The Fig Tree
Following the anti-climactic entry of Jesus, who arrived at the Temple, no one was there. The Temple is one of the important themes in the following chapters. Jesus has finally arrived in Jerusalem, and the conflict continues to rise between the Pharisees and chief priests. The disciples have been told three times what will happen to Jesus (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34). The conflict has continued throughout the Gospel of Mark. We, as readers, have known the plan of the Pharisees and Herodians seeking to destroy Jesus early in the Gospel (cf. Mark 3:6). The crowd, however, has brought the sick to Jesus has been amazed at his teaching. The opening scene of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem is acceptance and praise, but this quickly changes. Today we see a visible parable of the state of the Temple.
I. Figs (12-14)
Mark gives us another ‘sandwich’ to help us understand the clearing of the Temple. The bread of the sandwich is the lesson from the fig tree. What begins as a strange story about Jesus being hungry and his hunger turns into anger which he takes out on this poor little fig tree, is more than a filler story, but as always, it is of theological importance. Jesus comes from Bethany (house of figs) but is hungry. He sees in the distance a fig tree with leaves on it. To understand what Mark is explaining, we need to understand the fig tree. Fig harvest would happen from mid-August to mid-October. Following the harvest, the fig tree would produce buds that would stay on the tree over winter. Then in March or April, the buds would turn into ‘immature’ figs, which in Hebrew is called ‘paggim.’ The ‘paggim’ are eatable, although not as ripe as they would be at the end of the summer. The fig tree that Jesus approaches has no fruit at all. Although summer is near, there is no ripe figs or even’ paggim.’
The fig tree is more than a fruit tree and an important image in the Old Testament. The idea of the fig has two contrasting metaphors. One speaks of fruitfulness and blessing—the abundance of fruitful fig trees (Deut 8:8-10, Joel 2:22). Figs are a ‘barometer’ of national security and wealth (2 King 4:25). However, the second contrastive metaphor is found when the fig tree does not produce fruit, and the leaves wither (Jer 8:13). The fruitless fig tree is the symbol of judgment. One good example of this contrast is found in Jeremiah chapter 24. After King Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon taken Jerusalem and sent some of the Israelites to Babylon, including King Jehoiakim; Jeremiah saw a vision of two baskets of figs in front of the Temple, in one basket, was good figs (ripe and ready to eat), the second basket was filled with bad figs (so bad they could not be eaten). The good figs are the visual example of the exiles who God will provide his grace and goodness. The bad figs are those who God will show his wrath and judgment. The bad figs God explains to Jeremiah that he will drive them out. They will see the sword, famine, and pestilence until they are destroyed. Jesus approaches the fig tree. There is no fruit on the tree. This is a real example of the Temple at this time, as we will see. We will come back to the fig tree.
II. Temple (15-19)
Mark’s account of the clearing of the Temple has a rapid progression. Jesus entered and began to drive people out. John explains that Jesus made a whip before driving them out (John 2:15). Before we get to the who of Jesus drove out, we need to talk about what Temple Mark is talking about briefly. During this time, the third Temple was being constructed/renovated. The first Temple was built under Solomon, David’s son. Babylon destroyed this Temple during the time of Jeremiah (as we saw before Jer 24). The Second Temple was built upon the return from exile under the leadership of Ezra. The third Temple was begun in 20 BC and was a ‘renovation,’ but truth be told, it is more of new construction. The Temple was not completed until 66 AD, so during Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Temple was not yet complete (Mark 13:1 cf 13:58). Each Temple followed a similar layout consisting of four divisions. Think of four rectangles that get smaller and fit within the bigger one. The outermost division was the court of the gentiles; the next court was the court of the women (for Jewish women); the next court was for circumcised Jewish men, the smallest court that sat in the middle was the actual Temple for sacrificing animals, only priests could enter, within this court was the Holy of Holies which the high priest would enter only once a year to sprinkle blood on the mercy seat. Jesus would have been in the largest of the courts, the court of the Gentiles. This would have been a busy time of year. Many people would come to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Passover, which required one lamb per family. It would have been difficult for those who traveled to Jerusalem to transport your lamb with you, like taking a turkey on the plane for thanksgiving. There was also required payment of half a shekel for anyone over 20 (Ex 30:13-16). However, not everyone was paid in shekels. Therefore, moneychangers would set up a lucrative business of selling sheep to travelers and exchanging currencies for the census offering. The Jewish historian Josephus said in the year 66 AD, 255,600 Passover lambs were sacrificed.
So, Jesus entered the Temple (the outer court), and it was like going to a large store on Black Friday or Christmas Eve. There were people everywhere; the court would have had the sound of coins being exchanged, the sound of bleating lambs all served as background noise to the conversations. Jesus enters this loud court and drives out those who sold and brought in the Temple. Then proceeded to overturn the money changers tables and the seats of those who sold pigeons. Many people have sought to describe the reasoning why Jesus overthrew the money changers’ tables. However, we are given two reasons in the Gospel of Mark;
a. House of Prayer
The first reason is that Jesus explains that “My house should be a house of prayer for all nations.” Jesus quotes Isaiah 56:7. Chapters 44-57 of Isaiah focus on salvation as it prepares for the conclusion of Isaiah for the culmination of this salvation which brings peace. Isaiah 56 is a glorious chapter that shows that salvation is not only for those born of Abraham but is for all nations. Isaiah 56:7-8 shows this great promise given to Abraham when God explained through Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Isaiah 56:7-8 shows this promise to be fulfilled through the suffering servant.
“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.” The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:7–8)
Without having a whole study of this glorious passage, we should note a few important pieces in this verse. Notice that God will be the one who brings them in and make them joyful. God’s house is a big house where all people from all nations, tribes, and tongues can come and worship him. This goes right back to the call of Abraham that Abraham was blessed by God so that God may bless all nations. Yet Jesus walks into the court for the gentiles, the only place they could worship, and he sees that the Jews had taken over this court. They had taken God’s house and made it their own. They had assumed that God wanted his house to be used for census taxes rather than prayer. We need to be aware census taxes were commanded, just as the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. However, they had said that these things were more important than God gathering other nations. They had taken something commanded and neglected other commandments and blessings. Jesus explains, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations.” (Notice how Jesus calls the Temple, My house.)
b. Den of Robbers
Jesus gives the second reason explaining that they have turned it into a den of robbers. Jesus is quoting Jeremiah 7:11. Jeremiah is a depressing chapter as it speaks of God’s judgment upon the people of Israel. The chapter explains that they call it “The Temple of the Lord.” However, this is far from the case. The sign out the front reads “The Temple of the Lord,” they cry out, “we are delivered,” but then go on to steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, worship Baal and other gods. The sign reads “temple of the Lord,” but should read, “den of robbers.” God’s rebuke is firm to the nation of Israel, Jeremiah records God’s words to Israel further in the chapter,
“For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward.” (Jeremiah 7:22–24)
They sought to listen and incline their ears to their own counsel, following their stubborn evil hearts. They thought they were moving forward, but they were moving further away. They focused on sacrifices and burnt offerings. Like Saul who was concentrated on sacrifices, yet Samuel rebukes Saul, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). Again, they had called this the Temple of the Lord but made it their own Temple. They thought the key was sacrifices and census taxes. They followed their evil hearts rather than obeying the voice of the Lord.
As we read this passage, we might overlook these two things; however, the Chief Priests and the Scribes knew Jesus was referring to Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7. Their response is to find a way to destroy him. Again, this shows their evil hearts. God often sent prophets to warn the people of God that they were not obeying God’s word, yet they killed them (Jer 7:25).
III. God’s house
When we travel to other people’s houses, we need to explain to the children that some people have different rules in their house than our house. One of the church’s most significant dangers is seeking to make the church our own. We write on the sign on the front, this is Christ’s church, but treat it like our own. We make our own rules based on some Bible verses but do not follow God’s word. To have a pretty fig tree is useless if it does not produce any figs. Often the church is pulled in all directions, besides forwards. The focus is shifted from God’s word to people’s desires. They appear good on the outside, but in the end, the church becomes a man-centered building for self-preservation or cultural movement. Jesus rebuked the religious leaders calling his house a house of prayer for all nations. Let us pray that we would have a heart of humble submission to God’s word, that we would seek to have the Temple of the Lord written on the outside, and this truly reflected on the inside. Let us pray that we would have a heart of prayer for those in all corners of the globe that we would see Christ’s church reflect Christ’s people from all nations, tribes, and tongues.