Summary: The fig tree looked good on the outside but it wasn’t producing any fruit. The religious leaders looked good on the outside, but they didn’t provide for the people. Jesus decreed that he would let them fade and raise up something new in their place.
The events in John 2:18-25 occur just after Jesus has chased the moneychangers and the sellers out of the temple. The religious leaders wanted to know who gave Jesus the authority to do what he did in the temple. Jesus did not give them an answer because he knew that the religious leaders did not want to hear it, and even if they did want to hear they would not understand it. They took his challenge about destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days quite literally.
The temple was built so that God’s presence could be confirmed among his people, but because of their sin and rebellion God’s presence had left them a long time ago. When Jesus challenged the religious leaders, he might have pointed to his own chest and said, “This is the authentic dwelling place of God.” While the religious leaders did not believe Jesus, John wrote that many other people who saw this confrontation believed Jesus.
Jesus’ power came from heaven, not earth. People want leaders who will lead them where they want to go. Most worldly leaders get their power from popular support. The problem is that this power is based on the sin-filled nature of this world. Jesus’ power came from heaven. He presented himself in truth. His miracles signalled the Messiah’s arrival. He trusted God, and in return he invited people to trust him.
Jesus used the physical structure of the temple to represent his own body and his coming crucifixion and resurrection. At the same time he signalled that he replaced the temple and would now live with his people as their God-Man, Jesus Christ. This statement was misunderstood by the Jewish leaders and would be used against Jesus at his trial.
Only after Jesus rose from the dead would the disciples finally put the story together. Jesus’ resurrection helped them to remember the Old Testament Scriptures that prophesied his death as well as his statement about raising up the temple.
People were following Jesus for superficial reasons-out of curiosity rather than commitment. Anyone who seeks after the Lord with his/her whole heart will find him. Jesus can’t be fooled because he sees what is really in a person’s heart.
The story of the cleansing of the temple shows three primary truths:
1. God owns the temple, not the priest.
2. God’s Word is the only authority recognized in the temple, not anyone else’s.
3. God’s Son claimed ownership of the temple, and the religious authorities rejected him.
God’s temple is a holy place where we can meet him without any restrictions, borders or walls. That’s why the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple was torn in two when Jesus died on the cross. Once his work was complete, the meeting place changed. Instead of a physical building, believers are now his temple. Just like the physical temple had to be cleansed, believers have to have their spiritual lives and hearts cleansed. We can’t do the job ourselves. Only God can cleanse us. We have to submit to the process by refusing to tolerate the presence of corruption in our lives and then asking God to remove it.
Faith that rests on miracles alone and does not mature to embrace Jesus and follow him is shallow and fickle. That’s why the religious leaders didn’t follow Jesus. Their faith was so shallow and fickle that they didn’t have any faith in Jesus. They, like most of the rest of the Jews, were so imprisoned in fleshly existence and understanding they could not grasp the deeper spiritual reality. They could not see beyond the physical temple. Even though they knew every comma and every dotted “I” and crossed “T” of the Old Testament law, they were bound in the darkness of ignorance.
The fact that the Jews asked Jesus for a sign revealed that they had not grasped the significance of Jesus’s rebuke in the temple. It was centered in their need for proper attitudes and holiness in worship. Further, they were asking for a display of miracles on demand, and that request further displayed their unbelief.
Many of us are like that. We might be saved by grace, but we often know very little of costly discipleship or the calling to be servants. This understanding comes only when we submit to Jesus as Lord on his terms. Sometimes we settle for “cheap grace” instead of following Jesus to the point of death.
This reading ties in with the story of Jesus and the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14 and 20-24. Jesus saw a fig tree in leaf, but it did not have any fruit because it was not the season for figs. The fig tree looked good on the outside but it wasn’t producing any fruit. The religious leaders also looked good on the outside, but they didn’t provide for the people. As a result, Jesus decreed that he would let them fade and raise up something new in their place: the Church. We are the new creation God planted for people who are hungry to know God. In return, we must make sure that we yield a bountiful harvest.