Jesus Curses the Fig Tree
12 The next morning as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 He noticed a fig tree in full leaf a little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. 14 Then Jesus said to the tree, "May no one ever eat your fruit again!" And the disciples heard him say it.
Jesus Clears the Temple
15 When they arrived back in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifices. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, 16 and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace. 17 He said to them, "The Scriptures declare, 'My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,' but you have turned it into a den of thieves."
18 When the leading priests and teachers of religious law heard what Jesus had done, they began planning how to kill him. But they were afraid of him because the people were so amazed at his teaching.
19 That evening Jesus and the disciples left the city.
Leaving Bethany where they had spent the night, Jesus and his disciples again head into Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus stops at a fig tree and, finding it fruitless, pronounces a curse upon it. He then returns to the Temple and this time drives out the merchants and the money changers. Jesus' enemies respond by plotting his death.
A fig tree ... only leaves (Mark 11:13)
The cursing of the fig tree was actually an acted parable related to the nation of Israel. Fig trees normally produce a large amount of fruit twice a year, including late in the spring. This incident occurred during early spring (mid-April), when the tree's leaves would have started budding. Jesus was not expecting mature ripened fruit but, rather, the edible buds that would have indicated a soon-fruitful tree. But there were no buds.1138 ("An absence of these buds despite the tree's green foliage promising their presence indicated it would bear no fruit that year.1139) As one source puts it: "When [Jesus] came to the tree 'he found nothing on it except leaves,' not even green, unripe fruit ... Jesus would not have blasted this tree if it had had even a little immature fruit on it. But here was this tree with its grand display of foliage which was nothing but empty pretense; whereas it led one to expect that it might have at least a few figs that were already fit to eat it had absolutely nothing at all, 'nothing but leaves'!"1140
"Jesus' strong denunciation of the tree ... was a dramatic prophetic sign of God's impending judgment on Israel ... The promising but unproductive fig tree symbolized Israel's spiritual barrenness despite divine favor and the impressive outward appearance of their religion (cf. Jeremiah 8:13; Hosea 9:10, 16; Micah 7:1)."1141 As another source explains: "Jesus' harsh words to the fig tree could be applied to the nation of Israel and its beautiful temple. Fruitful in appearance only, Israel was spiritually barren. Just as the fig tree looked good from a distance but was fruitless on close examination, so the temple looked impressive at first glance, but its sacrifices and other activities were hollow because they were not done to worship God sincerely (see Jeremiah 8:13; Hosea 9:10, 16; Micah 7:1)."1142 The irony is thick: "The pretentious fig tree had its counterpart in the temple where on this very day (Monday) a lively business was being transacted so that sacrifices might be made, while at the same time the priests were plotting to put to death the very One apart from whom these offerings had no meaning whatever."1143
The OT prophets often compared a lack of righteousness to a fruitless tree and, conversely, fruitfulness was used to illustrate God's blessings bestowed in response to faith and obedience. Some three years prior to this incident, John the Baptist had heralded the coming of the Messiah. Included in his message was a dire warning to the religious leaders (and all of Israel): "Even now the ax of God's judgment is poised, ready to sever your roots. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 3:10). Since that initial call, Jesus had spent virtually every waking moment calling Israel to repentance and salvation. But still Israel continued producing only leaves of promise; there was no fruit in keeping with repentance. And so God had no choice but to judge her unrepentant attitude, which he would do through the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.
The temple ... a den of thieves (Mark 11:15-17)
The cleansing of the temple was an indisputable sign of Jesus' authority - "by this action Jesus as the Messiah claimed greater authority over the temple than that of the high priest"1144 - as well as a condemnation of the corruption that had become so thoroughly embedded in Israel's religion. As one source puts it: "The people as well as the temple authorities were guilty of graft, extortion, and desecration of the house of prayer. Jesus assumes and exercises Messianic authority and dares to smite this political and financial abuse."1145
Each pilgrim coming to the Temple to offer a sacrifice during Passover would be in need of two things: 1) an animal without spot or blemish, and 2) acceptable currency with which to purchase the animal (and pay the Temple tax). "They paid high prices for these sacrificial animals. True, a worshipper could bring in an animal of his own choice. But if he did that he was taking a chance that it would not be approved."1146 Enter the merchants (who sold "wine, oil, salt, approved sacrificial animals and birds"1147) and the money changers. "Money from three sources circulated in Palestine in New Testament times: imperial money (Roman), provincial money (Greek), and local money (Jewish). ... Greek and Roman currency .... featured human portraits [and so was] considered idolatrous.1148 Hence "in the temple area foreign money was not accepted in payment. ... So the money-changers would exchange foreign money for Jewish, charging a small fee for the favor. This business ... was very profitable. It presented abundant opportunity for cheating the unsuspecting pilgrim."1149
And so rather than simply offering a much-needed service, under the direction of the high priest, both the merchants and the money changers took advantage of the patrons by charging exorbitant rates. (Popular opinion was rightly "critical of the Jewish high priesthood," regarding "it in various ways as corrupt."1150) Their booths were set up in the only place Gentiles were allowed in the Temple: "the large outer court of the Gentiles surrounding the inner sacred courts of the temple itself."1151 Thus "the market filled their worship space with merchants so that these foreigners, who had traveled long distances, found it impossible to worship. The chaos in that court must have been tremendous."1152 To add insult to injury, "people loaded with merchandise were taking shortcuts through this area, making it a thoroughfare from one part of the city to another."1153
Jesus' cleansing of the Temple was actually a number of things, including:
a religious event intended to cleanse the Temple of impurities, whether commercial or sacerdotal
a messianic event intended to include the Gentiles in the scope of the Temple's activities
a prophetic event intended to announce the destruction of the Temple and its eschatological restoration
a political event intended to disrupt the commercial and sacerdotal activities of the Temple because they had become oppressive and exploitative1154
Do Christians today have the right and/or obligation to act as Jesus did in cleansing the Temple? Here there is much wisdom to be found in the comments of John Calvin:
[Jesus] declared himself to be both King and High Priest, who presided over the temple and the worship of God. This ought to be observed, lest any private individual should think himself entitled to act in the same manner. That zeal, indeed, by which Christ was animated to do this, ought to be held in common by all the godly; but lest any one, under the pretense of imitation, should rush forward without authority, we ought to see what our calling demands, and how far we may proceed according to the commandment of God. If the Church of God have contracted any pollutions, all the children of God ought to burn with grief; but as God has not put arms into the hands of all, let private individuals groan, till God bring the remedy. I do acknowledge that they are worse than stupid who are not displeased at the pollution of the temple of God, and that it is not enough for them to be inwardly distressed, if they do not avoid the contagion, and testify with their mouth, whenever an opportunity presents itself, that they desire to see a change for the better. But let those who do not possess public authority oppose by their tongue, which they have at liberty, those vices which they cannot remedy with their hands.1155
Planning how to kill him (Mark 11:18)
"The leading priests and teachers of the law" ("[t]he chief priests and the scribes" NASB) were afraid to arrest Jesus openly because of his popularity with the "Passover pilgrims" who had come "from all parts of the ancient world."1156 They were afraid of sparking a riot or rebellion.1157 More than that, however, they feared losing their religious monopoly: "[The Sanhedrin] was filled with the fear that Jesus would draw all the people to him and thus rob the Sanhedrin of its standing and its authority. The Sanhedrin saw a dangerous rival in Jesus. ... When the teaching [of Jesus] takes hold of people, they are in a fair way to turn away from all other authorities and to follow Jesus alone. That was exactly what the Sanhedrin feared."1158 They responded by "consider[ing] how they could assassinate him" (v. 18, NET). Following his cleansing of the temple, "people could not ignore Jesus or be indifferent to him. They had to take sides. Either Jesus was a subversive radical who must be restrained (death is an effective restraint), or he was someone to be listened to, believed, and followed."1159
His "Good" Right Arm
The story is told of Sid, a man who seemed to be dogged by trouble.
One day he was arrested for burglary and taken before a judge.
Sid's attorney argued that his client had not really broken into the lady's home. He had merely inserted his right arm through an open window and removed a few small items, including a newspaper and a tangerine. And since Sid's arm is not Sid, asserted the attorney, Sid should not be held liable for something a member of his body did.
The judge was not convinced but decided to follow the defense attorney's logic nonetheless. He sentenced Sid's arm to one year's imprisonment, and gave Sid the option of accompanying the limb or not, as he saw fit..
Whereupon Sid, a Korean war veteran, stood up, removed his prosthetic right arm, handed it to the judge, and walked out of the courtroom a free man.1160
Every person stands guilty before God. We all deserve to be imprisoned forever. But, thanks be to God, Jesus has dealt with our sin by taking upon himself the punishment we deserve. He gave far more than his right arm - he gave his very life. While on earth, Jesus made the same offer to the nation of Israel that he has been making to all of humankind ever since: salvation through personal, committed faith in himself.
Today countless people seek a middle way such as the one Sid found. By deciding beforehand to ignore Jesus' teaching, people are able to avoid making a decision for or against him. However, "[w]hen Christians tell the real story, there is no middle ground. Either Jesus is God's Son, the world's Savior, or he is a befuddled, perhaps demented, imposter."1161
??? "God will not let his Temple serve as a refuge for robbers. The Temple will not protect the wicked who show in the very Temple how they regard the God of the Temple. The church has no refuge for sinners who go on in their sin and think that they are safe when they run to the church; and certainly not for the sinners who support the church by desecrating the church and justify their desecration by crying, 'It is for the church!'1162
"[Jesus] stood against lack of faith and altering the purpose for worship. Those who use the church people or the worship gathering for social, political, or financial advantage are clearly wrong. God opposes those who attempt to leverage power or status or to meet their need for self-importance in his house of prayer."1163