“[Jesus] entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 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. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
Mark 11 presents readers with one of the strangest occurrences in Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the New Testament. When Jesus curses the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14, it is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus uses his miraculous power for wounding rather than healing. It is also Jesus’ last recorded miracle in Mark’s Gospel, which makes the reader wonder why Jesus would end his ministry of miracles on such a downer.
Because it is such an odd story it has yielded a variety of interpretations, some even dismissing the story as “simply incredible,” meaning that the story does not belong in the canon of Scripture. Bible scholar William Barclay commented that, “the story does not seem worthy of Jesus. There seems to be a petulance in it.” Indeed, Bertrand Russell, the 20th century philosopher, wrote an essay entitled, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” in which he pointed to this story as a reason he could not believe that Jesus was the Son of God. What he perceived as Jesus acting impulsively and vindictively did not strike Russell as very God-like.
The Meaning of the Cursed Fig Tree
Though meaning can be found, a reader will never make much sense of the cursed fig tree as long as it is separated from what is happening at the temple. That’s why Mark structures this story the way he does, as something of a temple-fig tree double decker sandwich. Verse 11 is about the temple, verses 12-14 are about the fig tree, verses 15-19 are about the temple again, and then verses 20-25 are about the fig tree again. It seems clear that Mark ties these two incidents together together. So what are we supposed to see?
Jesus Observes His Temple
In verse 11, Jesus fulfills several Old Testament prophecies, where the Lord himself comes into his temple to observe the worship of his people. For example, in Zechariah 9:8 God says,
Then I will encamp at my house as a guard,
so that none shall march to and fro;
no oppressor shall again march over them,
for now I see with my own eyes.
And in Malachi 3:1-2 we read,
And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
So, when Jesus enters the temple, Mark wants us to notice that Jesus comes not simply to observe it like a devout Jew, but he comes to judge it as God himself. Jesus comes to the temple and takes in what is going on, not as a man with human opinions about what he sees, but as God in the flesh with the authority to judge between true worship and false worship. Jesus sees through the lens of his perfect righteousness, which means that Jesus is not concerned with worship preferences, but worship purity.
So what did Jesus see in the temple when, in verse 11, he looks around and observes all that is happening there? We get the first hint at what Jesus saw in the temple in the story about the fig tree.
Jesus Observes Hypocrisy in the Fig Tree
The next day, Jesus and the disciples are making their way back into Jerusalem, and Jesus is hungry, and Jesus sees in the distance a fig tree in leaf. The fact that the tree is in leaf is a significant detail in the story. The tree is big and leafy. Even though it is not the season for mature figs, this tree has the appearance of abundance, the appearance of health, the appearance of fruitfulness. Yet Jesus upon closer examination discovers that this tree has no fruit. Specifically, it has no fruit for Jesus. It is then a hypocritical tree. It appears to promise one thing but actually does not deliver. It boasts of abundance, but is actually empty.
With that background, we are ready to make see the connection to the temple in verses 15-19.
Jesus Observes Hypocrisy in the Temple
The fig tree is meant to produce fruit, and when it doesn’t, it is failing. In the same way, the temple—and not just the temple but also the whole temple system with priests, holy days, ceremonies, and sacrifices—is meant to produce hearts that supremely love and worship God. When it is used for some other purpose and when it fails to produce its spiritual fruit, it is failing. This is the point of Jesus’ protest.
The temple was designed to point to an on-going, eternal, and abundant relationship between God and his people. All the festivals and sacrifices were meant to point to the twin realities that 1) people are incomplete in and of themselves because they were designed to depend on God for everything, and that 2) God has graciously chosen to dwell with his people as their loving, protective Father.
Sadly, upon inspection by the Son of God, the temple was not a place that drove people to see their sin and turn to God. Instead, it had become a place of business, a place for lining the pockets of the religious authorities in charge of temple life. To put it in today’s vernacular, it had gone from being God-centered to being man-centered, and Jesus began to rip the whole thing down. He turned over the tables of the money-changers who were gouging visitors from other regions with exorbitant currency exchange rates. He ran off those selling sacrificial animals at unconscionable prices.
Jesus’ clearing of the temple served the same function as the cursing of the fig tree: it exposed hypocrisy and condemned fruitlessness.
Do Our Churches Produce Leaves or Fruit?
It is easy to relegate the cursing of the fig tree and the condemnation of corrupt temple life to the first century, but it is for the good of the church that we bring both the fig tree and the temple into modern context. One way to do that is to ask this question: What does Jesus see as he looks around at our churches? According to a lot of what I see and hear about the evangelical church in America, I fear he’ll find churches that have massaged the scandal of the cross right out of the message of the gospel. As Jesus looks at the big green leaves of large buildings, comfortable chairs, and ample programs, I fear he’ll find churches that have equated worship with entertainment and personal preference. I fear he’ll find churches that are more interested in providing a personal emotional experience for oneself than experiencing the personal God of the gospel. I fear that Jesus will find too many churches that preach there is not a cross to carry and no flesh to crucify.
The question for us is whether or not we will strive to have churches that produce leaves or fruit? Will we settle for programs that make us feel good and worship that entertains us, or will we be faithful to promote what Jesus promotes, namely in this passage godliness, repentance, faithful prayer (verses 22-24), and forgiveness (verse 25)?