The Rejection of the King
Text: Mark 11:12–25
Main Idea: External religiosity is no substitute for humble heart-felt worship.
I. The Curse (Mark 11:12–14)
II. The Cleansing (Mark 11:15–18)
III. The Conclusion (Mark 11:19–25)
Now I have to be honest, for years the account of the fig tree kind of bothered me. It just seems so out of character with Jesus. Why would Jesus lash out at an inanimate object? And even more, if he is God shouldn’t he know that it’s not the season for figs and that there is not fruit on the tree? From our human perspective is looks like Jesus is having a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Because, the Jesus in these verses seems completely different than the compassionate, merciful, and patient Jesus we have followed throughout the Gospel of Mark.
Well, the key to this apparent conundrum is found in the fact that we are not supposed to read the account of the fig tree on its own. If you have been following our series in the Gospel of Mark, you probably noticed that our passage today features a unique narrative form, a form most scholars call a “Markan Sandwich.” In that Mark starts one story (about the Fig Tree), transitions to another (about the Temple), and then returns to original story (about Fig Tree).
And Mark ultimately does this because we wants us to interpret the two accounts in light of each other. What I mean by this, is that he wants us to understand Jesus’ activities in the Temple through the lens of the fruitless fig tree, which is why he sandwiches his Temple activities between the two fig trees.
This means that Jesus is not just “tired, hungry, and grumpy” as he heads back to Jerusalem after his Messianic home-coming parade. The fruitless fig tree is, in fact, a visual, enacted parable that exposes a devastating truth about Israel’s spiritual leaders and the Temple itself.
Main Idea: External religiosity is no substitute for humble heart-felt worship.
The Curse (Mark 11:12–14)
The key to understanding this passage is anchored in the fact that most fig trees start bearing fruit before they start producing leaves. As Dr. Edwards demonstrates in his commentary on Mark:
Sometime, after the fig harvest that runs from from mid-August to mid-October, the branches of fig trees being to sprout buds that remain undeveloped throughout the winter. These buds then swell into edible small green knops known in Hebrew as paggim throughout March–April, followed shortly by the sprouting of leaf on the same branches, usually in April (which is around Passover). So what do we see? When it comes to figs: Foliage follows fruit.
See, the problem is that the presence of fig leaves is the promise of fruit—even through the knops are not nearly as tasty as fully ripe figs. BUT at the same time, there is an even greater problem, in that, if a fig tree is covered in foliage but devoid of these knops in April, it is a sign that the fig tree will remain barren for the entire year.
Therefore, Jesus does not curse the tree merely for its lack of fruit. He curses it for it’s deceptive show of exceptional producing power— a physical reality that reflected Israel’s spiritual condition. Remember, after the “Triumphal Entry” Jesus went to the Temple and looked around at everything that was going on and returned to Bethany because it was late (Mark 11:11). In other words, it was too late to do anything but now it’s time for action.
The “Cleansing” (Mark 11:15–19)
A Necessity Service
The first thing that I want to point out in this encounter is that the merchants and money changers are providing at necessary service to the Temple and to worshipers that traveled a long way to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.
Money changers exchanged worshipers’ foreign money into a uniform—idol and image free—currency known as the Tyrian shekel so that every coin within the Temple walls conform to the 2nd Worshipers then used these shekels to pay their annual temple tax and purchase proper sacrifices. In addition to this, Animal sellers, provided blemish-free sacrifices to worshipers so that they did not have to travel long distances with their sacrificial animal, risking injury or unintended blemish along the way.
Therefore, what I want you to see is that this market is directed toward the full support and service of Temple worship. Nothing is left to chance or an individual’s personal convictions, the market existed to ensure that every single command of Moses was upheld and obeyed.
His Actions (11:15–16)
The Second thing I want to point out is that no one is exempt from Jesus’ actions in the Temple. He drives out both buyers and sellers alike. I want to highlight this point because at this stage of the narrative it is easy to overemphasize two historical truths AND miss the main point.
First, it is most likely that all of this commence is occurring in the Court of the Gentiles. And that the priesthood is callously ignoring the Gentile’s God-given privilege to worship him by filling their worship space with a busy market. Thus, excluding them from worship. And to some extent that is true.
Second, it’s common to say that Jesus was primarily attacking the commercialism and profiteering of these Temple services, in that the priesthood was overcharging worshipers. And to some extent that is true as well; because we have numerous indictments against the greed of the priesthood in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of Josephus, and the Babylonian Talmud.
But, Jesus is not focused primarily on the exploitation of the Gentiles and the poor. When Jesus drives out buyers and sellers alike he is making it clear that no one is free from his censure. Whether they be Passover pilgrims who traveled from the furthest reaches of the empire to worship OR they were greedy profiteers preying on the religious needs of weary travelers. In addition to this, Mark tells us in verse 16, that “he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.”
See, Jesus isn’t cleansing the temple so that God’s people might worship him properly. Nor is he cleansing the priesthood so that they can lead rightly. No. Mark wants us to see that for a brief moment in time, Jesus effectively brings the well-oiled machinery of the Temple’s sacrificial system to a grinding halt! And in this he is cursing the Temple just like he cursed the fig tree. As on scholar rightfully observes:
If money cannot be exchanged into the holy currency, then monetary support for the temple sacrifices and the priesthood must end. If sacrificial animals cannot be purchased, then sacrifice must end. If no vessel can be carried through the temple, then all worship activity must cease.
To get a better grip on this lets, take a closer look at the two OT texts that Jesus cites to justify his actions—Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.
His OT Quotations (11:17)
Isaiah 56:1–8 Thus says the Lord: “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed. 2Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
3Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” 4For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. 6“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— 7these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” 8The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”
Notice in that future day, salvation will come to those who were unilaterally excluded from intimate fellowship with God under the Old Mosaic Covenant: specifically foreigners, eunuchs, and outcasts. In fact, God promises the unthinkable in the future day of salvation, in that, foreigners will be not only included among the people of God but that they will serve as ministers for God and have their sacrifices accepted by God. This is utterly mind-blowing because God is declaring there will be a day when Gentiles will have the privileges reserved for the Levites alone.
Therefore, this coming day of Salvation will be a day in which preexisting barriers are forever dissolved. But, remember, the First-century Jews are expecting the Messiah to purge Jerusalem and the temple of all Gentiles, aliens, and foreigners (see Sol. 17:22–30). Yet, Jesus does the exact opposite. He does not clear the temple of Gentiles, but it clears it for them. And not just so that they can have a quiet place to pray. No. He does it in anticipation of the day that they will have full access to God.
But, this leaves us with the question, “Why does Jesus say that the temple has been made in to a ‘den of robbers?” See, a robber’s den can function two ways. One, it can be a place where robbers lay in wait for unwitting victims. Two it can be a place where thieves seek protection and plan their evil deeds.
Jeremiah 7:1–4 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
Jeremiah 7:8–11 “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.
When we examine the context of Jeremiah 7 it becomes clear that Jeremiah’s audience was treating the temple like a magic amulet or talisman that would protect them from any harm. And the insanity of it all is that they thought they could hide from God’s judgment as long as they faithfully observed their duties in his house. They believe the Temple was a place of perpetual safety.
So when Jesus calls the Temple “a den of robbers” he is delivering a divine judgment in line with Jeremiah. He is saying, “My people are not coming to worship God and confess their sins through the sacrificial system, They are using the Temple as an excuse to keep on sinning.”
And how do the chief priests and the scribes respond to this double rebuke? Do they repent of their sin and reform their ways? No. They double down on their resolve to destroy Jesus (11:18)! They don’t care that they are walking in the paths of their forefathers. They don’t care that the Messiah has arrived. They don’t care that he has come to offer hope, joy, and everlasting life through the New Covenant. And the reason is this, they love their sin more than they love God.
The Conclusion (Mark 11:20–21)
The Fig Tree’s Condition
The tree is not dying a slow death. It’s not mostly dead. It’s wholly dead. The tree has withered from its very roots to its fruitless leaf covered branches. A graphic picture that helps us see that the tree is hopelessly lost and cannot be revived again.
The Implication for the Temple
In the same way, the very place that Jesus should encounter the greatest faith-ful-ness he finds the greatest faith-less-ness. And in an act of both divine wrath and prophetic enactment he shut the entire Old Covenant system down, anticipating the day that the entire system would be relegated to the ash heap of history.
See Jesus isn’t cleansing the Temple he is cursing the Temple. Just like the fig tree: Jesus found a building filled with religious activity, a system devoted to religious instruction, but as he took time for a closer inspection he found a people who were utterly complacent and wholly disinterested in true worship—a people who believed that they could freely enjoy their sin as long as they upheld their external religious obligations.
But, External religiosity is no substitute for humble heart-felt worship.
Two Warnings and an Exhortation
Religious Rituals never Excuse or Atone for Sinful Lifestyles
The sad reality is that countless professing Christians today are treating the Church as a “den of robbers”—in that they believe they are appeasing God’s anger against their sin through their physical presence on Sunday, their financial giving, or faithful participation in Church activities. They believe that grace somehow enables them to sin. They believe God can be honored with their lips when their hearts are far from him. They believe that religious duty is a substitute for faithful obedience. But, in this they are dead wrong!
Why do Christians gather? We gather for worship celebrating, commemorating, and contemplating God’s infinite and matchless grace to us, in that, God shows his love to us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God (Rom 5:8).
And he didn’t bring us to God so that we might presume on grace and enjoy a life sin. No. Rather that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too have been raised from the dead so that we might walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4). A life that is nothing like our old life, in that, we are new creations in Christ, the old has gone and the new has come (2 Cor 5:17).
Which leads into the second warning…
Spiritual Apathy is a Natural Trajectory
What I mean by this is that the our spiritual lives reflect the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, in that, differences in temperature, pressure, and density tend to even-out over time. Hot coffee does not get hotter nor do ice cold beverages get colder after you fill your cup; they trend toward boring, unsatisfactory lukewarmness.
Every Christian experiences this spiritual drift some time, if not, a number of times in their life. It’s real. It’s normal. It’s to be expected. It’s miserable. But, the fundamental question is what are you going do when you get there. And I have no doubt any number of you are there today.
Are you going simply going to settle in for a life of empty, uninspiring, passionless spiritual complacency? A life were you continue to go through the religious motions out of duty or a sense of family tradition but have no delight in God or expectation that he happily fulfills his promises to us. A life where your spiritual apathy paves the way to ever-increasing sinfulness and a comfortable return to your unregenerate lifestyle.
Repent and Believe
Where apathy thrives, faith dies. Complacency fuels unbelief, a conviction that either God doesn’t uphold his promises OR that for some reason he has grown weary of the task and left us to our own devices. Notice, what does Jesus emphasize at the end of this encounter? Faith. Faith that God has not abandoned his people. Faith that God still answers the prayers of his people. Faith that God truly cares about your physical existence and spiritual sustenance. And most of all, faith that your season of spiritual dryness and fruitlessness does not have to be the end of the story, it doesn’t have to define the rest of your life even if it has defined decades of your life. Because,
Exodus 34:6–7 God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.
And here is the good news of the gospel: you do not have to perform some form of penance for God to respond, you simply have to repent and pursue him in faith.
1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
God never abandons his children. If you are in Christ, you are forever secure in his love. And in this you and I have the promise that, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is more than able to bring joyful revival to the most apathetic, callous, and lukewarm heart (Eph 1:16–21).
 John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 851.
 James R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 339–40; Mark L. Strauss, Mark, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 491.
 Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1999), p. 504.
 “This was apparently quite a profitable venture under the control of the priests, whose character was highly criticized in Jewish writings (cf. 1QpHab 1.13; 8.8–13; 9.9; 11.4; 12.1–15; CD 5.6–8; 6.12–17; Ps. Sol. 2:3–9; 8:11–13; Josephus, Ant. 20.9.4 §213; b. Pesaḥ. 57a) for robbing the poor (1QpHab 8.12; 9.5; 10.1; 12.10; T. Mos. 7.6–10; 2 Bar. 10.18; Josephus, Ant. 20.8.8 §§180–81; 20.9.2 §§205–7) and accumulating wealth (1QpHab 8.8–12; 9.4–5);” (Robert H. Stein, Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008], 515–16).
 On the use of σκεῦος in the LXX see, Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 342–43.
 Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 343.