In Mark 11:11-21, we read of an incident where Jesus curses a fig tree for no apparent reason, goes and cleanses the temple for the second time, and then deals with some teachers questioning His authority. This event has often been pointed out as something ridiculous by critics of the Bible. But there is something more than meets the eye here.
Take a Look Around (Mark 11:11):
At this point in Mark’s Gospel, we have read of Jesus coming to Jerusalem and having His triumphal entry. He has entered the last week before the crucifixion, so this is the last time Jesus will enter Jerusalem as a free man.
The text says that Jesus came into the temple “and after looking around at everything, He left for Bethany.” Now we read further, and we can know what He saw, but for a moment, let us consider what Jesus might have seen on that day. He might have seen a widow cheated at the money changers table. He could have seen a poor young couple trying to obtain a proper offering for their newborn but be denied for lack of the right coins. Or further still, He very well may have seen Gentiles hindered in their seeking God by the hustle and bustle of the commerce taking place within the Temple grounds.
Whatever Jesus observed, it was late, and He had to leave lest the authorities arrest Him before the proper time. Much like a doctor doing the initial exam and treatment would have to wait until the follow-up appointment.
No Fruit (Mark 11:12-14):
Jesus, on the next day, is heading back to Jerusalem with His disciples. Along the way, He had become hungry and saw a fig tree in the distance showing all the signs of having figs. Upon closer inspection, the tree was barren despite the message it was sending to those passing by. The text does tell us that “it was not the season for figs” (v.13b). Jesus then curses the tree (v.14) but with no explanation as to why. The only clue, right now, that we are given is that the “disciples were listening” (v.14b).
Before we move on in the text, we need to understand what is being set up here in vv.11-14. It is a foreshadowing of sorts to vv.15-21. The fig tree was used representatively of Israel in the Old Testament by God through the Prophets. For example, we read in Hosea 9:10, “I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your forefathers as the earliest fruit on the fig tree in its first season…” This usage of the fig tree as representative of Israel is being employed here by Jesus and is also heavily implied the arrangement of the text. The fig tree bookends the cleansing of the temple, indicating a connection between the events.
Fruitless Religion (Mark 11:15-18):
After the cursing of the fig tree, Jesus enters the temple again. This time not to “look around” but to clean. Jesus “entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who were selling doves.” After the cleansing, Jesus begins to teach the people. Teaching them the reason why He did what He did (v.17).
This cleansing of the temple was a judgment from God, and a foreshadow of further judgment (Mark 13). But some may have said, “But Jesus, what’s the harm? Aren’t the merchants helping worship since they exchange money and sell sacrifices?” The harm was not in the selling per se but in what this practiced revealed. One writer noted:
“Jesus did not want people to continue the practice of using the court as a shortcut through which to carry utensils and containers with merchandise to other parts of Jerusalem because such a practice revealed great irreverence for the temple – and ultimately for God Himself.”
On the surface, from a distance, the temple gave off the appearance of being a healthy, thriving tree of religious life. But upon closer inspection, its fruit was not there; it was sick and close to death. What made it so?
- It was fruitless Isaiah 5:1-7.
- It was irreverent v.16.
- It was selfish vv.17-18.
And this is true of all fruitless religion. Aside from bearing fruit acceptable to God, it will treat God as common and unclean (cf. Hebrews 10:29) and at its core is the self. This was the reason why Jesus came to cleanse the temple and why Israel would be judged in a few short decades from this event.
The Lessons of the Fig Tree
After a day of teaching, they leave the city and pass by the fig tree again. This time the tree was withered “from the roots up” (vv.19-20). Peter is the disciple who points this out to Jesus and the rest of the disciples (v.21). The tree had not been smitten by fire, nor was it cut down, but it had died from its roots up. From the deepest part of its being, it had withered away. That tree stood as witness to what was and what did happen to Israel. It died, spiritually, from the roots up.
For us today, it stands as a warning as well. Because I can be the “good-looking” fig tree. Simply put, all I have to do is focus on form over substance. On showing up instead of living out. If I have boiled down my relationship with Christ to a list of do’s and don’ts, then I am that fig tree with no fruit. This was the case in Malachi’s day when the priest of God offered that which was convenient, which was easy, which they always had given Malachi 1:6-10.
Let us take the warning to heart and bear fruit. Let’s end with John 15:8-10. There Jesus tells us that God is most glorified when we bear fruit. How do we do that? We “abide in [His] love” (v.9) and we abide in His love is by “keep [His] commandments” (v.10). If we do these things, we shall bear much fruit.