Cleansing the temple and cursing the fig tree

Mark 11:12-25

BRIEF RECAP: In my last post, we witnessed Jesus finally entering Jerusalem but some people, even religious ones, paid no attention to the king (11:11). We got a glimpse of what it looked like when Jesus entered the temple area, as prophecied in Malachi 3:1, by the “understatement” of the event in Mark’s account.

In this study, we will be focused on the relationship between the cleansing of the temple and Jesus cursing the fig tree on His travels between Jerusalem and Bethany. As we will quickly observe, both involve judgment.

12 On the next day, when they had left Bethany, He became hungry. 13 Seeing from 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 And He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And His disciples were listening.

20 As they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up.

21 And being reminded, Peter *said to Him, “Rabbi, look, the fig tree that You cursed has withered

FOCUS ONE: Jesus curses the fig tree

This section begins with a view of Christ’s humanity. Like us, He became hungry. Imagine all the walking He accomplished in a day, regularly traveling from one place to another. Bethany was approximately two miles away from Jerusalem (John 11:18), so we can easily surmise that He walked four miles a day just getting back and forth. That does not include any other walking He did throughout Jerusalem or Bethany.

As we saw in our last study, Jesus left Jerusalem after looking around the temple and witnessing all the greed and marketing in “His Fathers house.” As Father’snd the disciples leave Bethany, He sees a fig tree off in the distance. Fig trees were widespread in that region. “The fig is a pear shaped fruit anpear-shapedsed by the people for food. The young figs are especially prized for the sweetness and flavor. The fruit always appears before the leaves; so that when Christ saw leaves on the fig tree He had a right to expect fruit.”

That seems odd. Wouldn’t Jesus, God in the flesh, know that the fig tree wouldn’t have any fruit on it? So why would He curse the tree? Two observations will serve to answer those questions. 

First, remember that Jesus, as God, the creator, and sustainer of all things, would undoubtedly know about fig trees and how they operate. But also take notice to these five words that we read in (14b), “and His disciples were listening.” That is important! This “miracle” takes place as they travel back and forth from Bethany to Jerusalem. Jesus desires to use this miracle/object lesson to teach the disciples something of great importance.

Second, “Jesus’ shocking destruction of the fig tree is an acted parable that prophecies what is in store for a people who proved faithless and whose temple, the very symbol of their faithless religiosity, will be destroyed along with the city of Jerusalem (a prophecy fulfilled in A.D. 70).”

In cursing the fig or enacting judgment upon the tree, Jesus fulfills many of the prophecies regarding the people of Israel and their unfaithfulness (Isaiah 34:4; Jeremiah 8:13; 29:17; Hosea 2:12; 9:10,16; and Micah 7:1-6, which likened Israel’s faithlessness to a fig tree gone bad and about to be destroyed).

“The fig tree has put forth leaves BUT had no fruit. Their denial of His rightful role as king was evident in the lack of the fruit of faithfulness due Him. Similarly , the evidence of true discipleship to Jesus IS the bearing of the fruit of faithfulness and righteousness.”

15 Then they *came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple area and began to drive out those who were selling and buying on the temple grounds, and He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling [a]doves; 16 and He would not allow anyone to carry [b]merchandise through the temple grounds. 17 And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written: ‘My house will 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 this, and they began seeking how to put Him to death; for they were afraid of Him, because all the crowd was astonished at His teaching.

19 And whenever evening came, [c]they would leave the city.

FOCUS TWO: Jesus cleanses the temple

This act of cleansing the temple should not be separated from the action of cursing the fig tree. True, they are separated by time and space, but not in the application! Look at how verse seventeen, a quote from Isaiah 56:7, relates to Jesus cursing the fig tree! By Jesus’ violent expulsion of the merchants from the Court of the Gentiles, He anticipates the terrible consequences of turning God’s place of prayer into a place for profit. Here again, we can see the fulfillment of various prophecies (Jeremiah 7:1-15; 26:1-15; Malachi 3:1-5; but especially Isaiah 56:1-8). 

In the Isaiah passage mentioned above, we see God’s invitation to foreigners to His holy mountain and His house of prayer. Here Jesus casts out the self-serving profiteers who “would hinder His mission to the outcast by transforming sacred space into a “robbers den” (v. 17).

Mark records two responses to what Jesus did:

  1. 1. The chief priests and the scribes began seeking to destroy Him (v.18).
  2. 2. The multitude was astonished at His teaching (v. 17).

Sadly, it is much the same today. Some people flat-out reject Jesus and His offer of forgiveness, while others are amazed at His teaching but act with indifference toward it. Thankfully, some hear and believe (Acts 6:7)!

Now, again, Jesus and the twelve leave Jerusalem for the evening. I can think of two possible reasons:

  1. No place to rest in Jerusalem (no one received Him), but in Bethany, they could stay with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
  2. It could have been dangerous (11:18).

20 As they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. 21 And being reminded, Peter *said to Him, “Rabbi, look, the fig tree that You cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered and *said to 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 is going to happen, it will be granted to 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 to you. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you for your [a]offenses.

FOCUS THREE: The importance and power of faith

A day has now passed since Jesus cursed the fig tree. Peter takes notice of it; most likely, the others did as well, but Peter is the one that speaks up. It seems like the event wasn’t all that meaningful to him; seeing it “reminded him” of what Jesus did to it the previous day. We all have times like that, especially the older we get. Something exciting or unusual happens, and we take note of it, but the businesses of our day, the battle against the tyranny of the urgent in our lives, quickly removes it from our thinking. Then, as we drive by that place or are in that area again where it took place, we “are reminded.”

Notice that it wasn’t the leaves that were withered but the roots. Its very source of life was cut off, and it immediately died. 

Two observations arise:

  1. 1. The cursing of the fig tree and its representation of faithless Israel.

2. Jesus replied to Peter’s observation by teaching them about faith, prayer, and forgiveness!

Here, Jesus takes the time to speak to these men about the power and importance of faith. First, faith’s focus is in God! People put faith in a host of things, i.e., money, power, government, religion, and much more. But Jesus tells them that belief in God is essential. Such faith in His desire and ability to answer our prayers is vital. After all, why would we bring Him our burdens and needs if we doubted that He would care or was even able and willing to answer our prayers and meet those needs?

Second, Jesus states what the inclination of the heart should be as one comes to Him in prayer. A forgiving heart. “And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). He introduces this with the words: “truly I say to you.” In other words, “this is important so listen up.” 

“Since Jesus was standing on the Mount of Olives, from which the Dead Sea can be seen on a clear day, He may have been referring specifically to the Mount. (The mountain as a symbol of a great difficulty, cf. Zechariah 4:7).” Of course, Jesus is speaking figuratively.

So, it seems logical that Jesus is saying that the most significant possible difficulties can be removed when a person has faith” (cf. James 1:6). Faith in the all-powerful God who works miracles. Trust in His sovereignty over all things and in His omnipotence in bringing what He wills to pass.

The Expositors Bible Commentary

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