************ Sermon on Mark 11:12-21 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on August 19, 2018
"Why Did Jesus Curse the Fig Tree?"
Difficult Passages # 12
Many people struggled with why Jesus curses this fig tree. We can mention two reasons. First, unlike every other miracle, it is a miracle of destruction. Every other miracle does something positive: feeds the crowd, heals the sick, removes an evil spirit, turns water into wine, raises the dead. But this miracle does something destructive. Second, since Mark tells us that wasn’t the season for figs, Jesus’ expectation to find figs seems unreasonable. In fact, the famous atheist Bertrand Russell listed this miracle as one of the reasons why he is not a Christian.
Why did Jesus curse the fig tree? To answer this question, we need to answer another question first: Why is the story of the clearing of the Temple in the middle of the story about the fig tree?
To answer this second question, some say Mark went down a rabbit trail as he started to tell us about Jesus and the Temple. He was distracted or pulled away from his real message. Those who think this way skip the verses about the fig tree when they look at the cleansing of the Temple. Or, they skip the verses about the Temple when they look at the fig tree. We can't agree with this approach.
Another approach, a better approach, is to say that both stories are about the same thing, that the two events help explain each other. So, what is the point of both events? Both speak of something barren: a barren fig tree and a barren Temple. Both speak of something cursed: a cursed fig tree and a cursed Temple. Both speak of something to be destroyed: a destroyed fig tree and a destroyed Temple.
I The Temple in Judaism
A To sum up our Bible reading, we are being told that God is not pleased with the Temple. God is not pleased with the leaders of the Temple. God is not pleased with the people who come to the Temple. God is not pleased with what happens in the Temple. God is not pleased with the sacrifices made at the Temple. If the Temple is corrupt, then the nation is corrupt. In a word, God is not pleased with the nation of Israel.
I say to you that the measure of any society is its worship. Forget about its economy, the size and strength of its military forces, its system of government, its constitution. God judges a nation by its worship. And Israel -- like the nations of the heathen -- was falling short.
B The Temple sits on Mount Moriah. We first come across Mount Moriah in Genesis 22. There, God commands Abraham,
(Gen 22:2) "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."Abraham didn’t fully understand what God was asking him to do in light of God’s promise to establish an everlasting covenant with Isaac (Gen 17:19); nonetheless, he trusted God and by faith offered Isaac as a sacrifice. God intervened and spared Isaac’s life by providing a ram instead. Abraham called this place "The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, 'On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided'" (Gen 22:14).
About a thousand years later at this very location, King David bought the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite and built an altar to the Lord so that a "plague may be held back from the people" (2 Sam 24:18, 21). After David’s death, his son King Solomon built a glorious temple on the same site. Solomon’s Temple lasted for over four hundred years until it was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar’s armies in 587/586 B.C. Why? Because God used Babylon to bring divine judgment on false religion. Israel was apostate. Judaism was corrupt. The people were corrupt. The leaders were corrupt. The priests were corrupt. The prophets were corrupt. The nation was corrupt so the first Temple was destroyed.
Seventy years later the Temple was rebuilt on the same site by the Jews who returned to Jerusalem following their Babylon captivity. A few hundred years pass. Antiochus, pagan ruler and warrior, put a statue of the god Jupiter inside the Temple, thus paganizing it. And, knowing this would infuriate the Jews, he slaughtered pigs on the altar. The second Temple was thus desecrated. There was a modest revival of Temple worship three years later under a man named Judas Maccabees, but the religion continued to apostatize with hypocrisy, superficiality, and false worship.
In 20 B.C. King Herod made a significant addition to this structure. The construction took over eighty years. This is the third Temple which became known as Herod’s Temple.
In A.D. 70, the Temple was once again destroyed -- this time by the Romans. Today, all that remains of Herod's Temple is a portion of a retaining wall known as the "Western Wall" or the "Wailing Wall."
The story of the Temple ends up being the story of Israel: it starts with dedication to God, leads to the apostasy of false religion, and ends up in divine judgment.
What we have in Mark 11 is a preview of the curse and destruction of the third Temple.
C Herod's Temple was a series of courts leading up to the top of Mount Moriah. At the very top of the Mount was the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place; only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies one day of the year and only the serving priest could minister in the Holy Place. Next court down was the Court of the Priests where the sacrifices were offered; during the Passover celebration well over 200,000 sacrificial lambs were sacrificed on the altar. Then the Court of the Israelites, followed by the Court of the Women. Last, on the outside, was the massive Court of the Nations. This court stretched the length of five football fields, the width of three football fields, and covered roughly 35 acres. So, we’re talking about a huge area. It was this court in Herod's Temple that Jesus cleansed.
Our Bible reading can be broken into two points: first, the curse portrayed in the fig tree; second, the curse portrayed in action.
II The Curse Portrayed in the Fig Tree
A Our passage begins, "The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry" (Mk 11:12). He left the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus where He would go each night to rest and sleep. In the morning He leaves and He is hungry. He probably didn't have breakfast because it was His habit to find a lonely spot early every morning where He would meditate and pray.
It is Tuesday of Passion Week, the week of His crucifixion, the week of His betrayal and suffering and death. He has a big day ahead of Him and He needs food before He goes to the Temple and does something about its desecration by the Jews.
Our passage continues: "Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs" (Mk 11:13). Jesus knew ahead of time there were no figs on the tree. His point was not to look for figs but to teach His disciples something.
Now, to help you understand this I need to tell you something about fig trees. Fig trees are unique from most other trees because they produce fruit before they produce leaves. So the fact that this tree has leaves suggests that some kind of fruit will still be on it, either leftover figs from the summer harvest or immature figs that were also edible. So even though the formal fig season was over, it wasn’t at all unreasonable for Jesus to expect to find something on this tree. But Jesus finds nothing but leaves, which tells us that this is a sterile fig tree, a fig tree that doesn’t produce any figs.
B Jesus' response is a curse: "May no one ever eat fruit from you again" (Mk 11:14).
Notice what we are told next: "And his disciples heard him say it" (Mk 11:14). The disciples heard Jesus curse the fig tree. They were listening. Jesus cursed the fig tree in order to teach the disciples something.
How do we know what Jesus said is a curse? Because that's what Peter said it was: "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered" (Mk 11:21).
Now, remember, we are being told something about the Temple. The curse on the fig tree is Jesus' curse on Israel's religion. The whole Temple operation was nothing but leaves. Like the fig tree, the Temple has the appearance of bearing fruit but in reality it has none. It was nothing but a false profession, a false religion with false worship, hypocrisy at its worse. We know from Paul's letters that the whole religious system was based on a self-righteousness.
Congregation, don’t confuse leaves with fruit, because as impressive as leaves are from a distance, they don’t mean anything if there’s no fruit. The Jewish temple looked so impressive. But the Temple wasn’t producing the fruit of godly people, the fruit of joyful worship, the fruit of an Israel who was compassionate and righteous. The Temple had become all leaves and no fruit. It was spiritually bankrupt. The whole system and the nation in that system was cursed by God. Even though it looked so impressive (cf Mk 13:1). But our Lord is not impressed. Our Lord sees all things and knows all things and is not fooled by appearances. He knows what is in the heart of man. He knows the pretensions and the lies and hypocrisy.
III The Curse Portrayed in the Temple
A From the curse portrayed in the fig tree we move to the curse portrayed in the Temple.
Jesus was going to the Temple. What did He want to see there? Not the walls, not the stones, not the buildings. As He told the woman at the well, He wants true worshipers who worship the Father in spirit and truth (Jn 4:23). Jesus' primary concern was man's relationship with God. This means worship, true worship, was the issue. It was always the issue.
So Jesus entered the Temple. He entered the Court of the Nations, the massive Court of the Gentiles capable of holding hundreds of thousands of people. There were all kinds of vendors there to provide oil and wine and salt and animals for the sacrifices. The priests were in league with the vendors and received a cut of the profits.
The whole operation was a scam. If your brought a sacrifice from home -- a lamb without blemish from your own flock -- the animal had to be approved by a priest. Too many times the priest would say, "This animal doesn't pass." So an animal had to be purchased from the vendors inside the Temple at ten times the going price. And then there was the Temple tax you needed to pay. But you couldn't pay with foreign currency. You would have to use a money changer -- again, inside the Temple -- who charged at least twenty five percent.
B Notice what Jesus does when He enters the Temple area. He began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the Temple courts. Jesus stopped all of them in their tracks, halted the entire operation. Kicked over stools, crates, tables, stopped people, brought the whole stinking business to a halt.
Traditionally this event is called "the cleansing of the temple." Jesus did not cleanse or reform the fig tree; rather, He condemned it so it withered up and died. Similarly, Jesus was not cleansing the Temple; rather, He was condemning it. That's why, two chapters later, Jesus tells His followers that the Temple is going to be destroyed (Mk 13:1-2).
Do you know what we see here? We see that the Lord hates false worship. The Lord hates those who pervert His worship. The Lord hates those who only play at worship. The Lord hates hypocrisy in worship. The whole Temple operation was nothing but leaves without fruit. And, Jesus wanted nothing to do with it.
This makes me think of King Saul. God had commanded King Saul and the Israelites to totally destroy the Amalekites and everything that belongs to them. After the battle Samuel was surprised to hear the bleating of sheep and the lowing of cattle. He asked King Saul about this. Saul answered,
(1 Sam 15:15) The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the LORD your God, but we totally destroyed the rest. That sounds pretty noble, doesn't it? Who could complain about saving the best in order to sacrifice them to the Lord? Then comes the immortal words of Samuel that interest us today:
(1 Sam 15:22-23) "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. (23) For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.What am I saying? I am saying that Temple worship -- like Saul's worship -- was false and hypocritical. And the Lord wants nothing to do with this.
Now, remember, the two events happened during Jesus' last week. What Jesus started on Tuesday He continued on Friday. Remember what happened on Friday? The temple curtain between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was torn from top to bottom. It was a destructive act by God. It was a statement that the Temple and its worship was no more. It was a statement that God was finished with Mount Moriah.
So let me ask, congregation, let me ask about your worship. True worship is possible -- not at the Temple, not at Mt Gerizim, not at Mt Moriah -- but at the cross, only at the cross. Go to the cross, come to the cross, and believe in Jesus. For only there do we worship in spirit and in truth.
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