The Parable of the Fig Tree (Mark 11:12-26)

Mark-11
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The Parable of the Fig Tree
Sunday, December 3rd, 2023
Christ Covenant Church – Centralia, WA

Mark 11:12-26

12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: 13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. 14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.

15 And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; 16 And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. 17 And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves. 18 And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine. 19 And when even was come, he went out of the city.

20 And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. 21 And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. 22 And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God. 23 For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. 24 Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. 25 And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. 26 But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.

Prayer

Father, we confess that there are times when we are as stubborn and immoveable as mountains in our unwillingness to forgive others. And so we ask now that you would cast us into a sea of grace and mercy as we behold Christ entering the temple and exercising judgment upon it. Make us to be fruitful in love and good works, so that we might be assured of our salvation and look with greater hope and joy to your final judgment. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Introduction

It is Monday of Passion week in Mark’s Gospel. In just a few days, Jesus will be captured, crucified, and buried, and then the third day rise from the dead. And as Jesus approaches the ultimate end for which He came to this earth, that is, to die and rise for you, we see also that his warnings of judgment intensify.

  • You see, it is one thing to reject Jesus when he has not yet fully revealed Himself to be the eternal Son of God. You could be forgiven at this point for not recognizing that Jesus is a Divine Person who created the world and created you. You could be forgiven for rejecting someone that appears to be a mere man, and you would be right to not worship him if that is all that he is. But with every new miracle Jesus performs, and every new sign and wonder and teaching that Jesus gives, the more your culpability increases.
    • That is to say, the more you know about Jesus, and who He is, and what He has done, the more dangerous it is to not obey Jesus as Lord.
  • It is this rejection of Jesus as God that will eventually burn the city of Jerusalem to the ground 40 years later. In AD 70, during the Jewish/Roman War, the words of Christ were fulfilled that “not one stone of the temple shall be left upon another” (Mark 13:2).
  • And so what we have in our text this morning, is actually the final miracle Mark records before the resurrection. And as with all of Jesus’ actions and miracles, this one also has great symbolic import.
  • What is the miracle? It is the accelerated destruction of a fig tree. Jesus curses a fig tree, and the next day it is all dried up. We have to admit that this is kind of an odd miracle to go out with. If the resurrection is the grand finale, cursing and killing a fig tree is an odd setup. So what does Jesus want to teach us by it? That is the question we will be answering in our sermon.

Division of the Text

Our passage divides neatly into three sections:

  • In verses 12-14, Jesus curses the fig tree.
  • In verses 15-19, Jesus casts out the buyers and sellers in the temple.
  • In verses 20-26, The disciples see the fig tree is dead, and Jesus teaches about prayer.
  • So you will notice that in between the cursing of the fig tree and its apparent death is the judgment on the temple, and Mark has placed these two actions together because they are mutually interpreting, one explains the other. So with that in mind, let us walk through our text.

Verse 12

12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:

  • We recall that Jesus is likely staying with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus at their home in Bethany. Bethany is situated on the Mount of Olives and is just a few miles outside the walls of Jerusalem.
  • We remember also that Jesus just visited the temple and surveyed what was going on there the night before. So Jesus and his disciples arise and set off to go back to Jerusalem, and on the way we are told, Jesus was hungry.
  • Now because Jesus is a Divine person with a human nature (not a human person with a Divine nature), the fact that Jesus is said to be hungry here is not just because he skipped breakfast that morning.
    • We already know that Jesus went forty days and forty nights without eating while he was tempted in the wilderness, so the purpose of his decision to be hungry here is to teach us something, and what is that lesson? It is to teach us that God is “hungry” for us.
  • Have you ever wondered why God commanded Israel to offer him all the firstborn of their animals, and the firstfruits of all their harvest, and to appear before him in Jerusalem three times a year. Why does God command that His people give him a tenth of the increase? Why do we tithe?
    • Well, it is obviously not because God needs animals or fruit or anything from us. God has no body that needs to be fed. God is all-sufficient in Himself, He is absolutely perfect, we can add nothing to Him. Therefore, the reason God commands us to tithe and offer Him our firstfruits, is because we need Him. We need regular and constant reminders that all that we have comes from God and we are utterly dependent on Him.
    • Moreover, the animals and fruits and offerings themselves are signs of us, they are signs of our works. When you give a gift to someone you love, you are trying to give them a piece of yourself. Our gifts are meaningful because they represent our love, our appreciation, our devotion. And because we cannot literally give ourselves to someone else (except in marriage), gifts are a proxy, they stand in for us.
    • And so when God commands His people to tithe and give Him the firstfruits, God is actually trying to give us more of Himself. When we give to God, we are the ones who actually get rich. We place something temporal and fleeting on the altar (an animal that God has no need for), and we receive back from Him something spiritual and everlasting (love, joy, peace, salvation). For as Jesus says, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” And so to give to God, because he is “hungry,” is really to receive from God what our souls are hungry for.
    • When we give, we are deified, we partake of the divine nature in that we become like God who is the Giver of all things (2 Peter 1:4).
  • So when Jesus chooses to be hungry here, he is signifying that God is hungry for us. God desires us, and we ought to desire Him.

Verse 13

13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.

  • So hungry Jesus sees from afar what looks like a healthy fig tree. But when he gets closer, he finds that the tree is all leaves and no fruit. And Mark adds the comment, “for the time of figs was not yet.”
    • Now we already know that these events took place during Passover week which is early spring, so either the last week of March or the first week of April.
    • We also know from other places in Scripture, like Song of Solomon 2:13, that in the springtime green figs would begin to grow, and then by late summer they would be ready to harvest.
    • Jesus Himself will say a couple chapters later in Mark 13:28, “Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender, and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near.”
  • So this is a fig tree that looks promising from a distance, its leaves are growing, but when Jesus comes to it, he finds there are no green figs. There are no beginnings of what will become a late summer harvest.
  • And so what does hungry Jesus say to the fig tree?

Verse 14

14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.

  • Notice that Jesus is not making the tree unfruitful, it is already unfruitful, and therefore his curse is really just telling the honest truth about the health of the tree. Jesus is like a doctor giving the diagnosis that this fig tree, for all its appearances of life, will never produce figs. It is barren, it is sterile, it is all leaves and no fruit.
  • “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever.” If there are no beginnings, no green figs now, there won’t be any ripe figs later.
  • So Jesus declares this and the disciples hear it. That’s our first scene. Jesus sees the fig tree from afar, it has the appearance of life, but when he comes near to it, it is fruitless and so he declares its judgment. And now Jesus, having seen Jerusalem from afar, and inspected it the night before, comes to judge the temple.

Verses 15-16

15 And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; 16 And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple.

  • Now it is common for interpreters to see in this scene a kind of divine commentary on class warfare, where Jesus is turning over the tables of the capitalists/money changers because their exchange rates are too high. Or Jesus is condemning the price gouging at the temple, kind of like we experience at the airport. They don’t let you bring any liquids through security and then charge you $8 for a bottle of water.
    • And while there was certainly economic oppression taking place at the temple, that is not the only or even primary reason why Jesus is turning over the tables.
    • And we know this because Jesus is not just casting out the sellers (for their high prices, etc.), he is also casting out the buyers. Verse 15 says he “cast out them that sold and bought in the temple.”
    • Selling doves and other sacrificial animals was actually a convenience for those who had no animals of their own or didn’t want to risk traveling with their spotless firstborn lamb all those miles, only for it to get injured and then be unable to sacrifice it at the temple. So the buying and selling in itself is not the problem.
    • So what is the problem? According to Jesus, the problem is where they are doing it and why.

Verses 17-19

17 And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves. 18 And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine. 19 And when even was come, he went out of the city.

  • There are two Old Testament passages that Jesus quotes here. And when you hear them in their full context, it really makes clear why Jesus does what he does. So I am going to read to you couple larger chunks of text so that we can understand the force of his teaching.
  • When Jesus says, “my house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer,” he is quoting from Isaiah 56:7.
    • Isaiah 56:1-8 says, Thus says the Lord: “Keep justice, and do righteousness, For My salvation is about to come, And My righteousness to be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, And the son of man who lays hold on it; Who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, And keeps his hand from doing any evil.” Do not let the son of the foreigner Who has joined himself to the Lord Speak, saying, “The Lord has utterly separated me from His people”; Nor let the eunuch say, “Here I am, a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, And choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant, Even to them I will give in My house And within My walls a place and a name Better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name That shall not be cut off. “Also the sons of the foreigner Who join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, And to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants— Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, And holds fast My covenant— Even them 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 nations.” The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says, “Yet I will gather to him Others besides those who are gathered to him.”
    • The whole point of this section in Isaiah is that God’s house, God’s temple, God’s mountain, is a place of worship for all nations, for foreigners, for eunuchs, for the children of Gentiles who love the Lord, God says “to them I will give in My house and within my walls a place and a name better than sons and daughters.”
    • And yet, what the Jews had done is take away those places within God’s house. They kicked out the Gentiles, they erected a wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14), and turned their place of worship into a place for trade. And so Jesus comes to set things right.
  • The second text Jesus quotes is from Jeremiah 7:11, and I’ll read a few portions of the surrounding context.
    • Jeremiah 7:1-7, 11 says, “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah who enter in at these gates to worship the Lord!’ ” Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Do not trust in these lying words, saying, ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these.’ “For if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings, if you thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, or walk after other gods to your hurt, then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever…11 Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” says the Lord.”
    • So Jeremiah is sent to the temple to call the Jews to repentance, and the charge against them is that they trust in the physical temple (with its pomp and beauty and external glory, their “leaves”), and they think that they are safe there, despite all their wickedness and injustice and bloodshed.
    • So the Jews had turned the temple into their mafia hideout space, their robber’s den. They had turned God’s House into a front for their money laundering schemes. And Jeremiah warns them that the temple is not going to protect them if they are disobeying God, and in fact, it’s actually going to be even worse for them if they remain there without repentance.
    • If you read on in the book of Jeremiah, you will learn that he is one of the prophets who lived through the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem.
    • And so when Jesus comes to the temple, quoting these lines from Isaiah and Jeremiah, he is putting them on notice that if they do not repent, the same thing that happened to the temple in Jeremiah’s day (their house being left desolate), is going to happen to them.
    • Jerusalem and its temple, the scribes and the pharisees, are the fig tree that you can see from a distance, and it appears beautiful and healthy and full of leaves. But when Jesus comes to it, there is no fruit. They are dead inside.
  • This is further proved by how the scribes and chief priests react to this teaching. They could have repented and welcomed the Gentiles back. They could have confessed and acknowledge that what they were doing was contrary to God’s law. But instead, they mark Jesus as someone who needs to be taken out. Verse 18 says, “And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine.”
  • Summary: The fig tree is a parable of Jerusalem and its future. If they do not bear fruit, if they persist in hypocrisy, no man will ever eat fruit from it again. The temple will be destroyed and as Jesus says in Matthew 21:43, “the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.”
  • Well after this judgment on the fig tree and the temple, Jesus elaborates on how this transfer of the kingdom will take place.

Verses 20-26

20 And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. 21 And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. 22 And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God. 23 For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. 24 Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. 25 And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. 26 But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.

  • Now this may seem at first like a non-sequitur. Why does Jesus go from foretelling Jerusalem’s destruction to teaching about faith, and mountains, and the power of prayer?
  • Well first, remember that Jerusalem is the mountain of prayer. The temple also is structured like a mountain laid our horizontally, so that as you go in from the outer court to the inner court to the altar to the sanctuary to the most holy place, you are symbolically ascending from the base of Mount Sinai to the darkness of God’s throne and glory cloud.
  • So when Jesus tells his disciples that by their faith in God they can move mountains, this is of course literally true, in that God can do whatever He wants, and if we ask according to His will, it will be done. If God can part the Red Sea, and make the sun to stand still, and rain down bread from heaven, he can certainly move a mountain if there is real need to move it.
  • Now although it is literally true that God can move mountains by our prayers, I believe that Jesus has something more specific in mind that is unique to the apostles and the 1st century. And that is that when Jerusalem and the temple mountain is destroyed, the church is going to become the new place of worship. The church is going to become the house of prayer for all nations. And this is why Jesus then speaks so forcefully about forgiveness.
    • The reason why Jesus was angry at the Jews for excluding the Gentiles, was because Gentiles need the forgiveness of sins. And under the Old Covenant, that seeking of God’s forgiveness was ritualized by the temple sacrifices. And so the Jews were actually getting in the way of God cleansing the nations. Instead of being like that river of living water that flowed out of Ezekiel’s visionary temple, they had become like the dead sea. They were ingrown, and hostile, and did not want God’s grace going out to the ends of the earth.
    • And what we find in the book of Acts, and the rest of the New Testament, is the Jewish establishmentdoubling down on this rejection of Christ. And by the prayers of the church in the 1st century, God did indeed cast that mountain into the sea. The sea is a common symbol of the Gentile nations, and Jesus says in Luke 21:24, “Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
  • So Jesus is giving instructions about Jerusalem’s future and the transfer of the kingdom to the church. As it says in Hebrews 12:22, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven.”
  • The Christian Church which is Christ’s body, is the new temple and house of prayer for all nations.
    • And Jesus wants his apostles, who are going to be the foundation for that church, to not make the same mistake the Jews made. Whereas the Jews were withholding forgiveness from the Gentiles, exchanging their salvation for worldly profit, Jesus commands the apostles to offer forgiveness to the nations freely.
  • This is why he says to them, “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.
  • And then he seals that command to forgive with a solemn warning: 26 But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
  • Jerusalem was destroyed because they stopped worshipping God. They rejected Christ, they refused forgiveness, and they turned God’s house into a hideout for thieves. And whenever the church becomes like this, God comes to it, Jesus visits his church every Lord’s Day and investigates to see if there is any fruit on our fig tree. And if there is not, curse and judgment will fall.
    • The first three chapters of the book of Revelation is Jesus sending letters of discipline (and commendation) to the seven churches. So this is not just an Old Covenant reality, it is something that Christ continues to do today.
    • If we are lukewarm, he will spit us out of his mouth. If we are tolerant of immorality and false teaching and allow the spirit of Jezebel to infect the church, Jesus will come and discipline us.
    • Jesus says in Revelation 2:18 to the church at Thyatira, “I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds. I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works.” This is what the risen and glorified Jesus says to his church.

Conclusion

Jesus is zealous for the purity of his bride. He wants you to be spotless and without blemish. He wants you to be fruitful and to bear fruit that remains. And the only way this can happen is if you seek forgiveness for your sins, and you forgive those who have sinned against you. That is how you become a Christian and that is how you stay a Christian. It’s really that simple.

  • So don’t be all leaves and no fruit, lest you dry up and whither. Come to Christ, and He will make you alive.
  • In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
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