Title: Nothing But Leaves
Text: Mark 11.11-25
Introduction: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. At the time, he created all that was. Within his creation, he created a garden. He created a man and a woman and a placed them in the garden to tend it. He loved them and provided for them. The relationship they had with him was perfect. The fellowship they enjoyed in this relationship was perfect.
You know the story: He gave them one stipulation concerning the fruit produced from the garden. All was there to enjoy except the fruit from one tree. Well, they failed. Innocence was lost and fig leaves were sown together to cover their nakedness and shame. God came calling in the evening, but they had hidden themselves. Their former glory was gone. They stood there before God covered in shame and nothing but leaves.
Transition: In Mark 11.11-25 we find another story of innocence lost. As Adam and Eve had rebelled against God, so had Israel. Both he considered his children; Both he loved and provided and cared for; and both ended up in the same condition.
The flow of the story is quite natural, yet hard to understand. There are three stories in a row that are filled with controversy. Some folks would want you to think that the first story is about Jesus losing his cool and taking it out on a poor tree. The 2nd story follows suit and we find an upset Jesus throwing tables around and running people off from the temple. Finally, we see him telling the people that if they would just have faith in God, they would receive “whatever you ask in prayer”. Simply, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Wah-lah!
Nothing could be further from the truth! And because of this false doctrine, so many have missed what is being taught here.
For example: I found this in Strauss’ Exegetical Commentary of the NT on Mark: Bertrand Russell, in his essay “Why I Am Not a Christian,” singled out this passage for criticism: “This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history.”
So, how can we begin to understand what is being taught here? Well, 1st, let us begin with looking for a common thread that runs through the greater story line. I believe that common thread is the temple. We see it in v 11, 15, 23, and 27. So the key to this passage is the temple. If we will not isolate each story, but rather view them as one narrative, we will find some context to help us better understand Mark’s goal here.
So, let’s put our theory to the test. Just because a word is popular or appears multiple times in the text doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the focus or the theme. We have a fig tree in this 1st section. Have we ever seen a fig tree or figs in general used in a story or a parable or an analogy in other places in Scripture? The answer is simply: yes. And when we do, we understand it to represent Israel.
So with this in mind, let’s outline this as point #1:
I. Jesus makes an example out of the fruitless fig tree. (11-14)
exp.: He simply uses it as an example of Israel. Let’s not look at this through our 21st Century lenses, but rather, try to see and understand as they would.
- The culture: the fig tree had two seasons; an early and a late; the late season was harvest. The figs were ripe and plump at that time. The early season was in the spring. The figs were not as plump and ripe, but did produce a blossom that was edible and sweet. Isaiah refers to this in 28.4: 3 The proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim will be trodden underfoot; 4 and the fading flower of its glorious beauty, which is on the head of the rich valley, will be like a first-ripe fig before the summer: when someone sees it, he swallows it as soon as it is in his hand.: Hosea 9.10; Micah 7.1; Nahum 3.12;
- The language: in Gk, there is no right order to the words. You identify the subject and verb by their endings and prefixes. The most important word in the sentence is usually the first word. When translating this sentence, I think it is best understood with a simple relocation of words. Look at v 13: 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it, for it was not the season for figs. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves. Here is a tree that shouldn’t have leaves because it is too early in the season; however, it does! And this tree, in producing big beautiful leaves, has no fruit; when at this time, there should be these big green leaves, green blossoms along with the leaves.
- The analogy: The fig tree is analogous of the Israel, it’s Temple and it’s leadership; this will become apparent as the story plays out. For now, see it this way: Jesus sees a tree that should have some fruit. He gets there and sees this big, beautiful tree, but no fruit. And he thinks to himself: Man, that is so like Israel! This big tree becomes teeny, tine when seen in the shadow of the great temple next to it. And that’s where we want to place our focus.
- The curse: You might call this foreshadowing. His curse is passing judgment up on Israel. Again, this will become clearer as we make our way through the story.
t.s.: The disciples don’t know this yet. They are witnesses to what has just happened, but they don’t see the bigger picture yet.
II. The Cleansing of the Temple isn’t really a cleansing at all. It is instead a warning of the coming Judgment (15-19)
exp.: rd v 17; there are two main OT passages Jesus is drawing from in this verse; Isaiah 56.6-8 and Jeremiah 7.1-15; Claudia, in Easyworship there is a place to bring up these Scriptures. Isaiah 56.6-8
6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
8 The Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.”
- Jesus is passing judgment against Israel for their lack of evangelism toward the Gentiles.
Prior to this event, the market for Temple activities was on the Mount of Olives. As recently as 30 AD, which is the year some say Christ died, the religious leaders moved the market into the Court of Gentiles. Gentiles could convert to Judaism, but they could never enter the Temple. Jewish women could go further into the Court of Women. Jewish men could go even further into the Court of Men. Only the priest could enter in the Court of the Priests where all of the activity was. The men could see and the women could struggle to see, but Gentiles stayed outside. And that was never God’s plan. Cf.: Numbers 15.14-16; Leviticus 22.18-25; here is what is so amazing about this: The Jews never did this and they found themselves scattered to the nations in Exile. Then, after the return of the exile, there was an international witness for them to tell of God’s great mercy. And Jesus is telling them that they failed in this, too.
- Jesus is passing judgment against Israel for thinking that they were saved simply because they were Jews.
Turn to Jeremiah 7.1-14; Jesus, by making reference to this passage, is clearly telling us what he is doing. By casting them out, just as Jeremiah said he would, Jesus is identifying who he is as Messiah and passing judgment on Israel for her failure. Her failure is that her religion became her focus and identity.
Here is Mark’s point: We find that the fig tree becomes analogous to the Temple in that: The temple was no longer functioning as God had intended by being a house of prayer for all nations; in other words, it was this big, beautiful tree filled with leaves, but produced no fruit;
Application for us: Warning: there is more to this ‘religion’ thing than just form and function! The prime motive in this place called the temple is the glory of God. It is the difference between a heart that has a passion for God and a people who gather to honor God only with their lips and they want a big, beautiful, comfortable place to do it.
t.s.: the fig tree is an analogy of Israel and her failure and the curse Jesus places on it is the judgment of God against her for her failure.
III. What were they to do about Israel’s failure and the judgment of God upon her? Jesus Calls them to Faith, Prayer and Forgiveness (20-25)
exp.: My first thought is of the misuse of this passage and others like it. Many preachers take v 24 and isolate it from the context. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. A false teaching presents a false hope and leaves people believing God is either not there at all or he is aloof and uncaring. So how do we frame our context? To begin with, I want to point you to one word that really helps us narrow our focus in on the context: it is the demonstrative pronoun found in v 23: this.
- This mountain: The temple mount; so, the prayer requests presented to God should deal with the temple in particular. This will be huge for the men standing there. Within another 30-40 years, this temple will be destroyed. Jesus is telling them how to pray.
- Have faith in God. in v 22; a literal understanding of this would be: you have the faithfulness of God. In other words, it isn’t your faith that accomplishes this, but it is God’s faithfulness to fulfill all that he has planned. Yes, we must have faith and many times we’re commanded to do so. But I think what Jesus is saying here is that the agent of faith is God. It isn’t us. He is faithful. And from that, we’re commanded to trust him. Read it this way: Wow! Check this out Jesus! The tree you cursed yesterday is withered down to the root! How can this be? Jesus then replies: you have the faithfulness of God. Really, when you think about it – that is the only explanation we need. That is why we pray according to the will of God. Not my will be done, but your will be done. That’s why you don’t pray whatever you want and it’ll be done for you.
app.: Your prayer life will be dramatically improved and become all the more powerful if you’ll add context to your prayers. Stop praying for God to feed your flesh here on earth and begin praying for God’s will to be accomplished in your life.
In our story this morning, the temple had become an object for the people. It no longer brought glory to God. Ladies and gentlemen, people don’t look at your facilities and stand in awe of God. They look at your facilities and stand in awe of your facilities.
Reflection: I wonder how many people passed that same fig tree and wondered aloud at the beautiful leaves on that tree. I’m guessing there were more people who saw the tree and thought of some small piece of fruit to enjoy – only to be disappointed to not find any.
ill.: I love trees. They bring so much beauty to a place. But in the time of Jesus, trees were not simply used for aesthetics; they served a purpose. Trees produced fruit, which was used by the people. No fruit, no purpose. If there was no fruit it was taking up the space of a tree that could produce fruit. Cut it down and put in a fruit-producing tree. Jesus even uses this exact explanation as a parable in Luke 13.
app.: So, let me land this plane: the temple had become a fruitless, leafy tree! And Jesus is passing judgment against Israel because of it.
t.s.: This is the stuff of nightmares (i.e.: being covered in beautiful leaves and producing no fruit).
Conclusion: So, how does this apply to us?
As a church and as believers we’ve been called to produce fruit:
- In keeping with repentance.
- The fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
- The fruit of other believers: How are you doing in this? As for me, not so good. I’m assuming by the state of our baptismal, that your attempts at producing the fruit of other believers is not so good either. Either one, you’re not attempting or, two, your attempts are failing. I hope to change that. (Invitation to CWT; we’ll meet every Sunday night for six weeks in 2 cycles). Sunday nights from 5-7 pm. Would you pray about joining us.
- We must be regularly producing fruit.
- In this pursuit, our focus must be the Glory of God. Paul David Tripp: If in your heart you have abandoned God’s glory, then with your life you will always forsake his plan. If this place is anything more than just a place we meet for worship and discipleship…then we’d better sell it and move out!
- Our focus and identity must never be found in this facility. Who we are and what we do must be found in Christ and Christ alone! This place is just where we meet.
- I don’t think buying and selling is inherently wrong. Their practice of buying and selling animals was set up by God, but they perverted it! The Temple had become a place of commerce and not a place of worship. But if this place becomes the end in itself, and not a launching pad for evangelism, then we are in danger of becoming a big, beautiful, leafy, but fruitless tree.
Pray: Oh, God…make us fruitful. Give us souls. I’ve prayed before for 100 souls here. In 2017, give us 100 souls. Oh, God, forgive me for that… Forgive me for limiting you to only 100 souls. Oh Holy Father, will you start with just one… give me one soul to count as fruit. Let us as Calvary see that 1st piece of fruit on the vine. Please, I beg you, don’t let us be like that fig tree. We don’t Jesus to talk to us like he did that tree.