It is the Monday of the final week of the Lord’s life on earth, and there are two events which occupy Mark’s writing before the Lord retires in the eventide to rest outside the city of Jerusalem. The events are seen to have a parabolic meaning which is interpreted the day following when the Lord returns once more to the city. Now let us consider those two events:
The Lord returns from Bethany to Jerusalem, and He was hungry. His perfect humanity is here in view. He was perfectly human in as much as He experienced all the feelings of our infirmities apart from sin. He was also the Perfect Man, intrinsically holy and sinless, without fault, without flaw. Before Him there was a fig tree covered with leaves. At this early period of the year neither leaves nor fruit were naturally to be looked for on a fig tree, nor in ordinary circumstances would anyone have looked for them there. “The time of figs was not yet”, but seeing this tree covered with foliage every reason was given to infer that the figs also were ripe and ready for gathering. Dr. W. M. Thomson, thirty years a missionary in Syria and Palestine, in his book The Land and the Book, writes, “The reason why He might legitimately (so to speak) seek fruit from this particular tree at that early day, was the ostentatious show of leaves. The fig often comes with, or even before the leaves, and especially on the early kind. If there was no fruit on this leafy tree, it might justly be condemned as barren”. The tree, by putting forth its leaves, made pretension to be something more than others, to have fruit upon it. This tree, so to speak, vaunted itself to be in advance of all other trees, challenging the passer-by to come and refresh himself with its fruit. Yet when the Lord accepted the challenge, it proved to be but as the others, without fruit. He found it to be a mass of pretentious foliage and nothing else. Its fault lay in its pretence and in its making a show to run before the rest, when it did not do so in reality. It was condemned, not so much for having no fruit, but that having no fruit it clothed itself abundantly with leaves. The foliage, according to the natural order of this tree and its development, gave pledge and promise that fruit would be found on it. The Lord utters against it a withering curse. This is the only account of an exercise of power on the part of the Lord which was wholly destructive.
The Lord had entered and scrutinized the temple the day before, v. 11. For three years He had taught in, and now He examined, this central institution of Judaism. “He looked … upon all things”. The verdict is recorded in the story of the fig tree—“nothing but leaves”, just a bare profession, fruitless. Now He comes to it again, and He cleanses it as He had done at the outset of His ministry, John 2. 15. His was no unholy toleration of the desecration of His Father’s house, and He rejected those who misused the house of prayer; by this act He publicly condemned the elect nation for allowing the desecration. It has been well said that “Our Lord was not merely a teacher of religious truth; He was an upholder of the law of God and a passionate social Reformer preparing men for the dawn of God. It is much easier to sit in an armchair at ease in Zion explaining hard Scriptures, than it is to denounce, or expose, or correct abuses”.
The Lord quotes from two prophecies here. First from Isaiah He tells how the Gentile proselytes are to be welcomed to the temple, Isa. 56. 7. It is noteworthy that the Lord quotes only the clause about prayer and omits that about sacrifices, for He Himself was to be the sacrifice that would unite Jews and Gentiles in one. With this is joined Jeremiah 7. 11, a verse which comes in the middle of a scathing indictment of the Jews of Jeremiah’s day, whose lives were in utter contradiction to the outward worship which they offered. It came in the midst of a warning about Shiloh, the prophecy that as God abandoned Shiloh, so He would abandon Jerusalem, 7. 14.
He cleansed the temple. Let us pause for a moment and make a practical application of that fact. What sort of a temple has Christ in our lives? Does our temple need cleansing? His sovereign eye penetrates and surveys everywhere. Before He can cultivate the life He has claimed, He must surely cleanse it. Consider further that in the New Testament Epistles the figure is used of the believer’s body, 1 Cor. 6. 19, of the local church, 1 Cor. 3. 16, 17, and of the Church “which is his body”, Eph. 2. 21.
Evening comes, and He goes forth from the city again. The Revised Version translates verse 19, “every evening he went forth out of the city”. We would look in vain for any occasion when He spent a whole night within its walls, for He vacates it even on the Passover celebration and wends His way over the brook Kidron into the garden of Gethsemane. There was no place for Him in the city. He was an outcast. Very soon they would cry “Away with him, crucify him”, and He would go to Golgotha and die. But where does that place the Christian? Surely outside with Him in His rejection. “Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp”, Heb. 13. 12-14. We shall find Him there.
(a) The Place of Fruitfulness in a Nation, vv. 20, 21. On the morrow Peter observes the withered fig tree and questions about it. Undoubtedly for this exception to the wonted tenderness in all Christ’s miracles, there must be some special reason. A loving Redeemer punishing! And that, too, not a moral responsible agent, but a dumb, unconscious tree! Why? The day previous to the cursing of the tree had seen the triumphal entry. It had closed with His scrutiny of the temple. The next day came the withering curse on the tree and the dispersing of the traders who were desecrating the temple. Mark the order—the tender tears, Luke 19. 41, the last pleadings of rejected love, 19. 42-44, the presentation to Israel, the looking around on all things, the verdict on the fig tree (nothing but leaves, fruitless), then the cleansing of the temple with the dispersion of the traders, and lastly the withered-away fig tree. The fig tree is Israel, and the miracle becomes the exposition of a moral truth.
Some time before, the Lord had likened Israel to a fig tree planted in a vineyard, Luke 13. 6. He was Himself Jehovah who had shown care and favour to Israel over the centuries, and who was entitled therefore to look for some return. Alas, Israel’s history had been one of sin and rebellion from the beginning. Under every divine test they had produced nothing but thorns and briars.
“The time of figs was not yet”. The nations of the world were all in darkness and bore no fruit for the glory of God. Yet among the nations was one covered with leaves: Israel, full of light, knowledge, privilege and high profession. The nation was a fig tree clothed with leaves. It had its imposing outward religion, hallowed traditions, boasted temple, its priests, its Pharisees, its sacrifices. There were leaves enough, but beneath the ostentatious foliage there was show, vain glory, pride, selfishness, oppression. There was no fruit for God. And the Lord rejected it.
Here is the condemnation of promise without fulfilment. Leaves, but no fruit. All Israel’s history had been the preparation for the coming of God’s chosen One. When He came they refused Him.
Here, too, is the condemnation of profession without practice. The tree with leaves professed to be something, to offer something, and did not. No man can claim to follow Jesus Christ and remain entirely unlike the Master whom he professes to serve. The other trees had nothing, but they did not pretend to have anything; this tree had nothing, but it gave out that it had much. So it was severally with Gentiles and Jews. The Gentiles were empty of all the fruits of righteousness, but they owned it. The Jews were empty, but they boasted that they were full.
The tree was cursed not for being without fruit, but for proclaiming by the voice of the leaves that it had fruit; not for being barren, but for being false; fruitlessness in the midst of a display which promised fruit. And this was the guilt of Israel, a guilt so much deeper than that of the nations, for its privileges and professions were greater. It was destitute of fruit. But what of us? Are we bearing fruit, or is it “nothing but leaves”? What is the fruit which we are called to produce? Surely it is character and conduct like Christ’s. All else is foliage.
In the end the Lord pronounced sentence upon the tree which was Israel. He gave the nation over to the Romans who dispersed them. But the “for ever” of His sentence, v. 14, has its merciful limitation when we transfer the curse from the tree to that of which the tree was a tiny parable. The Lord refers in Matthew 24. 32, 33 to the reclothing of the bare and withered fig tree, Israel, and to the putting forth of leaves once more. The commencement of that movement we have seen in our day with the reconstitution of the nation of Israel in the land. The day will come when Israel, which now says “I am a dry tree”, shall consent to the Word of their true Lord which of old they denied, “From me is thy fruit found”, Hos. 14. 8.
(b) The Place of Faith in Prayer, vv. 22-24. Responding to Peter’s question the Lord says, “Have faith in God”. He was not giving the secret for destroying fig trees, but the secret for so living that they should not be destroyed as the fig tree had been.
But faith finds its fitting expression in prayer, v. 24. It is faith which removes the mountains of difficulty. Outward achievement, v. 23, is determined by inward conviction, v. 22.
(c) The Place of Forgiveness in Prayer, vv. 25, 26. Faith Is essential to the success of our prayers; but no prayers can be heard which do not come from a forgiving heart. Our prayers must not only be earnest, fervent, sincere, from the heart and in the Name of Christ. They must also come from a forgiving heart.