will find references all over the place to the fig tree being used as a symbolic depiction of the nation of Israel.

Hosea 9:10 says, “Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season, I saw your fathers. But they came to Baal-peor and consecrated themselves to the thing of shame, and became detestable like the thing they loved.”

Micah 7:1 says, “Woe is me! For I have become as when the summer fruit has been gathered, as when the grapes have been gleaned: there is no cluster to eat, no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.”

And so, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, goes to the temple, and is confronted with the ceremonialism and the legalism and the emptiness of their religiosity, and He doesn’t like what He sees, so that when He comes upon this fig tree on the way to the temple again, He makes this connection.

And so, Jesus and His disciples enter into Jerusalem. And Mark doesn’t give us any warning for what is about to happen when they go to the temple. He just says that Jesus “began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.”

Now, we need to understand something about temple operations in that day. It is speculated that over 250,000 lambs were sacrificed for Passover. Passover is the time of year, when the Jews remember when God rescued the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt through the plague of the death of the firstborn. On that very first Passover, each Jewish family was to sacrifice a lamb and put the blood on the doorposts of their house, so that when the angel of the Lord came, it would “pass over” their house, and they would be spared.

And so, every year, Jews from all over the place would come to Jerusalem for the Passover, and they would sacrifice a lamb at the temple. The temple meant everything to first-century Jews. It was the center of their spirituality.

And there were four sections of the temple—the Court of the Gentiles (where everyone could go), the Court of the Women (where only Jewish men and Jewish women could go), the Court of Israel (where only Jewish men could go), and the Holy of Holies (where only the high priest could go and only once a year).

Since the Court of the Gentiles was where everyone could go in the temple, it became a stock market of animal dealers and money changers, all of whom ensured the continual practice of sacrifices and offerings. If you didn’t want to make the miles-long journey with your animal, you could just purchase one at the temple. This made things very convenient, but it also meant that merchants could charge whatever they wanted, because if you needed a lamb, you would have to buy one from them, and the price could be abnormally high.

So, there were a lot of sketchy dealings being done in the temple, specifically, in the Court of the Gentiles, which is where Jesus was when it says that He cleansed the temple.

But when Mark says that Jesus began to “drive out” those who bought and sold in the temple, Mark is using the same word to refer to Jesus casting out demons. The practices that were taking place in the temple were so demonic, that Jesus casts them out from the presence of God.

But there’s something even deeper going on here. You see, the Gentiles have nowhere else to worship, except for in the Court of the Gentiles. Gentile men and women who wanted to worship God could only do so in this one place that was now being overrun by commerce and business. Jesus cleansing the temple is getting the Court of the Gentiles cleared out, so that the Gentiles can properly worship God. This is so good.

Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 56:7, where God says, “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Jesus is pointing out that the temple was never the sole property of the Jews. It had become that with this pursuit to gain wealth, but the temple was always intended to be a witness to the nations—the place where anyone who loved the name of the Lord could worship Him. This was always the purpose of the temple, but had now become a “den of robbers.”

Here, Jesus is quoting from Jeremiah 7:8-11, where God also says, “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.”

Jesus is recounting the prophecy of Jeremiah, which looked ahead to when the Jewish leaders would exploit the temple and continue to claim that they were children of God. And Jesus is saying, “You are like the fig tree that I saw as I was coming to the temple, today. You are rich in religion, but you have no fruit. You claim to follow God, but your works tell a different story.” And this isn’t just for the Jewish people of that day; there is something here for us, as well.

When I was in my teens, this would have described me. I grew up as a pastor’s kid, I came to faith in Jesus at a young age, I went to church every Sunday, I played bass guitar on the worship team, I went to Youth Group on Friday evenings. I had my religiosity. I had the boxes checked. But I had no fruit.

I did some things in my teenage years that I am not proud of—the biggest thing was continuing in my religiosity with no repentance. There was no desire to abandon the worldly things that I had embraced for the sake of following Christ. I had my feet on both sides of the fence. And it wasn’t until God opened up my eyes to see the danger of my unfruitfulness that things began to change.

It reminds me of the church that the apostle John writes to, in Revelation 2. The church in Ephesus began with many people burning their magic books, which amounted to about $5 million, today. Sorcery was a major part of the economy in that time, so it would have been a huge statement of the cost of following Jesus.

But by the time John is writing to them, in Revelation 2:3-4, he says, “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”

That first love they had abandoned was repentance. They had initially turned away from their sin to follow Jesus, burning their magic books, but somewhere along the way, they had abandoned repentance and had given themselves over to worldly desires. They were like the leafy fig tree, who had the appearance of godliness, but didn’t have the fruit of the Spirit.

And maybe this is where some of us are at, today. Maybe we have our religiosity, but we don’t have the fruit. As Isaiah 29:13 says, “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.” Maybe we are providing lip service to God, but our lives tell a different story. In the end, these are just leaves. It’s not enough to claim to follow Christ, if our lives do not reflect the Christ we claim to follow. Without fruit, we are empty and dead, just like this fig tree.

Do we understand the seriousness of this passage of Scripture? Do we need to hear today this solemn charge from Jesus to a fig tree: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again”? Do we need to evaluate our hearts to see if we are far from God?

You can see that Jesus is intentionally cursing the fig tree here to show us the danger of unfruitfulness. Don’t get caught up in a kind of religiosity that obeys rules and regulations, as though we think that what God is after is our lip service and not bearing fruit unto repentance.

Look at the judgment that Jesus is pronouncing upon the temple and its leaders, in the cursing of the fig tree. Later, in Mark 13, one of Jesus’ disciples is going to marvel at the wonderful stones and buildings of the temple, and Jesus is going to say, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” This prophecy would be fulfilled in the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, when the temple is destroyed.

And in Matthew 7:21, Jesus says that those who do not bear fruit—those who claim to know Jesus, who even do mighty works in Jesus’ name, but whose lives show no resemblance to Jesus—will not enter the kingdom of God. This isn’t just about the religious leaders; this is anyone who claims to follow Christ.

May we not be like the religious leaders here who do not take Jesus’ words to heart. Notice that they do not repent of their wrongdoing. Instead, they try to find a way to kill Jesus. It says that “they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.”

They didn’t fear Jesus in a reverential way. They didn’t fear Him as the eternal Son of God. No, they feared Jesus, because the crowd was more astonished with Jesus than with them. This goes all the way back to Mark 1:22, where the crowd was astonished at Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue, because He taught “as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.”

This has been building ever since Jesus first stepped on to the scene. And now, Jesus is taking a metaphorical ax to their temple and their religious system.

It’s why, when Jesus and the disciples leave the city, and pass by the fig tree, they see it withered away to its roots. It’s a picture of what is happening to the people of Israel, but it’s also a picture of what Jesus came to do in the lives of His people.

This goes all the way back to the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the one tree in the garden that God commanded them to not eat. And as such, they brought the curse of sin into the world, where things like broken relationships and diseases and coronaviruses and death are a reality.

But then, you come to Jesus, who would suffer temptation in another garden—the garden of Gethsemane—but who would not give in to the temptation presented to Him. And as a result, Jesus would be crucified on a cross by the same religious leaders who feared Him. And Galatians 3:13 says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

Can you see the tree imagery here? Jesus curses this fig tree, and then becomes a curse for us. He calls out those who claim to follow Him, but who bear no fruit, those who honour God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from Him, and He dies on the cursed tree on their behalf.

You get to the end of Revelation, to the new heavens and new earth, and what is not there? Revelation 21:22 says, “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”

But you flip over to Revelation 22:2-3, and you read that, in the new heavens and the new earth, there is “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.”

Jesus is not cursing the fig tree for no reason. Jesus would curse it for the purpose of warning us of the danger of unfruitfulness in the Christian life, and also to show us that He would die on a cursed tree for His people.

Jesus, not the temple, is the object of faith. The temple isn’t just destroyed, but it is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, who is the true and better temple for the people of God—who will not be corrupt, who will not swindle, but who will do what the temple was always supposed to do, and that is, become the means by which we approach God.

Later, in Mark 12:10, Jesus is going to quote from Psalm 118:22, which says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Jesus would be rejected. His body would be broken as a ransom for many. But He would be raised up on the third day, in victory over the curse of sin and death, so that all those who put their faith in Jesus would have access to God.

Have you put your faith in Jesus’ completed work on the cross, or have you been trying to earn God’s favour by obeying your own rules and regulations? Are you bearing fruit, or do you just have a lot of leaves with no fruit to show for it?

In John 15:5, Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

Fruitfulness in the Christian life begins and ends with Jesus. We aren’t able to make ourselves fruitful. We are only as fruitful as we are in Christ. If we have no relationship with Jesus, then we will not be fruitful. The only way we will bear much fruit is if we abide in Christ. And how do we know if we abide in Christ? Jesus gives us two examples of the kind of fruit that God is after: prayer and forgiveness.

1. The first fruit is prayer. In verse 23, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

Now, this isn’t “name it and claim it” stuff, where you just need to say the word and it’s yours, or that if you need healing, then you just need to believe that God has already healed you and you will be healed, or that everything will work out the way we want it to, if we just believe.

No, instead, prayer is aligning our will with the will of God. As one commentator put it, “We must always have the same perspective that Jesus had… confidence in God’s power, but also submission to His will.”

We can absolutely be confident in the power of God. God can do more than we even think is possible, like throwing a mountain into the sea. He is the sovereign King on His throne, who does what is good and gives good gifts to His children. But we must also submit to His will, so that whenever we ask of God, we are doing so with open hands, ready to receive whatever He gives us in the moment.

But an example of fruitfulness is that we pray to God. Since we have direct access to God through Jesus, we are able to abide with God and He in us, so that we bear much fruit.

2. The second fruit is forgiveness. In verse 25, Jesus says, “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 trespasses.”

God’s free forgiveness of sins is one of the most glorious realities for the Christian. If we are unwilling to forgive others, then we are no better than those in the temple, who were rich in religion, but who lacked love for their neighbour. In the end, it simply reveals that we have no fruit.

We see a good example of forgiveness in the book of Acts. In Acts 6, Stephen was one of the men chosen to serve in the church, but he is arrested by the religious leaders for preaching about Jesus.

So, Stephen is brought before the high priest to account for his crimes. And after giving an overview of the Scriptures, Stephen concludes his lengthy discourse by condemning the religious leaders for putting to death the Righteous One—Jesus.

Well, this doesn’t go over well with the religious leader. It says that they rushed at Stephen, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him. And Stephen says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” The one who had not sinned is asking God to forgive those who sinned against him. Jesus says a similar thing while on the cross, when He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But notice that the power for Stephen to forgive his enemies doesn’t come from within himself; it comes from God. Look at where Stephen’s gaze is. In Acts 7:55, it says that he looked up “and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”

This is a man, it says, who was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” He could forgive, because he was abiding in the vine of Christ. He was fruitful right till the end of his life. Will we be able to say the same for us?

The reason Jesus gives these two examples of fruitfulness—prayer and forgiveness—is because they were lacking when He entered the temple. Jesus was looking for fruit in the lives of His people, but He found nothing but leaves. Are these fruits missing in our lives, as well? Are we abiding in the vine of Christ?

May we pay attention to the lessons of the fig tree, and grow in fruitfulness, according to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s pray…


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