The Fig Tree, the Temple, and Prayer
Today’s passage is thick with symbolism. It’s a difficult passage unless you have the crucial background knowledge to get the meaning of the symbolism. And so we’re going to spend a lot of time looking at the Old Testament in order to understand what Jesus is doing and saying in the passage. But first, we need to remind ourselves of where we’ve been in Mark’s gospel.
In this sermon series, we’ve repeatedly noted the Messianic secret that marks the ministry of Jesus. Jesus does mighty works and signs and miracles and exorcisms that create certain expectations and hopes, while at the same time veiling his true identity as Israel’s Messiah and (even more shockingly) the Son of God. With his disciples, this Messianic secret builds until Mark 8, when Peter utters his famous confession. “You are the Christ.” Peter gets it. And Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone else about him, because, while they get that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, they don’t understand the nature of his kingdom and his mission.
For the last few chapters, we’ve seen the repeated confusion of the disciples about Jesus and the kingdom. Here’s the pattern.
1) Jesus explains what he’s about to do: “I’m going to suffer, die, and then be raised.”
2) The disciples are rebuke him, or they’re confused, or they misunderstand the nature of the kingdom.
3) Jesus then instructs them further in the nature of the kingdom and how they must live as citizens of God’s upside-down kingdom.
In 8:31-34, Jesus tells them. In 9:30-31, Jesus tells them. In 10:32-34, Jesus tells them again. And in the midst of this instruction about the mission of Jesus, the disciples reveal their confusion and Jesus teaches them.
1) They argue about who is the greatest, and Jesus tells them to be the servant of all and to receive children in his name as a litmus test.
2) They try to manage the kingdom, stopping ministry because some folks aren’t “following us,” and Jesus tells them, “The one who is not against us is for us.”
3) They rebuke children and blind men and try to keep them from getting to Jesus, and Jesus tells the children and the blind man to come.
4) They ask for the the best spots in the kingdom, at the right and left hand of Jesus, and Jesus reiterates that his kingdom is about service, because the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Last week, we saw that Jesus’s ministry has taken a particular and deliberate turn. Jesus and the disciples and the crowds are heading to Jerusalem and moving toward the climax of this story. They’ve passed through Jericho, healing Bartimaeus, who is now following them, and they’ve arrived at the suburbs of Jerusalem (Bethany and Bethpage). This passage is thick with symbolism and allusions to the Old Testament. For example, when Jesus is entering Jerusalem, he sends his disciples ahead of him to get a colt for him to ride. Mark doesn’t explain why, but Matthew does in his gospel (21:4-5).
This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet (Zechariah 9:9), saying,
5“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’ ”
This is a Messianic signal. Jesus is claiming the mantle of the Davidic king. He doesn’t have to say anything. Riding the colt into Jerusalem says it all. And the crowds who are traveling with him get the message. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” This crowd is alive with Messianic fervor. They are ready for a Deliverer.
The rest of the passage is oriented by Jesus and the temple (this will be a major theme for the next few chapters). Notice the movement.
1) Jesus enters Jerusalem and goes straight to the temple and has a look around. (11:11)
2) The next day, there is an incident with a fig tree. (11:12-14)
3) Then Jesus goes back to the temple and raises a ruckus. (11:15)
4) The next day, they go back to the fig tree. (11:20)
5) And then Jesus goes again to the temple and begins to have some confrontations with the chief priests and scribes (11:27)
Temple, fig tree, temple, fig tree, temple. And then the rest of ch. 11-12 is about Jesus’s battle of wits and wisdom with the chief priests and scribes. But first get the narrative. Jesus goes to the temple and checks it out. The next day, he sees a fig tree, he’s hungry, it’s leafing (even though it’s not fig season), but he can’t find any figs, so he curses the tree (“May no one ever eat fruit from you again”). Then he overturns the tables in the temple and teaches the people about what the temple is for (which provokes the priests and scribes to come after him). The next day, they find the fig tree withered, and he teaches his disciples about prayer using mountains and the sea. And then he returns to the temple for the showdown with the Jewish leaders.
Now, to understand this passage, you need to understand two pieces of the Old Testament background. First, throughout the Old Testament, God’s people and their obedience are often described in terms of fig trees and their fruit.
In Jeremiah 24, Jeremiah sees a vision of good figs and bad figs. God tells him that the good figs are the exiles of Judah that God will bring back and plant in the land, giving them one heart to know God, while the bad figs are king Zedekiah and the Jewish leaders who will become a horror and a byword and a curse. Hosea 9:10 describes God’s first encounter with Israel in Egypt in this way, “Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season, I saw your fathers.”
Micah 7:1-6 is most relevant in this regard.
1 Woe is me! For I have become
as when the summer fruit has been gathered,
as when the grapes have been gleaned:
there is no cluster to eat,
no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.
2 The godly has perished from the earth,
and there is no one upright among mankind;
they all lie in wait for blood,
and each hunts the other with a net.
3 Their hands are on what is evil, to do it well;
the prince and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul;
thus they weave it together.
4 The best of them is like a brier,
the most upright of them a thorn hedge.
The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come;
now their confusion is at hand.
5 Put no trust in a neighbor;
have no confidence in a friend;
guard the doors of your mouth
from her who lies in your arms;
6 for the son treats the father with contempt,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.
Second, we need to remember Israel’s expectation and hope that God would come to deliver them. Remember back in Mark 1, when we talked about what Mark and Jesus means by “gospel,” good news. Isaiah 40.
9 Go on up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
10 “Behold your God!”
Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
Again in Isaiah 52:7-10.
7 How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
8 The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the LORD to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
you waste places of Jerusalem,
for the LORD has comforted his people;
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The LORD has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Finally, Isaiah 61:1-3.
1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. (ESV)
So Israel’s expectation and hope is that, in the midst of their suffering and oppression, God will return to Zion, to Jerusalem, to the temple, and he will restore the glory of his house. He will bare his arm before the Gentiles and deliver his people. And so, here comes Jesus, the Son of David, returning to Jerusalem, to Zion, with shouts of acclimation. But instead of coming to comfort Zion, he wrecks the temple, driving out those who bought and sold there. And in the midst of that, he teaches. Mark’s summary of his teaching includes two quotations from the Old Testament. The first is from Isaiah 56:6-8, from in the midst of all of those gospel, good news passages, and it testifies that the good news isn’t just for Jews; it’s also for Gentiles who worship the living God.
6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
7 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.”
8 The Lord GOD,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.”
God will gather others besides those already gathered. And Jesus takes that good news passage, and he sets it next to another passage, this one from Jeremiah 7:1-11.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 “Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the LORD. 3 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’
5 “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.
8 “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.
And then God says that he will take that house, the one called by his name, the one in whom his people trust, and he will cast it out of his sight. And then, in the very next chapter, in Jeremiah 8:13, in describing God’s judgment on Israel for their sin and treachery and presumption, God says,
When I would gather them, declares the LORD,
there are no grapes on the vine,
nor figs on the fig tree;
even the leaves are withered,
and what I gave them has passed away from them.”
You pull all of this together, and here’s what we have. Israel is under Roman occupation, and they are eagerly hoping and anticipating the day that God returns to Zion to deliver them from their enemies and comfort them. And they’ve tried to get ready. Herod the Great spent over 45 years, refurbishing the temple, expanding its courts, giving it an upgrade, attempting to make Jerusalem great again. And now here comes Jesus, journeying to Jerusalem, returning to Zion, as the Son of David and Son of God, and he comes into this magnificent building and he says, “You’ve made Jerusalem great again. This an amazing structure. But you’ve forgotten what the temple is for. This is my house. My house. And it’s supposed to be a place where God’s people gather to pray and worship him. And like in Jeremiah’s day, you’ve turned it into a den of robbers. This building and all of this hustle and bustle is impressive. But it’s all leaves. It’s all a show. And there’s no fruit. And what good is a fig tree that has no fruit?”
That’s what all of this thick symbolism is designed to say. From riding on the colt, to cursing the false fig tree, to turning over the tables, Jesus is attempting to remind God’s people what the temple was for. It’s not for show. The size was fine. What provoked him was the substitution of hustle and bustle, of all kinds of economic/spiritual activity for the real purpose of the temple, which was to gather people to pray, to worship, to obey the living God.
Let’s think about the relevance of this for us. I have four aspects of prayer that I’d like us to think about. First, the fulfillment of the temple in the New Covenant is the church. We are the temple. We are the house of prayer for all nations. And so, when we gather, we need to remember what this gathering is for. And as we multiply and plant churches, we must send them out as houses of prayer for all peoples.
Second, it’s good and right for us to desire deliverance. We should pray, “Deliver me, O God.” But the fundamental deliverance that we need is deliverance from ourselves and our own sin. The people of Jesus’s day asked God to deliver them. “Deliver us from the Romans. Deliver us from oppression.” And that’s a good prayer. But it’s not the first prayer. What does it profit a man to be delivered from all external enemies and to still be enslaved to himself? “Deliver me” is one of my three most common prayers. The other two are “Help me” and “Thank you.” “Help me” is a prayer for assistance. I need help; I need strength. I need wisdom. I need words. “Deliver me” is a prayer for rescue. “Deliver me from my sinful desires. Deliver me from pride. Deliver me from anxiety. Deliver me from doubt and despair.” And when God gives the assistance, and when he gives the deliverance, “Thank you. Thank you.” Specific, sincere, targeted gratitude for concrete gifts and help and rescue, in hopes that those three prayers will be the on-ramp to worship and adoration.
Third, what do we do with the lesson from the fig tree? Say to the mountain, “Be thrown into the sea,” with no doubt, with rock-solid faith, it’ll happen. Pray, believing that you’ve received it, and you’ll get it. What is happening here?
The first thing to say is that I wonder if there is still some symbolism happening. When Jesus talks about “this mountain” being thrown into the “sea,” I think it’s possible that the mountain refers to the temple mountain and the sea refers to the nations, the Gentiles, because just as Israel is often symbolized by a fig tree in the Old Testament, the nations are often represented as the sea, the oceans. So there may still be some 1st century symbolism happening.
But even so, Jesus applies that lesson to prayer more broadly, and he does so in a way that makes us nervous. And I’ve been profoundly helped by C. S. Lewis’s understanding of this passage. He has three counsels. The first counsel Lewis has is that we must not attempt to gin up this “faith” on our own. That’s our tendency. Jesus says, “Have faith, with no doubt,” and so we try to produce faith in our own power, which often means combining a desperate desire with a strong imagination to produce a subjective feeling we then call “faith.” We begin to measure the value of our prayers by our success in immediately producing certain feelings. Lewis encourages us not to try and gin up faith and feelings in that way.
Second, Lewis distinguishes between three ways someone might approach God in prayer: as a suitor, as a servant, or as a friend. A suitor makes requests but struggles to know whether he is truly heard by God. As a result, the suitor may be satisfied if his request is taken into account, even if it is not granted in the end. The struggle for the suitor is precisely to believe that, however circumstances may look, God does hear our prayers. And some of you are there. You’re wondering, “Does God even hear me?” You don’t mind if he refuses; you just want to know that he’s there and that he’s listening. Lewis says, “our faith can survive many refusals if they are really refusals and not mere disregards. The apparent stone will be bread to us if we believe that a Father’s hand put it into ours, in mercy or in justice or even in rebuke. It is hard and bitter, yet it can be chewed and swallowed.” And if that’s you, I just want you to know that God has heard every one of your prayers. Not one of them has been lost.
A step above the suitor is the servant. The servant has confidence in his master’s reality and goodness. He knows that God hears him, but he doesn’t know all that God is up to. He is not “in on his master’s secrets,” even if he is under his master’s orders. Thus, to approach God as a servant is to be confident in God’s existence, goodness, and wisdom and to stand ready to do his will, whatever that might be. The struggle for the servant is in carrying out that will.
Above the servant (in the highest place attainable by a man) is the friend of God, the one who stands before the Lord, like Abraham and Moses, “face-to-face.” The friend of God has been let in on the Master’s secrets. He knows the plans behind the orders. He is God’s fellow worker, and his requests are confident precisely because he sees the work as a whole and is simply asking for what is needed to complete the job. Here is where the promise of answered prayer in Mark 11:24 applies. “It is the prophet’s, the apostle’s, the missionary’s, the healer’s prayer that is made with this confidence and finds the confidence justified by the event.” When God grants us the special type of faith seen in Mark 11 or James 5, he makes us his colleagues, uniting us to himself to such a degree that something like the divine foreknowledge enters our minds so that in praying, we believe that we have already received what we asked for.
Because of this, Jesus’s words in Mark 11 are not really addressed to the condition in which most of us live. We live at the intersection of level 1 and level 2, sometimes suitors, sometimes servants. Should God in his wisdom elevate us to be his fellow workers and grant us the gift of faith, we should, by all means, seek to move mountains. But if he does not, we must be content to be servants, remembering with Milton that “they also serve who only stand and wait.”
The last lesson of this passage has to do with Jesus’s exhortation about forgiveness. When you pray, forgive, so that you will be forgiven. You can’t hold onto bitterness and receive the grace of Jesus. As long as you are clinging to the offense, you can’t open your hand to receive the mercy of God. And some of you are there. For some of you, the biggest hindrance to your prayers, to your engagement with God, is that you have something against someone and you won’t let it go. You’re desperate for your soul to rise to God, but it’s shackled by bitterness, resentment, anger, and even low-grade frustration and annoyance at small offenses. It could be something big; it could be something small. Either way, you won’t let it go, and big or small, it’s a massive weight that keeps your prayers grounded.
Which brings us to the Table. This is the Table, where we apply all of these. We are God’s house, gathered for prayer. And we gather at this Table. And we gather here, not just as suitors, and not just as servants, but as the friends of Jesus, as the sons and daughters of God. Here we pray, and we ask for forgiveness (because this is a table of mercy); we ask for help (because this is a table of assistance); we ask for deliverance (because through Christ God has rescued us), and we say “Thank you” (because this is the Eucharist, the table of thanksgiving). So come and welcome to Jesus Christ.