What lies beneath the exterior? Beneath the singing of hymns and saying of words, beneath our church membership and our best efforts, what will Jesus find in you?
Dead Men Walking
In 1995, a movie was released based on a book by Sister Helen Prejean about a nun and her ministry to a convicted death row inmate. The movie was called Dead Man Walking. The man, a murderer, was alive. He ate, slept and walked around; yet, his sentence overshadowed all of his life. His destiny was sealed. He was a dead man walking.
There are dead men walking in our world today—people who look fine to their co-workers, but having been passed over for a promotion has left them bitter and unproductive. There are those whose happy-go-lucky outside lives belie a deep feeling of depression, people whose bright outside lives camouflage the darkness of lust, addictions, hatred and prejudice within. There are people whose exterior of genuine religion covers their interior world of practical atheism.
The Scripture today is not dealing with those who have been hurt or abused…and they are dead men walking. It is not dealing with those who have murdered…and they are dead men walking. It is dealing with those who have all the benefits to lead them to true faith, but inside they are dead men walking. They have all the forms of religion, but they have denied the power thereof.
In the text today, a fig tree is a withered plant still growing; a temple is a heap of rubble still standing. In Jesus’ explanation, we see the marks of true faith and what God desires of us.
I Can Know True Faith by the Christ Scripture Depicts
Admittedly, the depiction of Jesus here is disturbing. Some have said the stories are spurious and not worthy of Jesus. Some have seen the wrath of Jesus in the temple as being out of character for Christ. Others have doubted whether it was originally part of Scripture.
I do not agree with these assessments. The story is not only worthy of our Lord, but perfectly reflects the prophetic ministry of Jesus and the holiness of God, including the missionary heart of God. I will tell you why, but let us all admit the difficulty.
Mark tells us that figs were not in season, so for Jesus to condemn a fruitless tree seems outlandish and unfair. We will deal with this passage in a moment; but for now, we admit it seems difficult and maybe extreme. Moreover, the image of the meek and mild Jesus turning over tables and throwing people out of the court of the Gentiles of the temple in Jerusalem is shocking. It is shocking, that is, unless you read the whole counsel of God’s Word. This Jesus who healed the blind and the deaf, who brought cheer to a wedding by turning water into wine, is also the Jesus who said the proud religious leaders of Israel were not of their father Abraham but of their father the devil. He is the One who called them a brood of vipers, and He gave a grave warning for those who would mislead children from the truth of the gospel.
Context means everything in interpretation. Jesus is meek and mild when dealing with broken sinners, but He demonstrates a holy indignation reminiscent of the prophets when encountering religious hucksters who hold back people from all that God intended for us. We could put the question this way: Is Jesus a Lion or a Lamb?
In C.S Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third of the Chronicles of Narnia Series, Lewis wants the reader to see the identity of Aslan. It is the conclusion of the book. Lucy and Edmund are on an adventure when they come to a large grassy area. In the midst of a large green, there is a white spot. As they look at the white spot in the midst of the great field and draw closer to it, they find that it is a lamb. The lamb is cooking a breakfast of fish and gives Lucy and Edmund a delicious meal. Then they ask the lamb if He can help them find the land of Aslan. At that time, the white Lamb transforms into the great Aslan Himself, with sunlight beaming forth from His great mane.
C.S. Lewis was saying the truth of Scripture: Jesus is the gentle, meek Lamb who takes away the sins of the world; He is also the Lion of Judah, the Judge and the One who comes to bring justice to the world, to execute judgment on sin and to punish iniquity.
Jesus is the undeniable, absolute Monarch of the universe. If you are a believer, you must recognize this Christ died for your sins as the Lamb; but He lives and calls for His children to be fruitful, to reflect His heart to the world, to remove the things in their lives that cause others to stumble, or else He comes as the Lion.
Jesus Christ encounters a fig tree and physically begins to enact what God is going to do to those who have a profession of religion but whose hearts are dead. In the case of the fig tree, we encounter a Jesus who is indignant regarding a leafy religion—lying leaves that are supposedly leading you to the first fruit of the season, but there is none to be found.
Israel, with the knowledge of the Word of God regarding the covenant and promises—or at least knowledge of religion; underneath, there was no heart. Jesus came to the temple, and there found the same thing. The temple was a magnificent shimmering shrine to God; but on the inside, it was lackluster. Jesus condemned both. Jesus is both the Lion and the Lamb.
In true believers, there should be a lionhearted indignation regarding sin and its effects in our world. In previous generations, revival always brought biblical justice. In Wesley’s day, there were injustices to children who were being used in a sort of quasi slave labor in industrialized England. Wesley and his Methodists were indignant about this and preached against it, and child labor laws were put in place.
In the Great Awakening, Edwards and others preached against the dead formalism in the churches of the colonies, and God brought a holy passion for Himself to a people who soon would become a nation. I remember my aunt reminding me that as a young woman she had signed a temperance pledge that “lips that touch liquor will never touch mine.” We smile at such things today and maybe look down our noses at naïve evangelicals falling for a frontier holiness legalism. Yet Presbyterians were on the forefront of that movement. Why? Because families in rural America were falling apart due to alcoholism. There was indignation against sin and abuse. Where God’s children were hurt, Christians inspired by Jesus became lions.
To be a follower of Christ not only is to love what Christ loves, but also to hate what He hates. That means we speak out against the things that bring pain to human beings and especially that which separates us from God’s love in Christ.
If you are not a Christian, be careful not to miss the power of this passage for your life. It is dramatically enacted by Christ in the cursing of the barren fig tree and the cleansing of the temple: Either we bow before Him as Lamb today or stand before His judgment seat as Lion in another soon-coming day.
Jesus is the Lamb who is the Lion. Coming to terms with the true Person of Jesus Christ, Savior and Judge, is the beginning of coming to faith in Christ and to freedom in Him. The knowledge of God brings freedom. The knowledge of God leads to true biblical faith.
I Can Know True Faith by the Things Christ Condemns
Mark uses a sandwiching literary technique and places the cleansing of the temple in the middle of the fig tree story.
In the cleansing of the temple, Jesus condemned prideful religion. The incident of Jesus driving out the moneychangers and turning over the market tables is as disturbing as the fig tree incident, if not worse. This action reflects Jesus as Prophet. It also shows Him as King. Later, when He died on the cross and the veil of the Temple separating man for God was torn in two, we see Him as Priest.
Jesus came to a proud temple, supposedly erected to give glory to God. The white marble temple, sitting high on the mount, was the pride of Jerusalem, but it had become a place of spiritual darkness. Its purposes were distorted, if not supplanted, by religious ritual that left no room for God and His love. This wasn’t a dead man walking, “the temple was a demolished building standing.”
When God in the flesh entered that court of the Gentiles, the outer court, He turned over tables and threw chairs! Pigeons were flying, and shekels were shaking. It was holy mayhem. Why? This, too, I believe, was enacted prophecy, as well as downright righteous indignation regarding the state of affairs in the House of God.
Markets had been set up in the court of the Gentiles, the outer porch, to sell ritually clean animals to those coming to worship. After all, if God only accepted the best, then you needed to buy it from these markets. The money with pagan symbols on it that was brought for the temple tax had to be exchanged for shekels from Tyre, the closest thing to the old Jewish shekel available.
More than that, all of this was taking place in the part of the temple where Gentiles could come to hear the Word of God and learn of God’s covenant promises. This is what provoked Jesus to say it was intended as a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves. Not only were they fleecing the Jews, they were forgetting the Gentiles and forgetting their responsibility to preach repentance and faith in God to the whole world.
The temple and the traditions were to be signposts pointing human beings to God. When proud tradition becomes more important than reaching people, God judges that tradition. It is the same with us. When churches place anything before reaching the world for Christ, God condemns the other things.
I was a visitor at an Episcopal church in Ohio that was celebrating the anniversary of some very ornate and beautiful stained glass windows. The church also had a new rector, and he took that opportunity to say that unless the church reached out to share Christ with the world, the windows would condemn them to hell. I do not know if he is still there. Turning over traditions can get you crucified.
Jesus showed us that our time, talents and resources must all be channeled to the fulfillment of the vision of God to teach the nations. Anything short of that is condemned.
In the cursing of the fig tree, He condemned pretentious religion. I know something of figs and fig trees, though my knowledge comes from being a barefoot boy in the summer in South Louisiana. We had lots of fig trees. One of my favorite things to eat is cold fig preserves spread on a hot biscuit with a lump of sour cream on top. Now that is good. I like figs.
At first reading, you may like this little fig tree and wonder why it would be cursed considering, as Mark tells us, it was out of season. Only Mark tells us this. People such as Bertrand Russell have used this to discount Christianity. Others who want to explain it away have offered far-reaching theories. Jesus expected little green figlets to be on the tree. While it was not the season for full-grown figs, there should have been something.
This fig tree was given as an object lesson for us. When Jesus comes to us, there is no season of life when He does not expect to find faith. In Scripture, God’s people were seen as fig trees, and the Messiah-to-come would be looking for fruit. However, they were leafy. They had the promise of true faith, but when Jesus entered Jerusalem, He found only leaves and no figs.
“When I would gather them, declares the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree… (Jeremiah 8:13).
“Woe is me! For I have become as when the summer fruit has been gathered, as when the grapes have been gleaned: there is no cluster to eat, no first-ripe fig that my soul desires” (Micah 7:1).
Jesus had come into the place called the City of God. He was hungry to taste of the faith of those who would turn to Him as the promised One of God. This is why He wept over them. He saw their unbelief, and His heart broke due to the coming judgment. It was God’s time for them, but not their time for God. They were not ready for the heaven-sent Savior of Scripture, but an earth-bound messiah of their own making. They had a temple, religion, ritual—all the words but none of the heart.
Mark explains to us the fig tree that promised early fruit with its luxurious leaves was similar to Israel, who had great promise of faithful reception of Jesus, but was unprepared for Him. There was no fruit of faith, only pretense—all leaves and no figs. Jesus cursed the lying leaves of the fig tree. Yet, we have lying lips when we profess Christ and deny Him by our lives.
Jesus comes today and looks for fruit in our relationships to others, as well as our relationship to Him. He condemns all leaves and no figs in our lives.
Is there a time when we can say, “It is not the season for faith?” As a student, can you say, “Well, Lord, I need a student pass on this fruit thing. I will get on it later, but it is just not the season for following You all the way right now. I will give you Sundays though! To deal with forgiveness of my mother is another thing.”
You know the answer. Jesus comes hungry to find faith in your life. He condemns your leafy show of faith when there is no fruit—all leaves and no figs. He is calling for figs in season and out of season.
You might say, “I am retired. I have been there, done that. The life of following Christ through giving of my life to others has been something I have done for 50 years! It is time for me. It is time for my money to go to buy my happiness. It is time for my hours to be given to my pleasure. I will turn in my pledge, and I will serve on a board for you if that helps.”
How about the one who says, “I am sick. I cannot faithfully follow the Lord when I am in this condition.” The Lord has found you with your sickness strangling the life out of you. He gives you your sick bed as a prayer closet. Christ is calling us to see that our time is not our own. Christ may be calling us to see that our way of life is all leaves and no figs. All seasons of life are His.
I Can Know True Faith by the Life Christ Commends
In the morning, as they returned from these amazing events, the disciples witnessed the withered fig tree. Peter drew Jesus’ attention to it. Jesus gave no other explanation than this: Have faith in God.
In the end, the things that matter in our relationship to God are not defined by what we see or do, but through simple trust in the Lord. He went on to explain faith in Christ and forgiveness. According to Jesus, our faith will move not mountains, but this mountain.
“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. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:23-24).
Before them stood the gleaming temple on Mount Zion. This was not a magical formula for displays of supernatural power, but a prediction of how simple faith must replace ostentatious displays of empty religion. The gospel and history is that simple child-like faith in God’s plan of salvation through Jesus’ life and sacrifice on the cross would remove a mountain of religion. When you need God the most, would you rather have a golden temple on a mountain or a praying mom on her knees?
My beloved, a faith that moves the mountain of religion and ushers in true joy and forgiveness to you and others is a faith that first says, “I am a sinner who needs a Savior. The showy pretense and pride of my religion will not do. The prideful dependence upon my intelligence and good breeding will not suffice. The glimmering gold of my supposed holiness cannot take away my sin. I need a Savior today.”
The time for receiving Him and following Him is now, while the Savior of the world comes to your heart, hungry to find the fruit of true faith, a fruit that comes from receiving the love of God in Christ, a fruit for all seasons.
I am indebted to the insights of Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
R. Kent Hughes, Mark: Jesus, Servant and Savior. (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1989).