|IT'S NOT ABOUT THE FIGS
Series: The Good News of Jesus Christ - Part Thirty Five
Pastor Stephen Muncherian
January 13, 2018
Would you stand and read with me as we come together before God’s word:
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 moneychangers 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 rots. And Peter remembered and said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”
Last Sunday we began studying Mark’s record of Jesus’ final week of ministry leading to the cross - leading to His death and His resurrection.
The one final week of ministry that is essential to understanding all of Jesus’ ministry. The one week that puts everything else that Jesus did and said into its right perspective.
Last Sunday we looked at Day One of that final week - what we call Palm Sunday. We looked at Jesus’ entering Jerusalem. Jesus riding on a colt - the parade with the palm branches - the crowd shouting and singing. Jesus demonstrating that He is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and He is the long waited for Messiah.
And then we saw the contrast to all that hoopla. Which was Jesus purposely moving away from all that. Jesus in the late hours of the day - in the silence of the near empty Temple - Jesus there taking everything in and contemplating all of that. What is seemingly the calm before the storm.
Because Jesus - in this final week - Jesus isn’t about the hoopla and the expectations of the crowd. Jesus is all about what God has been doing in the life of His people - what God is doing in the life of His people - and what’s coming in the days ahead - why Jesus has come to Jerusalem.
Verse 12 begins with Day Two - Monday. “the following day, when they came from Bethany.”
Monday - probably in the morning - as Jesus and the disciples are walking the 2 miles from Bethany to Jerusalem - Mark tells us that Jesus was hungry. And Jesus sees a fig tree which has leaves on it. So Jesus goes to the tree to see if it has figs that He can eat. Which the tree doesn’t.
So Jesus curses the fig tree. “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
In years past they grew a lot more figs around here than they do now. But the climate here is almost exactly what it is there in. Figs grow here like they grow there.
So what Mark is recording there on the road to Jerusalem could be happening here in Merced. In terms of climate and seasons and what we would expect of a fig tree.
We have a fig tree in our back yard. One of the few fruit trees that’s surviving my attempts at gardening. And twice a year we get a crop of figs off of our fig tree. Which - if I have to say so myself - are pretty good figs.
Around May - or so - our tree produces crop #1. And then again at the end of the summer - around August or so - it produces crop #2. But - around the time of the Passover - what would have been late March - early April - by our calendars today - I would be shocked to find edible figs on our tree. It’s just not the time for figs. Here or in Palestine.
In fact, Mark himself comments that the time of the Passover wasn’t the season for figs.
Here’s this poor fig tree that’s minding its own business - growing by the side of the road - doing what a fig tree is suppose to be doing. And along comes Jesus Who goes out of His way to curse this fig tree that was doing seemingly what Jesus Himself had created it to do.
I’ve read a number of commentaries and heard sermons where we’d have to have a Ph.D. in botany to follow their explanation of why Jesus should have expected to find figs or edible proto-fig buds on this tree. Which may be true in some sense. But the bottom line is that it just simply wasn’t the time for figs. Not here. Not there.
One thing we need to remember as we walk through Day Two and Jesus Desiring Figs - is that… “It’s not about the figs.” No matter how tempted we may be to think that this is in some way about the figs. It’s not about the figs.
Let’s say that together: “It’s not about the figs.”
So if it’s not about the figs. What is “it” about?
Mark tells us that Jesus “was hungry.” Which is a good translation of the Greek verb. But it could be misleading. Meaning: Hungry for what? Figs? It’s not about the figs.
The Greek word translated “hungry” is also used in Matthew 5:6 in the Beatitudes. Jesus teaches: “Blessed are those who hunger - same Greek word - blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
More to the point - the hungering is spiritual - not physical. Mark is telling that Jesus was passionately craving - eagerly desiring - what was spiritual.
What He found on the tree was a lot of leaves but no fruit. Which Jesus uses as an illustration of the spiritual condition of Israel. Which is what this is about. Not figs. But about spiritual fruit. Or the lack of spiritual fruit coming from Israel.
Point being: Like the fig tree, Israel had a lot of leaves. Israel had the appearance of spiritual activity and spiritual life. But when you looked beneath the leaves Israel had nothing - nada - going on in terms of spiritual fruit.
We’re together? Jesus is going into Jerusalem and He’s desiring to find spiritual fruit there in Jerusalem among God’s people. But He’s making a point that there isn’t any. Spiritually Israel is fruitless.
Mark tells us - verse 14 - the disciples “heard” Jesus curse the tree.
“Heard” meaning... “heard.” Deeper meaning being that they understood that there was more going on here than just Jesus cursing a fig tree. What exactly that is they’re not sure yet. But they’re hearing and understanding they need to be paying attention to something they should be learning from what Jesus is doing and saying.
Verse 15 takes us into Jerusalem and what is the familiar scene of Jesus Cleansing The Temple.
One thing we need to remember as we move through this is that “It’s not about the Temple.” As much as this may seem to be about the Temple... “It’s not about the Temple.”
The Passover is... the Passover. Right? The time in Egypt when God gave Moses instructions to have the people prepare a lamb a certain way and to honor God and trust Him for His salvation by spreading the lamb’s blood on the lintel and doorposts of every Israelite home.
When the angel of death moved through Egypt taking the life of every first born male child - the angel “passed over” every home bearing the blood of the sacrificial lamb.
We’re together on that?
By the first century that Passover festival looked radically different. God’s people had really lost touch with the whole solemn remembering of what God had done and what it really meant to be His people.
The Temple - which was to be the national center of Jewish worship and devotion to God - the Temple had become kind of a combination of a flea market and one of those check cashing places that’ll charge an arm and leg in interest - maybe literally an arm or leg if they don’t get paid.
The bottom line of what was going on in the Temple was a well run con-game - being run by a corrupt priesthood - that was something like the mafia - all done in the name of religion and God.
Throughout the year - but especially at Passover - all the Jewish males were expected to visit the Temple to pay the half shekel tax required by the law of Moses and to sacrifice an animal.
Which required two things. Thing One: Money for the tax. And - Thing Two: An unblemished lamb - no defects - for the sacrifice.
Thing One: Taxes had to be paid with a special temple coin. That meant that a person couldn’t just show up with Roman or Greek coins or your average everyday shekel - which bore images forbidden by the law - Mosaic Law as interpreted by the priesthood. Which of course meant that the priests and their cronies provided an exchange service - often an exchange that was half the actual value of the currency being exchanged.
And required thing number two: Sacrifices had to be made with a perfect lamb - meaning a lamb approved by a priest. Which meant that if someone brought his own lamb for the sacrifice - of course - that lamb had to be inspected by a priest. And this is hard to imagine - wink wink - but sadly enough that lamb didn’t pass inspection.
So another priest approved lamb could be purchased at a premium price that included trading in the unapproved lamb. Then the unapproved lamb was later offered for sale to another worshipper who’s lamb had amazingly also failed inspection.
Mark specifically mentions those selling pigeons. A more accurate translation would be “doves.” Doves were God’s provision for the poor. For people who couldn’t afford a lamb. Meaning they were even were selling doves to the destitute for outrageous profits.
Let’s make sure we’re clear on what’s going on here. Because it’s not about the Temple. So, if it’s not about the Temple, what is “it” about?
To do the Passover right - in the Mosaic - Exodus way of doing Passover - every Jewish household spent seven days before the Passover meticulously going through their house looking for any kind of yeast or substance that could cause fermentation and then removing - cleansing that yeast - from their home.
All of which had to do with cleansing the home of what represented sin - preparing the home for the celebration of Passover - celebrating the Passover purified of sin.
And yet - in Jerusalem - a city where people may have meticulously - religiously and culturally - cleaned out their homes - when Jesus came to the Temple - the house of God - the center of national worship. Jesus desiring spiritual fruit coming from God’s people in purity of heart and faith coming to worship and remember God Who delivered them and provided for them.
What Jesus found was a shameless shrine to greed and a sanctuary for thieves. A Temple filled with clutter and noise and money changers and merchandise with the priests encouraging and ruling over all that.
Jesus sees all that and He just tears up the place. He creates a scene of wild confusion. But it’s anger under control. This is not some passive aggressive explosion. The coins can be regathered and sorted. There’s no real loss of livestock. He tells the dove sellers to remove them. His is anger with purpose.
As Jesus is cleaning house He’s teaching - quoting from Isaiah and Jeremiah: “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 quote from Isaiah - “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” - that quote is from God talking about gathering His people - even Gentiles like us - gathering them to Jerusalem - to the Temple - to offer their prayers and offerings and sacrifices in purity and holiness. (Isaiah 56:7,8)
In the Jeremiah reference God is calling out His people because they’ve made God’s Temple into anything else but a house of prayer. “You’ve made it a den of robbers” is the bottom line of a long list of sins that God is holding His people accountable for.
A Temple is a building that focuses the attention of the people on the god within. And a Temple is a place of relationship - the people and their God.
God Who chose to make them to be a people and to call them into a relationship with them. And God Who choose to deliver them from Egypt and to provide for them and to establish them as His people on the land that He promised to them. God Who calls them to purity and to worship before Him.
Which is what this is about. Not a building but the relationship of God and His people. The relationship of the people with God. The sinless purity of that relationship as they trust God for His salvation and provision for their lives.
Mark records two reactions.
Reaction number one is the chief priests and scribes who saw what Jesus had done and they “heard” what Jesus was teaching.
“Heard” is the same word as back up in verse 14 when the disciples “heard” Jesus and understood that there was more going on here than just not finding figs on a tree.
The chief priests and the scribes “heard” Jesus and they got it that Jesus was calling them out. This isn’t just about cleaning out the Temple. Because it’s not about the Temple.
The chief priests - the spiritual leadership - and the scribes - the theologians of the day - they should have been leading by example and calling the people to personal and national purity before God. The Temple - under their leadership - the Temple should have been at the center of all that.
They “heard” Jesus loud and clear. They recognized Who Jesus claimed to be. They recognized His Old Testament quotes. They heard Jesus calling them out for their failure as the spiritual leaders of the nation and for their own sins.
Reaction number two is that the people were astonished.
They’re not quite getting it - not quite understanding all of what Jesus is doing. But they’re loving it. And Jesus has got the crowd following Him. followers.
And because of the reaction of the people the chief priest and scribes are afraid. They’re fearful of what Jesus threatens: Their traditions - their standing in the nation - their profits. They’re fearful of Jesus’ influence over the crowds and the truthfulness of His message.
So much so that they’re looking for a way to destroy Jesus.
“To destroy” means ending something - even spiritually. It’s used of eternally life. Meaning they don’t just want to stop Jesus - to put an end to His ministry - they want to damn Him to Hell - to Hell where He’ll be silenced forever.
God speaking prophetically through Malachi - the last prophet of the Old Testament - 400 years earlier - God said:
“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 a 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. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” (Malachi 3:1-4)
Anyone hear Handel’s Messiah in that? “And He shall purify…”
400 years go by since Malachi. The people are waiting. Maybe they think that God is like someone who winds up the clock of creation and lets it run but doesn’t really get involved in the day to day details of our lives. Maybe this coming purifier person is really just kind of a spiritual philosophy - some kind of religious ideal. But not to be taken literally - like a real person is going to show up.
Sinful habits sneak into the worship of the people. Maybe they think they’re successful at hiding what they’re doing. Maybe they have their version what’s right. We’re God’s people. God should judge the Romans. However they’ve gotten there - somehow they’ve come to the point of compromise where what they’re doing in the Temple doesn’t seem all that wrong.
For 400 years God’s people had been waiting for the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. And then comes Jesus - purposefully tearing up the Temple - purifying and refining - cleansing the Temple - a fullers’ powerful soap - purifying the sons of Levi - the priests - refining God’s people of Judah and Jerusalem so that the offering they bring in God’s Temple will be in fact pleasing to God.
God’s Messiah - the refiner and purifier of God’s people - is here. The nation has been put on notice. It is time to get right with God. God is moving among His people.
Which is what this is about. The relationship of God and His people. The heart level moral purity of the people’s relationship with God.
Verse 19: And when evening came they went out of the city.
Monday evening - Jesus and the disciples return to Bethany.
Verse 20 - Tuesday morning - as Jesus and the disciples are heading back to Jerusalem for another day of WWJDN - What Will Jesus Do Next - they pass by the accursed fig tree. And the disciples see that this poor fruitless tree is “withered” - a word that means that it was “withered” - dried up - down to its roots. Point being: Totally useless as a fig tree.
And Peter - remembering how Jesus had cursed the fig tree on Monday and why - Peter said to Jesus: “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”
And because we know that the figs and the tree are not about the figs and the tree but symbolic of Israel and it’s giving the outward impression of being healthy but in realty being spiritually barren. Because we know all that we know that Jesus is using all that as an object lesson for the teaching about faith in God that comes next.
Verse 22: And Jesus answered him, ‘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.
Let’s be careful. Even though it may seem like Jesus is teaching about moving mountains, “It’s not about... moving mountains.” But it’s about… faith in God. We need to hang on to that.
The Mount of Olives - where Jesus and the disciples are at - just outside Jerusalem - is about 2,600 feet above sea level. About 20 miles away - visible on a clear day - about 20 miles away to the southeast is the Dead Sea - approximately 1,400 feet below sea level. Lowest dry land place on the planet. From the hills they’re looking down to a flat expanse and Jesus is talking about what it takes to move mountains into the sea.
Which would have made it easy for the disciples to visualize what Jesus is talking about. Mountains. Sea.
Telling a mountain to throw itself into the sea was probably a common figure of speech back then. A description of something that was impossible. “You’d have more chance of a camel going through the eye of a needle than some mountain throwing itself into the sea because you tell it to.”
Back in Mark 10 - remember the rich young ruler that came to Jesus with the question of what more he do to obtain the security of eternal life with God. A young man who had done everything religiously in his power to be obedient to God. And yet he was still lacking the assurance of eternity with God.
We know how that goes. Jesus confronting what that man really had faith in. Which wasn’t God. Ultimately he had faith in himself and what he was doing for and in the name of God.
Jesus, teaching the disciples about how one really is saved - how we can have the assurance of eternity with God. Jesus tells them: “With man it is... impossible, but not with God. For all things are... possible with God.” (Mark 10:17-31)
Salvation - by our own whit, wisdom, and working, salvation is impossible. We cannot save ourselves. But God can. God alone can save us. And He does. The impossible. When we stop trying to save ourselves and trust Him for what He’s already done for us on through Christ’s work on the cross.
If God can do the impossible and save us - as undeserved and astounding and unimaginable and miraculous and beyond our ability to perceive as that is - then there is nothing else that is too large or too many - or impossible - whatever mountains we’re up against in our lives - for God to do in our lives today - in us and through us and around us - for His glory alone.
This isn’t about moving mountains but about faith in the God Who can.
Verse 24: Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
Let’s be careful. As much as what Jesus teaches here seems like it’s about prayer, it’s not about prayer. It’s about... faith in God.
The disciples can pray till they’re blue in the face and visualize mountains moving and ponder what that might be like and they can sincerely believe that it could happen. But that doesn’t mean it will happen. Be kind of scary if it did.
Sometimes we hear people say, “There’s power in prayer.” Or “I felt your prayers.” Like prayer is a spiritual force that we control or that the prayer itself has power.
When we pray we need to be reminded that the spiritual authority and power we have faith in is not us - but God alone.
Jesus gives three conditions for effective prayer. Notice that the focus is on God.
First: To pray without doubting God’s power to do what God wills to do.
Second: To pray believing that what we ask for - that God is already bringing about an answer to.
Third: To pray with forgiveness trusting in God’s forgiveness or our own sins. Jesus tying prayer into our own by faith relationship with God.
Jesus’ response to “Oh look. That accursed fig tree is withered” is to teach about having faith in God. God Who is the source of faith. Faith which is a gift of God’s grace. Not something we achieve or increase by our own efforts. (Ephesians 2:8)
Back to the figs and the Temple. Israel had become fruitless because their faith was in anything else besides God. They’re spiritual leaders had long ago placed their faith in something else besides God. Religious tradition. Foreign alliances. Wealth. Power. Ultimately themselves.
Jesus cursing a fig tree and teaching about mountains and prayer ultimately comes down to the purity of our hearts being open and trusting God. Who does Israel really have faith in? Who do we really have faith in?
Not just going through the motions of faith - being all leafy - doing religious things and talking religious talk and giving the outward appearances of being all in with God.
But actually having faith where the rubber meets the road of our lives - in the nitty gritty of the day-to-day of where we live our lives - and even in the expectations we have for being here as God invites us to come and worship Him. Is our faith in God alone or something else?
Processing all that… Two takeaways.
First take away: The connection between faith and fruit.
God puts Israel on a piece of land that God had promised to give His people. A piece of land that’s full of rocks and subject to droughts and is pretty poor in natural resources. Fresh water being one of them that’s seriously lacking.
This little tiny piece of real estate that is constantly being attacked or threatened. Land that has been and is even today in the cross roads and in the cross hairs of world politics and conflict.
God does that so that Israel would learn that they need to trust Him and that He is trustable. That having faith in God was the necessity for survival on that land. So that their very existence on that land would be characterized by their faith in God and would testify of God’s goodness and grace to them.
God places them on
that land at the strategic crossroads of civilization
and commerce and conflict so that as peoples and
civilizations passed through they would witness God’s
people trusting God who was providing for His people -
so that the fruit of their faith in God would be the
testimony of Who God is - to God alone be the glory.
But instead - when people passed through Israel - what they saw was a people who had the formalities and institutions for worshipping God but who were seeking to live in imitation of the people’s around them. And at the core of that was the temple with its greed and corruption and hypocrisy.
Meaning that because of what was lacking in their faith they were fruitless in their relationship with God.
There is a connection between our faith and the fruit God will produce in our lives even here in Merced where He has strategically placed us.
Do we really want to see God produce fruit in our lives that goes way beyond anything we can possibly imagine? That actually gets used for His eternal purposes and for His glory. Fruit that gets produced even in the circumstances of where you and I do life?
Faith is huge. We need to keep focused on God. To trust Him. To rely on Him. To live following Him. For what is only possible because of God.
Take away number two is our need to be honest about what or in whom we’re actually trusting.
I am much more comfortable with Jesus purifying someone else’s heart than mine. I would suspect I’m not alone in that. But there are times - maybe a lot of times - when Jesus needs to do some cleaning in my heart as well.
We all struggle with trusting what’s around us or ourselves more than God. It’s easy to get off focus and maybe not even realize it.
Jesus clears the temple because He’s teaching about faith in God. Because He’s working to bring God’s people back to God. There is love and grace and mercy in that. That we need to by faith be open to.
May He clean us that we will be more pure in our faith and that God will produce His fruit in us for His glory.
Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016).
Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary, Volume 2: Insights on Mark (Carol Stream, IL, Tyndale House Publishers, 2016).
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.