12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves,16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
(Mark 11:12-25 NIV)
In our last time together, we saw Jesus make His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding a donkey as a symbol of coming to the city in peace. After Jesus looked around the temple court area, it was late in the day. Jesus and His disciples left Jerusalem and went back to Bethany, probably staying with their long-time friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
Today’s passage is, in Mark’s style, two stories intertwined into one – another “bookend” literary structure. These two stories are tough to understand separately, much less together. I will do my best to explain them together today at a high level, then walk through the individual stories in subsequent days.
As today’s text unfolds, Mark tells us that “the next day” after Jesus had made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, He returned to Jerusalem from Bethany. There was no time lapse here – this was literally the following day.
Jesus saw a fig tree in the distance and decided to go inspect it. From a distance, the tree looked great – alive, full of leaves, and presumably full of fruit. Mark points out that it was not the season to harvest figs; this was Passover week, which occurred in the March/April timeframe. Fig harvest was not until sometime in June.
Jesus’ expectation was that the tree should at least have immature fruit – the tree should be loaded with figs that just need a little more time to ripen before harvesting. Upon closer inspection, however, Jesus finds the tree full of leaves, but no fruit whatsoever.
Jesus then pronounces a curse on the tree, saying that no one would ever eat figs from it again. Jesus did not kill the tree but said it would remain fruitless forever.
Jesus then entered Jerusalem, went back to the Temple, and drove out the money changers and the people selling goods. In the parallel story to the fig tree, Jesus saw the Temple from afar and was hopeful that its beauty and opulence were like the fig tree – full of life and bearing fruit for the kingdom of God. After all, that is why God instructed the Israelites to build the Temple.
But on closer inspection, Jesus found the Temple to be just like the fig tree, all leaves, and no fruit. Jesus then began clearing out the Temple so that it could be used for its original purposes – for the glory of God.
Jesus and His disciples then left Jerusalem for the evening. The next morning, Jesus and His disciples walked by the same fig tree. Peter noticed that the tree had completely withered from the roots up. Peter points out this overnight change to Jesus, who then uses the incident as a teachable moment for His disciples.
As Jesus and His disciples are standing on the Mount of Olives, they can see the Dead Sea in the distance. Jesus uses the Mount of Olives and the Dead Sea as an illustration of praying in faith for God to work miracles, knowing that the power comes from God, not from themselves. The fig tree was a real-time parable of God’s power; the Temple would be a future example of the same truth when it would be destroyed in AD 70.
May we remember that the Lord is not looking for us to be a well-nourished, good-looking tree on the outside. He instructs us to bear fruit, to do the hard work of growing ourselves and investing in others so they will grow as well.
May we be both disciples of Jesus as well as disciple-makers for Jesus (2 Timothy 2:2).
We’ll dig into more of these stories in coming days.