Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Cursed Tree and a Cleansed Temple

The King had entered Jerusalem (Mark 11:1-11). Without doubt, His procession was the lowliest and meekest of any monarch in history, but just as the timing of His coming was according to the Divine plan, so too was the manner of His coming. Jesus came as the Sovereign Servant; seeking to serve rather than be served, and to give His life as a ransom for many. Do not confuse the meekness of Christ with weakness. Jesus was the master, not only of Himself but of every situation. In today’s text - Mark 11:11-26 - we see His awesome authority and His burning zeal for the things of God.

Upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus went to the temple and had a look around. What He would have witnessed there was nothing less than an overcrowded bazaar. The outer most section of the temple was the Court of Gentiles. This was the only section of the temple that allowed access to everyone. The purpose of that access was for worship, but it had come to be used as a religious marketplace. The chief priests would allow merchants to sell items which were used in worship; sacrificial animals, along with wine, oil, and salt. The chief priests also allowed moneychangers to exchange foreign currency into Jewish money. The Jews were required to pay an annual temple tax, but it was unacceptable to pay that tax with Gentile currency. This required that monies be exchanged so that the taxes could be paid.

These services were needed. Providing these services was appropriate. It was completely inappropriate that these services be provided in the temple area. This selling and exchanging was not being done out of concern for pilgrims and a desire to serve the hundreds of thousands of worshippers. Greed was the motivating factor. According to Alfred Edersheim, the Jewish-Christian historian, people would sometimes be forced to pay ten times what the animal was worth. The same types of exorbitant rates were applied to the money exchange. The animals used for sacrifice had to meet certain standards. They could not be used for sacrifice unless they had been “approved”. As you might imagine by now, the only approved animals were the ones sold at the temple.

Of course, the chief priests were receiving a “franchise fee” from the merchants who ran the various booths. They were making themselves rich at the expense of the people whom they were supposed to serve, and, if that wasn’t bad enough, they were doing this all under the pretense of worshipping God.

This is what Jesus saw when He entered the temple and looked around. He turned around and left for Bethany. In the morning He returned with His disciples. Along the way He did what he always did. He taught the Twelve, and His lesson was vividly illustrated with a common object.

A Cursed Tree - Mark 11:12-14

Jesus was hungry. There’s nothing amazing about hunger pangs. Everyone gets them. (Some of us give in to them more than others!) But that is exactly what makes them so amazing in this case. Jesus was hungry! How easy it is to read over such a statement and miss it. He was hungry because He was human, and humans get hungry. Jesus was (and is) the Son of God, “all things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made,” (John 1:3), but in His incarnation He was also 100% man. He had all the normal characteristics and physical limitations common to man, yet without sin.

God the Son became flesh so that He might identify with us. This is a marvelous truth, without which no man would have any hope, and the apostle Paul stated it best in his second letter to the Corinthians:
“For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich”… “For he hath made him [to be] sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 8:9; 5:21)
Remember I said that Jesus in His incarnation had all the normal characteristics and physical limitations common to man, yet without sin. This means that he never behaved in an ill-tempered manner. This means that He never flippantly or spitefully used His power. This means that when we read Jesus’ curse of the fig tree in v. 13, “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever” we may be assured that Jesus was not being a grumpy Jesus!

This was not the case of the pouting prophet who cursed the fig tree because it had the audacity to be fruitless when he was hungry. That may seem obvious to some of you, but others have been critical of this story. Kent Hughes refers to the commentator William Barclay who wrote, “The story does not seem worthy of Jesus. There seems to be petulance in it.”

Other commentators, in an attempt to exonerate Jesus from all charges of arbor cruelty, over-analyze the phrase, “for the time of figs was not [yet].” Their line of thinking insinuates that since figs weren’t in season Jesus had no grounds for cursing the tree. Therefore, we must engage in a fig tree lesson: the variables of the growing season, the condition of the soil, the amount of rainfall, and the types of figs that blossom and when, etc.

Listen, none of that is necessary. Here is what you need to know: Jesus was hungry. It was not yet the season for figs, but this fig tree gave an appearance of bearing fruit because of its leaves. When the hungry Jesus approached the tree He noticed that it only looked fruitful but was actually barren.

You should also know that in Scripture the fig tree was commonly used as a symbol for the nation of Israel (Hosea 9:10). The prophets also used it as a symbol of prosperity and blessing (Deuteronomy 8:8; Zechariah 3:9-10), and as a symbol of judgment (Jeremiah 29:17; Hosea 2:12).

That’s a versatile fruit! And on this occasion, this particular fruit tree was given another use. It was forever made into a visual parable which portrayed the spiritually degenerated nation of Israel. This particular fig tree looked good from afar, but upon closer inspection it was far from good. The same was true of Israel. The nation, like the fig tree, showed the outward signs of bearing fruit, but the spiritually hungered found no fruit; nothing but leaves. Yes, “they [had] a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). Israel promised all who saw her that she could show them the way to God, but, in reality, she could only show them the way to Hell. Israel looked alive, but was spiritually barren.

She had no reason to be. Indeed, Israel had been given every advantage. They had received the personal attention and redemption of Almighty God. They had been planted in a good land. They had the Word of God, the prophets of God and the Temple of God. They had everything they needed for a spiritual bumper crop, but they remained fruitless.

The symbolic judgment on the leafy but barren fig-tree was immediately set forth still more clearly when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the second time of Passion Week, went up to the Temple, and, instead of having a look around, cleaned it up.

A Cleansed Temple – Mark 11:15-19

The beauty and grandeur of the temple was nothing but amazing. Along with its adjunct buildings, the temple stood on a mount, and was arranged in terrace form; one court being higher than another with the temple proper being the highest of all. The ancient historian Josephus wrote that the temple’s wall
“reached up 450 feet from the valley…at its lowest…in other places it was higher...Nine of the temple gates were covered on every side with gold and silver, as were the doorjambs and lintels, but one gate…was made entirely of Corinthian brass and excelled the others.”
This is most likely the Beautiful gate that we read about in Acts 3:2. It was roughly speaking, 90’ high and 73’ wide and more richly adorned with precious metals than the other gates.

Here’s the point: the temple was magnificent and awe-inspiring by any standards. It was also all leaves and no fruit. As stunning and as spectacular as the temple was, the purpose for which it was built had been perverted. This was hallowed ground, but the temple had become spiritual squalor surrounded by architectural splendor. This place was dedicated to the worship of the One True God, but it had been desecrated by the very ones who were charged to lead in and safeguard that worship. Instead of being a place of worship, prayer, and even missionary activity it had been converted into a combination stockyard, market, and bank. The prophet Ezekiel perfectly described the religious leadership of Jesus’ day: “Woe [be] to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with wool, ye kill them that are fed: [but] ye feed not the flock” (Ezekiel 34:2-3).

The religious leaders purposefully and greedily consumed the people with their outrageous marketplace, and they sacrilegiously operated that marketplace in the outer court of the temple. This outer most court was commonly referred to as the Court of the Gentiles because this was the only section of the temple which allowed their presence. Instead of being a house of prayer for all nations the temple had become “a den of thieves.”

This is something that Jesus would not tolerate. Upon entering this den of thieves Jesus took swift and violent action. There were no deliberations or negotiations.
“Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought…and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; and would not suffer that any man should carry [any] vessel through the temple.”
The holy wrath of Jesus burned with a white-hot intensity and a frightening purity. Have you ever seen a table violently overturned? It’ll startle you, to say the least! Everyone and everything fled, and no one dared move against Him; not any of the merchants or any of the priests or any of the temple guards or any of the customers. He put an immediate halt to this contemptuous behavior in and against His Father’s house. No one raised a hand or a voice against Him. Like the lions whose mouths were shut when Daniel was thrown in their den, these wolves were silent before Jesus.

“Meek and lowly in heart” is how Jesus described himself (Matthew 11:29). He taught, “Blessed [are] the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). He here demonstrated that meekness is strength under control. This was not a fit of rage. This was righteous judgment poured out on greedy hypocrites who had profaned the place of worship and the worship itself. Jesus had not come to destroy the Law and the prophets or the temple worship. He had come to fulfill them all, and at the end of this week he would.

A Church’s Lesson – Mark 11:20-26

So what? That’s what we need to know. We aren’t the nation of Israel. We weren’t the ones buying and selling in the outer court of the temple. So what do the cursed fig tree and the cleansed temple have to do with us? Two words: fruitfulness and faithfulness.

Bearing Fruit

When reading about the cursed fig tree you are driven to one of two possible conclusions. First, Jesus cynically and callously (mis)used His power. Second, the matter of spiritual fruitfulness is serious, and we ignore it at our own risk. Just a hint, option two is the correct conclusion!

Living things bear fruit. Dead things are barren. Saved people, which means people who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, will bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26). Fruit is always an indication of salvation, the manifestation of a transformed life in which God’s power is in operation. When a person is saved by God’s grace, they will bear fruit for His glory!
  • Matthew 7:15-20 – In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, specifically speaking of false prophets but the principle is applicable to all people, that we’ll know them “by their fruits.”
  • Mark 4:3-20 – Jesus taught the parable of the four soils. The soils represented men’s hearts. Only one of the soils was good, and that ground was proven to be good because it yielded a crop. Jesus explained that the good soil is the person in whom the seed of God’s Word takes root; “such as hear the word, and receive [it], and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred” (v. 20) but always a crop!
  • John 15:5 – Jesus also said, during this very Passion Week, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”
Think about your life, your family, and your church. Then ask yourself: “Do we only look like we’re bearing fruit, or are we producing fruit?” Being leafy will not do. We must be fruity! (Don't read more than what's there into that statement!)

Don’t forget Christ’s words to the church at Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6):
“I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent.”

Religious profession without spiritual reality is an abomination to God and is cursed. Of course, there will be no fruit if there is not first faith. The person who is lost and in their sins will never bear fruit that is pleasing unto God until they place their faith in God to save. The believer bears fruit as he faithfully follows wherever his Lord leads and that is the lesson Jesus teaches the twelve in the final section of our text.

The power of faith coupled to God's will and His purposes will overcome any and every obstacle.

Being Faithful

Passing back by the cursed fig tree, now withered from the roots, Peter commented on the tree’s condition. Jesus’ answer was, “Have faith in God”, and then He taught them to pray with a believing mind and with a forgiving heart.

Mountain moving faith is a figurative principle. By this I mean that God will not empower you to physically move Mt. McKinley. Just like Jesus didn’t petulantly curse the fig tree, He will not empower you to pretentiously move mountains. The idea of moving mountains is simply to maneuver through immense problems and overcome massive obstacles. And the key to it all is “Have faith in God.” Not faith in faith or faith in your dreams or faith in your education or faith in your ideas. The foundation of fruitfulness is faith in God. As John MacArthur writes:
“Mountain moving faith is unselfish, undoubting, and unqualified confidence in God. It is believing in God’s truth and God’s power while seeking to do God’s will. The measure of such faith is the sincere and single desire that, as Jesus said, ‘the Father may be glorified in the Son.’”

Having faith in God is trusting in the revelation of God - the Bible. Jesus taught the Twleve and us that when you seek that which is consistent with God's Word, and trust in God's goodness to provide it, your request will be honored because your request honors God! To do what God says is to do what God wants and to receive what God promises.

This type of faith is activated by persistent prayer (Mark 11:24). To persistently pray is to pray believing God and to pray forgiving others. If you want what God wants then ask God and receive it. If you want what God wants for your life you'll receive. But understand that not every aspect of God's will for His children involve pleasant things. It's also God's will for His children to sacrifice, suffer, and sometimes die in service to Him. Finding satisfaction and joy in Christ is not a matter of being prosperous, famous, problem-less, or successful. It's about being faithful and fruitful (1 Corinthians 4:2).

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