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

Lone Tree - Photo by Johann Siemens on Unsplash
The Gospel of Mark divides the story of the barren fig tree into two sections, placing the “cleansing” of the Temple between them, and thus, the two events are inextricably linked.  The fruitlessness of the fig tree and its subsequent cursing highlighted the spiritual state and destiny of the Temple, and Christ’s actions foreshadowed its destruction [Photo by Johann Siemens on Unsplash].

After his triumphal arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus paid a quick visit to the Temple to “look around about on all things.” When he rode into the city, the crowd was shouting a passage from the Psalms, “Hosanna! Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.” In doing so, they were acknowledging him as the promised Messiah, and the second half of the passage read, “we have blessed you from the house of Yahweh,” a reference to the Temple – (Psalm 118:26, Mark 11:1-11).

Most appropriately, the Messiah visited the Temple upon his arrival in the city. This was in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy - “The Lord whom ye seek will come suddenly to his temple… And I will come near to you to judgment.” He was the one who would sit as a “refiner and purifier” to purify the “sons of Levi” - (Malachi 3:1-4).

His initial visit to inspect the Temple anticipated his coming conflicts with the religious leaders of Israel that took place in the Temple over the next several days, confrontations that would lead him to depart from the Temple for the last time, and to pronounce its coming destruction. Having been weighed in the balance, it was found seriously wanting. In Mark, the story of the barren fig tree follows immediately after his visit to the Temple.
  • (Mark 11:12-14) - “And on the morrow, having departed from Bethany, he hungered, and seeing a fig tree from afar sprouting 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 passage - Matthew 21:18-19).
These events occurred in the spring when figs were NOT in season.  Figs ripened in late summer, but in the spring, fig-trees sprouted leaves and edible green knops known as paggim (Hebrew).  When Jesus saw the foliage, he most likely expected to find paggim to eat.

The appearance of green knops would indicate that the tree would produce fully formed fruit in the summer.  The lack of any paggim meant that the tree would not produce the expected figs later in the summer. The display of green leaves gave the impression of a fruit-bearing tree, but 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 had failed to produce the required fruit.

FRUITLESS TEMPLE. In the Temple, the “moneychangers” operated in the court of the Gentiles, the only area in the complex where uncircumcised Gentiles were allowed.  At that time, 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 passages - Matthew 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 the Temple tax to be paid in shekels - (Exodus 30:13-16).

Christ’s action was not a protest about commercial activity, but instead, 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 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 demonstrated that the issue of Gentile participation was at the heart of his action. The Temple authorities may have profited 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).

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. And implicitly, Jesus called the Temple leaders “brigands.” The Greek term léstés means “brigand” and means more than just a common thief, something more akin to violent revolutionaries. Thus, he made a judicial pronouncement against the Temple and its leadership.

Jesus 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 profanes 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 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 Jeremiah, Yahweh reminded Judah of the judgment that had already befallen the northern kingdom when God “cast out” the seed of Ephraim.

Church Ruins - Photo by Johannes Beilharz on Unsplash
Photo by Johannes Beilharz on Unsplash

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 but 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 its demise.

WITHERED FIG TREEBy 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 offenses” - (Matthew 21:19-22).
The cursed fig tree was about the impending destruction of 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 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 in view, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It was about to be “removed” in judgment.

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



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