Sermons

March 10, 2019

A Fig Tree Sandwich

Jason Meyer | Mark 11:12-25

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.

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.

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 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. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 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.”—Mark 11:12–25

Introduction

Mark chapters 11–13 feature three trips to the temple.

1st trip to the temple (11:1–11)
2nd trip to the temple (11:12–19)
3rd trip to the temple (11:20–13:37)

The theme of Mark 11–13 is Jesus’ confrontation with the entire Jewish religious system. Jesus comes into conflict with the temple and its leadership and he rejects what is happening at the temple even before the leaders in the temple reject him.

The structure of this text is a fig tree sandwich. Jesus begins with the cursing of the fig tree (vv. 12–14), and the story ends with the fulfillment of that curse (vv. 20–25). The sandwich structure makes us read the story in the middle in a different way than we would on its own. In fact, we often miss what Jesus is doing in this passage because we think that he is cleansing the temple (the ESV subtitle for this section). I would argue that Jesus is not cleansing or reforming the temple; he is cursing the temple on this last week of his life and will be offering its replacement in the days to come with the temple of his body. 

1a. The Cursing of the Fig Tree (vv. 12–14)

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.

He came back into the city and found a fig tree. He went to see if he could find anything, but he found nothing but leaves. Mark tells us that Jesus knew what he was doing: “It was not the season for figs.” This is a parable, not seasonal confusion. Then Jesus uttered a curse: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Mark tells us that the disciples took note of what he said. 

Jesus did not make a mistake. He was not looking for literal figs. If you miss this point, then you come up with some weird interpretations. One commentator says, 

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 is simply incredible.” 

One commentator even called it a gross injustice on a tree that was guilty of no wrong and had but performed its natural function.

The point of this story is not that Jesus was looking for literal fruit or figs. He is acting out a parable in terms of what the prophets said in judgment of Israel.

When I would gather them, declares the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.—Jeremiah 8:13

The disciples heard what Jesus said, but they did not understand what it meant. Now we will see the fulfillment of Jesus’ words.

1b. Cursing the Fig Tree: Fulfillment (vv. 20–25)

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 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. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 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.”

The fig tree is not cleansed; it is cursed. It is not partially cursed, but totally cursed so that it “withered away to its roots” (v. 20). We will look at verses 22–25 next week and answer questions like why does Jesus talk about “this” mountain instead of “a” mountain and what does all of this have to do with prayer? 

For now we simply observe the sandwich structure and what it means. If Mark begins and ends with the cursing of the fig tree, it means that he is not cleansing the temple, but cursing it. Now we turn to verses 15–19 to understand what it all means.

2. The Cursing of the Temple (vv. 15–19)

Jesus’ Action (vv. 15–16)

  • Drive out those who sold and bought
  • Forbid people to carry anything through 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.—Mark 11:15–16

Commentator David Garland really helped make this point about the cursing of the temple stick with me. He says that some people assume that Jesus is trying to reform the temple, and so they offer different suggestions as to what he is trying to reform.

First, some say he wants to reform the temple by restoring the “court of the Gentiles.” Who can worship with all that commercial racket?

Second, some say that he is irate with commercial activity in the temple and wants to eliminate “profane” activity while in the temple’s sacred space.

Third, some claim Jesus is trying to reform corrupt, unjust business practices. The phrase, “den of robbers” has been used as proof, along with the fact that the priestly family did gain wealth from the temple’s financial dealings, and they were often guilty of corruption.

Garland points out problems with all of these views. Archaeologists now all acknowledge that commercial activity took place in the Royal Stoa, not the outer court of the temple. Likewise, the outer court was not viewed positively as the place where Gentiles could worship, but was regarded instead as the place beyond which Gentiles could not go. (Inscriptions said, “No foreigner is to enter within the forecourt and the balustrade around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.”) In Jesus’ day it was not even called the Court of the Gentiles. That is a more recent modern term. It was also not clear what was regarded as sacred space.

Jesus does not seem to attack unjust business practices because he does not throw out only the sellers (i.e., those who profit unjustly). He throws out both the sellers AND the buyers (v. 15; those who sold and those who bought).

Therefore, the biggest problem with all these views was that Jesus was not trying to reform or “cleanse” the temple—he was cursing the temple.

The tables were set up to receive the annual half-shekel tax that was required of every Jewish male and that funded the daily sacrifices in the temple for the atonement of sin. One Jewish scholar, Jacob Neusner, catches what was going on here. This was not a mere reform of the temple.

Only someone who rejected the Torah’s explicit teaching concerning the daily offering could have overturned the tables—or …  someone who had in mind setting up a different table, and for a different purpose: for the action carries the entire message, both negative and positive. Indeed, the money-changers presence made possible the cultic participation of every Israelite, and it was not a blemish on the cult but its perfection.

And from David Garland:
(Garland, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, p. 271)

If money cannot be exchanged into the holy currency, then monetary support for the temple sacrifices and the priesthood must end. If sacrificial animals cannot be purchased, then sacrifice must end. If no vessel can be carried through the temple, then all cultic activity must cease.

Why would Jesus put all temple activity under a curse? 

Jesus Reason (v. 17)

  • “My” house
  • Place for the nations to seek God
  • Place where people hide from God 

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.”

Now comes the temple demonstration in which Jesus quotes from two texts: Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7.

Let’s look at them one at a time. Isaiah 56 is one of the greatest texts in the OT to demonstrate that God’s plan of salvation includes the nations. I love the title for this section in the ESV: “Salvation for Foreigners.” 

Thus says the Lord:
“Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
     and my righteousness be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this,
     and the son of man who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it,
     and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
     “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say,
     “Behold, I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
     who choose the things that please me
     and hold fast my covenant,
I will give in my house and within my walls
     a monument and a name
     better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
     that shall not be cut off.

“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
     to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
     and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
     and holds fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
     and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
     will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
     for all peoples.”—Isaiah 56:1–7

Notice that Isaiah 56 says salvation has come to those typically thought to be excluded: (1) foreigners, (2) eunuchs, and (3) the outcasts of Israel (Isaiah 56:8). Eunuchs are important as a reference here because they were not allowed to enter the temple, according to Deuteronomy 23:1. It even looks like foreigners will be ministers “to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants” (56:6). Will Gentile foreigners be priests?! Will they be able to go even further into the temple than Jewish males? The barriers will fall someday indeed.

Why does Jesus add that the temple has been made into a “den of robbers?” We have to look at the context of Jeremiah 7. The people in Jeremiah’s day are treating the temple like a talisman—a place to go when they have been wicked to protect themselves from God’s judgment.

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’

“For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.

 “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. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, declares the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. 15 And I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of Ephraim.—Jeremiah 7:1–15

The Jews were not coming into the temple to worship God. They were not participating in temple worship and confessing their sins through the sacrificial system. They were using the temple as an excuse to keep sinning. The external eye may see the people participating in the rituals of the temple and someone could think the people were serious about seeking God. But God sees what they do the rest of the time. They are not serious about pursuing God; they are serious about pursuing their sin. They are coming into the temple because they believe it is a protection against judgment; a place where after they have sinned they can find safety and refuge.

That is exactly what Jeremiah meant in calling God’s house a “den of robbers.” Thieves would come into Jerusalem and rob people and then run to the caves of the mountains in order to hide from the authorities. The Israelites are treating the temple like a cave to hide from getting caught. In other words, the people were not seeking God; they were hiding from God. They were like the robbers that came into Jerusalem to steal and then hid from the authorities in a den or a cave. Here they were hiding from God in the temple as a place where they did not believe God would judge them. They are like the kids playing tag that claim they have found a safe place—a kind of home base that allows you not to be tagged. You can even stick your tongue out at your “tagger” because you are safe there.

How did the people respond to this rationale? Did repentance finally come?

The People’s Response: Rejection (v. 18)

  • Leaders: Seek and destroy mission
  • Crowd: Astonished

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.—Mark 11:18–19

The chief priests and the scribes do not show any signs of repentance. They strengthened their resolve to kill Jesus. The same pattern happened many times in Israel’s history: They did not want to hear the message of the prophets and so they silenced the prophets by killing them.

Application

How could our church become a “Den of Robbers?” Is that a real possibility? The real thing this text addresses is religious formalism—going through the external religious motions or rituals. Someone does not just suddenly become a ritualist (by definition). It is a slow fade. The religious effort is there, but the heart is not. It is exactly what Jesus identified earlier: hypocrites. These people act like they are devoted to me. They honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me (Mark 7:6). They can say the right things—they know the right lingo and the right ritual, but I do not have their hearts.

Complacency or coasting in the things of the Lord is a deadly thing. If there is no hunger to grow or desperation to abide, what does one have? Is anyone OK with an attitude that says, “I do not need more of the Lord. I am just fine.” Imagine the way that God sees participation in the temple. They look around and see religious participation in that moment (the act itself). God sees not just the time spent in the temple, but all the time spent during the week. He says that you are coming into this temple after living a life of rebellion all week, and now for this moment you are acting as though you are seeking me.

What you do with the majority of your time contradicts this moment in time. It is like a child who denies eating the chocolate cake when there is a hand-size piece torn out and chocolate smeared on the child’s face. That is the way God sees his people living a sin-smeared life and then coming into the temple and acting like everything is fine. How could the temple actually create a people complacent about sin? They just want the guilt removed, not the heart changed. They do not want to stop sinning; they want to stop worrying about judgment. 

Don’t you see the parallels? It is true that there is now therefore no condemnation in Christ Jesus. All of our sins are paid in full at the cross. Guilt removed. That is what everyone Christian claims to believe. But that is not the only thing Christians believe. True Christians also live like Christians. They never look at the cross and turn it into an excuse for sin. I remember the story of one man who D.A. Carson went to school with. They would sit and have coffee together, and Carson began to notice that he was hanging around with a woman who was not his wife. When Carson confronted him, the man said, “Oh, that?”—he smirked. “God will forgive … that is his job.” 

Just like people used the temple to feel better about continuing in their life of sin, so today people can use the cross that way: “My sins are forgiven so sinning is no big deal. I can continue to sin and still be safe.” Do you come here this morning with the stain of sin? What does God see in your life these past few weeks? 

Conclusion: A Call to Repent

I came into church this morning with rocks in my pockets – representing different sins we carry around, and we have brought into corporate worship this morning. One of the reasons we can struggle to be a patient people with one another is that we are often good at pointing out what is wrong with others and ignore what is wrong in us. We are quick to throw stones. But sometimes in worship together we need to take out all of our stones and confess them and put them under the blood. These are a few examples: 

  1. The Lack of Compassion stone. This stone represents the fact that sometimes I am quick to speak, quick to become angry, slow to listen. If you lack compassion, you are not ready to make judgments. I am slow to weep with those who weep.
  2. This is the “control freak” stone. It represents the fact that sometimes I want to be in control. Sometimes I disobey God’s commands because I cannot control the outcome. For example, I know that God commands us to go to someone rather than talk about them to others. Sometimes I don’t have clear, courageous conversations with people because it would either be an extra time commitment or it could potentially be hard in terms of their response. This is essentially “damage control” by avoiding any potential conflict. 
  3. This is not a stone, but a dollar bill. It is amazing how much pull this piece of paper can sometimes have in my life. I am sometimes quick to want to spend money when I want stuff or save money when I want security and extra padding, but I am not quick to give. Sometimes when I do give it feels like more of a chore than a joy. I want to grow in the journey of generosity and be more excited to help the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner.
  4. This is not a stone, but a phone. It represents the fact that sometimes I spend too much distracted time on my phone. I think about all the prayer time I have missed or all the times that I have read the words of others instead of the words of God. 
  5. This last stone is the pride stone. I tremble to think how my pride colors and controls all that I do. Why do I sometimes get defensive and not listen well? My pride fights against looking bad or admitting I am wrong. Why do I sometimes struggle with control? My pride wants to control outcomes and limit vulnerability or unpredictability. Why does money sometimes have a pull on me? My pride wants to use money to build my kingdom instead of God’s kingdom. I sometimes look to build my own security rather than full dependence on God.

My top five sins that I am fighting right now might not be yours, but I know that you have your own. As we sing this closing song, may we walk through the steps of confession and repentance—not as those walking through the motions, but engaging with our hearts and receiving the cleansing that comes from confession and forgiveness. 

Sermon Discussion Questions

Outline

  1. A. The Cursing of the Fig Tree: Prophetic Word (Mark 11:12–14)
    B. The Cursing of the Fig Tree: Fulfillment (Mark 11:20–25)
  2. The Cursing of the Temple (Mark 11:15–19)

Discussion Questions

  • Looking for figs on the fig tree is a parable—but what does it actually symbolize?
  • Cursing the fig tree is also a parable—what does that symbolize?
  • What action does Jesus take in the temple? What do his actions stop in terms of temple activity?
  • Why does Jesus condemn what is happening in the temple? Which Old Testament texts does he cite? What does Jesus mean when he says they have made his Father’s house a “den of robbers”?

Application Questions

  • The Jewish people were participating in the temple not to pursue God, but to hide from judgment and excuse their sinful behavior. How can those who claim to be Christians do something similar with the blood of Jesus?
  • Are there sins in your life that you have become complacent about?

Prayer Focus
Pray for a grace to kill complacency and grow in zeal for holiness.

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