Summary: Christ’s cursing of the fig tree and "cleansing" of the temple caution us about living our lives by mere appearances and trusting in anything other than Jesus.
Appearances can be deceiving. I was reminded of this several years ago when I was waiting in line at a McDonalds with two of my sons. A guy came into McDonalds who looked really suspicious. He had long hair, tattoos everywhere, several body piercings, and he just looked scary. This guy seemed to be acting pretty suspicious too. I was convinced that he was going to rob the McDonalds while I was standing in line with my two sons. So in my mind I started formulating my plan for keeping myself and by boys safe, when suddenly the guy looked at me and started staring. Suddenly he broke into a huge grin and said, "Tim, is that you?" It turns out I’d gone to Upland high with the guy, and I realized that he’d looked just as scary in high school, but that he was harmless.
Appearances can be deceiving at times. And nowhere can appearances be more deceiving than in the spiritual life. People who outwardly appear to be very unspiritual can in fact be some of the most spiritual people you’ll ever meet. And other people who outwardly appear to be very spiritual can in fact be some of the most unspiritual people you’ll ever meet. Appearances can be deceiving.
Today we’re going to look at two of Jesus Christ’s most misunderstood actions. These two actions of Jesus aren’t what they first appear to be. And both of these two actions deal with the deceptive power of appearances. The two actions I’m talking about are Jesus Christ’s cursing of a fig tree and his action of driving out the money changes from the Jewish temple. On their own, these two events are very difficult to understand, but together these two events explain each other.
Now we’ve been in a series through the New Testament book of Mark called Following Jesus In the Real World. In this series we’ve been going through Mark’s biography of Jesus in the Bible, seeing what it means to live as a follower of Jesus Christ in our world today. Today we’re going to continue that series through Mark.
Now the way Mark tells us these two stories, he wants us to know that the two events help explain each other. You see, throughout his biography of Jesus Mark uses a sandwich technique, where he starts with one story, goes to a different story, and then comes back to the first story. Mark’s going to start by telling the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, then interrupt that story to describe Jesus driving out the money changers from the temple and only then will he return to the story of the fig tree. This is Mark’s way of telling us that these two events are related to each other, and that if we miss the meaning of the fig tree, we’ll miss the meaning of the clearing out of the temple as well.
1. The Fruitless Fig Tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21)
We begin with Jesus cursing a fig tree starting with one side of the sandwich in vv. 12-14 and then the other side of the sandwich in vv. 20-21.
Many people have struggled with why Jesus curses this fig tree. This is Jesus’ last recorded miracle in Mark’s biography, and it seems odd that it’s a miracle of destruction. Since Mark tells us that wasn’t the season for figs, Jesus’ expectation to find figs seems unreasonable to us at first. In fact, the famous atheist writer Bertrand Russell listed this miracle as one of the reasons why he’s not a Christian.
But this story isn’t what it first appears to be. Jesus encounters this fig tree on his walk from the city of Bethany to the capital city of Jerusalem during the Jewish Passover holiday. He sees this fig tree in full leaf from a distance. Fig trees were extremely common in ancient Israel, even as they still are today. And fig trees are unique from most other trees because they produce fruit before they produce leaves. So the fact that this tree has leaves suggests that some kind of fruit will still be on it, either leftover figs from the summer harvest or immature figs that were also edible. So even though the formal fig season was over, it wasn’t at all unreasonable for Jesus to find something on this tree. But Jesus finds nothing but leaves, which tells us that this is a sterile fig tree, a fig tree that doesn’t produce any figs.
Now there’s more happening that first meets the eye here, because this event isn’t just about Jesus having a hankering for a fig. Remember that Jesus is on his way to the Jewish temple, and what happens here with the fig tree is symbolic of what Jesus is about to do in the temple. There’s a passage from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah that’s especially relevant to what’s happening here. This passage is found in Jeremiah chapter 8.