The apostle Paul tells us that we should learn from the bad example of Israel (1 Corinthians 10:1–12). We should be sobered in the light of Israel’s unfaithfulness and her subsequent judgement at the hands of God. The church, as the steward of God’s gospel, should be sobered by Israel’s failed stewardship. As Peter tells us, “Judgement must begin at the house of God” (1 Peter 4:17). This is the message of the text before us.
Jesus cleaned house as he entered the temple in Jerusalem. God would yet destroy the temple and the city at the end of that generation. Her failure to be fruitful and her lack of covenantal faithfulness meant that she was irrelevant.
We need to take heed lest we fall (1 Corinthians 10:12), for Jesus, with his eyes of fire, is still inspecting his temple, his church (Revelation 2:18–19a). He is inspecting our church. Is he pleased? This is a sobering question to consider as we examine this most sobering passage.
The tension is rising, at least for the informed reader of Mark, as Jesus has thrown down the gauntlet and entered Jerusalem as King. What happens next will lead to homicide, or, more accurately, deicide. The Jews will kill their Messiah, their promised king. That action itself will justify Jesus’ actions in the text before us.
In this passage (vv. 12–26), there are four sections, which all relate to the theme of God cleaning house: judgement at the house of God.
Cursing the Fig Tree
First, we read of Jesus cursing the fig tree:
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 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. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem after spending the night in Bethany (v. 12). But the events of the day before set the stage for the events of this day.
You will recall that Jesus entered Jerusalem and was proclaimed king by his Galilean followers. While the accompanying crowd had their expectations, Jesus had his own. As a faithful Jew, he expected Israel, represented by Jerusalem, to be faithful stewards of what God had entrusted to them: the gospel of the kingdom (Exodus 19:5–6). To that end, Jesus had performed an inspection of the temple the day before (v. 11). From what follows (vv. 15–19) we know what he saw: corruption, consumerism, and the merchandising of the gospel. Israel had become a stumblingblock to those who wanted to know God. Jesus planned to do something in response.
On his way back to Bethany, Jesus was perhaps alone in his thoughts. From what he had seen at the temple, it was clear that Israel was failing to love the Lord God and failing to love her neighbour. There was no reverence for God and no concern for those who needed access to him. As a faithful, covenant-keeping Jew, Jesus would have been deeply troubled in his spirit. And as he contemplated his next move, I suspect he did not sleep well that night.
Jesus, Fruit Inspector
The next day, as they neared Jerusalem (about a 3km walk from Bethany), Jesus “was hungry.” That in itself is an amazing statement. God, because he was in the flesh (John 1:14), needed food. He hungered. Meekness and majesty indeed.
Jesus eyes a fig tree in the distance and noted that it was in leaf. His hunger was now met with hope of being satisfied. As I have learned from my own fig tree, the leaves make an announcement that there is something better to be found than mere leaves; the leaves promise produce. Those who are hungry can have their hunger satisfied. The leaves proclaim, “Come to me all who hunger, and I will feed you!” But alas, in this case, it was a sham. The leaves were an empty promise. As Jesus inspected the tree for expected fruit, he discovered that there was “nothing but leaves.” The hope of hunger being assuaged was disappointed. The tree was guilty of false advertising. It was hypocritical. It was duplicitous, professing one thing but delivering another. The leaves were an empty profession of faith. “That which is appealing from a distance, on closer inspection has no real fruit to offer up to Jesus” (Wessel). Or, as Grogan puts it, “It promised what it could not fulfil, rather like a mirage which suggests the presence of an oasis in the desert.”
Before proceeding, we should note three things.
First, this was another enacted parables. That it, Jesus’ actions were meant to teach the disciples. In this case, he wanted to teach his disciples about the real and present danger of spiritual apostasy. They were taking it in, even though “and his disciples heard it.”
Second, commentators have long spoken of a “Marcan sandwich.” That is, Mark had a propensity to wrap a story in another story.
In this case, the fig tree figures in vv. 12–14 and then again in vv. 20–26 as a wrapping around the story of Jesus cleansing the temple. Interestingly, the cursing of the fig tree is also wrapped in a textual sandwich of events relating to the temple (v. 11 and vv. 15–19). Clearly there is a thematic connection between these events. This brings us to a third observation.
To appreciate this scene, and what follows, we need to remember that there were two major horticultural old covenant figures symbolising Israel. The first was the vine (Isaiah 5; etc.) and the second was the fig tree. A healthy fig tree was a sign of God’s blessing (see Numbers 13:23 with 20:5; 1 Kings 4:25; Zechariah 3:6–10). “The fig tree is an emblem of peace and prosperity: hope for the future is expressed in terms of sitting in security under one’s vine and one’s fig tree and gathering fruit from them” (Witherington).
But the symbolism of the fig tree was also present when the prophets spoke of being outside of God’s blessing (Joel 1:6–7; Haggai 2:19; Habakkuk 3:17; and most notably in Jeremiah 8:13; 24:1–10).
With this in mind, we will better understand what is about to take place.
Having not found any figs, I suppose that most would respond in their disappointment with a mere shrug of the shoulders. After all, “it was not the season for figs.” Though Jesus hoped for the unusual, it was not to be. We might think that this was no big deal, for he could surely get something to eat when he got into Jerusalem. But he didn’t respond with a mere shrug of the soldiers. Rather, he pronounced a curse on the tree with the words, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” I would imagine that the disciples, and others who were with him, might have been startled by this. Perhaps they thought, “Jesus was very quiet last night after going to the temple. He seemed to have a lot on his mind. He looks rather burdened this morning. Perhaps he is not only hungry but also tired. That must be why he has responded this way. Perhaps he is in a bad mood.” After all, until now, Jesus had been restoring, not crippling. These words—to a tree, let us remember—would have seemed incongruous and out of character.
Does this seem like an overreaction? As someone has said, “the explicit statement that it was not the season for figs appears to make Jesus’ actions arbitrary and meaningless” (Lane). Is this action of Jesus not a bit over the top? After all, it is only a tree! How hungry could he be?
Verses 12–14 seem so radically out of character that some have concluded that this is not an authentic part of the historical record while others say that this was merely a legendary story that Mark wanted to use to make a literary point. Still others have gone so far as to criticise our Lord of wrong behaviour—of being in a bad mood, of behaving cruelly and petulantly. Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell accused Jesus of “vindictive fury” and questioned his virtue. Liberal scholar T. W. Manson had this to say about this episode: “It is a tale of miraculous power wasted in the service of ill temper (for the supernatural energy employed to blast the unfortunate tree might have been more usefully expended in forcing a crop of figs out of season); and as it stands it is simply incredible.” Actually, what is most incredible is Manson’s statement, for clearly something profoundly instructive was taking place.
This incident had nothing to do with Jesus’ desire for food. It had everything to do with Jesus’ desire for fruit from his people. As we will see, the lack of figs symbolised Israel’s lack of faithfulness. Israel, like this fig tree, was guilty of a false profession of faith. She was guilty of false advertising. This helps us to understand the statement, “for it was not the season of figs.”
Jesus’ expectations were not unfair. Not at all. In fact, these words point to the problem.
The Lie of the Leaves
With the shooting forth of leaves, the tree was making a false claim, for if it was not the season for figs, then neither was it the season for leaves. And such a false profession deserved condemnation. After all, the fig tree was proclaiming hope to the hungry only to fail them when the hungry responded.
Such false professions deserve condemnation. Fruitless duplicity calls forth condemnation. When something does not fulfil its God-ordained purpose, then God has the right to ask in contempt, “Why should it use up the ground?” (Luke 13:7). If it is useless, then let it remain so.
Again, “his disciples heard it” (14). And of course, this was the purpose. Jesus was teaching a lesson. The next class would take place at another fruitless and useless place: their revered temple. The temple, like this fig tree, looked inviting from a distance, but upon closer inspection it was “nothing but leaves.” What a sad statement. I wonder what Jesus says when he inspects you, when he inspects me, and when he inspects our local churches.Are we producing what we profess?
If we are uncomfortable with this story, I can assure you that the problem doesn’t lie with Jesus; the trouble lies with us. This scene cuts to the bone of duplicitous Christian living. It serves as an alarm warning of the horror of hypocrisy. It is an illuminating pericope revealing the danger of an empty profession of faith. This passage reveals the wrath of the Lamb. We had better pay attention.
Just as Jesus cleaned house so long ago, he continues to behold what is going on in his temple. He continues to see and know our works. What does he see? Fruitfulness or futility? Faithfulness or falsehood? Holiness or hypocrisy?
Cleansing the Temple
Second, we read of the cleansing of the temple:
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. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 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.” 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. And when evening came they went out of the city.
I smiled at one Witherington’s heading for this section: “A Bazaar Situation.” This is humorous, if sadly apt.
Business as Usual
Leaving behind the now cursed-to-wither fig tree, Jesus and his entourage entered Jerusalem. They joined the throng of people going to the temple to do business. But sadly, for most, they would not be doing business with God; rather they would be doing business as usual: going through religious motions but not bearing any lasting fruit.
Those who did come to do business with God, who came to the temple as the marketplace of the soul, found themselves hindered by those who were “nothing but leaves.” Jesus was going to make a statement about such hypocrisy. He was going to clean house.
William Lane notes that “this is the only act of violence recorded of the Lord, and it is understandable as a public demonstration of zeal for God’s honour.” Mark has prepared us for this violent, destructive act by the preceding destructive words of Jesus concerning the fig tree. Clearly there is a connection. But, as we will see, this connection transcends the ages. This scene is very much connected to you and me our local churches.
If you turn just slightly left of Matthew, you will find the prophetic words of Malachi in which he foretold of this event. Malachi 3:1–3 reads,
Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.
The Lord had come to his temple. Some in Jerusalem may have been excited. But they wouldn’t be for long.
Jesus carried out his plan from the night before. Having looked round on all things (v. 11), he knew what needed to be done. Having observed the commercialisation of worship, having witnessed the merchandising of the gospel (sacrifices), and having seen the profane clutter that was keeping people from the worship of the one true God, he began to clean house.
“He … began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple.” In one sense, there was nothing wrong with selling animals for sacrifice. After all, people needed animals that were declared kosher. Further, the temple tax was to be paid with the Jewish shekel and so the Roman currency needed to be exchanged. But these were not holy, worshipful transactions. Rather, religious hucksters were taking advantage of the hungry. It seems that the high priest was behind this and he and his family were profiteering from inflated prices and exorbitant exchange fees. Think about this. Those entrusted with the worship of God were profiting off of people’s sins and their need for redemption. They were profiting off of man’s desire to be right with God. To use a later New Testament phrase, they supposed that external religion (professed godliness) was a means of financial gain (1 Timothy 6:5). Much like many in our day.
One other action of Jesus on this day was that “he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple” (v. 16). People were using the holy courts of the temple as convenient thoroughfares. Jesus would have none of it. Worship is not about convenience; it is about contrition, confession, and conversion. The church of our day needs to learn this as well.
Standing in the Way
As an aside, it is the height of hypocritical irony that the religious leaders were so bothered by the noise of the people in the temple praising him (Matthew 21:14–17) while they had no problem with all the noise coming from the multitude of animals being sold in the temple! One historical record says that a large herder once brought three thousand lambs to the temple for sale during a Passover. Can you imagine the noise, let alone the stench? Where was the outrage of the leaders over this? Hypocrisy is obvious to everyone but the hypocrite.
As disturbing as this was and as irreverent as this consumerism was, it was nothing compared to Jesus’ greater burden—the hindering of access of Gentiles to God. You see, this irreverent nonsense was taking place in an area reserved for Gentiles who desired to know and worship God. “The use of the forecourt as an open market effectually prevented the one area of the Temple which was available to the Gentiles from being a place of prayer” (Lane).
This is what lies behind Jesus quoting Isaiah 56:7: “Is it not written, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?’”
Isaiah was prophesying the day when the gospel would go beyond the borders of Israel to all peoples. It was a prophecy of our day.
The temple, though under unique stewardship of Israel, nevertheless was a promise that God would save people from all nations, not only the Jewish nation. The temple pointed to the day when Messiah would bear the sins of many (53:11–12). And the many included many Gentiles.
Therefore, God, through Isaiah, exhorted Israel to “enlarge the place of your tent and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities” (54:2–3).
This global goal for God’s glory by the gospel-induced gladness of the nations was always to be on Israel’s heart. The nation was to be a kingdom of priests by which God would bless the world (see Genesis 12:1–3; Exodus 19:5–6; Deuteronomy 4:5–8; see also Psalm 67). In other words, Israel had been entrusted with God’s Great Commission. George Peters defined her Great Comission as “circumferal” in that Israel was to live so that nations on the outside would be attracted to God by the way she lived and worshipped. In other words, Israel was called to be a fruitful fig tree by which all the nations could have their spiritual hunger satisfied. But alas, not too far along the way, Israel lost the plot. And now, she is “nothing but leaves.”
This barren fig tree was standing in the way of God’s purpose. And he would tolerate it no longer. Jesus’ zeal for his Father’s glory and for the salvation of the nations so burned within him that he could not remain silent. Jesus Christ, who would in a few days lay down his life for Jews and Gentiles, was indignant that the fruitless (because faithless) Jewish leaders, and those following them, were in the way.
A Passionate Pity
Jesus was passionately pitiful for Gentiles who desired access to God. Perhaps they had heard about Yahweh, the one true and living God, and so they make the trip to Jerusalem to meet with him, to worship him, and to pour out their hearts before him in prayer (Psalm 62:8).
For too long, they had been enslaved to the worship of idols, to dead and useless gods, and to a superstitious, futile, and useless religion. But God, in his grace, had reached them and they were drawn to his meeting place. They arrived with great anticipation. They saw the beautiful building. They observed the busyness as worshippers came and went. They could hardly believe that they were so blessed to be here, to be so near to meeting with this glorious God!
As they approached the temple, they were aware of a physical boundary, which communicated, “Only this far for Gentiles.” This barricade was about one and a half meters high, posted with various signs warning, not that trespassers would be prosecuted, but executed. One sign from that era has been unearthed which reads, “No foreigner may enter within the barrier and enclosure round the temple. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death” (Stott). Nice. “Welcome to the house of God; hope you feel at home!”
The Gentile proselyte would not be detoured. She happily remained in the spacious court of the Gentiles, which goes right around the temple. At least she could view the meeting place of God. And she could pray. Or at least she thought so.
But as the Gentile worshippers arrived, they were completely disoriented as the animals and the crowds of people so flooded the courtyard that it was impossible to pray and worship. Do you get the picture?
Those graced with access to God, who were recipients of God’s steadfast covenantal love, had become so irreverent at the place of worship that they became a barrier to others from experiencing this same grace. It was no longer a house of prayer for all peoples; it had become a place where would-be worshippers were robbed of grace. Worshippers had become grace thieves.
In other words, Jesus saw what was taking place in the temple of God and it had very little, if anything, to do with God. The house of God had become a house of hypocrisy. The temple was indeed beautiful (13:1) but when it came to its God-intended purpose, it was useless. Like the fig tree, it was nothing but leaves.
Israel was chosen by God to be a vehicle of hope to the nations. It proved to be a false offer. When it came to fidelity to God, and thus helpfulness to the nations, Israel proved to be leaves only. How tragic. Sadly, this malady continues today.
A Wall of Partition
Yes, Israel was God’s chosen nation. But she was chosen as a means by which the spiritual hunger of the nations would be satisfied. She was to be in fellowship with God so the nations could come into fellowship with God. But sadly, the Jewish leaders had turned the symbol of this spiritual hope (the temple) into a mere “den of robbers.” Jesus was quoting from Jeremiah 7:11, from a chapter that addressed the same things hundreds of years earlier that are happening here. In Jeremiah’s day, Israel had wandered so far from God that the temple had become nothing but a religious symbol.
I remember, many years ago, being in Windhoek and looking at a plaque on the front of a very old church. It was inscribed with the words, “O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord” (Jeremiah 22:29). The pastor I was with told me that this church no longer preached the gospel, that it had abandoned the faith long ago. It was a beautiful building. But it was nothing but leaves. I remember thinking that a more appropriate plaque would be, “O church, church, Church, hear the word of the Lord!” So with the temple in Jesus’ day.
Hundreds of years earlier, Jeremiah warned those in his day not to assume that the physical structure of the temple would secure their security. He said, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” (7:4). Jeremiah warned them that merely having access to the temple was useless, unless their hearts are right. God, through the prophet Jeremiah, was warning the nation of Israel of precisely what happened by Jesus’ day: They were “leaves only.”
Later in this same passage Jeremiah writes, “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” (7:8–11).
In quoting “become a den of robbers” Jesus was declaring the same warning uttered by Jeremiah. With the same consequence. The temple would, within a generation, be destroyed. Like the useless fig tree, the now-useless temple would be destroyed along with the nation of Israel. Having rebelled against her God-given purpose, and having refused to faithfully fulfil her God-ordained stewardship, Israel was being condemned to perpetual spiritual futility. The temple and its worship (even at Passover!) was nothing but leaves. It promised access to God but when people came looking for God, it was barren. The worship was a sham. And, as Jesus would make clear in Mark 13, like the fig tree, it would be destroyed. No one would ever eat fruit of it again. Just like the fig tree.
Teaching While Terrifying
This must have been a terrifying scene. Jesus behaved with such authority that no one seemingly lifted a hand to stop him. But unlike you and me, Jesus could be angry and self-controlled at the same time. And so while he is carrying out this work of reformation, he “was teaching them” (v. 17).
As he expounded and applied Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11, Jesus was teaching the crowd about God’s passion and their purpose.
When we study Scripture, it is always helpful to ask, so what? Why is this here and what does God want me to learn from it? Let me identify some essential lessons.
Jesus is Inspecting Us for What He Expects
A helpful managerial principle is that one should never expect what they won’t inspect. In other words, responsibility is accompanied by accountability.
As the temple of God, Jesus has expectations for us to be more than “nothing but leaves.” He expects us to be fruitful.
Jesus is inspecting us with “eyes like flames of fire” and he knows our works (Revelation 2:18–19). What does he see? “Figs” or “nothing but leaves”? Jesus condemned faithless Israel to perpetual futility (Romans 11:7–10) and warns us of the same (11:17–21). As with Israel in Jesus’ day, how we treat the household of God has a huge impact upon others, including would-be worshippers.
We need to be careful lest we be guilty of standing in the way of those who desire and need access to God. This is one reason why we need to corporately confess our sin. This is one reason why we need to consider one another. This is one reason why we need to be careful to prepare for worship. This is one reason why we need to be circumspect as we daily engage the world. This is one reason why we need to be covenantally faithful as church members.
How do we guard against becoming “nothing but leaves”? That is, how we do keep the temple clean? We do so by preaching the true gospel; by practicing biblical church membership; by carrying out Jesus’ mandate for church discipline; and by reminding one another of our purpose. At the same time, we must guard the ordinances so that the waters and the table are fenced from those who are “nothing but leaves.” This is precisely what Jesus was doing!
Condemnation by the Faithless
Next, we see Jesus condemned by the faithless: “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. And when evening came they went out of the city” (vv. 18–19).
Jesus had struck a nerve. The religious leaders were upset. As in Galilee, the common people were seemingly impressed with him. His work of purging was a threat to the existing religious power structures. What could they do? They wouldn’t join him. They couldn’t defeat his biblical arguments. Therefore, they would kill him. But not yet. And for this reason, Jesus and his disciples “went out of the city,” presumably to Bethany.
We will pick up on this in our next study, but for now consider that religious hypocrites are not harmless. Being revealed as “nothing but leaves” is uncomfortable, and it can stir deep resentment. And if one does not repent, they will harden. And they will persecute those who are faithful and fruitful. Church history is filled with this. Be prepared to make enemies in the vicinity of the temple of God. Enemies do arise near the church of God. For this reason, judgement must begin at the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). Purging must take place.
But on a more positive note, let me appeal to those who are “nothing but leaves.” God’s judgement is meant to awaken us to the promise of the gospel. His word of judgement is meant to awaken us to our true condition so we will repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Fig leaves have never been sufficient to bring us to God. So many of our attempts to be right with God are merely a figment of our imagination. We try to cover ourselves as Adam and Eve did (see Genesis 3:1–7). And, as for them, the solution is a substitutionary, blood-shedding sacrifice of one without blemish. It always has been.
In Genesis 3:21, this is precisely what happened. God killed an animal replacing fig leaves with forgiveness. This is what the final section of Mark is all about. It’s about God killing the Lamb of God for otherwise fruitless people like you and me.
Jesus would be crucified, shedding his blood in death for those who will repent and trust him alone for forgiveness of their sins. The repentant will be reconciled to God, made stones in his temple, and bring forth fruit that will remain. They need not worry about being cursed because of their guilt. Rather, they can be blessed to know that, by God’s grace, they will never again be “nothing but leaves.”
Repent and believe, today.