With Mark chapter eleven, we begin the final division in the Gospel of Mark: Passion Week—where Jesus prepares for His own suffering and death. We also begin here a new mini-series leading up to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. The next three lessons focus on the notion of Israel’s failure and consequent judgment. In the next lesson, Jesus will demonstrate his rejection of Israel (11:27 – 12:44). And in the following lesson Jesus will describe Israel’s rejection (13:1-37).
In this lesson, we see the declaration of judgment upon Israel for her lack of fruit. The reader is intended to understand that a similar declaration of judgment will be pronounced upon all who produce no fruit.
11:1 Now as they approached Jerusalem, near Bethphage100 and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples 11:2 and said to them, “Go to the village ahead of you. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 11:3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here soon.’” 11:4 So they went and found a colt tied at a door, outside in the street, and untied it. 11:5 Some people standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 11:6 They replied as Jesus had told them, and the bystanders let them go.101 11:7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus, threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. 11:8 Many spread their cloaks on the road and others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 11:9 Both those who went ahead and those who followed kept shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 11:10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11:11 Then Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. And after looking around at everything, he went out to Bethany with the twelve since it was already late.
Mark 11 records the beginning of what has traditionally been called “Passion Week.” Beginning with Palm Sunday (named this because the people spread palm branches out before Jesus during His so-called Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem), this final week of the Savior’s life is filled with unpleasant interactions with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, culminating in Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Up until this point in the Gospel of Mark, most scholars agree on its basic meaning. At chapter eleven, scholars each take their own road with this difficult text.
Accompanied by several powerful Old Testament citations and images, this passage has very strong Messianic overtones. The primary Old Testament passages drawn from are cited here:
Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion!
Shout, daughter of Jerusalem!
Look! Your king is coming to you:
he is legitimate and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey—
on a young donkey, the foal of a female donkey.
2 Kings 9:13 Each of them quickly took off his robe and they spread them out at his feet on the steps. The trumpet was blown and they shouted, “Jehu is king!”
118:26 May the one who comes in the name of the
We will pronounce blessings on you in the
The crowd probably responded to Jesus because they saw Him riding on a donkey. Thus, in accordance with Zechariah 9:9 they hailed him as the Messiah king, even placing branches (palm branches according to John’s Gospel) before his path (see 2 Kings 9:13).
The temple that Jesus sees was quite a sight indeed! This temple was enormous, standing 150 feet tall and 150 feet long—roughly the size of a 15-story building. At this time, merely one week before a major Jewish Feast—all the eyes of the world were upon Jerusalem, which swelled to double or perhaps triple its normal population of 30,000. But especially, all eyes were upon the Temple as the center of religious activity. By entering the temple, Jesus is sizing up the playing field for the battle that will commence the next day. It is a fierce battle which, according to the Synoptic Gospels, ultimately leads to His arrest and execution.
11:12 Now the next day, as they went out from Bethany, he was hungry. 11:13 After noticing in the distance a fig tree with leaves, he went to see if he could find any fruit on it. When he came to it he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 11:14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
11:15 Then they came to Jerusalem. Jesus entered the temple area and began to drive out those who were selling and buying in the temple courts. He turned over the tables of the moneychangers and the chairs of those selling doves, 11:16 and he would not permit anyone to carry merchandise25 through the temple courts. 11:17 Then he began to teach them and said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have turned it into a den of robbers!”103 11:18 The chief priests and the experts in the law heard it and they considered how they could assassinate him, for they feared him because the whole crowd was amazed by his teaching. 11:19 When evening came, they went out of the city.
This passage has proven to be one of the most difficult passages in all the Gospels. The cursing of the fig tree is Jesus’ only recorded miracle that results in destruction rather than restoration. The passage, however, becomes clear when understood in its literary context.
Mark has several interrupted accounts. The fig tree incident is yet another one. On a number of occasions, Mark begins one story and concludes it only after another story in interjected and resolved. This is almost always a literary device designed to tie two incidents together thematically. In this passage, two encounters with a fig tree are deliberately sandwiched in between Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. There is apparently a relationship between the two incidents, and the reader is left to discover that relationship.
The temple cleansing is a fulfillment of Malachi 3:1-3. Moses commanded that folks were to purchase sacrifices conveniently, so the purchasing of sacrifices was not the impetus for Jesus’ actions. There seem to be two reasons for Jesus’ abrupt behavior: 1) the Gentile court was not functioning as intended: it was supposed to be a house of worship and instead these worshippers were being crowded out by merchandisers, and 2) It was supposed to be primarily a place of worship, not primarily a marketplace.
Although leaves would commonly appear in March or April, figs normally sprouted in June. The fully developed leaves on this tree, however, suggested that fruit would also be found. Jesus approaches the leafy fig tree fully expecting to find fruit there (if any tree is going to have fruit, this tree certainly would). When He finds none, Jesus responds in righteous anger. Likewise, Jesus enters the temple fully expecting to find fruit there (if any place is going to produce spiritual fruit, this temple certainly would). When He finds none, Jesus responds in righteous anger.
The fig tree incident, then, is a visual parable. Clearly Jesus is indicating judgment, but judgment on whom? Since the tree had leaves, one would expect that fruit accompanied them. Jesus expects to see fruit, and is visibly disappointed when He finds none. The tree was “pretending” to bear fruit. What a terrific picture of the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day. They “pretended” to have fruit. What a great picture of countless believers today.
The point lies in the difference between the appearance of the temple and the tree from a distance and their true condition, which a closer inspection reveals. Does that sound like your life? To most people you appear to be genuine. But what if we examined you closer? What if we could follow you around for a week? Would we find fruit, or have you grown adept at giving the appearance of fruit from a distance?
11:20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 11:21 Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered.” 11:22 Jesus said to them, “Have faith in God. 11:23 I tell you the truth, if someone says to this mountain,105 ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 11:24 For this reason I tell you, whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 11:25 Whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your sins.”
Jesus is here giving a summons to faith and to action consistent with one’s faith. He mentions two specific fruits of genuine faith: Prayer and forgiveness—two of the most difficult fruits to counterfeit. Incidentally, the first fruit Jesus describes (namely, prayer) is the primary fruit He found missing at the temple (“My house will be called a house of prayer . . .”). Just as a pulse is the sign of a heartbeat, so fruit is the sign of internal spiritual life.
Charles Ryrie says on the inevitability of producing fruit”
“Every Christian will bear spiritual fruit. Somewhere, sometime, somehow. Otherwise that person is not a believer. Every born-again individual will be fruitful. Not to be fruitful is to be faithless, without faith, and therefore without salvation.”
Perhaps you should take some time today to do some fruit inspection in your life. Are you skilled at appearing fruitful from a distance, or does a closer examination reveal true, lasting fruit? You may find it helpful to begin your examination using the words of David recorded in Psalm 139:23-24 (taken from The Message, a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson):
“Investigate my life, Oh God.
Find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
Get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for Yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
Then guide me on the road to eternal life.”
We conclude each lesson with one verse from the passage we’ve studied. We refer to it as a “meditation verse” to leave a broad range of uses: meditate, reflect, memorize, reread, etc. Our meditation verse for this lesson is Mark 11:9:
Both those who went ahead and those who followed kept shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
99 Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are taken from The NET Bible.
100 Bethphage literally means “house of unripe figs” and Bethany “house of figs.”
101 Jesus predicted everything accurately, including the colt tied up and the questioning of the disciples upon taking the colt. Jesus will later send two ambassadors to make arrangements for the Passover meal in the Upper Room. Those who inquire of the disciples taking the colt are, according to Luke’s Gospel, its owners.
104 Mark 11:26 is missing from many of your Bibles for good reason. Simply put, the earliest and best manuscripts omit the verse, and there are better reasons to believe that a well-meaning scribe inserted the verse deliberately than that he omitted it unintentionally.
105 When Jesus says “this mountain,” He is probably gesturing to the Mount of Olives. “The sea” is perhaps a reference to the Dead Sea, visible from the summit of the Mount of Olives.