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"Accursed for Fruitlessness!"

MESSAGE FOR March 28, 2010 FROM Mark 11:11-25

CLICK HERE FOR WMA - Audio file of the sermon


Many times in years past on Palm Sunday, we have preached on Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and every year, we stress the distinctive nature of that event.  That is—that Jesus deliberately choreographed all the details surrounding the entrance to reveal something very specific about himself—that is, that he is the long awaited King of the Jews, but he is a very different king than the Jews had been expecting—a humble, servant King.  In that sense, the Triumphal Entry is what scholars call an “acted out parable.”  This week, we want to look at the next event in Jesus’ life as Mark records it and, like the Triumphal entry, it too is an acted out parable.  When we read this account earlier, several questions hopefully sprang to mind in response to this strange account.  Questions like, “Why does Jesus curse a fig tree for not bearing figs when he knows figs were out of season?”  More fundamentally, “Why does Jesus curse a tree at all?”  We aren’t used to seeing him cursing things in the first place and to curse a tree…it seems odd.  Was Jesus frustrated with the tree because it had no fruit when he was hungry and if so, isn’t that irrational given the fact that he knew there would be no figs on it anyway?”  Finally, “Why  does Mark place his account of the cleansing of the temple in between these two parts of the cursing of the fig tree?” 

In order to determine what Mark is saying here, we need to see the relationship between the fig tree incident and the cleansing of the temple.  The fact that Mark intertwines the two accounts within each other is his way of drawing attention to the strong relationship between them.  First, a hungry Jesus sees a fig tree with leaves but no fruit and he then curses the tree.  Next, we have Jesus walking into the temple courtyard and violently throwing out those who are buying and selling and making those who are taking a short cut through the temple grounds walk around the courtyard.  Following that, Mark then comes back to the fig tree narrative and tells us the fig tree is very dead.  He could have told the two stories separately, but he chooses to mix them in what scholars call a “Markan sandwich.”  Mark does this a few times in his book—sandwiching one account in between two parts of another story and he does that to graphically show that the two stories are closely related.  That is what’s going on here.  Mark’s telling of Jesus cursing the fig tree actually reveals to us Jesus’ motivation for cleansing the temple.  When Jesus cleanses the temple, he is not simply taking violent action to stop what he doesn’t like.  His actions carry far more weight than that and the reason we know that is because Mark connects it with his cursing of the fig tree.

In order to see the relationship between these two accounts, we need to know a bit about Old Testament teaching in at least two directions.  First, we need to know relationship between the fig tree and Israel because that relationship is clearly in Jesus’ mind.  Second, we need to remember that many of the prophets sent from God (of whom Jesus is the greatest) sometimes communicated truth in very dramatic ways—ways that seem very odd to us.  First, the Old Testament the relationship between Israel and the fig tree.  Two of the most common metaphors in the Old Testament for Israel are the grape vine or vineyard and the fig tree.  God is speaking of Israel in Hosea 9:10 and says, 10 Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season, I saw your fathers…”  Clearly, God likens Israel to figs and the fig tree.  God uses these metaphors for Israel most of the time in contexts where he is calling for judgment on his people.[1]  In a typical text, God says through the prophet Joel in the context of judgment, “6 For a nation has come up against my land, powerful and beyond number; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. 7 It has laid waste my vine and splintered my fig tree; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches are made white.”  Again, we see Israel is God’s fig tree.

That tells us that when Jesus, the great Prophet, does something dramatic to a fig tree, the nation of Israel is somehow in view.  But that doesn’t explain cursing a tree for not having any figs on it when it is not the season for figs, which seems to be a bizarre practice at best.  Again, if we are familiar with the Old Testament, we are accustomed to prophets doing things that seem a bit bizarre.  Ezekiel is the champion here.  He dramatizes the siege of Jerusalem for months on end before it happens using bricks and an iron griddle as props.  God told him to publicly lie on his left side for 390 days.  In chapter 24, God dramatically symbolizes his relationship to the temple by telling Ezekiel that he will cause his wife to die but Ezekiel was not to show even one sign of mourning.

God told Isaiah in chapter 20 to walk around naked and barefoot for three years as another prophetic symbol and he did that.  In Jeremiah 13, God tells the prophet to take his underwear and hide it under a rock, exposed to the elements, only to tell him to go dig it up again after a few months.  Those acts are seemingly irrational, but when you understand how God is using them as signs to symbolize something much bigger than the act itself, they make perfect sense. God knew long before we did that dramatically acting something out was a way to powerfully communicate the truth.  So Jesus is simply drawing on this practice of the prophets who preceded him as the Great Prophet to act out a drama—this acted out parable in Mark 11. The reason he walks up to a fig tree and curses it for not having fruit on it when it was not the season for figs is to communicate that this was only a symbol of another, much more sobering act of judgment.  Jesus intends that the irrationality of the act will make it clear that this cursing is ultimately not about the fig tree.[2]  So, what is the reality behind the symbolism of the fig tree?  We know from the follow up report on the tree that whatever it symbolized is in a very bad place because when they pass by the tree a second time, they find it withered all the way down to its roots.  Jesus doesn’t just genetically re-engineer it so that it would never produce fruit again, he kills it.  This is a clear sign of judgment on something.

In between these two fig tree accounts is the story of the cleansing of the temple.  That’s Jesus’ dramatic way of communicating that the real target of his judgment is not the fig tree (which wasn’t even in the fig bearing season anyway), the focus of his judgment is Israel, for which the fig tree was a well known symbol.  He pronounces this judgment on Israel by going to the very heart of Jewish spiritual life, the temple and condemning what is going on there.  The Jews virtually equated Israel with the temple.  When Jesus brings his judgment to the temple, he is powerfully condemning Israel for their unfruitfulness.  The main truth these accounts conspire to teach is:  Fruitlessness brings the judgment of God.  That is a well established Biblical truth in both testaments and Jesus is only re-emphasizing it here.  We know fruitfulness is God’s intention for his people because Jesus himself says in John 15:8, “8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.  The acid test of authenticity in the disciple is whether he/she bears much fruit. 

Jesus says much the same in Matthew chapter seven.  He says, beginning with verse 16, “16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  That’s a clear promise of judgment for all who do not bear fruit and Jesus is only repeating what John the Baptist had said earlier in Matthew 3:10 speaking of Israel.  10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Jesus is even more graphic about this judgment in John 15:5-6, “5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”  Abiding in Jesus brings fruit; not abiding brings fiery judgment because there is no fruit.

Likewise in Luke, Jesus tells a parable intended to warn the Jews that they have been inspected by God and have been found lacking fruit.  Jesus says it this way in Luke 13.  6… “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”  Jesus clearly portrays Israel as at the very brink of judgment for not bearing fruit and we know that judgment came upon Israel and Judaism as a way to know God when Jesus was crucified and the veil separating off the presence of God in the holy of holies was rent from top to bottom. 

That clearly signified, among other things, that God no longer dwelt in the temple. And without God’s presence, the temple was just an impressive building with no eternal significance.  The final act of judgment on the temple came in A.D. 70 when Rome destroyed it but that judgment begins here with Jesus.  The cleansing of the temple tells us two things.  First, that the judgment of the fig tree, as we said, really communicates the impending judgment coming upon Israel and second, the sin that Jesus draws our attention to in the temple graphically shows us the central characteristic of fruitlessness.  That is—what characteristic(s) marks people who claim to belong to God, but who are in fact on the verge of judgment for their fruitlessness?  The reason why Jesus cleansed the temple cleansing of the temple builds on the message from the cursing of the fig tree.  The message of the cursing of the tree is very basic—you don’t have fruit, so you are cursed.  In the cleansing of the temple, we see that teaching on God’s judgment for barrenness elaborated on as we see what barrenness looks like with more specificity.  As we examine the story of the temple cleansing, let’s look at the one central characteristic of unfruitfulness that Jesus reveals here and that brings judgment.

Jesus comes to the temple from his encounter with the fig tree and Mark writes, “15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “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.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.”

From this story within this larger, overarching context of fruitlessness the characteristic we want to examine this morning is:  A lack of reverence for God that brings  an insensitivity to the evil of defiling the sacred.  That’s the root sin Jesus confronts as he cleanses the temple.  The Jews were dull and insensitive to the evils of defiling the sacred space around God’s temple.  Because they were insensitive in this way, they were using the temple for something God never intended for it.  It was not a place of commerce, it had a much higher, sacred purpose.  Let’s think for a moment about the context of the temple cleansing so that we can see how this truth should be applied to us.  The law in Exodus 30 required that an annual temple tax of a half shekel be paid “according to the shekel of the sanctuary”[v.30].  During Jesus’ lifetime, this was paid with the Tyrian shekel because that was the closest equivalent to the old Hebrew shekel.[3]  In order for the Jewish men 20 years or older to pay the tax in that currency, a currency exchange of some sort was needed to convert the money of the Roman Empire into this money from Tyre that was accepted in the temple complex.  The “money changers” did this on the temple grounds themselves for convenience when it could have been done anywhere and they also tacked on a fee for themselves of about four to eight percent[4] so this became a source of revenue for the priests. 

Additionally, if you wanted to make a sacrifice for Passover that was only a few days away, the Law of Moses required that the animal be without blemish.  Jews generally purchased their sacrificial animals in Jerusalem because it was easier than bringing one from your herd that the priests (out of their greed for profit) might declare “unfit” anyway.  So, the priests had assembled a group of animals they had pre-certified to be “blemish-free” and sold those for sacrifice in the court of the Gentiles within the enormous temple complex.  The rabbinic writings of the day tell us that this was a very profitable venture for the priests.[5]  Forgive the pun, but they made a killing off the killing of these animals.

The historical evidence suggests that this practice of using the temple—specifically, the court of the Gentiles--for these commercial purposes was a very recent development and was instituted under the high priest Caiaphas in about 30A.D.[6]  The reason why Jesus is so justifiably angered by this is that the temple and the huge courts surrounding it were considered the most sacred of spaces by the Law because the presence of God dwelt within the temple.  Those of you who have been reading in Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy know that when the presence of God dwelt in the tabernacle when the Jews were encamped in the wilderness, if you became ceremonially unclean, you were placed outside the camp.  Numbers 5:2 tells us why.  God says through Moses, 2 “Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. 3 You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.”

The reason uncleanness was not permitted in the camp was because God dwelt in their midst.  You see this dynamic repeatedly in the Law and it wasn’t limited to just those who lived in the wilderness with the tabernacle.  For instance, when the Jewish warriors went out to battle, it was understood that God dwelt in the midst of their warriors’ camp.  So, in a somewhat colorful citation, God tells Moses in Deuteronomy 23:12 “12 You shall have a place outside the camp, and you shall go out to it. 13 And you shall have a trowel with your tools, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it and turn back and cover up your excrement. 14 Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.”  The point is—anywhere God dwelt among his people—in the tabernacle, among the warriors on the eve of battle, or in the temple—God’s very presence there made that ground sacred and that mandated that anything considered unholy be kept outside the vicinity of his dwelling.  Ultimately, that included the entire nation of Israel, but it was especially applicable for areas near the temple.

When the High Priests were permitting and even encouraging this kind of commerce and profiteering within the temple grounds where God made his residence, Jesus burns with anger because this is a direct affront to God’s holiness.  When the disciples saw this, John records that they remembered “that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” [2:17]  Jesus is consumed with zeal for God’s house because he possesses the same holiness that God stipulates through his Law forbidding uncleanness in his holy presence.  The Jewish leaders were fruitless and therefore subject to judgment and the central characteristic of their barrenness was their lack of reverence for God that caused them defile the holy dwelling place of God—“a house of prayer for the nations” by turning it into, in Jesus’words, “a den of robbers.” 

A characteristic of fruitless people who claim to belong to God is a lack of reverence for God’s holiness seen in the fact that they minimize or downplay or take a laissez faire attitude toward that which is sacred.  We see that in these Jewish leaders and though there are countless applications for us today, the most direct application of this truth for us is found in First Corinthians chapter six.  There, Paul makes precisely this same argument of the sacredness of God’s dwelling, but he applies it to the sin of sexual immorality among believers.  Now that you have heard the Old Testament background of God’s zeal for this and seen it in Jesus, listen to Paul who is standing on the shoulders of Moses and Jesus here as he writes beginning in verse 15.  15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!”   

Why is Paul so adamant here?  It’s because when a believer’s body is united with Christ, that makes it the sacred dwelling place of God.  He continues, 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”  Again, it’s the same argument—if you are one with Christ through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling; your body is set apart by God as sacred and we should never join Christ with a prostitute or anyone else with whom we are not in a marriage covenant.  Paul’s conclusion is, “18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

What distinguishes sexual sin from others is grounded precisely in what we have seen.  A believer’s body is a temple—the dwelling place of God and is therefore sacred.  It is not only the dwelling place of God, it was purchased for that purpose with the very blood of his Son at the cross—so there is a double sacredness attached to it.  It is sacred because of who dwells there and what was necessary to allow him dwell there.  We hear in Paul the same zeal that God showed against uncleanness in the camp and that Jesus displayed when he cleansed the temple because its God’s zeal for the holiness of his dwelling place.  Now, with that Biblical context as background, listen to these findings from just two of several studies I accessed this week.[7]  "According to Add Health data, evangelical teen-agers are more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants, and Jews. On average, white evangelical Protestants make their 'sexual début' shortly after turning sixteen…"[8]

From what we have seen today, that is a chilling reminder of the barrenness of the evangelical church.  Do you know why evangelical teens are more active sexually?  In many cases it’s because their parents and churches have not taught them that their bodies are the sacred dwelling place of God.  They know nothing of God’s holy jealousy for his house and his zeal for their purity as his dwelling place.  Parents and churches haven’t done their part to protect their teenagers’ bodies and have given little if any guidance on how to avoid contexts where they are destined to sin because they have little reverence for God and are dull to the defiling of the sacred.  Those statistics frame a portrait of a church bearing this central characteristic of fruitlessness.  That is a portrait of a church awaiting the judgment of God and as we know from 1 Peter 4:17, judgment begins with the household of God.  The statistics are little if any better when you compare adultery in the church with those outside the church and the same is true for pornography and other sexual sins and its not just men.

 An August 2006 six survey from a “Christianet” poll found that 50% of all Christian men and 20% of all Christian women are addicted to pornography. (I assume the term “Christian” is being used very broadly here).  60% of the women who answered the survey admitted to having significant struggles with lust; 40% admitted to being involved in sexual sin in the past year; and 20% of the church-going female participants struggle with looking at pornography on an ongoing basis.  The evangelical church knows very little of the zeal of Jesus that burns for God’s dwelling, their bodies.  Jesus saw the impurity in the temple and in response made a wreckage of the place.  What would that kind of zeal for our Father’s house look like when applied to sexual sin in the church?  Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:29.  In the context of sexual lust he says, “29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

That’s zeal and from that zeal Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, we don’t want to be too restrictive or rigid.”  Neither does he throw up his arms and surrender because we all live in a world that is a sexual sewer.  He says—“Do whatever it takes—no measure is too stringent—no barrier too high—tear out your eye!”  Today, that might mean, throw out the television set—monitor and filter your computer with Gestapo-like intensity.  Confess even the slightest sexual sin to your friends and ask them to hold you accountable to purity.  If you are attracted to a member of the opposite sex, don’t spend one second of unnecessary time with him or her and have others hold you accountable with that relationship. We must hear from the text that this level of zeal is only consistent with what we have seen throughout the Bible in these contexts where the holiness of God’s dwelling place is on the line.

In many sectors of the evangelical church, those kinds of measures would be ignored if not openly questioned, but based on the statistics I read earlier, what we are doing now is not working and the popular definition of insanity is “continuing to do what you are doing when what you are doing is not working.”  The biggest reason we are failing so dismally is because we simply do not reverence God as we should and that lack of reverence is seen in the fact that we are bothered very little when these sacred bodies are defiled with sexual sin.  Jesus curses that characteristic of spiritual barrenness and threatens with judgment those who practice.  The good news, as we have seen is that Jesus can cleanse these temples—not with a whip, but with his blood.  There are an awful lot of temples in the church in need of cleansing from sexual sin and Jesus is able.

Jesus died on the cross to cleanse us from sin and First John 1:9 applies to sexual sin as well as any other.  9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”   Confessing there connotes repentance and that means turning from our sin and we can repent of this because Jesus’ death on the cross secured for us the power to defeat the power of sin. If you are enslaved to sexual sin, confess it to God and to your believing friends.  Talk to one of the pastors and we can, without condemnation give you loving counsel on how to get free and stay free.  We must not be ignorant that Paul says in at least two places that those who practice sexual immorality will not inherit the kingdom of God. 

If you are here today and you have not placed your trust in Christ as your Savior, do that today because the Bible says you are a lawbreaker and a curse of eternal death rests on you.  The good news is, Jesus came to break that curse on the cross and set you free to live in freedom from sin.  If you trust in him, he will indwell you by the Holy Spirit and you will be adopted as a child of God into God’s family.   May God give us the grace to reverence him and treat appropriately what he calls sacred.

[1] Tyndale Old Testament Commentary on Hosea 9:10—electronic edition

[2] Stein, Mark, Baker Commentary of the New Testament, p. 513.

[3] Lane, The Gospel of Mark, NICNT. P.405.

[4] Stein, Mark, 515.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lane, The Gospel of Mark, NICNT. P. 403-404.

[7] For these and a number of  humbling statistics in this regard, visit   http://www.blazinggrace.org/cms/bg/pornstats


[8] http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles_of_faith/2008/10/sex_and_the_eva.html


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