By Simon ManchesterSunday 3 Dec 2017Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 17 minutes
Last week we saw the Lonely Ride of Jesus into Jerusalem on the donkey, we saw the way he prepared the disciples for going to the village and finding the donkey and wonderfully encouraged with those words and this week we come to the very famous or infamous cursing of the Fig Tree and the clearing of the Temple. And then Jesus goes on to speak about prayer in quite astonishing ways, and I hope that we will see what this is all about.
You will have noticed if you were listening to the reading, that the Fig Tree and Temple sort of wrap around each other. The passage starts with the Fig Tree and goes on to the Temple, comes back to the Fig Tree. Perhaps it would be better to say that the Temple is like the meat in the sandwich between the two sections on the Fig Tree.
I want to look with you at this under three headings:
- The Tree of Leaves – (verses 12-14)
- The Temple of Robbers – (verses 15-19)
- The Test of Faith – (verses 20-25)
The Tree of Leaves
The morning after riding in on the donkey Jesus wakes up, and we are told that he was hungry. He sees a fig tree (verse 13), and he goes to get some fruit. Notice (don’t miss this) the Son of God is hungry. In other parts of the Bible we are told that he was thirsty – we are told that he got tired. He is 100% man and experiences the sort of experiences that we do and therefore he is able to understand us. But this fig tree has no fruit, and it only has leaves, and so in verse 13, we are told it was not the season but Jesus curses it (verse 14). He says ‘may no one ever eat fruit from you again’.
We have to decide as we read this because it is not the tree’s fault that Jesus curses it and the decision goes something like this:
Is it possible that Jesus is ignorant of Seasons?
And is hoping for fruit
And then loses his temper that there is no fruit?
Or is it possible that he is aware of the Seasons
And he knows that there will be no fruit
And so he is just plainly perverse or nasty?
I say this to you because famous people have argued this way finding this part of the New Testament offensive and they have accused Jesus of temper or unworthiness. And then, of course, other Christians come along, and they have tried to cover up what looks to be a wrong and say, ‘well actually there were some early edible bumps on the branches which Jesus was looking to feed on even though of course, the figs have not arrived’. And I hope you will avoid both of those extremes. We don’t need to attack Jesus, and we don’t need to defend him because he is simply using a tree as a very powerful visual aid. He is using the tree as a powerful visual aid.
It was right for him to be hungry but the fact of the matter is he is not only hungry for food for himself but he is (listen carefully) hungry for godliness from his people, and that’s what the whole passage is about. He wants to know whether the fruit of godliness is really there in his people – that’s what “the temple” of course is all about.
We are told in the Old Testament in the Book of Micah chapter 7 that God craves figs and grapes – meaning the godliness of his people. He wants his people to be fruitful.
So we remember the people who are waving the branches in chapter 11 verse 8 – all leaves no fruit.
The people in the Temple that he about to enter (verse 15) – all leaves no fruit. The fruit of godliness is missing from the people of God, and it’s all fakery.
So Jesus is not ignorant of the Season for Figs.
- He is not bad-tempered
- He is not nasty
- He is a teacher, and this visual aid or this drama is to say something quite unforgettable which is that God looks for fruit – the fruit of godliness in his people – and he expects it.
The people who cannot see this who have been critical of Jesus have just utterly missed the point. And those who are sensitive to the tree need to realise that Jesus is interested in people who are eternal more than one tree.
Back in chapter 5, we know that he was prepared to see a herd of pigs go over a cliff so that one person would be delivered. The whole Temple sacrificial system involves the sacrificing of many many animals because God is interested in teaching his people about sin and forgiveness. So to sacrifice a tree is a tiny price to make a powerful point as a teacher which of course is what Jesus does.
The word that he speaks to the tree in chapter 11 verse 14 is undoubtedly miraculous. It’s not a constructive miracle, it’s a destructive miracle, but it is a miracle. He speaks to the tree in a way that we could not speak to a tree, and he causes it to be destroyed. It’s a unique miracle because it’s the only destructive miracle. It’s unforgettable and arresting and memorable and believe it or not he does it because he loves us. He wants to teach something remarkable.
Just like the prophets in the Old Testament who would shave their heads to make a point, or break a pot to make a point, or build a ramp or a wall to make a point, here is Jesus making a point; fruit is necessary.
That’s the first section The Tree of Leaves.
The Temple of Robbers
Secondly, we are looking at The Temple of Robbers, and I am moving quite quickly because I want to get to the last verses which I think are where the knife really goes in for good.
This is a very famous scene where Jesus attacks the traders in the Temple. I remember Children’s Bibles will often have pictures of Jesus on the front of the Bible casting out the traders in the Temple because it gives the impression that Jesus is strong and courageous and interesting and not just holding a flower in one hand and a lamb in the other. And that’s probably not a bad thing to be saying to young children – here is somebody interesting. But he causes or calls this Temple a “Den of Robbers”.
Now the Temple, if you don’t know, is the Temple of Herod – this was the third Temple – there had been Solomon’s Temple initially, and then it was demolished, and a little one went up called Zerubbabel’s Temple, and then that was gone, and now this was Herod’s Temple.
Herod built this temple, a kind of a favour to the Jews and was probably still being constructed. It was absolutely massive, it was said that if you wanted to get your arms around the columns, you would need 3 men to stand and the three of them would be able to get their arms around the columns. And the Court of Gentiles which was the outside Court for the nations (anybody to come) then, of course, there was the Court of Women, and then there was the Court of Men, and then there would be the Holy of Holies. The Court of the Gentiles around the outside was 35 acres. That’s big! It was said that if you wanted to bring 3,000 sheep to sell, you could do it. So it’s a very big area. And the Temple, of course, had lots of room for legitimate business and there is nothing wrong with the legitimate business.
I go on a little detour at this moment to tell you that I was reading this week that the most powerful brand today (I wonder how many people know) that the most powerful brand today is LEGO. It overtook Ferrari two years ago apparently, and LEGO mini figures now outnumber humans. They make 120 million bricks a day. If you get six normal LEGO bricks (I don’t know why I am telling you this!) 6 normal LEGO bricks that have eight studs, you can apparently make up to half a billion configurations. And LEGO Foundation has funded the world’s first Professor of Play at Cambridge University – what a job!
And a big part apparently of their success is that they have taken an interest in their non-members – they have spent a huge amount of time and effort engaging with people who have nothing to do with LEGO. They have listened, and they have collected the ideas of the complete outsiders – and I think that is interesting.
I do regret telling you most of that because over morning tea you will be saying ‘I can’t remember what he talked about but I think it had to do with being enthusiastic about LEGO or something’ – but I am just talking about good business. There is such a thing as good business; the Temple allowed good business, money had to be changed, sacrifices had to be sold and bought.
What Jesus is attacking is illegitimate business because the business had completely steam-rolled the purpose of the Temple. So God was being forgotten and lost people like the nations were being forgotten, and money had become the new interest.
So this Temple which was meant to be a kind of a bridge or stepping stone for the nations to come and find out about God and hear of him and call to him and be saved had become a brick wall. And all the concern for the lost (which the people of God were meant to have in their hearts) had been replaced by a great love for money – for loot.
And the concern of God – the heartbeat of God – which is to see people saved so that they would hear his Word, lift up their prayers, this access was being blocked, and it was being blocked by greedy traders and robbers. And so Jesus attacked the trade, not because he was against legitimate business and not because he was losing his temper – it was because he loved lost people.
He attacked the tree because he loved people and he attacked the Temple because he loved people. And I think what he did that day in the Temple was also miraculous. I don’t see how one man can walk in to such a massive place, a business and single-handedly turn all the tables over and not get arrested and remove people from the Temple and get them out of the place. I don’t know how you can do that unless you are the Son of God doing something miraculous and exhibiting to the people something of the wrath of God – the real godly, wonderful, genuine anger of God at evil. That’s what he is doing.
And we are told in the Book of Revelation in chapter 6; That there will come a day on the Day of Judgment, that people will call to the mountains and the rocks, “Please cover us because we just don’t want to face – we are terrified of the wrath of the Lamb.”
What a concept, and here is Jesus in his humanity doing something quite miraculous in the face of the Temple.
Now just before we say, well you know that was rotten what those traders were doing. We have to ask ourselves increasing and regularly as a Congregation and as individuals whether there is anything which we are doing which makes it hard for people to list and call.
The danger for the Church is you know is to say we like doing things our way and so those who are outside, well they can just cope. And the danger personally is to say – well I’ve got my other priorities and so if people watch my life they will see other priorities.
What this passage tells us very profoundly I think is that in our gatherings we are to think about the person who is trying to find their way in and as we live our lives through the week, we are to live our lives in such a way that we actually help people by being a bridge and not a brick wall to their faith.
I was interested to read this week that Alice Cooper – the bad boy of the sixties and seventies has become in his words “A born-again Christian”. His father was a Pastor, his grandfather was an evangelist, and that whole family must have waited a very long time for this naughty boy to spend many years in a really dark wilderness. But he has obviously come back, and he has come back along the bridge of Christ, and the bridge of Christ is something he must have known and was made clear to him and was cleared for him, and if he can come, then anybody can come and those of you who are waiting for loved ones to return, take heart that we must take seriously this Temple clearing.
I think the whole of this section that we are reading this morning is about ACCESS.
I think the Temple section in the middle is about whether the people in the world have got access to hear the Word and call to God.
I think the cursing of the Fig Tree is because this is symbolic of a people of God who are not bearing the fruit of an interest in God’s access and as we come to the last verses now (verses 20-25) The Test of Faith – I think these verses are all about ACCESS. You might like to put your mind to whether I am right about this – I am going to argue it and suggest it for our last few minutes.
The Test of Faith
The thing to remember which I think is interesting here in verse 20 is that as they go past the Fig Tree that has been cursed, the next morning the tree has been destroyed to the roots. And I kept asking myself through the week – what’s the point of destroying the tree to the roots? Why not just blast the leaves? But Jesus destroys the tree to the roots.
And I think the point is that the roots of the people of God were dead. Their real faith was in something or someone, not God and that’s why Jesus turns around in verse 22 and says turning from the tree to the disciples and says “Have Faith in God”. The people in the Temple are rotten, they are not alive, and Jesus turns to the disciples and says “I want you to be alive – you need to have faith in God”. So don’t be one of those, says Jesus, whose roots, the roots of your life are in some kind of idol, but be one of those for whom the roots of your life are in God. And that’s why he then goes on to say (verse 23) “If you do have faith in God you can speak to this mountain, and say jump into the sea and it will jump into the sea”.
What is Jesus talking about? Well, listen carefully. He could be referring to a verse in the Old Testament from the Book of Zechariah and remember Jesus probably has the Book of Zechariah in the back of his mind because in chapter 9 of Zechariah it says “Here comes your King, humble and riding on a donkey” and a little bit later in the Book of Zechariah chapter 14 – it says “That there will come a day where the Mount of Olives will be flattened or will be made into a plain for the Son of Man to come”.
So Jesus could be saying, have your faith in God because even this mountain can be made flat for the coming of the Messiah.
But I suspect that Jesus is saying perhaps simpler and that is I think he is saying that when you put your trust in God, you will not be seeking barriers like the mountain but you will be removing barriers and your prayer life (verse 24) being in tune with God is going to be about things that interest God like moving barriers. And (verse 25) in your heart when it comes to other people there will be the removing of barriers because God is interested in the removing of barriers. I think this section is about ACCESS and the removing of barriers.
We have to realise that the Fig Tree and the Temple, therefore, are not random verses stuck on the end or leading into these verses at the end which are kind of lost and meaningless but actually once Jesus has cursed the Fig Tree and cleared the Temple he gets down to the real point which is this;
- What sort of people are you?
- Are you the sort of people whose roots are in God or are they actually in something else?
- Is your business his business or your business?
Because his business is the removal of barriers and the hearing of prayers which has to do with the progress of the Gospel and the demolishing of barriers even in the Fellowship.
And that’s what I think verses 23, 24 and 25 are all about.
I think therefore my friends it’s good for you to ask yourselves as I ask myself this morning whether the roots of my life are in God or am I pretending? And one of the tests, I think that the roots of your life are in God is that there will be a new life surging through you and this new life which is surging through you will be bearing the fruits that please God. And the fruits that please God are his business, and his business is ACCESS.
Access to Him
Access to His Fellowship
Access to the Church
Access for lost people.
This is the question, isn’t it.
What is the tree which we represent like? Are the roots in God? Are the fruits, fruits of access?
Or is there some other surging life going on in us which has got nothing to do with God really and has got nothing to do with his business?
These Temple traders, they don’t need Jesus to give them a little lesson in ‘be careful that you don’t get too busy. You know some of you men are too busy and it is very easy to be too busy’.
These men in the Temple don’t need a lesson from Jesus today ‘watch out for your soul; it may get caught up with this world and money’. No, Jesus does something much more radical – this is a complete radical response. And the reason that there needs to be a radical response is because he is going for the roots.
We are reading a book as a Parish Council which has got to do with the Reformation, and some of you will know the name of Luther and Luther had a difficult acquaintance called “Erasmus”. And one of the reasons that Erasmus was difficult was that Erasmus was very clever and translated the Greek New Testament which was a huge help to the Church.
But he also had very shallow views of sin and Erasmus took the view that actually, you know our problem was that we were just silly – that we were really free to do well and do good, but we were just so silly. And so he wrote a book called “Freedom of the Will” because he wanted to say you are free to live as you want but just don’t make too many dumb mistakes.
And Martin Luther saw that this was an absolute danger to the Gospel because if the problem in the human race is shallow (we are just a bit silly), then the need of Christ is shallow. But because Luther knew that our problem is deep, left to ourselves, dead roots, death and therefore the solution from Jesus is profound and wonderful. Salvation on the cross. He wrote a book called “The Bondage of the Will” to teach the world that we are enslaved without Christ and dead without Christ and fatally in the direction of his wrath without Christ – and that’s true.
And that’s why Jesus here in this section is dealing with the very roots of the problem. I think it is a remarkable passage Mark chapter 11. It begins with a shock – cursing a tree – why does he do that? Well because the people of God are acting like dead people, their roots seem to be dead, and their fruits are dead, and then Jesus turns around and says to the believers around him
“Make sure your faith is in God.”
“Make sure you are planted (we might say) in Christ.”
“Make sure you have taken yourself in prayer having heard the Gospel that he died for you, and you have put yourself in his hands and said to him ‘please give me a brand new life so that the roots are new and the shoots are new, and the fruits are new, and I am on your business’ –
That’s what Jesus is saying.
And when you are made new, your life will be his life or his life will be your life, and his heart will be beating in your heart, and his business will be increasingly your business.
I was wearing a heart monitor this week to find out what sort of condition my heart was in, and I don’t know yet, but this is a good heart monitor – this Mark 11, isn’t it this morning? Is your trust in Christ to save you? Well, of course, most of you will say “yes, of course, I think so”.
Now you need to ask yourself the question – in the next 24 hours
- will you find yourself thanking him for access through Jesus
- will you find yourself thanking him for access to the other believers and
- will you find yourself thinking – I am concerned about those who have no access?
If the answer is YES – it sounds like the roots are alive. And whether you will also find yourself very dependent on him this week, starting the day by saying something like this – whether it is short or long –
“Heavenly Father, here I am in the face of a new day.
I want this day to be a faithful day.
I am completely dependent on you.
Left to myself I am just going to go downhill.
Help me, Heavenly Father, to honour you and have a godly day and be a useful witness.”
This is the sort of life which surges through the real believer. And I say this to you because we know that access to God is people’s need and is Jesus’ priority. How do we know this access is his priority? Because that’s why he went into Jerusalem – to die on the cross and open the gate of access.
Well, may it be our passion and priority increasingly – let’s ask God to make it so.
Let’s bow our heads. Our gracious God we thank you that you are a God who desires people to be saved. We thank you that at the great expense you have made access possible to you and to your people and we pray that the privilege of this access would be real to each one here this morning listening and we pray that the reality of your business would become increasingly our business.
And we pray that in your great kindness and power you would make us instruments of truth and love through this week and through the weeks to come. Help us to rejoice in what you have done, help us to be grateful and help us to be generous. We pray in Jesus’ Name – Amen.