Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Fruitless Religion or Faithful Relationship: Mark 11:11-26

I have a good friend who grew up on a farm with a large apple orchard. He told me that he can remember seeing his dad carry a baseball bat out to the orchard where he would beat one of the apple trees near the trunk six or eight times. When he asked his dad why he did this, he was told that the tree had stopped producing fruit, and that whacking it with the bat would make it produce fruit again. Now, you have to understand, I am somewhat of a skeptic. I rarely take something at face value without first exploring it further. So, when I heard this, I didn’t want to call my friend or his dad a liar. After all, all I know about apples is that they taste good. So, I did a little research about this rather bizarre horticultural practice. And what I discovered was that my friend’s dad was right. It seems that beating the tree with a baseball bat “frightens” the tree, for lack of a better word, into thinking that it is going to die. It then goes into survival mode, and it begins to work harder to make itself fruitful again. Of course, that only works if the tree is not already dead. If it is dead, you just have to cut it down and plant a new one.

In our passage today, Jesus has a run-in with an unfruitful fig tree. Rather than striking the trunk with a large stick (baseball bats didn’t come around until about 1800 years later), Jesus cursed the fig tree, saying to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And as they were passing by the tree the next morning, they saw the tree, and they noticed that it had withered, the Bible says, “from the roots.” This was a miracle that occurred through the powerful word of Christ. He said it, and it happened. This is the last recorded miracle in Mark’s Gospel before the crucifixion, and it is the only one in the gospels which is completely destructive in nature. One may think of the incident involving the drowning of the swine in Mark 5, but remember that this miracle was not completely destructive, for it also involved the deliverance of a man who was possessed by a legion of demons. We can at least say that something good happened in that story. In this one, there is no positive side. The fig tree was cursed, and it withered up and died.

Now, this has met with an interesting range of responses from those who seek to interpret the passage. The famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, in his book Why I Am Not a Christian, accused Jesus of ‘vindictive fury’ in this incident, for the Scriptures plainly say that “it was not the season for figs.” This incident “tarnished the character of Jesus in Russell’s opinion, leading him to write, “I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history.”[1] Many who are friendlier to the Christian faith than Bertrand Russell was have stumbled over the passage for the same reason.

However, this is a hasty conclusion that demonstrates no understanding of what goes on during the fruit-bearing cycle of a fig tree. This event takes place on the Monday of Passover week, which would likely be in March or April. Prior to that time, fig trees sprout small green buds that the Hebrew people called paggim. Shortly after those appear, the leaves begin to come out on the branches. Therefore, a fig tree that is in leaf should be loaded with paggim, which will mature into figs during the summer months. These paggim were frequently eaten even in their early stages. Even though it was not the season for fully ripened figs, seeing the tree in leaf, Jesus expected it to offer Him something which would satisfy His hunger. But it didn’t. And since there were no paggim on the tree at this stage, there would be no figs on it later.[2]

Now we should not think that Jesus was surprised by this. After all, in the immediately preceding passage, He knows about the location of a specific animal in a nearby town. Surely He knows before He comes to the fig tree knowing that it will not have any edible buds on it. This particular tree has been chosen by Him for a specific purpose.

In Mark’s Gospel, we frequently encounter a literary device that the scholars refer to as intercalation. For simplicity, we call it a sandwich. We see the encounter with the fig tree in verses 12-14, and then return to the fig tree in verses 20-21. In the intervening verses we have the account of Jesus in the Temple. Now, when Mark employs this sandwich tactic, he intends for the two interwoven stories to work together to demonstrate the same point. The two episodes interpret one another. So, what happens with the fig tree and what happens in the Temple are interrelated, but how?

In the prophetic books of the Old Testament, we find several occasions where the prophets not only spoke, but acted out in dramatic fashion to illustrate visually the truth they wished to convey. In Isaiah 20, the prophet Isaiah was commanded by God to walk about naked and barefoot to illustrate how the Assyrians would shamefully lead the people of Egypt and Cush into captivity barefoot and naked. This was a warning to the people of Judah to not put their trust in these foreign powers for protection. This is but one example, but others could be given. In a similar way, the cursing of the fig tree is a prophetic action that accompanies the incident at the Temple and gives insight into what Jesus says and does there.

Because of its abundant fruit and its pleasant shade, the fig tree had become a symbol of Israel. God had chosen them to bear fruit for Him and promised them provision and protection. But like this fig tree which Jesus encountered on that Monday morning, the religious practices of Israel had become fruitless. Though the Temple was bustling with more activity than at any point in its history, it had ceased to produce any spiritual benefit for those who came in and out of it. And therefore, like the fig tree, the Temple was under the judgment of God. We often call this temple episode the “cleansing of the Temple,” as if it was Jesus’ intention to reform it and restore it to its former state. But this is not the case. In His words and actions, Jesus was declaring that the Temple would have no place or function in the Kingdom Christ had come to establish. Just as no one would ever eat fruit from the fig tree again, so also no one would ever find access to God through the religious practices of Jerusalem’s Temple.

The Temple of Jesus’ day was the third temple in Jerusalem. The first was Solomon’s Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians when they conquered the Southern Kingdom in 586 BC. The second was built by those who returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity under the leadership of Zerubbabel. Around 20 BC, Herod the Great began a massive campaign to build an even greater Temple. At the time that Jesus entered Jerusalem, it was still under construction, some fifty years later. Construction would not be completed until about 35 years later, in 66 AD. Eighty-six years in the making, the Temple would only survive for four years before the Romans leveled it. It has never been rebuilt. And if it ever is rebuilt, it will not change what took place on the Monday of Passover week when Jesus pronounced it to be fruitless. Christ Himself has become the dwelling place of God among men, and access to God now found only through personal faith in Him, not through religious rituals, professional priesthoods, and sacred sanctuaries.

In cursing the fig tree and condemning the Temple, Jesus pronounced full and final judgment on fruitless religion. But fruitless religion has not disappeared. It is found around the world today wherever people attempt to make spiritual headway apart from personal devotion to Jesus Christ. And much to our surprise, fruitless religion is often found even in the church of Jesus Christ, where man made-traditions, mechanistic programs, and cultural trappings have usurped the prominence of Christ. It does not matter when or where it takes place, fruitless religion remains under the condemnation of God in Christ.

Now, in the text, we find a contrast between fruitless religion and a faithful relationship with God. We must beware of the former, and be committed to the latter. To those two matters we turn our attention now.

I. We must beware of fruitless religion (vv11-21)

When Jesus sees a fig tree full of leaves, He expects to find edible buds on it to satisfy His hunger. Similarly, when people see the hustle and bustle of Temple activity, they expect to find spiritual help.

On the night before Jesus entered the Temple, the evening of the same day in which Jesus entered Jerusalem to the shouts of praising from the people, verse 11 tells us that He “came into the temple; and after looking around at everything, He left for Bethany ….” Notice what He saw: “Everything.” He saw all that was going on in the Temple. He saw the buying and selling of sacrificial animals. He saw the currency exchange taking place. He saw the slaughter of the animals. He saw the practices of the priesthood. He saw it all. And certainly there was much to see. The first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells us that in the year that the Temple was completed, some 30 years after this incident, more than 250,000 lambs were slaughtered at Passover.[3] There was much activity, but none of it was accomplishing anything of spiritual significance. The temple was like a tree full of leaves, but barren of fruit.

The Temple consisted of four divisions. The first division one would come to, the largest section of the Temple grounds, was designated as the Court of the Gentiles. Thirty-five acres in area, this portion of the Temple was surrounded by rows of massive columns thirty feet high and so big around that it took three adults holding hands to reach around them. A wall separated this area from the sanctuary proper, and a sign on the wall warned that no foreigners could enter any further upon the penalty of death. While this area was supposedly for God-fearing Gentiles to come and worship, the area had been overtaken by the trade of currency and animals. Currency exchange was necessary since the Temple would not receive Roman money, and the sale of animals was offered as a convenience to those who had no livestock of their own, or who had traveled great distances to worship. But, the money-changers and salesmen were charging outrageous fees for their services, and the Temple was taking a cut of the profits. There was no place for Gentiles to worship because of the marketing machine of the temple’s salesmen.

Jesus expressed outrage at this. He drove out the buyers and the sellers, and overturned the tables of the salesmen and the money changers and forbade anyone from carrying this religious merchandise through the courts of the Temple. And He spoke a word of stern rebuke to the religious system of the Temple, saying, “Is it not written, ‘MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL THE NATIONS.” Here Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 56:7, in which God had declared through the prophet that a day was coming when Gentiles would have no need to fear of being separated from the company of God’s people and would even be welcome as servants of God. But, the Jews had continued to keep that dividing wall in place barring the Gentiles from entering to worship the God who had promised that they would be welcome. Even in the outer court, the Gentiles were crowded out by the commerce taking place there.

Jesus said that this Temple which should have been a house of prayer for all nations had become a ROBBERS’ DEN. Now this is commonly understood as an indictment of the selling practices that were going on in the Temple courts. It is assumed that the money changers charged hefty fees for their services and that there was price gouging going on in the sale of the animals, and this is likely true. But, Jesus calls this a robbers’ den, and the den is not where the robbers rob. It is where the robbers retreat for safety after their deeds have been done. It is their hideout. So, what Jesus likely meant by referring to the temple as a robbers’ den is that the people were living immorally, and running to the temple thinking that they could find cheap grace and libertine license from God to continue their sinful practices. They thought they could come into the temple, perform some religious duty to appease the Lord and return to their godless ways of living. The Temple had become an institution of false assurances.

In this way, the Temple had outlived its usefulness for the purposes of God. Corruption, nationalistic prejudice, and greed had become the core values on which the institution thrived. There was no concern for the true things of God, only the perpetuation of the system. So, when Jesus came in and denounced the whole operation, He was viewed as a threat by those who were benefiting from the status quo. Verse 18 tells us that the chief priests and scribes, those who were profiting from all this activity, began to plot together at how they could destroy Jesus before He persuaded the whole nation to abandon the fruitless religion of the Temple.

When it comes to the fruitless fig tree, T. W. Manson writes that “It is a tale of miraculous power wasted in the service of ill-temper (for the supernatural energy employed to blast the unfortunate tree might have been more usefully expended in forcing a crop of figs out of season.”[4] But Manson does not understand that Jesus’ intention was not to reform the fig tree. His aim was to destroy it because it had ceased to perform the function for which God created it. When it comes to the fruitless religion of Jerusalem’s Temple, Jesus was not out to reform it. It has ceased to perform the function for which God created it. Therefore Jesus denounced it, and in time under the providence of God, the Temple would be toppled to ruins. God would no longer work through the system of the Temple’s ministries and worship to interact with men. He had withdrawn His hand from it altogether. Like the fig tree, the religion of the Temple had withered from the roots up.

Now we must beware that we are not likewise caught up in fruitless religion. Of course, we can easily make the connection between various systems of false belief that are found around the world today. But unfortunately, the same could be said for many churches. Just as Jesus came and observed all that took place at the temple, we must remember that He has a bird’s eye view of all that takes place in His name elsewhere as well. We must see to it that we do not mistake activity for spiritual vitality. They are busy, but spiritually unproductive. And in all their efforts, they actually have the effect of alienating others from God by their systems and programs rather than welcoming them in. And for those who are caught up in the perpetuation of these fruitless systems, there is the pitfall of false assurance, wherein they assume that God is pleased with them because of their religious activity, when in fact their hearts are far from God, and He is far from pleased with them. While God desires for them to be houses of prayer for all nations, they have become dens of robbers. And though the Church of Jesus Christ will continue to be the agent of God’s working in the world until Christ returns, no single church is immune from God withdrawing His hand of blessing and saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!”

So, what is the corrective or preventive measure to prevent this tragedy from occurring? In verses 22-26, Jesus states it.

II. We Must Be Committed to a Faithful Relationship with God (vv22-26)

As the disciples pass by the fig tree and notice that it is withered from the roots up, Peter brings this to Jesus’ attention. Jesus response seems to be unrelated: “Have faith in God.” What does this have to do with the withered fig tree?

The fig tree is dead, and so is the Temple. But, if the Temple is no longer the place where God will meet with man, we may wonder what hope does man have? Has God cut off all access to Himself? Jesus here tells His disciples that the Temple is not a necessary mediator between them and God. Because of what Christ has come to do for them, they will be able to come directly to the Father through Him. They need not have faith in temples or priesthoods or rituals. Their faith must be focused upon Christ and on His atoning work. He will die on the cross to bear the penalty of human sin, and be raised from the dead in victory over sin and death. Mark will tell us in Chapter 15 that as He breathed His last breath on the cross, the veil of the temple that served to keep humanity out of the presence of God was torn in two from the top to the bottom. Man would now have access to God through Christ, not through the empty rituals of the priesthood and the Temple. The way to God is through faith, a personal relationship with Him, made available by the shed blood of Jesus Christ, who said in John 14:6, “No one comes to the Father but by Me.”

And this life of faith is demonstrated in our dependence upon God in prayer. By faith one may say to this mountain, “be taken up and cast into the sea.” Now, this is not a promise of the removal of every difficulty in life. In fact the Bible promises that believers in Christ will face tremendous difficulties because of our faith in Him. This is not an invitation to attempt magical miracles as a test of our faith. Notice Jesus does not say, “Whoever says to any mountain,” but “Whoever says to THIS mountain.” Which mountain is He speaking of? It is very likely that He was speaking of the Temple mount. This high place which dominated the skyline of Jerusalem might as well disappear, and in time it would. In Christ, one may have the confident faith to say, “I have no need of this place anymore. It might as well be cast into the sea.” We must not doubt, holding back a secret superstition that temples and rituals are necessary, but believe with all of our hearts that this mountain of fruitless religion is spiritually worthless. And renouncing that fruitless religious system, one may come to God, and have access granted to Him by faith. And having that access, we may confidently present the concerns and needs of our heart to God in prayer. The writer of Hebrews says that because Jesus has become our high priest, we may “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” And because in Christ, God becomes a Father to His people, we may trust that He will give to us all good things.

Verse 24 must not be misunderstood to be a blank check from God. When we pray in Christ’s name, we pray in accordance with His word and His will. There are some things that Christians should not ask for in prayer, and which God will not grant. Every good parent exercises wisdom in granting their children’s requests, and God does the same. We can pray with confidence that even when God does not give us what we want, He will give us something even better. Paul prayed three times that his thorn in the flesh would be removed, but God did not grant that request. Instead, God promised him something better, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, and my strength is made perfect in your weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). As we make our requests known to God, we may have confidence that He will answer. His answers may not be what we want, what we are looking for, or what we expect, but we can know that He is good, and He meets our needs by His grace. When we don’t get what we want, we can be sure that we will receive something better. And as we grow in spiritual maturity, we will recognize it as such.

And our faith in God will also be demonstrated by the grace that saturates our lives. As we receive God’s grace in the forgiveness of our sins, we are empowered to forgive others with that same grace. In fact, Jesus indicates here that our willingness to forgive others is directly related to our ability to receive forgiveness for our own sins. I like to illustrate this principle like this: God has committed Himself to use the same size scoop for giving grace to us that we use with others. If we use a small scoop to give grace to others, He will use a small scoop for us. If we use a large scoop, so will He. The bottom line is that God would not have us to be receivers only of His grace, but dispensers of it as well. All the rituals of temple sacrifice and offerings have become unnecessary for forgiveness. By faith in God, we may both give and receive grace freely because of what Christ has done for us.

So, as we conclude, we must recall these two important lessons from this passage. We must beware of fruitless religion, that is all leaves and no fruit, all show and no substance, all activity and no spiritual vitality. And we must be committed to a faithful relationship with God through Christ – a relationship that is built on personal faith and trust, evidenced by dependence on God in prayer, and saturated in grace. As we turn toward God in faith, we turn our backs on the mountains of false and fruitless religion and say, “Be cast into the sea!” There may be one or more who need to do just that today. God may be speaking to your heart, inviting you this very moment to place your faith and trust in Jesus Christ who died for your sins and lives again to save you and forgive your past sins, and give you new life in the present, and eternal life in the future.

[1] James R. Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 339. Russell quotation cited there.

[2] Edwards, 339-340.

[3] Cited in Edwards, 341.

[4] Cited in Edwards, 339.

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