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.
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
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
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
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. 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
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. 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
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.
“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:
lack of reverence for God that brings an insensitivity
to the evil of defiling the
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. 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 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. 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. 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
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
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
see this dynamic repeatedly in the Law and it wasn’t limited to just
those who lived in the wilderness with the
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
that included the entire nation of Israel,
but it was especially applicable for areas near the temple.
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.”
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.
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
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
with that Biblical context as background, listen to these findings from
just two of several studies I accessed this week. "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…"
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%
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.”
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
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.