This sermon manuscript expounding Mark 11:12-25 is the end product of an exegesis exercise. The attached document contains various steps in the exegetical process (passage translation from the Greek text, textual criticism, exegetical outline, commentary, theological outline, sermon manuscript, and bibliography).
Good morning, people of God! Today we will be learning from God’s Word in the Gospel of Mark. Many of you are probably familiar with many stories in the gospels, including the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree for not having any figs to eat and then the fig tree withering almost immediately. I always thought that was such a strange thing for Jesus to do. Why in the world would he pick on some poor fig tree? If you are anything like me, that thought surely has crossed your mind at some time or another. We will be taking a look at that story and will also be considering the famous story of Jesus going into the temple and driving out all the moneychangers and turning over tables. Remember that one? Again, if you are anything like me, you’ve wondered if Jesus was just acting really out of character there. What in the world is going on there? Well, I hope you are also like me and want to know if there is something we are missing. Is there a side to Jesus that we just don’t understand? Is there a purpose important to Jesus that we’ve simply overlooked? Is there something in our text this morning that Mark set before us clearly but we’ve never seen before? Philip Yancey of the magazine Christianity Today wrote a best seller several years ago called “The Jesus I Never Knew” (some of you may have read it) and its premise was that we all have a picture of what we think Jesus is like, but that picture is often very different than the full portrait of Jesus given to us in the Bible. Let’s make a deal this morning. Let’s all as a church set aside our preconceived notions of Jesus this morning and learn afresh about the Lord Jesus and his mission. Of course, we always need to be listening to the Bible and hearing from God anew, but when it comes to perplexing passages like this, I think it’s especially important. So let’s begin, shall we? Our text this morning is Mark 11:12-25. I urge you to pay careful attention to the reading of God’s holy Word.
[Read the Passage (Mark 11:12-25)]
Let’s go to our Lord in prayer. Holy Father, we come before your royal throne this morning as your redeemed people. We ask that you would teach us your Word by guiding us into your truth. Reveal to us by the preaching of your Word and through the power of your Spirit, our Lord Jesus whom you have given all authority in heaven and on earth. Teach us O God to love the Savior and to follow his ways. Amen.
The basic storyline of our passage this morning is pretty straightforward. Jesus is hungry for some breakfast on his way to Jerusalem with the disciples. He spots a fig tree in the distance, and he’s hoping it’s got some fruit because the tree is in leaf. But when he actually gets to the tree, there is nothing to eat. It’s barren. So Jesus speaks to the tree for all to hear, saying that no one will ever eat fruit from it again. Then it’s off to Jerusalem where he goes into the temple and cleans house. I mean, he completely shuts down the market so that no one can buy any animals to offer sacrifices. And he keeps it clear until the end of the business day, when finally he and his disciples go back to where they’re staying just outside the city. Then low and behold, that same fig tree pops up again in the story. Only this time it doesn’t have any leaves on it. In fact, Peter notices that it’s withered all the way down to the root. That’s a pretty fast-acting curse! But Jesus is not primarily concerned with the dead fig tree. Instead, he uses the occasion for a teaching moment, like he so often does. He proceeds with a lesson on faith and prayer, telling his disciples that if they have faith in God, that God will answer the most impossible prayer request as long as they don’t doubt that God will do it, and on the condition that they forgive others their sins so that God will forgive them of their own sins.
Simple enough, right? But what on earth do the fig tree and Jesus’ temple sweep have to do with faith, prayer, and forgiveness? Well, just like everything else in life, things are not usually as they first appear. We’re going to have to dig a little deeper and put these events in the wider context of Mark’s Gospel to get a clearer idea of how all these things are connected. And really, this is how we should look at any Bible passage. We all know this, but frequently our rush to a settled understanding leaves us with a shallow, or worse, an erroneous interpretation of God’s Word. We all tend toward less work when reading the Bible, but shouldn’t we labor a little more when handling the living Word? So let’s go deeper and wider now, shall we?
The first thing we need to understand is what is happening at this point in Mark’s account of Jesus’ life and death. The way Mark tells the story, Jesus conducts most of his ministry in Galilee and the surrounding territories until the disciples finally understand who Jesus is—that he’s not just any old prophet like those from long ago, or even the great prophet Elijah, but he is actually God’s anointed one—the Christ. At that point in chapter 8 when Jesus’ true identity is revealed, Jesus begins to teach his disciples that he must now go up to Jerusalem to suffer and die, and after three days rise from the dead. And so they begin the long journey to Jerusalem. Finally, as he approaches Jerusalem for the first time, his followers hail his entrance into the holy city as the great king. Listen to what they shout in chapter 11:9-10, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” Those are lofty words! They are proclaiming Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem as the king’s arrival, as the one who comes in the name of the Lord. That’s important, because it lies in the background of our passage, so keep it in mind. Then Jesus enters the temple (which happens to be very busy since it’s the week before the Feast of Passover—one of the biggest holy days of the year for Israel) and performs a careful survey of everything and everyone there before leaving the city for the night. That is the immediate background of our passage.
Now, we must understand that this is toward the end of Jesus’ ministry and he knows it. In fact, it’s his last week, and he plans to spend his final days in Jerusalem. So don’t be confused by the fact that Jesus leaves the city several times to go spend the night or teach in the suburbs of Jerusalem. The thrust of what Mark tells us is that Jesus has finally come to Jerusalem, and he will die here before he leaves.
Next, turn with me to Mark 12:1-12. I realize we are already well into this sermon and you’re probably asking, “When are we going to get to the fig tree and the temple?” But I think this roundabout way of getting to our passage will help us to truly understand the meaning of the fig tree and the temple cleansing. Remember, all these events and teachings in Jerusalem are in the same context, so they help interpret one another. OK, so in Mark 12 (which occurs chronologically after our passage) Jesus is speaking in parables to the Jews with religious authority. And he told them one parable in particular that was pretty transparent. They knew that Jesus was aiming it directly at them, and they sought to arrest him for it. That’s how furious they were about his words. They perceived that Jesus was accusing them of killing all the Old Testament prophets that God had sent to his vineyard to gather fruit, and that now they would even kill God’s Son in order to steal his inheritance. But they wouldn’t get away with it because God would destroy them and give the vineyard to others. They must have thought to themselves, “Who does this Jesus think he is? Where does this non-Pharisee, not Sadducee, non-priest, non-scribe, non-elder, renegade rabbi get off thinking he has the authority to judge us, we whom God has given authority?” But Jesus was really popular with the crowds, and they were afraid of them, and they hated Jesus even more because of it.
So this is the context of what is happening in Jerusalem during this last week of Jesus’ life. Now we’re prepared to see the fig tree and the temple in their proper context.
The first point regarding our text is that Jesus is the great king who expects his people to bear the fruit of righteousness and is vested with divine authority to judge those who do not bear fruit for his gospel mission.
Now that’s a mouthful. You don’t have to write all of that down since it’s written on your sermon handout. Just understand that Jesus is being portrayed as God’s great king who has authority to visit his people and to expect of them the fruit of righteousness. This is what Jesus has in mind when he approaches the fig tree but finds no fruit. The leaves held out great promise of fruitfulness. You might say that it was hypocritically broadcasting that it was healthy and “open for business.” But in fact it was good for nothing. It promised fruit, but it failed to deliver. So Jesus curses the fig tree for its lack of fruit, basically judging it and supernaturally killing it. You might be asking at this point, “Well yes, that sounds theologically correct, but why a fig tree? Does the type of tree have any significance to this story?” And that’s a legitimate question. Let me suggest to you that whenever you have a question that pertains to a particular symbol or image that is used in the Bible, search around in the immediate context for a clue, and if you don’t find the answer there, continue expanding your search outward in sort of concentric circles—from paragraph, to thematic section within the book, to the rest of that particular book, to other books the author wrote, to the rest of the New Testament or Old Testament (depending on which testament the book is in), then to the rest of the Bible. You get the idea, don’t you? That’s just good interpretation. Well, we don’t have to look too far to find Jesus using the image of a fig tree again in Mark. Turn quickly with me to Mark 13:28-29. Jesus is teaching a lesson using a fig tree again. What is his point here? That the disciples will know that when the fig tree puts out leaves, the destruction of the temple is near. The destruction of the temple and the fig tree sprouting leaves are related to each other. Jesus is interpreting our passage for us just two chapters later. Isn’t that wonderful? We don’t have to wonder what the cursing and death of the fig tree mean because Jesus tells us. Once the fig tree puts out leaves, soon after the judgment will fall upon the temple. So what Jesus is doing in chapter 11 is sort of like a live-action parable. Do you see it? It’s so clear now, isn’t it? The fig tree has sprouted leaves, so Jesus brings down judgment on the fruitless fig tree, and immediately he goes straight into the temple to bring down judgment upon it. Notice his actions in the temple are also like an acted-out parable. They are a symbolic judgment. But remember Mark tells us that presumably the next day the cursed fig tree has already withered down to the root. The judgment that Jesus brings comes with great authority and power, not just striking at the visible façade, but extending all the way to the root—to the very foundation of the tree and the temple.
Now, let’s take a closer look at what happens in the temple. Remember that Jesus had already paid a visit to the temple the previous day. He went inside and gave it a thorough inspection. Then the next day he returned and cleared it out. He found a bustling marketplace erected to sell animals for sacrifice to all the Jews arriving from all over the world for the great Passover festival, and moneychangers to make sure all the worshippers with foreign currency would use the acceptable non-pagan currency. Keep in mind that this market was probably set up in the most outer temple court. It was an area that most Jews probably used as a passageway to the inner courts of the temple where things were probably more quiet and holy feeling. The geographical layout of the city also suggests that the Jews used this outer court as a shortcut through the city. But this outer court had a very important purpose in God’s plan for worship. It was called the Court of the Gentiles because it was the only part of the temple where Gentiles were allowed to worship the God of Israel. But notice Mark doesn’t pay attention to that explicitly. No, he tells us that Jesus sees all this market trading as infringing on worship in the temple. Read verse 17, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
OK, let’s pause for a minute. Honestly, when you heard Jesus call the temple “a den of robbers,” did you think of little girls selling home-made cookies in the church foyer? Or a little boy after church making the rounds asking if you would buy a magazine subscription for his school fund-raiser? Yes, me too. But that’s not the kind of thing Jesus is referring to here. Notice that most of your Bibles have a cross-reference at verse 17 to two Old Testament passages—Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. These passages give us the meaning of what Jesus is quoting here. We don’t have time to look them up, so you’ll have to do that on your own. Jesus is accusing the people in the temple of treating God’s house like it was “safe.” Do you all remember playing tag as children, only there was one place where you couldn’t be tagged? What did you call that place? “Safe,” right? Well, sometimes we even treat our church buildings as sanctuaries from the judgment of God, don’t we? Have you ever thought, “Man, I’ve been a champion sinner this week! I’d better go to church to get God off my back”? Or how about this: “God’s not upset with me because I’m in church every Sunday morning.” People of God, listen carefully. Church is not “safe” like that. When we come together as a congregation, the Living God meets with us! He is here to forgive with tender mercies those with repentant hearts. He gives grace to the humble, but he opposes the proud. Don’t think for a minute that just because you are sitting here this morning enjoying the music and listening to me, all the while secretly rehearsing your vacation plans, or gleefully replaying that insult you dished out to your spouse, or figuring out how you can get out of doing your chores so you can go hang out with the wrong crowd, that God does not see you. I know I may be stepping on some toes here. Perhaps all this is just making you angry at God for having authority over your thoughts and actions? Maybe you’re just stewing over the idea that God would pay close attention to your innermost secrets despite your good reputation at church and work.
This is the second point of our passage (written on your sermon outline), that Jesus will judge his kingdom people who take their privileged position for granted, and who live in such a way as to repel others from worshipping God and thus deny the gospel mission he entrusts to them.
As an aside, notice that the people in this passage who hate Jesus are the ones who appear the most godly. Verse 18 says the chief priests and the scribes heard Jesus loud and clear, and yet they set out to destroy him. The chief priests were the ones in charge of administering the temple and everything that went on there. They are probably something like pastors and elders today. The scribes were the Bible experts. They knew the Bible backwards and forwards. They also are probably like pastors and elders today, and perhaps also like people who make a living from their knowledge of the Bible, maybe those who get paid to teach the Bible or write Christian books. The point is that they are the last people most of us would expect to hate Jesus. But there they are, wanting to kill him. Please listen to me carefully on this one, sometimes the enemies of Jesus are those who outwardly appear to obey God yet secretly hate Jesus, his gospel mission, and the authority he possesses. Just because someone wears a minister’s robe, or has a fancy, holy-sounding title, or can spout off Bible verses on call, that doesn’t necessarily indicate a love for Jesus and a respect for his authority. Be careful people of God that you do not follow those who just want to control your actions and your outward appearance, especially if it makes them look good. Ask yourself, “Who is getting the glory? Is it God, or someone else?” You will always know a true worshipper of God as he points you away from himself and to the Lord Jesus, because a true shepherd of God’s people knows that the Lord’s yoke is easy, and his burden is light.
Finally, let’s briefly touch on the last point of our passage. Jesus’ authority and judgment come with power, and he gives this authority to his disciples who do not doubt but confidently believe God by praying with sincerity and living graciously. I think we all recognize that Jesus is not teaching his disciples that if they don’t doubt their prayers, then they’ll get that new bike, or a date with Suzie, or that big promotion, or to play centerfield for the Dodgers (I tried that one when I was 12). Yes, in verse 23 Jesus uses the memorable image of a mountain being lifted up and cast into the sea as an example of how with believing and confident prayer all things are possible with God. But I think Jesus meant something specific by this general statement. You see, his disciples had just witnessed Jesus symbolically judge the temple, and had seen with their eyes how quickly the fig tree had withered. They perceived that Jesus clearly has great authority and power, but after all, they might have reasoned that it’s just one dead tree, and the temple cleansing was yesterday and today all the merchants and shoppers are back again as if it never happened. And to top it off, Jesus keeps talking about how those guys will kill him and then three days later he will rise again. I’m sure they were thinking, what does all that mean? Are those things symbolic too? Now stay with me here. Let’s be honest with ourselves again. Don’t we occasionally think like that too? I mean, they did end up killing Jesus, and yeah, he rose again—that was a big win for our side. But then he went to heaven and now we don’t see him anymore. And now it seems like the bad guys have the power and authority again. And nothing ever seems to change in this world. Hasn’t everything been the same since he left? And I prayed for God to please turn things around in my life, to take away my father’s cancer, to bring the joy back into my marriage, to take away that nagging sin—that thing I just can’t seem to stop. And I’m still waiting for God to answer. Do I have a little bit of doubt in my heart? Is that why that mountain remains impossible to move? Well, God understand all of our hurts and longings, and he does answer our prayers, just not always according to our watch. But I think Jesus meant to encourage his disciples in a slightly different way here. I think Jesus was teaching them that with the eyes of faith, the eyes that only God can give, that those people and things that set themselves up opposed to the kingdom of God cannot and will not stand. Jesus has great authority and power to establish his kingdom and nothing can stand in his way. And he has promised to give this same authority and power to his disciples—all of his disciples (including me and you). Only we must be confident and not doubt that God will grant our prayers for the advancement of his kingdom, and we must be humble and forgive the sins of others so that God will forgive us our sins. And you know, I think we can see that God’s kingdom has grown with marvelous authority and power. His gospel, which unites both Jews and Gentiles in Christ, has grown from a small band of disciples to number such a multitude that no one can count us. His kingdom has gone out to every land, and nothing has ever been able to stop it. The temple in Israel fell, the Roman Empire finally stopped persecuting Christians because they became Christians themselves, and the devil has not been able to prevent the spread of the gospel to any nation. And God has chosen to graciously accomplish this (and continues to) through the prayers and labors of his people as they humbly live and share that gospel by the power of the Spirit. The power and authority of Jesus is available to us, but he will accomplish those purposes that bring him glory, not us. Isn’t that what we really, truly desire? Hallelujah! Let’s close in prayer.
Gracious and loving Father, we praise you for being a righteous judge over your covenant people. We pray that we will not presume upon your blessings without being obedient to your gospel mission to the nations. Teach us to not erect obstacles that hinder your people from worshipping you. We thank you Jesus for sharing your great authority and power with those who follow you. We ask that you would grant us confident faith, that you would soothe and help our doubting hearts, and that you would give us the grace to forgive others as you have forgiven us our sins. We pray these things in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
View the entire exegetical process here.