Amid the cheers of the crowd, riding on a colt, Jesus displayed himself as Israel’s King. Everything about what Jesus was doing was showing how he fulfills God’s promises. Jesus was riding into Jerusalem as Israel’s King, just like God had promised. When he arrived at the Temple, he looked around and saw a disturbing site. So he leaves. He goes to a neighboring village for the night, and the story continues in Mark 11:12-14.
Jesus is on his way to the Temple in Jerusalem and stops at a fig tree for breakfast. The tree looks fine on the outside, but upon close inspection, there is no fruit. A fruit tree with no fruit is good for nothing. Jesus curses the tree because it has no fruit, and we know this is more important than simply the reaction of a hungry man because it says in verse 14, “his disciples heard him say it.” This seemingly irrelevant little story will become important after what Jesus does next when he gets to the Temple in verses 15-25.
The Temple had become both a patriotic and a religious symbol. It was a source of national pride for Israel. It came to be recognized as a symbol of God’s favor upon Israel and as a symbol of Jewish identity. And this may not sound all that bad, but it wasn’t supposed to be any of those things. The Temple was for worship. Allowing commerce and politics and nationalism to enter into it was a degradation of its intention. The Temple wasn’t supposed to be just another place, it was a place to meet with God. Jesus opposes this corruption of the Temple and for the next several passages, until Mark 13, we’ll hear him talk about these things. Jesus wasn’t against the Temple, but he was against what the Temple had become. It was no longer a place to worship or pray, it was the center of politics and commerce. It wasn’t only that people were being exploited by the money changers and animal salesmen, people were buying things in the Temple and walking through the Temple courts on their way to do other things. So, by the time we get to Mark 13, we will hear Jesus say that the Temple will be destroyed and replaced. Worship impacts all of life, and they were letting life impact their worship. Things were upside down. People made money there. People were networking and politicking. People were walking through the courts because it was closer to their destination than walking around. The time for formal worship was to place all other aspects of life in perspective, and they had rearranged worship to fit aspects of life into it.
Bring this to our present day. We gather for worship as a church for a small period of time weekly. This time allows the rest of our lives to be focused and ordered accordingly. Worshipping God is focusing on what is most important and it also shows us how the rest of our lives can be focused on God. These people looked at God through the lens of life, rather than looking at life through the perspective God gives his people. We experience this same temptation in our day. Business, networking, politics, and many aspects of our lives are brought into worship when they should be left outside. Our worship of God informs and directs all of those things, but if we aren’t careful we will approach God with all of those things. We’ll worship business, social life, and politics and we will ask God to bless it; when we should worship God alone, and ask him to direct our involvement in all other various aspects of life for his glory. Not that those other aspects of life aren’t important, but their importance hinges upon God being placed in the center of our lives. Without taking regular time to specifically devote ourselves to worshipping God and aligning our hearts with him, we are in danger of moving his place in our lives from the seat of Lordship to the guy who helps me do the stuff I want to do. This is called idolatry and this is what Jesus saw in the Temple that day.
In Verse 15 Jesus addresses everything going on in the outer court of the Temple. He doesn’t single out those who were selling, but also addresses those who were buying. In Verse 16 it says people were carrying merchandise through the courts. The Temple had several layers leading up to the innermost place called the Holy of Holies where the high priest went once a year to make sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. Where Jesus is at this point, is in the outermost court called the Court of the Gentiles. This was where Gentiles (non-Jews) who wanted to worship God could come and do so. In verse 17, Jesus begins to teach after he has just wrecked the place and his words are from Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7.
Isaiah 56:6-8 is about foreigners who don’t belong to Israel that God will include in his people. Jesus was calling attention to the plan of God to allow foreigners to come to worship him. The people who oversaw the Temple had allowed things to be put in place that hindered this. Jesus saw the place where Gentiles were permitted to worship become commonplace and no longer sacred. The commerce and activity happening everywhere in the Court of the Gentiles wasn’t worship, and Jesus acts to restore the sacredness of that place. His actions included knocking over tables and scattering money everywhere. He stopped people who were cutting through the Temple courts and told them to leave. In doing this, Jesus references the passage from Isaiah which talks about God including foreigners in his plan when he restores God’s people and rescues them from their exile.
The other passage he quotes is from Jeremiah 7:2-11. This passage is a condemnation of the people of Israel. Although they had a temple to worship God, it hadn’t translated into a life that worshipped God. They trusted in the existence of a Temple rather than loving God and living rightly. In Jeremiah 7:6, the reference is again to the foreigner in addition to orphans and widows. Jesus is quoting these two passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah to condemn Israel’s religion. They thought that just because they had the Temple, this meant they were right with God. But they had neglected to love God and people from their hearts, and their religion was only outward, not from their hearts. Isaiah and Jeremiah condemned Israel when they turned away from God. They warned God’s people of a coming exile if they didn’t turn back to God. They refused to do so, and were taken away to foreign lands. Jesus is calling Israel to true worship again, and in Mark 11:18 we see that the response of Israel’s leaders is to try to kill Jesus. Just like Israel in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah, in Jesus’ day they refuse to worship God properly, but live for their own desires and pursuits. Verse 18 says that the leaders were afraid because the crowds were amazed at Jesus’ teaching. They were going to have to do something quickly, or Jesus would be made King and the leaders would lose their positions of influence and comfort that they had.
In verses 19-25, it’s clear now that Jesus cursed the fig tree, not because he was hungry and it didn’t feed him, but as a symbol or metaphor for what was happening in Israel. The barren temple is illustrated by the withered tree. This is why the story about the fig tree has the story of Jesus cleansing the temple in the middle of it. Jesus is effectively saying that Israel has become a tree without fruit. They bear all the marks of religion yet they don’t know God. About this passage, Tim Keller says, “Jesus was returning to a place that was religiously very busy, just like most churches…but the busyness contained no spirituality. Nobody was actually praying.” Jesus goes into the temple and there is no worship. No one was praying.
Of all the things we might do as a church and as individuals, we must worship God. There are different ways to do this, but primarily in the church, it has to do with singing, praying, and reading and preaching the Scriptures. If we neglect worship, we are club, or a benevolent organization, but we are not a church. So, among the other things that churches do, our primary focus must be worshipping God when we gather. No other place does this, only the church. We can get advice from all kinds of places, but we only know God through his word.
The day after Jesus goes to the Temple; Peter recognizes the fig tree and points it out to him. Then, Jesus begins to talk about praying. The focus of the Temple should have been prayer, but that had been replaced. So Jesus is teaching that although the Temple has now become an example of Israel’s fruitlessness, prayer remains an essential aspect of worship. He is also teaching that prayer doesn’t have to happen only in the Temple, but you can pray anywhere. Jesus tells his followers that prayer is the way in which the power of God is translated into daily life.
Verses 24 and 25 give us two instructions regarding prayer. First, if we ask God believing that he will give it, it will be ours. Secondly, when we pray we are to release anything we hold against anyone by forgiving. We talk a lot about the first and not so much about the second. God has the ability to throw a mountain into the sea, it says in verse 23, and when we believe in God’s power, we will pray accordingly. But our prayers are a place where theology and life intertwine. Loving God cannot be separated from loving people so we when we pray our theology that informs us of God’s ability, must be joined with the practice of forgiving others of their wrong against us. God doesn’t count our many sins against us, and we have no right to count the sins of other against them. Prayer is affected by our view of God and our view of others. God made a way for us to be reconciled to himself so in our application of that reconciliation, we must also reconcile ourselves to one another. In talking about prayer, here Jesus speaks to the vertical and horizontal aspects of the Gospel.
Jesus died for our sins and rose again giving us eternal life. But that eternal life is not just with him, but with all who turn to him in faith. So, it’s likely that you will spend eternity with people you don’t particularly care for. In fact, it’s possible that you might spend eternity with people you might actually hate. God hasn’t turned me or you away, and he won’t turn away anyone else who comes to him believing and trusting what Jesus has done. The Gospel affects us in a God-ward way and an others-ward way. At Shore Community Church, we say that our goal is to Love God and Love people. Jesus teaches that here with his instructions on prayer. He says, believe that God can do anything you ask, but your prayers are affected by whether or not you forgive other people.