It was the time of the Passover. Thousands of Jews had travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate the time in Israel’s history when God set them free from captivity in Egypt (Exodus 12).
In the midst of the crowds, there was one man who was attracting a great deal of attention. Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth, had been making some big claims for himself and causing a stir by healing the sick and criticising the religious leaders of the day. Only a few days previously he had raised Lazarus from the dead, which had excited his fans and angered his enemies, some of whom had begun plotting to arrest and execute him (John 11:45-57).
Each day of the festival, Jesus travelled from Bethany where he was staying, to visit the Temple. The Temple was an astonishing building that covered 1.5 million square feet and had taken 46 years to complete. It was built of around 2.3 million enormous stones, each of which was 10 x 10 x 80 feet. The façade was covered in white marble and gold, so that when the sun hit it, it shone. It was said of this Temple that ‘he who has not seen it has never seen a beautiful building.’
One day, Jesus was heading towards Jerusalem and he was hungry. Mark writes,
‘Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.’ (Mark 11:12-14)
On the face of it, this sounds like a slightly strange story – Jesus got grouchy when he hadn’t had breakfast!! But what happened next is even more strange. When he arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus began turning over the tables of the traders in the temple as a bold declaration that the Temple had ceased to function as it was intended to; it was meant to be a house of prayer, but had been turned into a den of robbers (Mark 11:15-18).
That evening, Jesus returned to Bethany, and the next morning when they were making the very same journey, the disciples noticed that the fig tree Jesus had cursed had withered and died (Mark 11:20-21).
What is going on here?
The two stories about the fig tree sit like bookends around Jesus’ actions in the Temple, suggesting that the events are somehow linked. In the Old Testament the fig tree often represented the nation of Israel (Joel 1:7; Micah 7:1-6; Hosea 9:10) and when people sat ‘each under their own fig tree’ the nation was thought to be prosperous and at peace (Zechariah 3:10; Malachi 4:4).
But there were also passages in the Old Testament where a barren fig tree was a symbol of a nation’s failure to act justly and follow God. Jeremiah writes, ‘When I would gather them, declares the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered’ (Jeremiah 8:13). When God looked upon His people He expected to find fruit; justice, righteousness and wise living. Instead, he found the opposite; people disobeyed God and were unjust in their treatment of others.
In the same sort of way, Jesus approached the Temple – the central symbol of the nation of Israel – expecting to find fruit of justice, purity and worship of God. Instead he found corruption. He expected to see people of all nations being welcomed to meet God. Instead he saw introspection and an unwillingness to open the Temple up to those from other nations.
Here’s the thing about a fig tree; they typically have leaves that are large and plentiful. From a distance it might look like a tree is in full bloom, but it’s not until you get up close that you suddenly realise there’s no fruit for the taking.
And that’s the point of Jesus’ actions towards the fig tree. Just as the leaves of the fig tree concealed the fact that there were no figs on it, so too the outward beauty of the Temple hid the fact that it was no longer achieving the things for which it had been intended. It was beautiful, but ultimately ineffective. And so Jesus declared that its days were numbered.
We’ll come back to the significance of this tomorrow. But the events of the first Easter Week begin with a powerful symbolic action that reminds us of God’s passion for His people to be fruitful and the need to have a faith that goes beyond external appearances.
Questions for Reflection
As individuals and communities, are we ever in danger of creating a beautiful outward impression, which masks a lack of fruitfulness beneath? How can we guard against this?
Are you doing the things God requires of you? Is your life characterised by worship, justice and mercy? Or are there things you need to do to help you better serve God, His people and the City?
Why not use the following to help you to pray today:
Lord Jesus, as we think about the beginning of the first Easter Week, we remember the story of the fig tree. We thank you that you care about your people and are committed to making us fruitful. In my own life and in the communities of which I am a part, may I bear fruit that is pleasing to you. Show me the areas of my life where you want to bring about more fruit. Help me use my skills and talents to serve you, your people and the city in which you have placed me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
If you find yourself with some extra time today why not read the rest of Mark 11 and reflect on the significance of Jesus’ turning over the Temple tables. You may find these posts, Thieves in the Temple and The Tenants and the Vineyard, a helpful accompaniment.
Join us for one of our meetings over Easter:
Friday 18 April – Good Friday. 11.00-12.15. The Swiss Church, Covent Garden, WC2H 9DY
Sunday 20 April – Easter Sunday. 11.00-12.30. The Mermaid Theatre, EC4V 3DB
Image by Kim Unertl, used under CC