Confession: I’m a bit obsessed with British royalty. It’s fascinated me since childhood. The regality of it all, the expectations, the tiaras and crowns. So, of course I watched the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. One thing that stands out from their wedding is the streets lined with people. I’m sure it will be the same this spring when Prince Harry weds Megan Markle. People come out in droves, waiting hours, just to watch the procession. We love fanfare, celebration and pageantry. And it’s on full display with the royal family.
This week, Jesus rides into Jerusalem as King in the midst of fanfare and celebration. Throughout our study in the book of Mark, we’ve seen a pattern – Jesus constantly does the unexpected. He calls little children to himself, he does miracles, he tells people to be silent about him. But this week, we finally see Jesus as we might expect him – exalted as King.
In our passage this week, Jesus is exalted as King, but only those who bear fruit belong in his kingdom.
Jesus is Exalted as King
As we begin our passage, Jesus and his disciples arrive in Jerusalem.
What happens as they near the city is striking. And in true Mark fashion, recounted very briefly. Two disciples run ahead and retrieve a colt. They threw their cloaks on the colt, Jesus sat upon it and started to ride. As he rode, the bystanders threw their cloaks and also leafy branches down on the road for him to ride on. Everyone was shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” For once in Mark’s gospel there is no tension between who Jesus claims to be and what others believe about him.
Imagine the relief that the disciples likely felt. Finally, Jesus is doing what he is supposed to. Finally, things make sense. Here is Jesus, fulfilling prophecy and being acknowledged as King. He is riding into Jerusalem to conquer his throne. Right? Well, maybe, partly. I’m sure they did feel a sense of relief and expectation. But John 12:16 gives a little insight into what the disciples thought “His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.”
You see, Jesus and his disciples were in the middle of a huge celebration as the nation of Israel prepared for the Passover feast. They were traveling with a large crowd of excited pilgrims. The things they were shouting were Old Testament quotations that were customary during this celebration. As was the spreading of cloaks and branches on the road. It’s this remarkable moment where Jesus is being exalted as rightful King, prophecy is being fulfilled, and he is further revealing his identity, and yet no one really gets it. The crowd speaks better than they know as they cry out “Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Truly, Jesus was the Messiah. And in this moment he is honored as such, even if they don’t realize what is going on. Expectations are being met.
It’s easy to miss when Jesus meets our expectations, isn’t it?
It’s often in hindsight that we realize the significance of what has happened. We are a lot like my children. The other day, I was on a walk with two of my kids. My daughter fell down hard, scraping her knees and palms. I calmed her, carried her home and applied Band-Aids. All of which she expected from me as Mom. She didn’t look at me with amazement for this noble task. She didn’t thank me for it. She took it all stride, because I’m her mom and she’s my child.
There are other times when I do the smallest things and my daughter recognizes that my job as mom is really important. The other day, as I was brushing her hair, she told me “Moms can do anything.”
Our relationship with Jesus is similar. It’s easy to take for granted what he does as King of our lives. If we always take his Kingship and majesty for granted, we are missing out. I don’t know about you, but I want to get it when I see Jesus magnified. I want to understand and participate in recognizing his Kingship, worshipping and honoring him as my rightful Lord.
Are we worshipping him as King? Are we honoring and glorifying him in his majesty? Are we wowed by his presence? Or are we more likely to take him for granted, expecting him to do what he does for us?
What happens next in our passage is rather anticlimactic. Jesus rides into Jerusalem late in the day, and simply observes. He enters the temple quietly, looking around at everything. And then he goes back to Bethany. But the following day, the action picks back up.
Only Those Who Bear Fruit Belong in his Kingdom
The next day Jesus and his disciples make the 3-mile walk back to Jerusalem, after staying the night in Bethany. Along the way, Jesus is hungry. Mark gives us a quick and simple reminder of Jesus’ humility.
As fellow humans who get hungry we can resonate with Jesus when he realizes the fig tree has no fruit, just leaves. He’s disappointed! Fig trees get their leaves and their figs close together. So even though it was not the season for figs, it wasn’t weird or unreasonable for Jesus to be hopeful for fruit when he saw the tree full of leaves.
In true teacher fashion, Jesus recognizes an object lesson in the fig tree. This tree was so full of leaves that it wasn’t until Jesus looked closely that he realized the leaves were misleading. They gave the appearance of a fruit-bearing tree, but in fact the tree was useless to someone who was hungry.
Which leads right into the next section. Upon reaching Jerusalem, Jesus goes straight to the temple. This temple is huge. It’s beautiful – constructed of white rock and overlaid with gold, so the light reflects brilliantly off of it. And the area within the temple gates is vast, and busy, particularly so as these many pilgrims are arriving. Everything about it screams impressive, important, and holy. This is the place one would come to worship the one, true God. This is the place that should be life-giving.
But as Jesus enters, he finds hectic chaos as people are buying and selling within the temple gates. There was no excuse for this to be happening, for the same type of commerce was happening right outside the temple gates, on the Mount of Olives. But evidently, the religious leaders had at some point decided to allow vendors into the temple area, presumably so that they could get a cut of the proceeds. All of this was happening in the Court of the Gentiles. They certainly didn’t want to take up space that was designated for Jewish worship. But the Gentiles, well, maybe there weren’t that many of them, and if they really wanted to worship God they could fully convert to Judaism and be free to worship in the other areas of the temple.
Jesus is appalled, and rightfully so. The temple was to be a place of prayer for all nations. Instead, it was serving to shut out the nations from worship, and it was being used as a place to charge exorbitant prices, taking advantage of the poor. It was doing everything that God was against. Jesus would not stand for it.
The temple was beautiful and impressive, but it was not life-giving. The worship within its walls was not promoting the things that mattered most to God. It makes me think of driving up I-5 and seeing the beautiful, white Mormon temple in Lake Oswego. I remember when it was being built back when I was a child. It was so, very impressive. But I also remember learning that it was for not for me and feeling sad that I couldn’t go check it out.
Unfortunately, too many churches are like this in one way or another. Though they look life-giving, they shut people out that do not “belong.” They may not mean to. They may have made decisions that seemed practical, without thinking through the implications. Or they may not be used to having visitors, so no one says hi. Or they may be huge, and it’s easy to get lost in the mix.
What about our church? Are we a house of prayer for all the nations? How can you and I help ensure that this is a place that gives life to the needy, a church that doesn’t simply give the appearance of fruit, but where fruit is readily found? Do we come to church to gain new life in Christ, to grow in bearing fruit? Or do we come for appearances? Do we value our place of worship like God does, and do we ensure that it promotes the kind of worship that honors him?
Jesus will not tolerate lack of fruit. He overturns tables and chairs and forbids anyone to use the temple as a thoroughfare. And he stands guard over the temple all day, until evening.
The next morning, again the disciples make the walk from Bethany to Jerusalem, passing by the same fig tree. They find it withered away to its roots. Peter attributes this withering to Jesus’ words in verse 14 “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” This is another time that Mark makes use of a sandwich technique in his story telling. He starts a story, interrupts it with another, then goes back and finishes the first story. This serves to connect the two stories, drawing attention to the one in the middle. In this case, the fig tree is a picture of the what happened at the temple, as we’ve already seen.
Just as the fig tree had the appearance of fruit, it was actually bare. Just as the temple had the appearance of worship, it was actually spiritually dead. Just as Jesus cursed the fig tree and it withered overnight, so Jesus is issuing judgment on Israel. It will also wither and die. For Jesus is about to become the true temple, and the church will be the true Israel – God’s people.
And it all makes a lot of sense, until we get to verse 22. In response to Peter’s observation about the fig tree, Jesus says “Have faith in God.” I would expect that Jesus would explain the fig tree to his disciples, and teach on the judgment of Israel. But Jesus doesn’t do what we expect. His response goes a whole new direction.
This section gets a bad rap, because it is often used by the “name it and claim it” group, and by the prosperity gospel movement. Pray for it, believe it, and God will be obligated to give it to you. This section also gets a bad rap because experience makes us doubt it. I’m willing to bet that you have prayed for things that seemed to accord with God’s will, tried with all your might to believe and not doubt, but they did not happen. Perhaps it’s the salvation of someone you love dearly. Or a ministry opportunity. Or a whole host of other things that seem like really valid prayers. And they remain unanswered.
This is one of those times when context is so important. Remember, the emphasis here is on the cleaning of the temple. Jesus withered the fig tree as an object lesson to show that Israel would face judgment for not bearing fruit. Jesus was teaching his disciples that they should not be surprised that the fig tree withered when Jesus cursed it. And they should not be surprised that the temple will wither, either. They should have faith that God will remove whatever stands in the way of fruit-bearing.
This is true worship, and this is what was missing in the temple. Bearing fruit means trusting in God. It means that we recognize that his prescribed practices of worship are enough. They are the only way. We have faith in God to save us. We have faith in God to sanctify us, to make us holy, realizing that there’s no way that we can move the mountain of sin on our own. We worship him in prayer, acknowledging that every good gift comes from him. We forgive others, just as God in Christ has forgiven us. Jesus is calling his disciples to bear fruit, in contrast to the fig tree and the temple.
How are we to bear fruit when we so easily fall into Pharisaical thinking or actions? Only as Jesus overturns the tables of our hearts. Only as his Spirit works in us to conform us more to his image. It’s Jesus who does the fruit bearing, as we look to him as our one and only King.
We can’t escape the devastating news about school shootings. As a mom with three school-aged kids, it brings a flood of emotions – panic, anxiety, fear, heartbreak, unease. But you know what? This fear is one way that Jesus is overturning the tables in my heart. Every time I send my kids off to school, I realize that I have no control over what the day holds for them. I could easily give in to panic and anxiety. But instead, God is using these worries to bring fruit to bear in my life.
I am learning to “have faith in God” as I trust him with my kid’s lives. I rely on what I know to be true – that he’s sovereign over everything and eternally good. And I pray a lot for my kids and for their friends, for their teachers and their school. I otherwise may not. And I pray that all of the tragedies in this world will serve to show people everywhere their desperate need for Christ.
If we belong to Jesus, he’s going to do what it takes to ensure we are bearing fruit. When he overturns the tables of our hearts, do we see his loving discipline or do we get angry and fearful? Are we concerned with bearing fruit or are we more concerned with coming to God on our own terms? Are we asking him to help us bear fruit, to overturn tables until we are following him?