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 the entire 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.”
Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, one day before this scene, was the beginning of his passion as all around him crowds of sincere, enthusiastic people chanted worship to the idol they had made of Jesus. Jesus was simply one more step in their religious system; they hailed him as the key to political dominion. Mark’s gospel account shows Jesus is the only foundation upon which the Kingdom of God is built. In light of that fact, two truths stand out for us in this passage: (1) Religion must end; and, (2) grace must flourish.
RELIGION MUST END
The Jews of 1st century Palestine were not looking for Jesus to save them from the wrath of a holy God, but for a political king to restore the house of David. They believed that working their semi-Pelagian system (God helps those who help themselves) would maintain the corporate salvation that all good, circumcised, system-working, Jews possessed by birth. “We don’t need Jesus to save us from our sins; we already have a system for that. We were circumcised into our father Abraham. We follow the laws of our father Moses. What we need is a king like our father David.”
“Religion,” as I am using the term, is that system in which people can do things to please God, to make Him happier with us, to earn his approval by working the steps. The Gospel is utterly opposed to that kind of doctrine because the Gospel teaches that our righteousness is in Christ alone. When I am in Christ, I cannot do anything that makes God love me more, or anything that makes him love me less. I am right with God by means of my God-given trust in the righteous life and atoning death of Christ ALONE.
Markan Sandwich (12-14 |15-19| 20-21)
Mark is famous for using a literary technique called a “Markan Sandwich.” Our passage this morning is one of Mark’s sandwiches. The bread of the story is the cursing and withering of the fig tree (12-14, 20-21). The meat of the story is Jesus’ actions at the temple (15-19). Jesus, in both instances, is judging Israel’s system of religion.
Many writers over the centuries have been puzzled by Jesus’ destruction of a fig tree. Some scholars have described it as an instance of “petulance”, others as “a tale of miraculous power wasted in the service of ill temper.” What Jesus does in the temple explains why he chose to curse a fruitless fig tree when it was not even the season for ripe figs; and the cursing of the fig tree explains his actions and statements at the temple. Let’s look first at the bread in this passage: Jesus and the fruitless fig tree.
All Leaves, No Fruit (12-14; 20-21)
Verses 12-14 read, On the following day, when they came from Bethany [to Jerusalem], 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.
The story continues in verses 20-21, As they passed by [on their way back to Jerusalem] 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.” Mark frames this entire section as a story within a story so that we will understand the whole by examining the parts. But the first part seems difficult on first glance: Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season
Remember that Jesus occupies three offices: prophet, priest, and king. In cursing the fig tree, Jesus is acting out his prophetic office in the same way that the OT prophets often delivered their prophecies: by acting out their message. By cursing this fig tree, Jesus is making a statement of prophetic judgment. Often in the Old Testament the people of God are compared to a fig-tree (Isaiah 34, Jeremiah 29, Hosea 2, Hosea 9, Joel 1 and Micah 7).
Jesus’ memories of the Palm Sunday crowd and the empty shouting still made him grieve. He looked at the fig-tree’s beautiful foliage, but he knew the tree was fruitless. He is living in the midst of a people under the judgment of God, a people covering their moral nakedness with the fig leaves of a religious system. The tree promised life. And in this season, it should have at least possessed the not-quite-ripened smaller figs that grew from the sprouts of the previous year. These early figs begin to appear with the leaves. Sometimes, they even precede the leaves. These tiny fruits, though not fully ripe would be edible. So, this tree, promised sustenance and provision but provided nothing.
All Form, No Substance (15-19)
The tree was a perfect example of Israel and Second Temple Period Judaism: a system that gave the appearance of life and blessing, covenantal status and corporate salvation. But, as far as Jesus was concerned, it delivered nothing. The temple was a beautiful fig tree full of green, promising leaves and no fruit. It was the heart of Israel. In the temple, heaven and earth came together. If there was going to be anything of the gospel in Israel it was going to be found in the temple. If there was a message of grace and mercy, then you would find it in the temple. If there were a remnant in Israel waiting for their consolation and the coming of the Messiah, then you would find them in the temple. But Jesus found none of that fruit there, only leaves.
The temple was the barometer of the whole of Israel’s life; it was like the city of Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Congress, the National Cathedral and the White House all rolled into one. It was the central institution of Israel’s religious and political and economic life. It dominated the entire nation. It was the chief employer in the city. The whole economy of Jerusalem depended upon it. It was the power base of the land and it pointed people to heaven
Look at verses 15-17: 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 moneychangers 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.”
Your paragraph headings in your bible are NOT inspired. They are placed there by the publishers. This heading, “Jesus Cleanses the Temple,” makes it sound like Jesus is simply trying to improve the religious system, to take away the financial corruption or worldliness.
But a better heading would be “Jesus Denounces the Temple.” However, that wouldn’t sell very many Bibles in certain Christian circles where it’s taught that one day the temple will be rebuilt and all of Israel’s cultic practices restored. Look again at verse 15-16: he…began to drive out those who sold and those who bought … and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.
Jesus stopped not just the sellers of sacrifices, but the buyers as well! He turned over the currency exchange tables where foreign currency was exchanged for local currency to pay the temple tax, the money that sustained the entire religious system of the temple. He overturned the table where pigeons were sold. This was the table for people who could not afford livestock to sacrifice. If Jesus was concerned with the abuse of the poor, why in the world would he turn over this table and destroy the one place where the poor could obtain a sacrifice; why would he drive the poor away, AND stop their sacrifices?
He stopped everything from being carried around in the temple, even the vessels used as a part of the sacrificial system and the sacrifices themselves. By his visual actions, Jesus is prophetically shutting down the temple. Then Jesus delivers the verbal part of the prophecy: “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.”
The most common misinterpretation of Jesus’ words is that he is condemning commerce in the temple, or at least dishonest commerce; it focuses just upon his phrase “den of robbers.”
But a den (or cave) is a hideout. It’s NOT the place where robbery actually takes place; it’s the place where robbers come to hide. These priests and Levites are hiding in their cave of religious safety, working their religious system of fruitless sacrifices that Jesus – the one, true high priest of God – is about to end forever with the full, final, archetypal sacrifice of himself.
You must hear Jesus’ warning this morning! Do you come to offer your sacrifice of praise with a broken spirit and a repentant heart or do you hide behind the fig leaves of a system that has made you certain that you are pretty good and mostly free from sin and at least better than that person over there who’s beating his chest and crying out for the undeserved mercy of God?
All of the items in the temple, all of the carvings in the wood and stone, all of garments of the priests, even the very architecture of the building were types and shadows pointing to Jesus and his ministry. The extraordinary fact was that the temple was all about him, but only he knew that. He could say to his congregation, “You destroy this temple and I can rebuild it in three days.” He was talking about the true temple of his body, the true meeting place between man and God. The temple of stones was pointing forward to him. He was the fulfillment of this building.
Herod had erected this new and splendid temple, but God had built the real temple in the body of the God-man, Christ. In other words, men may worship God only in Jesus – the real temple, the living high priest and the true sacrifice. There, in Christ, God seeks our worship, NOT on the top of Gerizim in Samaria, NOT at the end of the long dusty climb up to Jerusalem, but in Christ. Worship is in the Spirit that Jesus gives. Worship is in the truth that Jesus has revealed. No one comes to the Father but by him. It’s the presence of Jesus in the lives of his people that makes us God’s real temple. We are living stones, and we are joined to God; Jesus Christ is the true corner stone.
Jesus’ denunciation of the temple paves the way for his people to begin to understand that the green fig leaves of a religious system must be destroyed to be replaced with the fruit of repentance and faith in Christ alone. See Mark 1:15 – The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel. David sang of this day in Ps. 51:16-17, For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. The green fig leaves of religion must die so that grace will flourish.
GRACE MUST FLOURISH (11:22-25)
Ode to a Dead Tree
As Jesus and the twelve make their way back from Bethany to Jerusalem the next morning, Peter notices the cursed fig tree has withered away. And Jesus response to the withered fig tree (and the dead temple system) comes in verses 22-25: “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.”
Doesn’t Jesus’ response, on first reading, seem disconnected from Peter’s fig tree observation? But Jesus is reminding the twelve, and us, of what is really important to God as opposed to the deadness of religion pictured by the fig tree and seen in the temple.
Again, the temple was central to the life of Israel. Holy places had been central to the worship of Israel for over a thousand years.
If you wanted to be close to God, you went to a special, holy site like the temple mount. But NOW, Jesus is saying that true godly life is a life of grace exhibited in faith and in prayer and in the forgiveness of sin, completely independent of any altar, or pile of rocks, or mountain.
The New and True Mountain (11:22-23)
Jesus’ specific teaching about the moving of a mountain has been turned into the extra-biblical proverb “Faith can move mountains.” That is certainly true in one sense, but it is NOT what Jesus is teaching here. Jesus does not speak about moving mountains (plural). Jesus speaks about faith moving this mountain – the temple mount, the one they are facing as they walk in from Bethany.
This mountain, the temple mount, is utterly useless. It is a dead fig tree. It will come to ruin and not one stone will be left standing upon another. Jesus speaks of the coming uselessness of mountains to the Samaritan woman at the well in Jn. 4:19-21 who questions him about which mountain is the dwelling place of God. He says: the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. … the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Israel was certain that God resided upon the temple mount despite that fact that God’s shekinah glory NEVER came down to rest upon the second temple as it had upon the tabernacle and as it did upon Solomon’s temple. But when God came, incarnated into human flesh, HE WAS THE TEMPLE. And he was the Shekinah glory incarnate. John says, And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn. 1:14).
Jesus was the ultimate meeting place between God and man, prefigured in the tabernacle and the temple, and all of the mountains and altars of Israel’s history. God has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Heb. 1:2-3). There is no access to the one, true living God except through faith in the Promised Seed, the God-Man, the Lord Jesus Christ. EVERYTHING else is a dead fig tree and an uprooted mountain.
True Prayer (11:24)
Jesus says, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. In other words, it’s not WHERE you pray but HOW you pray that matters in the new covenant. A life of grace is flooded in prayer, confident prayer that has certain knowledge in the goodness of God. If you travel to Jerusalem today you will find misplaced Jews and Christians standing at the stones of a retaining wall on the bottom of the temple mount. They are certain that God will hear their prayers because of where they are standing. It is a fine example of the dead fig leaves of religion. Prayer needs no special place; it needs no special garments; it requires no rituals. It requires only faith in a living God and the one true sacrifice offered up once for all. There is no technique in prayer that can deliver us from the way of the cross.
Faith is fixing your eyes on Jesus, struggling against sin, being aware of the Lord’s training, enduring hardness, and inconvenience. So, we are to pray believing and we are to pray anticipating that we will receive the will of God. God is always going to work all things together for our good. Nothing can ever rob us of the will of God. Believe that you are going to receive the will of God whenever you pray – for you are! That is praying in the true temple of God.
True Forgiveness (11:25)
Finally, Jesus adds, “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.” Forgiveness epitomizes God’s heart towards His people. And God’s people are to reflect God in a dying world. How often does Jesus speak of the need of his people to forgive those who have sinned against them? Very often. Always he mentions it in the context of our assurance that God has forgiven us.
If we’re consistently unforgiving people, then we’ve absolutely NO reason to believe that God has forgiven us. We are still in our guilt. We are lost men with the green fig leaves of a dead system if we are not forgiving others; we show no fruit of repentance and faith. The Lord makes the peril spectacularly clear: if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you don’t forgive men their sins, your Father won’t forgive you your sins. A man once said to John Wesley, “I never forgive.” Wesley replied, “I hope you never sin.”
Grace is Everything
If one can unleash God’s power by faith and find forgiveness through prayers of repentance, and pass on forgiveness from a changed heart, the temple has been bypassed and a house of prayer that became a den of robbers has no more use than a dead fig tree. The system of religion that the Pharisees and priests worked so diligently for their salvation was completely fruitless and dead. But the message of the Lord from Genesis to Revelation is about the grace of God in the Promised Seed, the Lord Jesus Christ.
All of the duties and obligations of the Christian life flow from grace. That is Jesus’ point in the parable of the servant who exhausts and starves himself in the service of his master. So, you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ Jesus offers no system to be worked, no stone temple in which to put on a show of goodness, and no dress code for prayers and fasts like the Pharisees. He doesn’t even offer the you the right to pat yourself on the back for whatever service you do in his Kingdom because, at the end of the day, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’
What he offers is an unfettered relationship with the very creator and sovereign of the universe; he offers you adoption to be a child of the Father, a joint heir of all creation. You may enter into the most holy place of the one, true heavenly temple and pray to the Father who freely gives to His children all good things.
As St Author of Hebrews writes in chapter 10, Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. We come to the real, heavenly temple through faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone.
Do not miss what Jesus is teaching you this morning. There is NO ROOM for a system of religion in the true church of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is not impressed with those who wrongly claim to have done all that is commanded of them, for at the end of the day, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Lk. 17:10).
He demands trust that clings only to his cross and bears the fruit of repentance and not the green fig leaves of grumbling and rebellion that mistakes his Kingdom for a democracy where men may vote on whether Jesus is to be their leader and blindly believe themselves free to pick and choose among the King’s commands.
The glorious King is among you this morning. He is calling for you to abandon your systems of religion and to humbly submit to Him alone. May you be blessed to hear His voice and come to Him who to know is peace.
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.
 Campbell, M. Jesus: The Church’s One Foundation.
 Quoted in Thomas, G. Jesus Cursed the Fig Tree.
Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953-2001). Vol. 10: New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark (442). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 See: Thomas, G. The Denunciation of the Temple.