A Fruitless Tree and Misused Temple - Mark 11:12-21

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On a Sunday Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to a warm welcome. It’s fair to assume His disciples went to bed that night excited by the events of the day. But Monday would be different. On Monday Jesus enters Jerusalem, and returns to the Temple with words and actions of warning.

The reality is that many people, even some Christians, struggle to understand the account of Jesus entering the Temple and driving people out. Did He let His temper get the best of Him? How do we reconcile the compassionate teacher who welcomed children in Mark 10 with the table flipping and curse-pronouncing figure of Mark 11?

The reality is that there is no tension between the two and we should be thankful for what is revealed in each. This account is a reminder of God’s hatred of hypocrisy and also of the blessed hope that we aren’t saved based on our outward appearance of religion. Jesus came to open the door for all people, Jew and Gentile, to be saved through Him and Him alone.

Two Stories – One Message

In Mark 11:12-21 we have two accounts – Jesus responds to a fruitless tree and to the misuse of the Temple. But these two stories work together and should be interpreted together. The pronouncement of a curse on the barren tree helps us understand the reason for Jesus’ actions in the Temple.

The Response of Jesus to a Fruitless Tree (11:12-14)

  • Jesus gets hungry – As Jesus walks toward Jerusalem He becomes hungry. His hunger is not only a reminder of His humanity but an opportunity for a parable. While Jesus often spoke in parables, on this occasion He lives out parable for the disciples to see.
  • A leafy, fruitless tree – From a distance the tree looked promising. Although fruit bearing season hadn’t yet come, the leaves indicated a tree that was producing. But it wasn’t what it seemed.
  • A curse pronounced – While many have suggested that Jesus’ response is unfair and over the top, the actions of Jesus weren’t truly about the tree. Jesus was providing a parable about the nation of Israel, their unfaithfulness and their future (for other reference to Israel as a fig tree see Hosea 9:10; Jeremiah 8:13; Micah 7:1-3).
  • Application: This is a parable about the work of God with Israel and the history of redemption, but it is also a warning about the danger of hypocrisy. It is very easy to appear godly all the while having a heart that is far from God. We can be like the tree, full of leaves, but with no fruit. We should be mindful of how God responds to those who profess Him outwardly but inwardly live for themselves (Matthew 23:25-28).

The Response of Jesus to a Misused Temple (11:15-17) 

  • The Temple – Like the tree full of leaves, the Temple was magnificent both in size and splendor. It was a place planned by God for His purposes, but it was being used by the people for their own advantages. The largest section of the Temple complex, the court of the Gentiles had become a place of commerce and unfair gain.
  • The actions of Jesus – Like the cursing of the fig tree, much of what Jesus did in the Temple was a parable – it was an announcement of what was to come. God would judge the nation of Israel for their rebellion and Jesus would fulfill and accomplish what the Temple never truly could.
  • The words of Jesus – Jesus explains His actions by pointing to the prophets. Using Isaiah 56:7 Jesus reminds them of the purpose of Temple and of God’s plan to bring salvation to the world (Jew and Gentile). In quoting Jeremiah 7:15 Jesus points out the rebellion and hypocrisy of the people and foreshadows the coming destruction of the Temple.

The Response to Jesus (11:18)  

  • As Jesus clears the Temple and teaches the crowds many are astonished, and the chief priests and the Scribes are more motivated than ever to silence Him. Of course their actions would make possible the very means through which Jesus would fulfill all that the Temple had been pointing toward. 

The Withered Tree (11:19-21) 

  • The tree represented Israel and all the ways that Israel had forsaken the ways of God. The Temple and the tree have a lot in common. They both looked good from the outside but both the tree and the Temple were barren. Thankfully Jesus came to fulfill what the Temple never truly could. He became the perfect sacrifice and the One through whom we can have access to God.

Summary – This account is full of theology about the work of God with Israel and the history of redemption. But it is also a warning against the trappings of religion and the temptation of hypocrisy (Amos 5:21-24). May we be a people who hear the warnings and run to Jesus – the only One who can save.