Jesus Condemns Spiritual Corruption

Theme: Jesus demonstrates his authority by totally rejecting the religious establishment in Jerusalem.

3 Acts as Jesus Exposes Spiritual Deadness in the Temple

  1. Jesus crafts an illustration to indicate the problem (12-14)

  2. Jesus cleanses the temple to address the problem (15-18)

  3. Jesus completes his illustration to resolve the problem (19-21)

The incident with the fig tree is an interpretive guide that adds dimension and color the incident in the temple. This isn’t really about getting a morning snack. It isn’t about horticulture or understanding the finer points of truth growth and production.

(12) On the next day, when they had left Bethany, He became hungry. 

Yesterday Jesus was presented as the promised-Messiah king. He ended the day in the temple inspecting it with a piercing gaze. As you remember, he was looking around as the Lord of the temple, inspecting his house.

The journey from Bethany into Jerusalem is short. In fact, we learn in John 11:18 that it was only a two-mile hike into the city (John 11:18). Less than a forty-five minute walk.

On the way Jesus stomach starts growling. Apparently, he had missed breakfast that day. Perhaps he had gotten up early to go pray to the Father by himself while it was still dark out, as he had done Mark 1:35. 

Mark doesn’t elaborate, but that’s a good guess considering how significant this day would be, and the fact that Jesus missed breakfast, and he was often found seeking his Father before a significant moments in his ministry.

So, he looks for the nearest Palestinian drive-thru, which in this case would be a fruit tree with something edible on it.

(13) Seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” 

Jesus feels hunger, looks for a tree and finds one, he goes to get some fruit, which he doesn’t find so he pronounces a curse on the tree.

In fact,

Bertrand Russell accused Jesus of “vindictive fury” for blaming the tree for not producing figs out of season.

It is described by other commentators as petty, capricious, downright irrational and even revolting. The beef is simple: How could Jesus who is good, punish on an object in nature by destroying it, and furthermore, destroying it because it wasn’t meeting his personal needs of the moment? In other words, this is viewed as a personal frustration. 

Jesus got ticked off because he was feeling hungry, a bit on edge. He has the power to kill and so when a tree doesn’t give him what he wants he curses it and unlike every other person who curses their car or their printer when it doesn’t function properly. When Jesus does this it actually works.

No doubt this is compelling. If for no other reason we are used to Jesus fixing, healing, calming, creating, instructing, helping, encouraging… not destroying. He normally makes things better, not worse.

So, this is unusual for sure. But it isn’t impulsive. This is a divine illustration that is providentially provided by God. It is a living parable of what’s taking place in the ritual worship of God in the temple in Jerusalem.

Jesus walks over to the tree because the text says he sees a tree in leaf… there are some signs of life, and…

and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 

Well that doesn’t sound so bad. There aren’t figs when there aren’t supposed to be figs. And if it isn’t fig season, that doesn’t seem very fair. We don’t expect fruit trees to bear fruit out of season.

Just this past weekend we took the kids to walk around campus at OSU and we were walking by some mature cherry trees. They were covered in leaves and guess what? There were no cherries! 

And I didn’t think anything negative about those beautiful cherry trees. Why? Because in the Valley cherries are often ripe in June or July and it is September. Jesus, why get upset with a tree when it isn’t supposed to be bearing fruit.

Well we need to understand fig trees a bit and then this illustration becomes powerful.

See, the season of figs is mid-August to mid-October, right now it’s Spring. But that’s only half the story. Figs trees have not one harvest, but two. Surely the late harvest is the substantial one. When you and I buy figs in the grocery store we are eating late figs. Those are the plump, delicious ones. That’s what gets mashed up and put in your fig bars.

But after the late harvest, the tree loses its leaves in the fall like other deciduous plants and then it begins to grow small buds that remain buds throughout the winter. In early Spring these buds begin to swell into a small, edible fruit. They aren’t as tasty as the figs that are coming later, but Palestinian natives eat these fruits. 

The problem is this: the green buds are supposed to be there and growing before the leaves of the tree grow. But this tree has leaves and no buds. And furthermore, if you don’t have these early buds, known in the Hebrew scriptures as paggim then you aren’t going to get the legit figs in a few months.

Right now, it is spring-time, the week of Passover, and these are the figs that Jesus is looking for. The bland ones should be there right now. 

When Mark says then, it wasn’t the season for figs, we could restate it for ourselves, it wasn’t the season for figs, it was the time for paggim (the time after the leaves grow and before the late harvest comes).

And so, we see that this is not a good tree. It has the signs of life (leaves) but it is not bearing fruit… and so our Lord looks at the tree and he says:

(14) He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” 

Jesus judges the tree. Jesus rebukes the tree for a lack of fruit. And this typifies what he will do later in the day in the temple. There’s an appearance on the outside of spiritual life, but there isn’t any supernatural fruit. No evidence of a productive life in the Spirit.

And you know what is so striking about this, and where the living parable strikes home in such a profound way? The tree already isn’t producing fruit. Jesus is taking away the opportunity to produce fruit, but he isn’t killing a good tree, it’s a tree that although dead, appears alive. Jesus isn’t condemning a living tree, but he is condemning a tree that appears to be alive while it is actually unhealthy.

The tree’s got leaves. Everything looks good and productive on the outside from a distance. This is a tree that is fruitless and unproductive. It is useless and in that sense dead, while living.

This is a real problem with fruit trees… they can be alive and growing leaves, but not bearing healthy fruit. There are many causes. Sometimes a tree begins to put too much energy into growing, and stops producing fruit. But if there is no good fruit, then it is a bad tree.

And so, we see the genius behind the illustration. You have a bad tree, which appears to be alive from a distance. 

Here’s the subtlety… the Pharisees viewed themselves as spiritually mature. We can’t gloss over this and pass on too quickly without conceptualizing how deceptive this is. They are caught in spiritual blindness. They had many evidences of what appeared to be spiritual life, spiritual activity, spiritual language, spiritual disciplines, and yet they had no evidence of life in the Spirit.

Here’s how a Q&A would go with a Pharisee…

Q: How’s your relationship with God been lately?

A: Awesome. I’ve actually just finished memorizing the rest of Deuteronomy. I haven’t missed tithing for 19 years now. I’ve done some great things for the poor recently. I’ve been teaching some barn-burners (those are powerful messages) on the topics of piety and separation from worldliness. And honestly, I’m just so thankful. I’m thankful because I’m not like others: I’m not a prostitute, I’m not a tax collector, I’m not a Gentiles.

And so, you hear some things that seem to sound good in that Q&A. But something is off, and you can’t quite place it, so you press in and ask further:

Q: Tell me about how merciful you’ve been lately. Tell me about your humility, and I don’t mean the contrived kind where you act this way, but in your mind, God is big and you are not. Tell me about your supernatural love for others. How you sacrifice and encourage rather than spend your life on your own pleasures and indulgences. Tell me about the joy and the peace and evidence. Tell me of battles with sin won, and tell me of how you have come to know and understand the love of God? Tell me how you depend upon the grace of God, and about he is your only source of life and hope… tell me about how he sustains you and he is more precious to you than sin and even than anything else this life has to offer.

And at this point, the Pharisee abruptly ends the conversation. Pharisees can point to deeds done and not done. Truth be told out of the various sects of Judaism the Pharisees were the theological conservatives. They had a much higher regard for Scripture and a trust in God’s power than the Sadducees.

Today they might say, “I’m not an Arminian, I’m not duped by easy-believism, I’m not a charismatic, I’m not into the seeker church movement, and I don’t indulge in many of the excesses I see around me in the church.”

Friends, although these doctrines are vitally important, and although spiritual disciples are essential to your spiritual growth, the don’t in themselves indicate spiritual maturity, or even spiritual life at all.

A tree with leaves and no fruit has a superficial appearance of spiritual life, but lacks the power of the Spirit of God over sin, lacks an experiential knowledge of Jesus. Luke 18, they trust in themselves that they are righteous and view others with contempt.

No brokenness. No sorrow over sin. An appearance of life, while being dead.

An appropriate question to be asking yourself right now is, “What kind of tree am I?” How do you answer that question? “What is the fruit?” Not in terms of activities that you do, but in terms of desires you have, and specifically the evidence of new life.

Well right now this is all about to come crashing down around the religious leaders in Israel. So, Jesus tells this tree that is pretending to have good fruit to die, and Mark records in the end of v. 14:

And His disciples were listening. 

As a storyteller, Mark uses a verbal construction that indicates that this is background information to save for later. I’m sure there was a little wondering at what had just take place since they hadn’t ever seen Jesus curse nature. This was definitely a first.

Imagine you hear your Bible study leader using the printer or copier and the ink is out and it doesn’t print, and you hear, “may you never print another page again…” this was dramatic and unusual. But it is all going to make sense by tomorrow morning.

And so, they continue on the way. And we move from the illustration of the problem, to dealing with the problem itself.

3 Acts as Jesus Exposes Spiritual Deadness in the Temple

  1. Jesus crafts an illustration to indicate the problem (12-14)

  2. Jesus cleanses the temple to address the problem (15-18)

If you have tasted of the kindness of God and you love the glory of God, then this is a sad passage to read. I couldn’t help but think that these are God’s chosen, beloved people whom he loves. And he sent Jesus to save them.

And in their rejection, he finally says, “enough is enough,” and now he is the one rejecting them. This is a sobering reality. It’s the reality that cause the Apostle Paul to shed tears over and wish that he himself could be accursed (Romans 9:1ff) because he loved his Jewish heritage and saw all the spiritual privileges they had received be squandered as they were cut off from the Lord.

(15) Then they came to Jerusalem. 

At this point things are up and running in the city for the day.

  1. The action taken by Jesus (15-16)

And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; 16 and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. 

Here is absolute conviction and zeal for God’s house. 

Actually, this is round two. We’ve been here before, and thi is a separate event from the cleansing of the temple recorded at the same time of year at Passover three years ago in John 2. Allow me to briefly paint a picture for you here.

The temple existed in the capital city of Jerusalem and it was central to the worship of God. Solomon built the first temple, which was destroyed. Then years later the temple was rebuilt and destroyed again. Then about twenty years before Jesus was born, construction began on Herod’s temple.

It has been being built now for nearly 50 years. It was magnificent and dwarfed Solomon’s temple. The temple platform covered 172,000 square yards, which is roughly 35 acres. It was a massive complex. The portico or rooftop area rested on 35 foot high pillars that were so wide it took three men holding hands to go around them.

You can see why this would be a central point of focus even by the sheer size and grandeur. It was a pretty building and a magnificent site to be seen. Within the temple you had various outer courts. There was the Court of the Gentiles, the Court of the Women, the Court of Israel, and then the temple itself. You worked your way in depending on your credentials how close you could get to the presence of God.

So right now, we are outside the temple itself, and in the court. And the court was a place where people would congregate. 

Jesus enters into the temple and is clearly upset and creates a big scene. Essentially the temple court looked that day much like a Saturday market, and he is shutting the whole thing down and clearing the place out.

The temple of God is the place of God where God’s people come to worship. It is to be set apart from that which is profane or common. And in this case, it’s being treated as a prime real estate location to conduct business.

To understand the background of this set up, we know that pilgrims travel great distances to Jerusalem for worshipping at the temple.

Upon arriving at the temple they would 1) make sacrifices and 2) pay their temple taxes. Due to travel and economics it was common that you would show up at the temple and not have in your own possession the proper animal for sacrifice or the proper currency for paying their taxes. And so, like any good business idea, it all starts with identifying a need.

If you want a good comparison think of traveling internationally before debit cards and using airport kiosks for exchanging dollars for whatever the local currency is. Airport exchange centers are incredibly convenient for the unprepared traveler, and they are also the most expensive way to get foreign money. You needed Tyrian coinage. So, like a parking meter that takes only quarters—pennies, nickels, dimes and half-dollars don’t help much.

Now with this established, Jesus began to drive out... You know this verb well. Throughout the Gospel of Mark over and over Jesus drives out demons. Same word. Ekballo… this isn’t gentle Jesus suggesting. This is to cast out, throw out, drive out. It means to exercise authority and remove someone or something.

Overturned… this is intense. Jesus isn’t politely asking them to take their business elsewhere. He isn’t concerned about whose money belongs to whom. He wants them out of there. Imagine if we were selling tickets for the Spring Tea here at CBC and a person came in and literally flipped the table over. This is a spectacle.

He is even flipping the seats over. 

And then he kicked people out. The commanding presence and authority of Jesus here is staggering. It’s one man vs. dozens, perhaps hundreds in this crowd. But he is so adamite, he is so unwavering, that people are actually leaving.

and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple.

Probably shouted, “no one is allowed to walk through here with your merchandise…” and he barred the way.

The temple had become a convenient place to set up shop. In retail you think location, location, location and from that perspective, this is Class A prime. Part of the issue of course was the financial profiteering from those who should have been serving the people.

The high priest for example, was to be a position of humble service making sure that the temple was devoted to the Lord. Instead it was a position of influence and prominence and financial security. It was a coveted position for that reason.

Annas and Caiaphas control things at the temple right now. They are selling franchises.  

And although I’ve always pictured this as being Jesus taking issue with the religious establishment, it goes even beyond that here. Look at the details of the text. It is the not just those who are selling, v. 15, but also those who are buying. He is cleaning house and it’s everyone the people and the priests, the merchants and the moms.

Jesus is surely God, but he is also human. And in his humanity this wasn’t a morning he was looking forward to with warm fuzzies. But Jesus is driven and mastered by something greater than a love of personal and relational comfort.

He isn’t concerned right now about his reputation and how people will perceive him. He isn’t concerned with his tone. He is driven by conviction.

Friends, when we lack conviction, when we lack boldness, we must immerse ourselves in the conviction-producing Word of God. And there find stability and grounding in the grace of Jesus Christ. Biographies are helpful. Great quotes are helpful. Godly friends are a necessary form of encouragement by God’s design. But boldness comes ultimately from finding our strength in God and God alone.

If you lack courage and conviction then dependently read until your heart and mind is gripped afresh by Jesus. Don’t try to strengthen yourself in your own power, it is fruitless. But God’s Spirit is powerful to produce this type of conviction. This is right in the text, Jesus is going to be quoting Scripture in a moment. He was strengthened by the Word and the Spirit in the same way you and I are.

Well, Jesus is upset because the temple is being misused and misunderstood. It was a gift from God and it is being wasted.

  1. The action taken by Jesus (15-16)

  2. The instruction given by Jesus (17)

Look, if you want to effectively get everyone’s attention to teach something, just flip over some tables and chairs. Jesus no doubt has the entire court listening at this point.

(17) And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL THE NATIONS’? But you have made it a ROBBERS’ DEN.” 

Jesus has a mind that is filled with the knowledge of the Scriptures. 

We know that he grew up memorizing the Old Testament Scriptures just like the other little boys and girls from devoted families. And as he opens his mouth here there are two passages from the Old Testament that are coming together in his mind in a single moment.

The first part comes through the prophet Isaiah. The second part comes from Jeremiah, when God was prosecuting Israel for their hypocrisy in the worship of him.

Think of how significant in our culture, certain places are: Wall Street, Broadway, Hollywood Blvd., Pennsylvania Avenue. Financial Center. Cultural Center. Entertainment Center. Executive Branch of our government. Each important places of influence.

In Israel, at the top of the list of important places was the temple.

John 2 when Jesus ties cords together and cleans house, he is said to be zealous for his father’s house… even consumed by zeal. At that time the temple was 46 years into being rebuilt. Now it’s almost 50 years in. It was a special place.

But it wasn’t being used as intended. It has become a symbol of the greatness of Israel. It was their ritual location. But it was no longer a place of worship. In fact, over time, the people of God completely lost sight of why the temple even existed.

Oh, they could answer correctly on a quiz. They knew it was where you go to worship God. But they worship of God had become nothing more than a routine… it was part of life… part of the calendar, but it wasn’t anything beyond that.

The temple was a special place and it was a privilege to be there. Let’s go back in time and see this for ourselves.

Turn with me to 1 Kings 8. I want to show you the original intention behind the temple. Listen to Solomon’s words concerning this place:

1 Kings 8:27–30—27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built! 

Solomon’s exclaiming: I’m under no misconceptions about who you are. God, you are infinite and eternal and invisible and this little house as beautiful is it is doesn’t have enough square footage to be your abode. Yet I trust that you willingly draw near to you people. You told us to build this place to represent your presence and so we boldly pray:

(28) “Yet have regard to the prayer of Your servant and to his supplication, O LORD my God, to listen to the cry and to the prayer which Your servant prays before You today; 

Regard, listen… hear me and pay attention or Lord, and look…

(29) that Your eyes may be open toward this house night and day, toward the place of which You have said, ‘My name shall be there,’ to listen to the prayer which Your servant shall pray toward this place. 30 “Listen to the supplication of Your servant and of Your people Israel, when they pray toward this place; hear in heaven Your dwelling place; hear and forgive.

God you have said you want us to build a dwelling place for you here on earth. And it isn’t because you need a house, but because we need to know that you are near. This is for our sake not yours, oh God. You are condescending to prove to us, your undeserving people that you want to be near to us. That you involved and you regard us, you hear us, you see us, you know us, you love us, and you are among us.

This my friends, was the original intention of the temple. It was to be a place to go and meet God, and experience coming near to him who is unapproachable. From the get go there was a provision for foreigners… for Gentiles. When Solomon dedicates the temple he prays for them too:

1 Kings 8:41–43—41 “Also 

In addition to many other things Lord, let me add something else…

concerning the foreigner who is not of Your people Israel, when he comes from a far country for Your name’s sake 42 (for they will hear of Your great name and Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm); 

Here is evangelism in the Old Testament! Lord, when your reputation goes forth throughout the world and there is a recognition that the God of Israel is great and powerful and someone comes to worship you… (second part of v. 42)…

when he comes and prays toward this house, 43 hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name, to fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by Your name.

Lord, your presence to bless us is wonderful, and I want to see foreigners come and fear you too as we do. Let this house be a house that raises up your name for outsiders to see. When outsiders prayer toward this house, answer their prayers that they may know that you are God.

Solomon’s dedication yields such richness for us in understanding the temple:

  • God you are in heaven above and not even the earth can contain you—you don’t need a house.

  • God you are choosing to establish your presence in your holy temple—you demonstrate your nearness to us.

  • God you not only are making yourself accessible to us, and now do that for the foreigners as well.

This is what Jesus has in mind when he says, ’MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL THE NATIONS’ he’s actually quoting Isaiah who uses that phrase in Isaiah 56:6. Even in the Old Testament when God has one chosen group of people that He chose (Israel) there is a wideness to his offer of mercy.

This is the point of the temple. Come encounter the God of the universe who dwells on the one hand in inapproachable light, yet now you can come to him in this place. This is God’s design and intention with the temple.

Jesus says you made my temple into a robber’s den. 

He is quoting Jeremiah 7:3-15. Two passages colliding in the mind of our Lord. The first clarifies the purpose of the temple: a place to encounter the living God; and the second to clarify the abuse of the temple: a place to conduct business and make a profit.

Jeremiah is decrying hypocrisy, and that’s exactly what Jesus is putting his finger on now. People showing up to a place of worship, acting as though they worship, but they aren’t genuine.

And this is exposed in the reactions…

  1. The action taken by Jesus (15-16)

  2. The instruction given by Jesus (17)

  3. The reaction displayed toward Jesus (18)

(18) The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching. 

The chief priests, the leadership of Annas and Ciaphas, and the sribes (the attorneys who were legal experts in the law). They begin seeking how to destroy Him… conversations, back-alley meetings, bribes, the whole nine.

These men are all unbelievers. That’s why they are threatened right now. This fear isn’t the fear of God that stops and says, “God you are God alone, thank you for the divine wake up call.” This is an opportunity for repentance.

The truth brings conviction and conviction always elicits a response. You either soften and your heart is broken and you move toward God or you harden and distance yourself. As a pastor I watch often how people interact when confronted with God’s truth.

This is the wrong response and the wrong kind of fear. This is a fear of losing your sin and your reputation and your influence. Jesus is either the answer to what you need—your bridge to God, or he is a threat to what you love, and in this case it’s the latter.

Can you believe it? God gave them the temple as a gift. He sends Jesus as a gift to reconcile them to himself. And what’s on their minds? Jesus, do you know how much this little charade is gonna cost us? I mean you picked a really bad time of year to pull this off.

It would be like shutting off the electricity to Walmart on Black Friday. That’s an expensive day. It’s Passover, it’s peak selling time. And revenues are gonna take a hit from this.

Friends, you know the take-a-way here for us. Something that God used so specifically in my heart this week. Is to ask, am I awed by God? Is my heart gripped by the greatness of Jesus as I go about my worship in daily life?

You can preach great sermons, you can have daily quiet times, and family devotions and Bible studies and it can be a hollow, vain exercise if you are not encountering and worshipping the living God.

This isn’t a recent problem. I was reading this week an excerpt from a lecture by B.B. Warfield to seminary students and his exhortation was a specific warning to not become so familiar with the things of the Lord as to begin to forget God himself. 

This is an encouragement to not settle for stale and routine worship that loses a sense of the person of Jesus. John 17:3—he came that we might know God. We have such incredible access to God through Jesus, and I hope this truth resets your thinking about how awesome our God is and how wonderful it is that we can have communion with him through Jesus Christ.

Well we come to the end of our story today…

3 Acts as Jesus Exposes Spiritual Deadness in the Temple

  1. Jesus crafts an illustration to indicate the problem (12-14)

  2. Jesus cleanses the temple to address the problem (15-18)

  3. Jesus completes his illustration to resolve the problem (19-21)

(19) When evening came, they would go out of the city. 

That was a hard day. I’m sure it was intense for everyone. They are a bit drained. They head out that evening back to Bethany. And then they wake up the next morning to head back into Jerusalem… 

(20) As they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. 

Trees die, that’s not spectacular. But the manner in which this one died is what’s significant. It was completely dead from the root system. Jesus killed the tree.

(21) Being reminded, Peter said to Him, “Rabbi, look, the fig tree which You cursed has withered.” 

Peter connects the dots that the tree that is dead in front of him is the same one that Jesus just told to die. We see ominous foreshadowing that the judgment of Jesus is complete and it stands.

And yet, even in this there is mercy. All of this is clearing away that which is dead to make room for something new that is coming. Something that is so much greater than the temple.

God is going to dwell in the hearts of his people through faith. Paul would say your body now is a temple—God takes up residence in you. This was that rich truth that Jesus shared with the Samaritan woman in John 4.

John 4:20–26—20 “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”

Praise God that we have full access to the presence of God, 24-7 through Jesus Christ. It is hard to get our minds around, but my prayer is that your worship is infused with a fresh awe in the greatness of God.