The Following thought for the day was written by Brother Richard Morgan and provides insight and encouragement for those seeking to serve the God of Israel.
One of the things I love about our Lord’s ministry is he always did the unexpected. It’s a lesson for us not to just carry on as we always have and think we have everything figured out. For the Jews of the first century, they were in for quite a series of object lessons in which Jesus illustrated how far they had fallen from God’s plan.
Take, for instance, Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The people were in high expectation and enthusiastically shouted out the psalm that says, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9). However, their expectation – which we can gather from historical data was a misconstrued idea of what the Messiah would do – was met with a series of unexpected events culminating with his death on the cross.
In Mark’s record, he begins with Jesus heading directly to the temple. Mark leaves us in suspense – “And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (v11).
The next day he did something very strange. Mark records that he was hungry and saw a fig tree in the distance. But when he saw that it wasn’t bearing fruit he cursed it with the words, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” (v14). What on earth is all that about?
Jesus’ explanation a few verses later doesn’t seem to help. When Peter noticed the fig tree had withered, Jesus’ response was “Have faith in God.” (v22). OK… but what does having faith in God have to do with cursing a fig tree? Then Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” (v23). So, is this an example of something you can do if you have faith? You can go around cursing fig trees and throwing mountains into the sea?
Surely, there’s more to it?
And there is.
There’s a clue in what Jesus does in between cursing the fig tree and the disciples finding it withered. Remember Mark left us in suspense when he went into the temple and just looked around. Now, in verses 15-19 we read about him throwing out the money changers.
What’s Jesus doing here? It looks like he’s inspecting the house of God. He went in, had a look around, and the next day came back and dealt with the problem.
Perhaps there’s a similar thing going on with cursing the fig tree. If you look at Hosea 9:10-17 it seems like Jesus is invoking the spirit of that prophecy. God, speaking through the prophet, inspects the house of Israel. He found them initially “like the first fruit on the fig tree” (v10) but they then fell away – “But they came to Baal-peor and consecrated themselves to the thing of shame” (v10). God’s judgment was that they should dry up. Verses 11-14 uses the analogy of infertility including “a miscarrying womb and dry breasts” (v14). Just like the fig tree, here we see the language of withering up. Then, with other echoes in Mark 11, God says, “I will drive them out of my house.” (v15) and then “their root is dried up; they shall bear no fruit.” (v16). The final judgment is “My God will reject them because they have not listened to him; they shall be wanderers among the nations.” (v17).
The same thing happens in the days of Jesus. Israel had withered up; they bore no fruit. When Jesus drove the money changers from the house of God it was a portent of what would happen forty years later in AD 70 when the people would be driven out of Jerusalem and, as Hosea said, be wanderers among the nations.
Remember how the chapter started, with Jesus triumphantly entering Jerusalem. The words of the people “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (v9) comes from Psalm 118. Jesus didn’t forget what he heard because in the next chapter he tells a parable about a vineyard that represents the house of Israel. In the parable God sends his son to inspect it, but they reject him and put him to death – exactly what is going to happen to Jesus. In a prophecy of AD 70 Jesus closes the parable with the words, “What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” (Mark 12:9). And then he brings the mind of the people back to Psalm 118 by quoting from another part of it:
Have you not read this Scripture:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
So, what’s the lesson for us in all this? I think there’s a clue in looking back at the two object lessons Jesus used – cursing the fig tree and throwing a mountain into the sea. If we have faith, Jesus says, we can do things like that.
But he’s not talking about literal fig trees and mountains. In another parable Jesus talked about a barren fig tree – “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none.” (Luke 13:6). The echo with the literal fruitless fig tree in Mark 11 should capture our attention. In the parable the fig tree was threatened with being cut down because “Why should it use up the ground?” (v7). Eventually it was cut down in AD 70. The key is in the words “use up the ground” which is translated from one Greek word katargeo, which means “to render powerless” or “abolish”. If you look at how that word is used through the rest of the New Testament, it’s connected with the conflict between law and faith. The things connected with faith render sin and death powerless. But law abolishes the work of God in our lives. Therefore, the New Testament says, the law itself was abolished.
Now, take that back to the parable of the barren fig tree and what Jesus says about faith, cursing the fig tree and throwing mountains into the sea. The problem with the fig tree, which represented Israel in the parable, was that it was abolishing the ground’s ability to bring forth fruit. Why? Because of their law-based religion. Their legalism stifled the ability of the gospel to penetrate their hard hearts. If you think religion is all about getting the rituals right, you’re not going to think about the principles behind them. And it’s the principles that are the key to healthy spiritual living and bringing forth fruit to God. The Jews developed a dead religion based on ceremony and following the letter of the law. It stopped them from asking the question, “Why are we doing this. What does it teach us about being loving, kind and just?” It caused them to do things like demand the temple tax be paid with the right kind of money, hence the money changers in the temple. For them the important thing was the exact kind of money was used and they took advantage of people who didn’t have it. In doing so they forgot that what God is looking for is not what kind of coin we use, but things like whether we’re generous.
What is the remedy for such a religion? We need to emphasize the importance of faith – a faith in God that can render law powerless to dictate our religious outlook. If we have a faith-based religion instead of law, we’ll cause the mountain – symbolic of the temple mount where legalism reigned – to be thrown into the sea. When AD 70 came along and that temple was literally destroyed, it was a message that law had been abolished and faith triumphed.
And what about us? Is there something in our religion, a similar legalistic way of looking at things, that can abolish our ability to bring forth fruit? What would Jesus do if he came to our house and inspected it? Would he find fruit? If we don’t heed the lesson of Mark 11 it might not be what we expect. Is there a mountain in your life that needs moving?