Matthew 11: 12 – 33 NLT
“Jesus Curses the Fig Tree
12 The next morning as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 He noticed a fig tree in full leaf a little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. 14 Then Jesus said to the tree, “May no one ever eat your fruit again!” And the disciples heard him say it.
Jesus Clears the Temple
15 When they arrived back in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifices. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, 16 and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace. 17 He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.”
18 When the leading priests and teachers of religious law heard what Jesus had done, they began planning how to kill him. But they were afraid of him because the people were so amazed at his teaching.
19 That evening Jesus and the disciples left the city.
20 The next morning as they passed by the fig tree he had cursed, the disciples noticed it had withered from the roots up. 21 Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, “Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!”
22 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. 23 I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. 24 I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours. 25 But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”
The Authority of Jesus Challenged
27 Again they entered Jerusalem. As Jesus was walking through the Temple area, the leading priests, the teachers of religious law, and the elders came up to him. 28 They demanded, “By what authority are you doing all these things? Who gave you the right to do them?”
29 “I’ll tell you by what authority I do these things if you answer one question,” Jesus replied. 30 “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human? Answer me!”
31 They talked it over among themselves. “If we say it was from heaven, he will ask why we didn’t believe John. 32 But do we dare say it was merely human?” For they were afraid of what the people would do, because everyone believed that John was a prophet. 33 So they finally replied, “We don’t know.”
And Jesus responded, “Then I won’t tell you by what authority I do these things.”
These verses in Mark 11 begin to show us that things are changing. The temple and its practices are about to end, and a new relationship with God is about to come.
Jesus and his disciples are staying in Bethany, perhaps with Lazarus, Martha and Mary. That’s a lot of guests for a household, and maybe that’s why Jesus was hungry in the morning as they left for Jerusalem. He went over to a fig tree that looked healthy with lots of leaves, but there wasn’t any fruit. The disciples heard him say “May no one ever eat your fruit again!” Later that day on their way back to Bethany, the disciples noticed that tree was withered from the roots up. This seems to be a picture of the Temple. Its splendour and rituals were still flourishing, but things are going to change. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, God will not dwell in the Temple, but in each individual who accepts Jesus’ sacrifice for them. 1 Corinthians 6: 19 – 20 says:
“Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price.”
When they arrived at the Temple, Jesus started driving people out of the Temple courtyard. Can you imagine that scene as tables are crashing, coins are scattering, and doves are flying everywhere? Steve Wilmhurst in A Ransom for Many talks about this situation:
“To understand this story, we need to know that around the actual buildings of the Temple there is a wide area known as the Court of the Gentiles, so called because this is the only area of the Temple where non-Jews are allowed to go. This is where the action now takes place. We also need to remember that this Temple is not some kind of museum or tourist attraction. It is busy; it is noisy; it is constantly full of crowds. In the inner court, a constant stream of animals is being slaughtered and sacrificed by fire on the great altar, fifty feet square. At this point, with the Passover just a few days away, all this activity is reaching a climax. At Passover, every family in the land is supposed to come and sacrifice a lamb; the regulations are set out in Deuteronomy 16:1-8. The number of animals involved is vast. According to Josephus, at the Passover in AD 66, a generation after these events, as many as 255,000 lambs will be needed for sacrifice. They all have to come from somewhere. That’s in addition to all the regular sacrifices which the Jewish Law prescribes for so many different events. The poor – the majority of the population – are allowed to sacrifice doves at some of these occasions; but again, the doves have to come from somewhere. The Jewish authorities have solved this supply problem in a very sensible way. Over the years, several large animal markets were set up on the Mount of Olives. People can buy their animals there for sacrifice, bring them in to the Temple, and all is well. But now, as if this were not enough, additional markets have sprung up in the Temple courts themselves, in the Court of the Gentiles. Probably this has been done in deliberate, direct competition with the markets on the Mount of Olives. You can imagine the advertising slogans: Don’t walk your lambs all the way in from the hills! Buy right here on site! So the Temple itself has become a livestock market. To make matters worse, there is the problem of the Temple tax, paid annually by every Jewish man to support the ministry of the Temple. The tax is set at half a shekel – and that’s the problem. Israel is occupied territory now, and the Hebrew shekel is no more. So everyone who comes to pay his tax has to change his Roman denarii or sestertii into the nearest possible equivalent of the Hebrew shekel, which happens to be the Tyrian shekel. This means that in addition to the livestock markets, there are also lines of money-changing kiosks. There are supposed to be strict rules about what goes on in the Temple court. There is even a rule about not using it as a short cut; but the rules have been conveniently forgotten!”
It’s interesting that this account of Jesus driving out the moneychangers and sellers is in the middle of the story about the fig tree. Jesus clears out the Court of the Gentiles, a place where other nations can come to worship in the Temple. Instead of welcoming those nations, the Jewish leaders had made it into a commercial zone. Jesus reaffirms that when he says, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.” In this short time before Passover, Jesus is indicating change is coming. The temple may look wonderful, but it will no longer be the place where people connect with God. The Jewish people won’t be the only people with a relationship with God. All nations, Israel included, will approach God through Jesus sacrifice for us.
There are some verses in the chapter that some people misinterpret:
“Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. 23 I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. 24 I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours. 25 But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”
Some people claim that these verses indicate the power of positive thinking. That definitely does not agree with the rest of scripture. Jesus is telling us that we need to be people who are committed to him, not people who doubt who he is. James (Jesus’ brother, not James the disciple) talks about this in his book. God does not work through people who waver in their commitment to God.
“If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. 6 But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. 7 Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.” (James 1: 5 – 8 NLT)
Mark also adds some words about forgiveness. If we want God to answer our prayers, we need to be willing to forgive others, just as God has forgiven us. How can we have an open relationship with God as we pray, if we are carrying around grudges against others?
“But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” (1 John 1: 9 NLT)
We need to follow God’s example. He is so willing to forgive us. Paul reminds us of this in Colossians 3: 13:
“Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.”
Things are changing. A relationship with God will no longer be rules and regulations centered in a Temple where the leadership seems to have become puffed up with pride. It will be centered on a personal connection with God made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It will be about devotion to our Heavenly Father and a willingness to follow his example.
Steve Wilmhurst, A Ransom for Many: the Gospel of Mark Simply Explained, Welwyn Commentary Series, Evangelical Press, 2011 – Chapter 17