Please read Mark 11:1-25
Carved into a towering cliff in central Afghanistan stand two gigantic statues. Hewn out of the living sandstone rock, they are figures of the Buddha, dominating the Bamiyan valley which they overlook. The statues stand on the ancient Silk Road, the old trade route which stretched through Afghanistan and right across Asia; and as a result they have long been known far and wide. There they have stood for around fifteen hundred years, a lasting monument to the religious devotion of their builders, surviving invasions, suffering mainly from the slow erosion of wind and weather, and a magnet for tourists and travellers. Or at least, that was the situation until March, 2001, when the Taliban were in power in Kabul. They decided that these Buddhas were idols and un-Islamic; they simply had to go. So against the pleas of the entire international community, they demolished the two statues. It proved harder than they expected, taking a month of intensive effort, but at last the two Buddhas were obliterated. While the rest of the world regard the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas as a supreme act of cultural vandalism, the Taliban simply feel they have made their point. Judgement has been given. The old order is finished; the golden age of hard-line Islamist rule has arrived.
In Mark 11:1-25, Jesus is declaring judgement on the old order. As he arrives in Jerusalem in dramatic procession, he is staking his claim to what belongs to him by right. Then as he marches into the Temple and drives out the stallholders and the money-changers, he is publicly declaring that the Temple’s days are finished and something new and wonderful has come. This is no empty act of vandalism. Whereas the Taliban were simply striking out at something they disapprove of, making a statement about what they regard as unacceptable, with Jesus Christ it is quite different. When he declares judgement on the old ways, he is actually bringing it about. These are not acts of frustration; they are acts of decision; this is the judgement of the King. This passage begins a new section of Mark’s gospel, running to the end of ch 13, which I have called ‘Jesus declares judgement’. The running theme here is the end of the old religion, the Temple and its ways. It forms the prelude to the passion narratives in which Jesus inaugurates the new covenant in his blood.
These days leading up to Passover are a time of excitement, a time of longing, as people remember the times when they were freed at last from slavery; and when they have to face the fact that now, just like last year, just like every year for the past century, they are captive once more under the Roman occupation. That is what the coming Passover means to the crowds who are now flocking to the city: the glory of the past, the bitterness of the present.
As we begin this story at the start of ch 11, the trek up from Jericho is nearly over. The account in John’s gospel suggests that Jesus himself has not made this journey in a single day; but many of the pilgrims certainly will have done. The only obstacle still ahead is the Mount of Olives, stretching from north to south between them and Jerusalem; and so from here the city itself is still out of sight. Bethphage is on the edge of Jerusalem itself and Bethany about two miles before it, on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. It’s at this point that Jesus picks out two of the disciples and sends them on a mission (vv.1-3). It’s probably safe to say that Jesus has made some prior arrangement with the owner – so this is not an early account of donkey rustling – which explains why Jesus’ delegation are politely permitted to remove the animal when they eventually find it (vv.4-6).
The two disciples now return with their prize. With their cloaks they create a makeshift saddle; Jesus gets on board and the little cavalcade moves forward (v.7). It is now that the story takes off. Already the crowd is excited. As they reach the crest of the Mount of Olives, they are just coming to the place where for the first time on this pilgrim journey they sight Jerusalem. And what a sight it is! For every pilgrim on the road today, this is the greatest view they will ever see. The holy city stands before them, there across the Kidron Valley, the city whose name features time after time after time in their poetry and their history and which burns in their hearts: Jerusalem, Zion; the city known by the name of the greatest king of all – the city of David.
Dominating the city, towering over every other building and occupying as much as a quarter of its area, stands the Temple. According to the contemporary historian Josephus, who knew this scene well, the Temple from a distance, as the pilgrims see it now, appears ‘like a mountain of snow’, the marble and the gold of its walls brilliantly reflecting the sun. The Temple – the heart of their religion and one of the wonders of the world, finally appears before them. And this time, to add to the excitement they feel every time the city comes in sight, there is the figure of Jesus mounted on a donkey riding off down the road. Many of them have seen the miracles he has done, met the people he’s healed, heard him speaking, or at least heard the stories. They know he is something special, some messenger of God. They know Jerusalem is where it all happens; and they can see him riding in – which ordinary pilgrims never do. You’re supposed to arrive on foot. And in this atmosphere of general excitement and longing for God to do something for their nation, his appearing makes them boil over (vv.7-10). The cloaks and foliage they spread in the road are the first century equivalent of the red carpet. The pilgrimage becomes a procession as they march in front and behind calling out words which they always sing as they come this way – ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ could be said of any pilgrim, but ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David’ means that they are expecting something more – that Jesus coming to the capital means that God’s longed-for kingdom is one step closer.
So the crowd moves down the Mount of Olives, across the valley and up to the city gates, Jesus surrounded by the cheering throng. Finally he enters through the massive gateway. Like many others, he makes straight for the Temple (v.11). But the story ends in a strangely anti-climactic manner. It seems that for all their excitement on the way, the crowds around Jesus disperse as soon as he reaches Jerusalem: they go their separate ways and he goes his. The tragic fact, the ironic truth, is that they have failed to recognise that they are witnessing the arrival of the king. They know Jesus is someone special; some of them undoubtedly can glimpse something more; but none of them, not even Jesus’ own disciples, really understand what this day means. Yet the clues are here. For those with eyes to see, what Jesus has done this day is enough to show them that he himself is the king they long for. We will look at those clues and draw some conclusions now.
Firstly, the king brings the kingdom. ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David’. The crowds are looking back to the days of the kings, especially king David, and remembering the prophecies which God has given their people over the years, that one day the descendant of David will come, appearing like a shoot from a dry stump, and a new kingdom will be born. They understand those words to mean that the glory days will return, that the king will reign again from Jerusalem, and the nation of Israel will stand strong and tall again. Right now that has to mean a military leader who will drive their Roman overlords into the sea and set them free again. But Jesus has not come like that – that’s why they do not recognise him. Yet he has come in exactly the way the prophets foretold (Zechariah 9:9-10). For anyone looking for a king, what Jesus does this day can hardly make it more obvious. Jesus is coming to bring a kingdom, sure enough, but not as they expect. The king won’t come with violence but with a sign of peace, as he rides in on the most humble and inconsequential of animals, a world away from the military might of the day. Military power has nothing to do with it. He will speak peace to the nations. The kingdom of Jesus does not simply go back to square one. Instead, he brings a kingdom for every nation. This is a kingdom Jesus spoke of in his parables, one that grows quietly, unseen. It spreads unobtrusively throughout the world, not by might, not by power, but by the Spirit of God (Zechariah 4:6).
Although he comes peacefully, Jesus comes to claim what belongs to him. He calls everyone, in every nation, to accept him as their king and judge. V.11 is not really an anti-climax. Jesus has not come to Jerusalem as a tourist. He makes his way directly to these awe-inspiring buildings, which have already taken a generation to construct, because he is here as their judge. Mark says Jesus ‘looked around’; that’s a word Mark uses quite distinctively in his gospel. In the synagogue in 3:5, Jesus ‘looks around’ at his enemies in anger and grief. With the rich man who will not abandon his wealth in 10:23, Jesus ‘looks around’ and passes judgement. Now again, he ‘looks around’ before he declares judgement on the Temple. He comes in peace, but he also comes as judge. Ultimately, he will condemn anyone who does not submit to his rule.
Secondly, the king brings salvation. Again, the clue is in the words the crowds are chanting. If only they knew, the crowds themselves are using words which acclaim his coming – Psalm 118:25-27 – words they are used to singing, especially at times of pilgrimage like this, but with a meaning far deeper than they realise. ‘Hosanna’ has become by now a cry of praise, but originally it means ‘please save us’, as in Psalm 118. So the crowd are calling out in the presence of Jesus, ‘Save us’ without realising that he is the true Saviour. But the salvation he brings is what he has explained three times in the past few months on his way towards Jerusalem. As he has moved nearer and nearer to the city, so the day when salvation will dawn has moved closer and closer; now it lies mere days ahead. The crowd do not understand that this is what he has come to Jerusalem to do: not to lead a rampaging mob against the Roman garrison, but to pick up a wooden cross, be marched outside the walls and hung up to die, at the hands of those same hated overlords. There is no doubt, because Luke’s account tells us explicitly, that as he rides towards the city and hears the clamour around him, this is what fills Jesus’ thoughts – this and the tragic fact that the people have failed to recognise him (Luke 19:41-44).
There is one further clue about this salvation: Jesus singles out a colt that has never been ridden. In days gone by, when an animal was needed for a sacred purpose, they had to select one that had never done any ordinary work. Especially was that true in the case of sacrifice (Numbers 19:2, Deuteronomy 21:3). Jesus deliberately chooses such an animal to carry him to the place where he will be the once-and-for-all sacrifice for our sins
Thirdly, the king brings joy. It’s clear from the story that this crowd is full of joy, even if they don’t really understand what they are saying or what Jesus is coming to do. It’s the joy of the pilgrimage, of arriving at the end of the journey, of singing praises to their God. They celebrate; but as soon as they get inside the city, the joy dissipates. The journey is over. Normal life continues and in a few days they will all go home again, back to the unrelieved daily grind of their usual existence. This day will soon be forgotten. But following king Jesus brings joy that lasts. If we are following Jesus, we too are on a journey. He is with us on our journey through this life, every step of the way in good times and in bad, and he is leading us to our final destination, which is not an earthly city but a heavenly one: not the Jerusalem of bricks and mortar, the Jerusalem which would soon be no more; but the new, the heavenly Jerusalem, the eternal home of everyone who loves him.
After that first triumphal entry into the city, Jesus returns to Bethany for the night (v.11), a pattern which he will follow throughout the week. As far as we can tell, he and his disciples are staying with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, who therefore have to cope with the addition of thirteen men with healthy appetites for a week’s bed and breakfast! This may explain why, as they leave Bethany to return to Jerusalem the next morning, v.12 tells us that Jesus is hungry – perhaps Martha has provided only a continental breakfast! He sees a fig-tree and goes to see if there are any figs, but all he finds is leaves – no fruit at all (v.13). Mark points out that it is not the right time of year for figs, which ripen in the autumn, not in the spring. Then Jesus does something very surprising (v.14). The fig tree, with leaves but no fruit, is cursed. Mark pointedly adds that ‘his disciples heard him say it’.
Now it’s on to Jerusalem, and directly to the Temple (vv.15-17). 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!
All of this activity is what Jesus takes exception to: we shall see why shortly. Jesus takes direct action. He dives into the crowd and drives out the merchants. He throws over the money tables; of course all the money is in coins, which fly in all directions, no doubt sending people scrabbling on the ground to grab what they can! Briefly, he brings all commercial activity to a halt. Then he explains what he is doing. The authorities, hardly surprisingly, don’t like it (v.18). Two different parties unite against Jesus here – the chief priests, who are Sadducees, and the teachers of the law, or scribes, who are mostly Pharisees; both see that Jesus is dangerous; and they are afraid. For all kinds of reasons, religious, political and probably commercial as well, they are now absolutely determined that Jesus has to go. But at the end of another remarkable day, Jesus retreats to the safe haven of Bethany once more (v.19).
The next day arrives and the group once again make their way over the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem. There is the fig-tree, now withered and dead – withered ‘from the roots’, v.20, so there can be no mistake. This tree will indeed never bear fruit again. Peter remarks on it (v.21) and Jesus takes the opportunity to give them some teaching on prayer. He starts off by saying, in essence: ‘Yes, of course it’s withered. What did you expect? That’s what happens when you pray with faith’ (vv.22-24). ‘This mountain’ presumably refers to the Mount of Olives, where they are standing; but Jesus is speaking in general terms. It is easy to take this passage the wrong way; many have done so, as if Jesus is speaking of the power of positive thinking as a guarantee of dramatic answers to prayer. We cannot use these verses that way. Submitting to God’s will is an essential aspect of prayer, yet our knowledge of his will is far from perfect: often we simply do not know what to pray for in a situation. Jesus is saying that if we want our prayers to be answered, we must be people of commitment, not people of doubt. James (Jesus’ brother, not one of the twelve) picks up this theme in his letter, especially in James 1:5-8 and then in 5:15-16. The first of those passages is a particularly helpful commentary on Jesus’ words here. Doubting is a state of mind, a condition which makes it impossible for God to work through our prayers.
Mark adds v.25 here, quite possibly a saying from a different occasion which Mark has chosen to include at this point because of the common theme – ‘barriers to successful prayer’. Prayer can be effective only on the basis of a clear and open relationship with the Lord; holding onto resentment or bitterness interrupts that relationship. We need to be people who, like him, forgive easily. We cannot claim to walk in intimate fellowship with the Lord when we are out of fellowship with our fellow believers.
Let us now look at the way Mark has put this story together. Do you see how he has bracketed the story of clearing the Temple inside the story of the fig tree? By doing that, Mark makes it crystal clear that the two stories are really saying the same thing. It’s a judgement sandwich, where the story of the fig tree acts as a commentary on the story of the Temple. So now let’s look again, and try to understand what it all means. We will look at the outside of the sandwich first, and then the filling.
The judgement of the King comes, first, because his people have produced no fruit. This is the fig-tree story. Some have struggled to make sense of it. Someone described it as ‘a tale of miraculous power wasted in the service of ill-temper… and as it stands it is simply incredible’
What does it mean? The fig-tree is a picture of Israel frequently used in the Old Testament: we will confine ourselves to two references in the prophets. First, Hosea 9:10. Israel is a fig-tree; she shows early promise; but later on, there is nothing but disappointment. Second, Micah 7:1, a passage which goes on to describe the dreadful spiritual condition into which God’s people have fallen. There is no righteousness, no good fruit to be found. And now, when the Lord Jesus looks at Israel, he finds no fruit. In v.11 we saw Jesus ‘looking round’ at the Temple; now right after that, in v.13, he is looking for fruit; and there is none. Thus the verdict is pronounced: there is no fruit in you; your time is up. No-one will eat fruit from you again. Israel’s unique role, her special place in God’s plan, is no more. This is devastating. Now all this needs to be unpacked: I don’t want to be misunderstood. Jesus is not saying that the Jewish people are all under a special curse. That would be a foundation for the appalling anti-Semitism of which the Church has sometimes been guilty. As we will see, what Jesus is doing is placing the Jews on the same level as everyone else. He is saying, though, is that the unique place of ethnic Israel, the Jewish people, is ended. Some Christians try to escape the full force of this by saying that Jesus is judging only the corrupt leaders, or only the generation that saw him on earth, or by limiting it in some other way; but that will not work. The fig-tree does not stand for the national leadership or for one specific generation. It stands for Israel. That means that there is no separate route to salvation for the Jewish people. They have no advantage when it comes to salvation and they need Christ in exactly the same way as members of every other nation. So is there hope for the Jews? Absolutely! There is the glorious hope of trusting in the Jewish Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ – exactly the same hope that we all have. Paul in Romans 11:26 declares that a great number of Jews will be saved before Christ returns. They will be saved through the cross!
Now for the filling of the sandwich. The judgement of the King comes, second, because his people have cut out the Gentiles. Here we are dealing with the story of Jesus clearing the Temple, in vv.15-19. If the first cause of judgement was general – no fruit, no righteousness – this one is very specific. The key question is this. Why does Jesus take such extreme objection to all the commercial activity in the Court of the Gentiles? It’s often said that Jesus is taking exception to the simple fact of buying and selling, and the dodgy dealing that no doubt goes with it. In John’s account of a similar incident (John 2:13-16), that does seem to be the emphasis, but not so here. Jesus explains in v.17 why he is so outraged. He is quoting from two prophecies. The first is from Isaiah 56:6-8, where the prophet says that even people who would be seen as outcasts in Israel are to be welcomed in – notably, foreigners, Gentiles. So the key words in Jesus’ quotation are the last three: ‘for all nations’. But how can the Gentiles come and worship in the house of God when the only area open to them is blocked by a cattle and bird market and line after line of money-changers? Israel’s God-given mission was to be a light to the nations. Gentiles were supposed to be drawn in to that light like moths to a flame. But what is happening here in the Court of the Gentiles proves beyond doubt that they have completely lost the plot. The second quote is from Jeremiah 7:11. Again, the context is vital. Jeremiah himself was standing at the entrance of the Temple (Solomon’s Temple, not Herod’s), addressing people who trusted in it as if it were indestructible. The people were in an appalling state of sin: Jeremiah speaks of widespread adultery, theft, murder and perjury as well as rank idolatry. Yet they believed they were utterly secure, because they had the Temple they were so proud of; and God would never let anything happen to the Temple. Jeremiah stood there and told them they were utterly wrong. If they continued to sin, they would fall and so would their Temple. That is the passage Jesus now refers to. Just as in Jeremiah’s day, he says, this Temple has become ‘a den of robbers’. That word ‘robber’ is the Greek lestes. It doesn’t mean someone who short-changes you when he sells you a couple of doves for your sacrifice. In fact, ‘robber’ is the mildest possible translation. A lestes is a bandit, an outlaw – like Barabbas, whom we shall meet in ch 15. Jesus is saying that the Temple has once again become a symbol of nationalistic pride: not a house of prayer but a hotbed of political plotting. History shows clearly how that worked out. When the Jews rebel against the Romans a generation later, the Temple is taken over by the Zealots and becomes the focal point of military resistance. The seeds of that movement are being sown as Jesus speaks. How in the world can Gentiles feel at home in a place like that?
The outrage Jesus sees is that God’s people have cut out the Gentiles – firstly by physically denying them the space to worship and secondly by making the Temple a focus of Jewish nationalism. Just as Jesus has acted out a judgement parable with the fig-tree, so now, symbolically, he clears the Temple courts for the Gentiles to come in. It won’t last, of course: in an hour or two, everything will be back to normal. The sacrifices continue uninterrupted. But in taking these actions, Jesus is declaring judgement. His own ministry – his death and resurrection – will make the Temple obsolete. But more than that: because the people have failed to recognise their King, and because they have failed to carry out the mission God has given them, their Temple and their nation will be judged and will fall. Forty years later, that finally happens, as Jesus will explain in ch 13. For now, God through Christ is drawing a line under the old regime and will very soon bring in the new. With Jesus, a new day has dawned. To be the people of God now means something decisively different.
This is what it means to be God’s people today, after Christ and his ministry. Firstly, instead of one Temple, we have everywhere! The Temple was the very heart of Jewish worship. So when they went there, they were absolutely right. God lived there among his people – amazing! – until the coming of Christ. After Christ, it’s better still: we are no longer tied down to a single place for God to meet with us, because he meets with us in every place. After Christ, God has poured out his Spirit on all his people, and that’s why the New Testament can speak of our bodies as God’s Temple (1 Corinthians 6:19). So for us, buildings are no longer important. We don’t need Temples any more! We just need a roof to keep us dry when we meet. Some people still call a church ‘the house of God’, but really it isn’t. Not long ago, on a weekday, a man walked past our church building and told us we shouldn’t let the kids sit out there on the front steps – because this is the house of God. I believe he was a leader of another church. But that’s bad theology! The steps are just steps and the building is just a building. The Lord doesn’t live there! After Christ, there are no more holy places, only holy people.
Secondly, instead of one nation, we are from every nation. For two thousand years, God’s plans were focused on a single nation, the people of Israel. But it was always his intention that salvation should be for people of every nation (Isaiah 56). But even if the Temple really had worked like that, its days would still be finished when Christ came. The Temple itself was marked out into zones – Gentiles could only go so far in. A Jewish woman was better off; a Jewish man was better off still; and only priests could go right inside. But in Christ, all these barriers are broken down (Ephesians 2:11-14). In Jesus Christ there is no more Jew and Gentile. In Christ, racial distinctions no longer stand; and the gospel of Jesus is advancing day by day, and year by year, in every nation under heaven. Before Christ returns, the good news will come to every people group on the face of the earth. The wonderful truth is that is has come to us. Whether you come from Africa or Asia, from the Americas or from Europe, and wherever you heard it, the glorious fact is that the gospel came to you.
Thirdly, instead of many sacrifices, we have one cross. As Jesus deals with the money-changers, as he stands there teaching the people, just yards away, from that high altar can be heard the dying cries of the animal sacrifices in endless succession. At the same moment, the priests responsible for those very sacrifices are plotting to put Jesus to death. Notice how Mark has carefully dropped that into the middle of the story as well (v.18)? In a few days, they will get their way; at Passover, the Lord Jesus, the Lamb of God, will meet his own death on the cross, as the one, final, perfect sacrifice that puts an end to all the others.