Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
If there is one chapter of the Bible that is like a neon, flashing danger sign for hypocrites it is Matthew 7.
• It talks about the wide road and the narrow road, it talks about wolves in sheep’s clothing, it talks about those who say “Lord, Lord,” but who do not do the Father’s will, and it talks about the foolish man who built his house on the sand and the wise man who built his house on the rock.
• But it also says this: “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit … Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
And what the Lord Jesus means with these words is plain: What you do and say reveals what is truly in your heart.
Well, this is true for every individual. But today we encounter a series of episodes in Mark’s Gospel that expose this reality in terms of a whole nation. And as we consider the events recorded here, we will need to examine ourselves to see whether there might be hypocrisy in us.
But what we read here is also very significant in terms of God’s salvation plan in world history. In this passage that begins at a fig tree and moves on to the temple and then back to the fig tree, THE ACTIVITY OF JESUS HERALDS THE APPROACH OF A COSMIC SHIFT IN THE WAY OF SALVATION. And we see this today as we simply consider the three episodes in this passage.
1. To really grasp what is going on here, however, let me say a bit about the history of salvation. And I do this especially for those who don’t yet know much about the Bible. The Bible is made up of two sections – The OT and the NT. And the OT is the story of God living in a special relationship with the JEWISH people.
a. Around about 1500BC, God brought the Jews out of Egypt where they had been in slavery and He led them to Canaan where they settled.
b. And at the very centre of their relationship, during their journey to Canaan and for a while after they arrived there, was the TABERNACLE. And the tabernacle was a special tent that functioned as a temple. It was where the Lord came down to live among His people in the form of a bright light it was where the people had to come and sacrifice their offerings to God.
c. But once they were established in Canaan as the nation of Israel, a PERMANENT TEMPLE was built in Jerusalem. And boys and girls, the temple was built during the reign of King? Solomon.
i. And if you spend any time at all reading the OT, you will see that the temple was massively important in the life of Israel. Three times a year all the men of Israel had to come to Jerusalem to celebrate set feasts and to sacrifice offerings.
d. Now, the design of God was that the temple and the sacrifices would point the people forward to A sacrifice that would truly reconcile God and man. The very fact that sacrifices had to be offered again and again should have been enough to show them that a greater sacrifice was needed.
e. But the people instead came to view the sacrifices they offered and having the temple among them as their salvation. They convinced themselves that it didn’t matter if they were immoral or worshipped idols, they had the temple and they offered sacrifices.
i. And we read of this in JER. 7 where the people were crying out, “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord,” as they broke one commandment after another.
ii. But what was God’s warning? The temple would be destroyed and the people would be carried into exile.
iii. And that happened around 600 BC. But God was gracious and He brought the people back and the temple was rebuilt. Would they learn their lesson?
f. And one thing to note as we move from here in the Gospel to the crucifixion is that the temple is going to feature very prominently.
i. We are about to read about Jesus clearing the temple.
ii. Tomorrow, Jesus will have a confrontation with the Jewish leaders in the temple.
iii. Jesus will question the crowd about the Son of David while He is in the temple.
iv. The widow will put her two small coins in the temple treasury.
v. Jesus will teach His disciples about the end times as they leave the temple and using the temple to explain what He says.
vi. And then , when Jesus is arrested He will ask them why they do it this way when He was in the temple every day?
vii. And when He is brought to trial, the first accusation made against Him will be to do with what He said about destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days.
viii. And when He dies on the cross, we are told about something that happens inside the temple. Do you boys and girls remember what that was? The veil was torn.
ix. So what we are reading here about the temple and Jesus is massively important in terms of salvation history. There are big Bible alarm bells flashing – pay attention!
2. But as we get set to look at this first episode involving the fig tree, remember also our earlier reading from ISAIAH 5. For there the prophet described the nation of Israel as like a VINEYARD that the Lord planted in the Promised Land.
a. And there are other OT passages that describe Israel as a fig tree – Jer. 8; 29; Hos. 9; Joel 1; and Micah 7, are examples.
b. But we read in Isaiah 5, “Then He looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” And so, the Lord said that He would break down its walls and destroy it so that it became a wasteland. And He did this in 600 BC as we just noted. But then He brought the people back. Had they learned their lesson?
So now we come to MARK 11:12. Jesus and the disciples are heading back to Jerusalem. Jesus is hungry. He sees a fig tree in leaf. And horticulturalists tell us that there were or are two sorts of fig tree in that region. One has small figs which are ready to eat around May and one has large figs which are ready to eat around October. So this was probably the former; a tree with small figs. And apparently, the figs appear first and while they ripen the leaves appear. So, when there are leaves, the figs should be ready. But the time we are talking about here in the Gospel is March. So it is not the season for figs to be ripe. However, there are leaves on this tree so it stands to reason that there should be figs. But there are not. There is the appearance of ripeness; everything suggests that there should be fruit, but actually there is nothing!
1. So Jesus, in order to provide His disciples with a PARABLE that they will understand later, curses the fig tree.
c. Now, what this parable means we are about to see in the next episode and the consequences of what it means shall become plain as Jesus and the disciples return to this tree the next morning. But this fig tree is a picture of the people of Israel. They are a people who have the appearance of godliness, who from the outside appear to be worshipping the Lord, when in truth there is nothing.
So next, Jesus and the disciples arrive at Jerusalem. And He ENTERS THE TEMPLE AREA and begins driving out the buyers and sellers and overturning the tables of the money changers and those selling doves, and He “would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.”
1. It is an extraordinary scene, isn’t it, the likes of which we have not encountered before in this Gospel. It is so unlike the gentle Jesus we have come to know.
2. If you have your bulletins, look for a moment at THE MAP OF JERUSALEM I have included in there for you. The temple area was massive and it took up nearly a third of the city. The temple itself is the little cross-shaped building in the centre. At the back of it was the Holy of holies that the High Priest could only enter once a year. In front of that and still indoors was the holy place where the candlestick had to be kept burning and the showbread had to be changed and the incense had to be refreshed every day by the duty priests. In front of the temple was an area where the priests could gather and between there and that gate that separates the court of the women was a place where Jewish men could gather. Then you had the court of Jewish women and outside the wall that immediately surrounded the temple you had the large court of the Gentiles or non-Jewish people.
3. Now, a few facts to help us understand what Jesus does here:
a. Way back in the LAW OF LEVITICUS, the Lord told the Israelites to bring an animal from their herd as their sacrifice and that it had to be an unblemished animal.
b. But as you can imagine, the idea of bringing a bull and sheep and some of your crops all the way from where you lived to Jerusalem was a pretty daunting task, especially if when you got there the priest said your animal was not good enough. So soon enough, people would sell animals and foodstuffs near Jerusalem to those who travelled from afar. So instead of bringing your own, you bought what you needed close to Jerusalem. It was much more convenient.
c. And the selling and buying of temple sacrifice material had been going on outside Jerusalem ON THE NEARBY MOUNT OF OLIVES for centuries. Apparently though, in AD 30, perhaps the very year we are reading about here, the temple authorities allowed this buying and selling to go on in the court of the Gentiles. For after all, let’s face it, in the minds of the Jews, it was just the court of the uncircumcised, second class Gentiles.
d. And of course, this probably made it easier for the temple authorities and the Priests to GET THEIR CUT OF THE SALES and have better control over the procedures. And of course, now the buyers didn’t even have to get their animals into Jerusalem. They were right there at the temple! How very convenient this all was.
e. But in the temple, the temple tax of half a shekel had to be paid by everyone. And only Jewish money was accepted. So moneychangers took foreign money and gave back Jewish money, charging just a small commission, you understand, to cover the cost of the license to change money they had to pay the temple authorities, and they too had to make a living, right?
f. But you will note also that DOVES are specifically mentioned. Doves were for those who were poor. If you could not afford a bull or a goat, you could offer a dove. But a dove you could bring from home was free while a dove brought at Jerusalem needed to be caught and caged and fed and then there was the profit margin for the seller and the cut for the license to sell from the priests… And soon enough, the whole point of doves for the poor was missing.
g. And to give you an idea of the scale of this whole thing, one Jewish historian tells us that in AD 65, 255,600 lambs were offered in Passover. And if you allow for 10 people celebrating every Passover, that means there were around 2.7 million people in and around Jerusalem!
h. But notice also that Jesus drives out those buying and selling. Yes, He is disgusted with the fact that this is being done in the court of the Gentiles, and with this whole scheme which is a complete rip off, but also with the people who meekly put up with this rort because it is convenient; because it suits them; because it makes the worship of God so much easier!
i. And finally, if you look at that map again, what is the quickest way to get from the Upper City to the Mount of Olives? Through the Court of the Gentiles. Now, in the Mishnah, the Jewish book of Bible interpretation and traditional rules, it was forbidden to carry your staff or sandal or wallet in the temple courts or to use it as a shortcut, because the temple was a place for worship. But from v16 it is clear that all those rules were being ignored. And the noise of all this going on would be deafening. Thus, the temple was more like a combination of Westfield Mall and the A&P show and Moorhouse Ave than a place of prayer.
2 Chronicles 6 describes the dedication of the temple that Solomon built. We are told that the priest bought the ark of the covenant into the Holy of holies. Solomon and the people stood outside the temple on the porch by the East side wall – it is called Solomon’s porch. 120 priests sounded trumpets “and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the LORD. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the LORD and sang: “He is good; His love endures forever.” Then the temple of the LORD was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple of God.”
Isaiah 6 tells us of the time that Isaiah saw the Lord in a vision, “seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above Him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.””
But now, IN JESUS’ DAY, the temple has become a place of outward ceremony, a place to make money, and a place of noise and convenience. What is going on there is a monstrous desecration of what should be holy ground.
1. Now, as we are going to see when we return to the fig tree in a few moments, much of what happens here at the temple has to do with the time for the temple coming to a close and the time of Jesus beginning! As we said at the beginning of the sermon, this episode heralds a cosmic shift in the way of salvation.
a. Sacrifices, by priests, at the temple in Jerusalem, as the way by which the Jews could come into the presence of God is about to be replaced by Jesus Christ, as the once for all sacrifice, by which all the nations, anywhere, can come into the presence of God!
i. You don’t need to be in a church building. You don’t need to have someone else do something for you. At any time, in any place, you can ask God to forgive your sins and trust in Jesus and His work on the cross to become a saved one!
ii. The age of Jesus Christ and the church and the nations is about to replace the age of Israel and sacrifices and the temple.
2. But there are some secondary applications we can draw from this passage also:
a. This passage serves as a warning to those who think that because they come to church, twice, they can engage in sin.
i. 1 Cor. 6 warns us about this. We read in the context of a discussion about sexual IMMORALITY, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.”
ii. And a couple of Saturdays ago, we men had breakfast at church and talked about counterfeit gods – IDOLS. Money, technology, fashion, social media, sports, sex; the things that we fantasize about or the things we get very anxious about can reveal our idols. But we are told in 1 Cor. 8:14, “Flee from idolatry.”
iii. And EPHESIANS 2 describes believers as those being built together as “a holy temple in the Lord.” And so, from Ephesians 4, we are to be humble and gentle and patient with one another. We are to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.” We are to speak truthfully and not lose our tempers and to not let any unwholesome talk come out of our mouths. Wives are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord, husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, children are to obey their parents, and so it continues. And all these commands are grounded in who we are in Christ.
So here you are in your Sunday best. You all look squeaky clean. But what is on the inside of your heart? How is your marriage? How is your language? Is there the fruit of the Spirit in your life? Or could it be that your being here is how you delude yourself into thinking that God doesn’t mind what you do or don’t do out there?
b. But secondly, God’s character has not changed from the OT to the NT. As we read in Hebrews 12:28-29, “Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably WITH REVERENCE AND AWE, for our “God is a consuming fire.””
i. I have been in some worship services elsewhere where people come and go all the time, often bringing a coffee back into the auditorium, where there is chatter and people showing each other holiday photos on their phones between the parts of the service or texting or facebooking.
ii. Thankfully, it is not like that here. But while it is nice to greet people who arrive at church, and especially guests with us for the service, or to greet each other and guests after the service, it is entirely appropriate that people be praying before the service, in order to prepare, and after the service, to meditate and ask the Lord to impress His word on their hearts. So we also have to be careful about what is convenient for us in all that surrounds the worship of Almighty God.
iii. Second services – 1950s – Sat night – Convenience – Lord’s Day – buyers and sellers.
Well, finally then, Jesus returns to Jerusalem the next morning and they see THE FIG TREE “withered from the roots.” This is clearly no ordinary shriveling; this is a miracle in response to the spoken word of Jesus. Just as God spoke and creation came to be, so the Son of God speaks and the fig tree withers.
And congregation, this is actually the LAST RECORDED MIRACLE OF JESUS IN THE GOSPEL OF MARK. And it is a miracle of judgment and destruction.
1. And that highlights, doesn’t it, by way of contrast, the beauty and patience of all His previous miracles of mercy and healing. But there does come a time when God’s judgment comes.
2. And the withering of this fig tree is a preview of what would happen in just 40 years from then. Jerusalem and the temple were utterly destroyed by the Romans. And Jesus will have more to say about this in ch. 13.
a. So we learn that God is very patient. But Judgment comes for the stubbornly rebellious.
3. But the key message here, as we have already observed, is that the age of Israel and sacrifices and the temple is about to be replaced with the age of Jesus Christ and the church and the nations.
4. And that is what Jesus reveals in vv22-25.
a. These words are not some random thoughts from Jesus about persistent prayer and forgiveness. These words are Jesus teaching about prayer and forgiveness but in the context of Him preparing the disciples for what will soon come.
i. Jesus and the disciples are about to go up THE mountain for any Jew – Mt. Zion on which is located Jerusalem. And the Jews, having misunderstood OT prophecy, believed that one day this mountain would be the tallest mountain in the world. This mountain was at the centre of how they thought about salvation.
ii. But with His words about praying that this mountain be thrown into the sea, Jesus is discarding that view. He is trying to remove the temple and Jerusalem from the way that His disciples think about salvation so that instead they see Him at the centre of salvation.
iii. And this is further echoed in what He says about forgiveness. How do you get forgiveness as a Jew? You go the temple and get a priest to offer a sacrifice for you. But Jesus is making this a personal you and God thing – you must forgive others and God will forgive you.
iv. And if anyone would ask Him about the need for a sacrifice in all this? Well, His answer will come in just a few days as he Himself hangs on the cross as the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world, once for all.
John 4 – Samaritan woman. Where? “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
Matthew 18:20 For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them
No longer about a place or our ethnicity. It is about believing in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.