Barren Fig Tree - Fruitless Temple

The cursing of the barren fig tree symbolized the coming destruction of the Temple and the fruitlessness of Israel - Mark 11:12-26

Barren Tree - Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash
The 
Gospel of Mark divides the story of the barren fig tree into two sections and places the “cleansing” of the Temple between them. This arrangement demonstrates that the two episodes are linked.  The fruitlessness and the cursing of the fig tree communicate things about the spiritual state and the destiny of the Temple. The actions by Jesus foreshadowed its coming destruction - [Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash].
  • (Mark 11:12-14) - “And on the morrow, having departed from Bethany, he hungered, and seeing a fig tree from afar spouting leaves, he came if perhaps he might find anything on it, and having come to it, he found nothing except leaves. for it was not the season of figs. And having answered, he said to it, ‘No longer from you will anyone eat fruit unto the age to come.’ And his disciples were listening” - (Parallel passageMatthew 21:18-19).
The two events occurred in the spring when figs were NOT in season.  Figs ripened in late summer; however, in the spring, fig-trees sprouted leaves and edible green knops known as paggim (Hebrew).  When Jesus saw the tree sprouting foliage, he most likely expected to find paggim to eat.

The appearance of green knops would indicate that the fig tree would produce fully formed fruit in the summer.  The lack of any paggim in the spring meant the tree would not produce the expected figs in the summer. The display of green leaves gave the impression that this tree was bearing fruit; however, closer inspection proved otherwise.

Several Old Testament prophets used the image of the fig tree to symbolize judgment on the nation of Israel - (Isaiah34:4, Jeremiah 8:13, 29:17, Hosea 2:12, 9:10, Joel 1:7, Micah 7:1).

The cursing of the fig tree symbolized the impending judgment on the Temple. Outwardly, it appeared fruitful, just like the fig tree that sprouted green leaves. But behind the façade, Israel failed to produce the required fruit. Jesus used the fig tree to symbolize the nation under judgment.

Fruitless Temple. In the Temple, the “moneychangers” operated in the court of the Gentiles, the largest section of the structure and the only area where uncircumcised Gentiles were allowed.  At the time of this event, the opening of the court to the “moneychangers” was a recent innovation.
  • (Mark 11:15-19) - “And they come into Jerusalem.  And, having entered into the Temple, he began to cast out those selling and those buying in the Temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those selling the doves. And he was not allowing that any should carry a vessel through the Temple. And he was teaching and saying to them, ‘Is it not written that, MY HOUSE WILL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER TO ALL THE NATIONS?  Yet you have made it A DEN OF BRIGANDS.’ And the chief priests and the scribes heard and they were seeking how they might destroy him, for they were fearful of him for the whole multitude was astounded at his teaching.  And whenever evening came, he was departing outside the city” - (Parallel passagesMatthew 21:12-17, Luke 19:45-46John 2:13-17).
The exchange of money and the animal trade associated with the sacrificial system provided the Temple with significant revenues. The function of the “moneychanger” was to exchange foreign currency for shekels since the Law required that the Temple Tax be paid in that medium - (Exodus 30:13-16).

The action by Jesus was not a protest about commercial activity but against the barriers to Gentile participation in the Temple’s rituals. He expelled both those buying and selling animals. Moreover, the observation that he prevented people from carrying “vessels” through the court points to something more than an objection to profiteering.

The court of the Gentiles was the only part of the Temple where non-Jews could worship the God of Israel, and their participation would have been hindered by the “moneychangers.” And commerce in animals for the Temple rituals would involve an enormous number of beasts during major pilgrimage feasts.

That Jesus acted in the court of the Gentiles and alluded to a clause from Isaiah demonstrate that the issue of Gentile participation was at the heart of his action. The Temple authorities may have been profiting from this trade, but they did so at the expense of Gentile participation in prayer and worship - (“My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” - Isaiah 56:8).

The Greek word rendered “vessel” or skeuos is used in the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible for the sacred vessels employed in Temple rituals. This suggests Jesus brought a halt to some of the sacrificial activities, at least for a short period, which certainly would have angered the priestly authorities - (Leviticus 8:10).

The court of the Gentiles was a large area, and his actions could not have cleared out the entire court, even if only for a brief period.  That there was no immediate reaction mounted against Jesus shows the limited effect of his actions. However, the disturbance was large enough to attract the attention of the Sanhedrin - (Mark 11:27-28).

Regardless of how much Jesus disrupted the Temple activities, his act symbolized the rejection of the Temple cult by Yahweh, especially for its failure to produce the required fruit - the inclusion of the Gentiles in His worship.

A den of brigands.” The Greek term léstés means “brigand.” It implied something more than just a common thief. Jesus was making a judicial pronouncement against the Temple and its leaders. The next story in Mark will make this more explicit - (Matthew 24:43, Mark 11:27-33).

He quoted two Old Testament passages in his pronouncement. Note the references to “my mountain” from Isaiah, and to Judah being “cast out” in Jeremiah:
  • (Isaiah 56:3-8) - “…And as for the sons of the foreigner who have joined themselves unto Yahweh to wait upon him and to love the name of Yahweh, to become his for servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath lest he profane it, and who lays firm hold on my covenant, surely I will bring them into my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer, their ascending–offerings and their sacrifices being accepted upon mine altar, for MY HOUSE A HOUSE OF PRAYER SHALL BE CALLED FOR ALL THE PEOPLES!’ Declares my Lord, Yahweh, who is gathering the outcasts of Israel: Yet others will I gather unto him besides his own gathered ones.”
  • (Jeremiah 7:8-15) - “…A DEN OF ROBBERS has this house on which my Name has been called become in your own eyes? I also, lo, I have seen it, declares Yahweh… Therefore, will I do to the house whereon my Name has been called, wherein you are trusting, even to the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, just as I did to Shiloh; and will cast you out from before me, just as I have cast out all your brethren, all the seed of Ephraim.”
The passage from Isaiah referred to eunuchs and Gentiles. Under the old covenant, they were not allowed to participate fully in the Temple rituals. But the time would come when Yahweh would make them full participants in the covenant community. It was always His intent to make his Temple a place of worship for all people regardless of ethnicity or ceremonial uncleanness - (castration made one ceremonially unfit).

The prophecy was fulfilled originally by the Babylonian Empire when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple and removed its vessels.  In the passage from Jeremiah, Yahweh reminded Judah of the judgment that had already befallen the northern kingdom of Israel when God “cast out” the seed of Ephraim.  Now, in the like manner, He was about “to cast out” Judah - (Daniel 1:1-2).

The Temple authorities were angered and began to plot the destruction of Jesus, which shows they took his actions seriously. His act did not constitute a “cleansing” of the Temple. Instead, it symbolized the rejection of the Temple because Israel had failed to produce the necessary fruit. What Jesus portrayed was not the future restoration of the Temple, but instead, its demise.

Withered Fig Tree. By prefacing his next remarks with “Amen, I am declaring to you,” Jesus invested them with ultimate authority. The description of the fig tree as “withered from its roots” demonstrated its imminent and complete destruction. Never again would it produce fruit or foliage. It also echoed the earlier Parable of the Sower in which some “seed” fell on the “stony ground” and “withered” because it had “no root” - (Mark 4:5-6).
  • (Mark 11:20-26) - “And passing by early, they saw the fig-tree withered from its roots; and put in mind, Peter says to him: Rabbi! See! The fig-tree which you cursed is withered. And answering, Jesus says to them: Have faith in God. Verily, I say to you, whosoever shall say to this mountain, be lifted up and cast into the sea, and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that what he speaks is coming to pass, it shall be his. For this cause, I say to you: All things, whatsoever you are praying for and asking, believe that you have received, and they shall be yours. And when you stand praying, forgive, if aught you have against any, that your Father also, who is in the heavens, may forgive you your offences” - (Matthew 21:19-22).
The cursed fig tree was about the impending destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. Despite its flourishing foliage, the “fig tree” remained fruitless.

Jesus did not refer to just any mountain, but instead, to “this mountain.” The Greek demonstrative pronoun in the clause is most emphatic. This was not simply a generic statement about how faith brings about answers to prayer, but about a very specific mountain was intended, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a mountain that was about to be “removed” in judgment.

Jesus was the one declaring to “this” mountain - “Be removed and cast into the sea!” In view was the impending destruction of the Temple, a judgment symbolized by his actions in the court of the Gentiles and the cursing of the barren fig tree.

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