Continuing with a study of the passages from St Mark’s Gospel which are not found in the Lectionary for public worship, we come to the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree.
Jesus Curses the Fig Tree
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
This episode in Jesus’s life occurred after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when His Passion Week began.
Jesus and the Twelve Apostles were in Jerusalem by day and nearby Bethany at night. Recall that the day before Palm Sunday, Jesus raised His good friend Lazarus — brother of Mary and Martha — from the dead (John 11:1-45). (This is known as Lazarus Saturday in the Orthodox churches.) Lazarus and his sisters lived together in Bethany. They were hosts to Jesus and the Apostles.
As He and the Twelve left Bethany for Jerusalem, Jesus, hungry, approached one of the ubiquitous fig trees in the Holy Land (verse 12). John MacArthur says that fig trees bear fruit first, then their leaves. Although the fruits in springtime — when this takes place (Passover Week) — are small, they are perfectly edible (verse 13). (They mature by late summer into early autumn.)
Jesus became angry and cursed the tree from bearing any fruit in future (verse 14). It’s understandable that casual readers or listeners of Scripture would find this puzzling: Jesus’s ire at one tree among hundreds that He could probably see. Why not just go to another and gather fruit from it?
Yet, after this occurs, Jesus reaches Jerusalem and His anger reaches fever pitch in clearing out the temple stalls where animals and money were being traded for the necessary sacrifices. It was a bazaar within the temple grounds and one which was corrupt to its core. Furthermore, the Jewish leaders who had so soundly rejected Jesus allowed this corruption to carry on unabated.
If, by now, you’re drawing an analogy between the dud fig tree and the temple in Jerusalem, you’ve understood the metaphor.
St Matthew’s version of the story expands on the curse of the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22, emphases mine):
Jesus Curses the Fig Tree
18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
20When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
Matthew’s passage holds a message for us about the power of faith. Some offline friends of mine consider my advice to pray frequently an empty platitude. Yet, this is what our Lord advised then and now. Sincere, deep faith brings about profound changes in our lives through His grace, enabling us to make better choices and overcome adversity.
Going back to Jesus’s cursing of the fig tree, however, and the analogy to the destruction of the Temple, it’s as if Jesus were saying, ‘I came expressly for you and you rejected Me — now your condemnation has come’.
Matthew Henry analysed Jesus’s curse as follows:
Christ was willing to make an example of it, not to the trees, but to the men, of that generation, and therefore cursed it with that curse which is the reverse of the first blessing, Be fruitful; he said unto it, Never let any man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever, v. 14. Sweetness and good fruit are, in Jotham’s parable, the honour of the fig-tree (Jdg. 9:11), and its serviceableness therein to man, preferable to the preferment of being promoted over the trees; now to be deprived of that, was a grievous curse. This was intended to be a type and figure of the doom passed upon the Jewish church, to which he came, seeking fruit, but found none (Lu. 13:6, 7); and though it was not, according to the doom in the parable, immediately cut down, yet, according to this in the history, blindness and hardness befel them (Rom. 11:8, 25), so that they were from henceforth good for nothing. The disciples heard what sentence Christ passed on this tree, and took notice of it. Woes from Christ’s mouth are to be observed and kept in mind, as well as blessings.
Indeed, in 70 AD, the Romans destroyed the temple. However, earlier, after Jesus breathed His last on the Cross (Good Friday), the curtain separating the inner temple from the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem was rent in two — another warning of the destruction to come several decades later.
John MacArthur tells us that the Temple Jesus was in was the third temple. He relates the history of the temples:
Genesis 22. Abraham is told by God to go to a very specific place, Mount Moriah, and there to offer Isaac, his son, as a sacrifice. When he gets there, both his father and son dutifully follow through on what God commands, but God spares Isaac, provides a lamb and a lamb is sacrificed on Mount Moriah. That is a very special place where that symbolic sacrifice was made because 900 years later, around 988 B.C., David purchased Mount Moriah from Ornan; that is recorded in 1 Chronicles 21, David buys this piece of land that juts out and is the peak on the east side of the great city of Jerusalem.
Six years later, his son, Solomon, begins to build the temple there, the place where sacrifices such as the one God provided in Genesis 22 will continue to be made. Solomon builds this great unparalleled building called the Temple. Its description is found, of course, back in 1 Chronicles and 1 Kings. It is a monumental feat of construction, overlaid with gold and all kinds of precious things in tribute to God.
Three hundred years later, plus 350, Babylon destroys that temple, levels it to the ground and plunders everything that’s valuable. Why? Because God uses Babylon to bring divine judgment on false religion. Israel is apostate. The Judaism is corrupt. The people are corrupt. The leaders are corrupt. The priests are corrupt. Jeremiah says the shepherds are corrupt. The prophets are corrupt. The nation is therefore corrupt and because of idolatry, sin and unbelief, the great massive first temple is destroyed.
Seventy years later, the people come back from captivity. The want a temple. They are enabled by Zerubbabel to build a very modest temple, nothing like Solomon’s temple. And in 515 B.C., that second temple, as it is called, is finished, according to Ezra 6:15.
A few hundred years pass. Antiochus, pagan ruler, warrior, desecrates the temple. He does it by putting a statue of the god Jupiter inside the temple, thus paganizing it and by doing something he knew would infuriate the Jews, he slaughters pigs on the altar. That second temple is thus desecrated. There’s a modest revival of temple worship three years later under a man named Judas Maccabees, but the religion continues to apostatize. No more idols since the destruction of the first temple, but apostasy, false religion, hypocrisy, superficiality, false worship continued to prevail in that second temple.
Twenty B.C. comes along, a great king by the name of Herod, an Idumaean king decides that he will be the man who will build the temple. And so we get the third temple which was really a kind of overhaul, an expansion of the second temple. From 20 B.C., to 64 A.D., about 84 years, he builds that temple. Seventy A.D., six years after it’s finished, the Romans come and smash it to the ground, leaving not one stone left on top of another and plunder it again as it had been plundered in the past. The stories of the temple is the story of Israel’s repeated cycle of apostasy. He built the temple to worship God. You dedicate the temple, you dedicate yourself, you fall in to false religion, hypocrisy, superficiality, pretense and God brings judgment and the judgment comes at the point at the heart of Israel at the temple. The nation falls, but the temple is crushed. Once by the Babylonians, again it is for all intents and purposes, desecrated by Antiochus and again by Titus Vespasian, the great Roman general in 70 A.D. And as you well know, there has never been a temple in Jerusalem since.
The direct application of the curse is to the temple, but it expands to the temple leadership and the temple participants and thus to the nation and becomes very personal…very personal. Paul says they had a zeal for God but not according to knowledge. They made a fatal flaw. They didn’t worship idols, that wasn’t what they did, that’s what caused the destruction of the first temple. And an idol caused the destruction of the second temple. The destruction of this temple is not about idols, it’s about thinking you can establish your own righteousness, Romans 10.
So, you see the curse portrayed and previewed in analogy. Secondly, the curse portrayed and previewed in action. “Then they came to Jerusalem and He entered the temple.” Matthew adds, “The temple of God…the temple of God,” to give a clear contrast between the ungodly activity that was going on there. He was not going to attack Rome. He was not going to elevate Israel, like the populace would have wanted Him to do to fulfill their messianic expectations. Rather He set to assault Israel and to assault Israel right at its heart where the judgment of God seemed always to fall when it came in cataclysmic form on the temple and from the temple reverberates to the nation.
One cannot help but think of the Church today — our many apostate and compromising clergymen who play to the world instead of the soul. Congregations worldwide then descend into weakened faith and moral dereliction. Churches empty. Yet, when lax Christians see and hear a good shepherd of the flock, they immediately gravitate towards him. The problem is that there are not enough good shepherds on the ground. We have many reivers — men who wish to pilfer the flock and lead them into false teaching and heresy. Today, generally speaking, our faith is compromised.
It is time for more of us to return to the Bible, to prayer, to faith. We can see that our apostasy — again, generally speaking — is spreading to our nations and governments, allowing evil to gain a foothold. What did Jesus and the authors of the Epistles say? Repent, repent, repent. All is not lost, however, we must mend our ways starting today.
A corrupt Church means a corrupt nation.
Yes, Christ’s bride the Church will ultimately prevail, but it is time to reread Revelation 2 and 3, namely, His letters to the seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
It’s odd, isn’t it, that not one of those letters is in the Lectionary. Not a single one.
Yet, they have so many lessons to teach us. Only Philadelphia, after which the American city is named, receives His praise.
In closing, this is what MacArthur has to say about the social gospel with regard to Jesus’s earthly ministry:
Our Lord walks through the world and was absolutely aware of everything. To what degree He exercised His omniscience, we don’t know. He put some restrictions on it occasionally. On other occasions it was clear that He knew things that couldn’t be known if He wasn’t God. But I’ll promise you this, He could make an assessment of His day.
And a deeper one than anybody else could have made. Do you think He found disturbing realities in His life? Do you think He found in the town that He grew up in and in the nation that He lived in and among the people that He interacted with every day inequities, injustices? Of course. Nothing escaped Him. He saw every disturbing reality. He saw every successful criminal campaign among the tax collectors, who were basically stealing money from the people under sheer threat of life and limb. He saw that inequity. He saw the abuse of the poor who were deemed in the theological system to be under the curse of God and therefore to be left that way. He saw the terrible plight of the sick and the infirm who also were deemed to be under divine judgment and to be left that way as if they were Hindus and saying this is their karma. He saw all that.
And I’m sure there were many things that called for social reform and many things that called for political action. They needed reformers to take care of those things. They needed soldiers to protect people from criminal conduct. But He never addressed any of that, none of it. He didn’t talk about societal reformation, didn’t talk about political changes. He didn’t talk about changing the situation for poor people and for ill people, sick people. Was He disturbed by it? Sure, everything that wasn’t righteous disturbed Him. But He never deviated from a true and dominating issue that occupied His entire life and that was worship…that was worship. A man’s relationship to God was the issue with Him and nothing else ultimately could ever be corrected until that was corrected. Worship was always the issue.
And so, He went to the temple at the beginning. He went to the temple at the end. And He confronted the corruption of Israel’s religion all three years in between. When the temple is corrupt, it’s because the leaders are corrupt. When the leaders are corrupt, the people are corrupt. When the people are corrupt, the nation is corrupt. If it’s bad in the temple, it’s bad everywhere. And I say to you in a general sense, the measure of any society is its worship. You cannot judge a people by their economic status. You cannot judge a nation by its economics. God doesn’t. You can’t judge a nation by its social equity. You can’t judge a nation by its concern for protection of people from harm. That’s superficial. You judge a nation by its worship. That’s how God judges. And it’s worship that determines eternal destiny.
The Lord always goes to the temple, to the heart of worship … Judgment always begins with the house of God.
Next week’s post will address Mark’s revisiting of the withered fig tree; the verses are similar to those in Matthew 20:21-22.
Next week: Mark 11:20-25