Good morning, church. Turn in your Bibles to Mark, chapter 11. We’re going to be looking this morning at two familiar stories, the “Triumphal entry” and the “Cleansing of the Temple,” along with a less familiar part of the story, the “Cursing of the fig tree.” That’s a lot of ground to cover in one morning, but it makes sense for us to tackle these together, because each of these episodes fit together as pieces of one large story, and it’s that story that I want us to think about today. So let’s hear it together, then we’ll talk about it. Pay attention now to the reading of God’s word.
[Read Mark 11:1-26]
Do you remember the movie, “The Neverending Story”? If you’re younger than 35, then maybe not. We watched it with our kids recently. I wouldn’t say that it has aged well, but it’s a great story. This young boy finds a beautiful old book in a book shop. So he locks himself away in an attic, and gets wrapped up in this gripping tale about furry dragons and racing snails and a heroic boy and his horse. It turns out that the story is about the end of a world. This fantastical world called Fantasia is being slowly engulfed by “the Nothing,” which is a cloud of darkness that covers the world and destroys all life as it spreads. Here I’m going to spoil the ending if you haven’t seen it. But at the end of the movie, the boy in the attic, reading the book, discovers that he is actually a character in this story that he’s reading. He’s connected to the story and he has a part to play in the ending. That’s a pretty good metaphor for our story in Mark 11. This story is also about the end of a world - a world that had become barren and fruitless. This story is about the nation of Israel. But we’re also going to see that we are characters in this story. The story of Israel is our story. It’s the story of God’s salvation of the world. But like the boy in “The Neverending Story,” before we can find our part, we have to first hear and know the part that’s written in the book. So we’re going to spend a bit more time than normal today focused on the details of Israel’s story. But I hope in the end it will help you to know and love the great story of God’s salvation of the world a little better.
The real story of the world is different than “The Neverending Story.” In the true story, our story, there’s a king. As we learned in Narnia, this king is good, but he is not safe. And whether things go well or poorly for you depends entirely on your relationship to the king. I said that the book of Mark is a story about the end of a world. That world ended the way that it did because they rejected their king. They didn’t recognize him when he came. So ultimately what we want to do this morning, as we think about the salvation story as it happened in history, is simply to know the king better. We want to know him as he really is. The apostle Paul was thinking about this story that we’re talking about today, about the end of one world and the beginning of another, as he was writing in Romans 11. This is the conclusion that he came to:
Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.
Our goal today is to behold the kindness and the severity of King Jesus as they are comingled together in this story that we have in Mark 11. Let’s pray.
Father, I ask that you would send your Spirit to open our eyes and our hearts to your word. Help us to see your Son Jesus as he is, and give us hearts to respond in faith and adoration of him. It’s in his name we pray. Amen.
Here we are at the beginning of Mark 11, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, and they have stopped just outside the city at the Mount of Olives. We’re building toward the climax of the story. We know that Jesus understands what’s happening because he told the disciples in just the last chapter what was going to happen when they came to Jerusalem. His whole life has been building toward this. He is about to set into motion the chain of events that will lead him to the cross. This is the reason why he came. But there is also a sense in which all of human history has been building toward this moment. The King of Israel is about to ride into Jerusalem. The true king - the one promised from the very beginning - is riding into the City of David to take his throne. I want to take a minute to set the scene. I think this will he helpful. Don’t take notes for this part. I just want you to have the storyline in your head.
The first promise of a messiah came in the very beginning, in the garden, four thousand years (let’s say) before this all happened. God promised that there would one day come one of Eve’s offspring who would crush the head of the serpent. “He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” In a sense, from that day forward - week one of the history of the world - all the faithful waited and looked for the one who would come and set things right. And the story of God’s people is the long story of God sending one after another, great men who set things right for a time, but only for a time, and never completely. Each time Israel was left looking for another.
Israel’s story began with a messianic promise - two thousand years before Christ - a promise to Abraham that God would make his offspring a great nation, and that through his offspring “all the families of the earth would be blessed.” All the families of the earth. Remember that.
Abraham’s grandson Jacob went down into Egypt with 70 people, and 400 years later there were two million of them, but they were enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians. So God sent a deliverer, Moses, who led Israel out of Egypt and to the edge of the land that God promised them. Moses was the greatest of the prophets - God spoke to him “as a man speaks with his friend” - but Moses wasn’t the one. There was another to come. He told them, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.” (Deut 18) Joshua then led Israel into the promised land, but at that point in the story God’s command to them was not that they were to be a blessing to the nations. Rather that they were to wipe out the wicked nations of Canaan. Again, this doesn’t sound like the Abrahamic promise. At this point, Israel brought the sword of God’s judgement on the nations. They were to be separate, and God gave them a law that told them how to be seperate. But as we know, Israel was not faithful to keep that law and things fell apart.
In the time of the judges we’re told that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” God was gracious and he again sent deliverers like Gideon who set things right, in part and for a time. But Gideon wasn’t the one. Over and over again Israel broke covenant with God. What Israel needed was a shepherd. They needed a good king. So God gave them one. He gave them King David. And David was a great king. David did what Joshua failed to do, he wiped out God’s enemies in the land. He was a man after God’s own heart. And God again made a promise, that a son of David would sit on the throne forever. Indeed his son, Solomon, built the great temple that was the crown jewel of Israel and the place where God dwelled among his people. So maybe this was it. Here at last, God’s Messiah had come and things were set right. But no, Solomon was not the son of David whose reign would never end. Even the great King David was not the one who would crush the serpent’s head. There would have to be another king.
Solomon’s sons split the kingdom in two. Israel and Judah waffled back and forth between good kings and bad ones, while the great prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah called them to repentance and spoke the promise of a new son of David - a new king - who would set things right. A new shepherd who would lead God’s people into righteousness and peace.
“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”
But Israel and Judah rejected the prophets, and fell further and further into disobedience until finally, six hundred years before Christ, the Babylonians came and carried Judah into exile and destroyed the great temple.
This was not the end of Israel’s story, but it was a turning point. Never again would the old Israel be a self governing nation. From this point forward Israel was under the authority of gentiles. No longer was Israel to bring the sword of judgement to the nations. Instead, Jeremiah tells them to “seek the good of the city” where God is sending them. God says through Isaiah “I will make you a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” And all the while, the promise is still there. While Israel was in Babylon, Daniel had a vision:
and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of how Israel was eventually allowed to come back to Jerusalem, though they were still ruled by the Persians. They were even allowed to rebuild the temple, but it’s not like it used to be. The old men who had seen Solomon’s temple wept at the memory of it. The last book of the old testament ends with Israel waiting for that day when “the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.”
Then we turn the page, and there’s a blank page that just says “New Testament” on it. Then you turn again and there’s Jesus. That blank page does a lot of work. There’s 400 years of history that happens on that blank page. That tends to create a wall in our minds between the Old Testament story and the Gospels. What we’re going to think about today is how the story told in the gospels is not just the first chapter in the story of church, it’s also the last chapter of Israel’s story - the story of the Old Testament.
Here’s a quick historical detail that it will be helpful for you to know. When Jesus was born, as you know, Israel was under Roman rule - not Persian any more. The way society breaks down in Israel around Jerusalem is that there’s a temple class, which is the ruling class, and then there’s everyone else. The rulers in Israel are the priests, the scribes, the religious leaders, etc. But even those guys aren’t all the same. You’ve got different parties. There are the Sadducees, who are the theologically liberal party. These guys aren’t so interested in faithfulness to the law. They are concerned about keeping up with the times. Most of the top dogs in the temple, like the chief priest, are Sadducees. They don’t mind the Romans. They’ve got a pretty good gig, and don’t want to shake things up. In fact, they are the ones who are going to stand in front of Pilot in a couple of chapters and say, “We have no king but Caesar.” Then there’s the conservative party, which are the Pharisees. They aren’t happy with the Romans being in charge. They think it’s a judgement from God. But the way they think Israel is going to be restored is by being very, very pure. Even more pure than what the law requires, which is a bad idea. There’s a group called the Essenes who are the “take to the hills” party. Then there are the Zealots, who are also unhappy about the Romans, but their solution is to fight. Simon the Zealot was one of the apostles.
Big picture, the thing to remember is that the spiritual situation in Israel, especially in Jerusalem around the temple, was not good. Each of the different groups, in their own way, had lost sight of what it meant to love the Lord their God. You know how in Kings and Chronicles, you’ll get just one sentence that summarizes an entire period of history. Such and such a king either “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,” or he “did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Jesus comes at a “they did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord” time in Israel’s history. But their idols weren’t wood or stone. Their idol was the system. Their Jewishness, the temple, and all of the rites and rituals and what not - that was their idol. Then Jesus came and tore it all down.
After that long setup, now we’re ready to talk about the passage. The message of this first part of Mark 11 is not complicated. All of the details point to one thing - that Jesus is the promised King. Jesus is the one that they’ve been waiting for. That’s the message of the whole book, of course. All of the little details of every story that we’re told in Mark are aimed at convincing us of that one fact. That Jesus is the promised King. What’s unique about this moment in chapter 11 is that this is Jesus’ big public unveiling. Before this, Jesus had certainly caused a stir wherever he went, but until now he has tried to be discreet. Doesn’t it seem strange all of the times that Jesus tells people, “don’t say anything.” “Don’t tell anyone what you’ve seen.” Why did he do that? It was because Jesus knew that a show down was coming. He knew that what he had come to say and to do was going to cause trouble, especially with the temple leaders, and it needed to happen at the right time. Well, now is the right time. Now there’s no more secret. The time has come for the king to claim his throne.
Let’s look at the passage. Verse 2 says that Jesus sent two of his disciples into the village and told them
Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” say, “The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.” And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it.
The colt here is a donkey. Matthew makes that clear in his account. We’ll see why that matters. But we’ve learned already in this study of Mark that details matter. Mark doesn’t waste his words. So when Mark slows down to give us these details about this task of retrieving the donkey colt, we should take notice. Five times Mark references the fact that this donkey’s colt was tied, or that they untied the colt. It’s an odd thing to include in a fast-paced story. We should assume that it has a purpose, and it does. Mark wants to send us way back - 2000 years back - to Jacob and the blessings that he spoke over his sons at the end of his life. Jacob’s blessing over Judah includes this.
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,
The first half of this is a well known prophecy that the messiah will come from the tribe of Judah. The second half, about binding the foal to the vine, in Jacob’s context is just saying to Judah that your vines will be so lush and plentiful that you’ll just tie your donkeys to them as you travel about. But God, as he likes to do in this great story that he’s writing, orchestrated the details of this conversation between Jesus and his disciples and these random bystanders to connect Jesus back to this two thousand year old oracle about the promised messiah. The point of this little detail about the tied up donkey colt is that the ruler from the tribe of Judah to whom shall be the obedience of all the peoples is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. Isn’t that amazing? I hope that’s as encouraging to you as it is to me.
But the most important connection that we need to make concerning the donkey is from the prophet Zechariah. Again, Matthew makes this explicit. But even in Mark, this is what we’re supposed to think of when we hear this story. In Zechariah 9 we read
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
There it is. When the king comes, he’ll come riding on a donkey. The donkey shouldn’t have been a surprise. Zechariah told them, 500 years earlier, what to look for. Jesus clearly knew the prophecy. This was a case of Jesus is intentionally setting details in place to show Israel who he is. Maybe Jesus knew prophetically about the location of the donkey, or maybe he organized it with the owner ahead of time. It doesn’t matter. The point is that Jesus is making himself known, publicly, in a way that every Israelite should have recognized.
The reason that the donkey would have been a surprise to many Jews wasn’t necessarily because kings don’t ride donkeys. Donkeys didn’t have quite the same connotations then that they do now. In fact, when Solomon was coronated as king, he rode into Jerusalem on a mule. So you might see a king on a donkey. The important thing about a donkey is that it is not a war horse. And a war horse is what they were expecting. But Jesus didn’t come as a conquering war hero like many wanted. He came bringing peace to the nations. He didn’t come to make slaves, but to free them. The next part of the Zechariah prophecy, after the bit about the king coming on a donkey, says:
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations;
No more swords and war horses for Israel. That time is over. Remember what John said last week about how the disciples had bought into the Roman’s idea of position and power? That’s right. Rome ruled with a sword, and the Jews assumed that deliverance would have to come by the sword as well. They were also probably thinking back to the “good ol’ days” of Joshua and David when they were the ones bearing the swords. If they had been paying attention to their Bible, they would have known that that part of the story was over. As it was, they had to do some serious recalibration along the way. Beware of pining for the good ol’ days. You’re part of the story too, and the story is going somewhere. Things will never be what they were two years ago. That’s not how stories work. Do you trust that God’s story is a good one? Trust him.
Then we see the response of the crowd. Luke calls it a multitude, and Matthew says that the whole city was stirred up by the commotion. This was like a parade. And there’s no reason to think that this crowd was just caught up in the spectacle. There were some onlookers and antagonists mixed in, as we’ll see. But these are folks like Bartimaeus who we saw last week, and others like him, who had either been healed by Jesus themselves or had seen him do these things and heard him teach, and they believed. I don’t think they understood anything about what was going to happen once Jesus got to Jerusalem. But this is a good reminder that while Israel as a nation, and especially their leaders, rejected Jesus, there were many who believed and followed him. And this crowd understood, at least in part, what was happening. They took their cloaks and laid them on the road in front of Jesus. Others went and cut palm branches and spread those. We can see what this is. This is the red carpet. This is how you honor a king. We recognize this in our culture. But there’s biblical precedent as well. When Elijah anointed Jehu as king, it says that “every man took his garment and put it under him on the bare steps, and they blew the trumpet and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’”
Then in verse 9 we see that the crowd started 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!” That phrase, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is from Psalm 118, the last part of the Hallel that Philip told us about during our Psalms series. The crowd would have known these lines like we know the Lord’s prayer. Psalm 118 is all about hope in the God who saves his people. These lines in particular are about the promise of a deliverer. The implication is pretty clear. It would be like if someone walked into a room and the band started playing “Hail to the Chief,” it would tell you something about the person. You’re saying something specific. This person is the President. This crowd is saying, “Yes, Jesus is the one. He’s the King that we’ve been looking for. We have seen the miracles and the signs. We’ve heard him and we believe.”
But we learn in the other gospels that not everyone was pleased. Luke tells us that “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’” And Matthew says that the chief priests and scribes were “indignant” when they heard what the people were saying. That points us to where the story is going next. Verse 11 says, “And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” The king rides into Jerusalem and goes straight to the temple. What’s going on here? You should think of this is an inspection. The king has arrived. He goes straight to his Father’s house and performs an inspection. And what did he find when he came? We have to answer that.
But first let’s look at what Mark does with the rest of the passage. After he tells us that Jesus went in an inspected the temple, then we’ve got this very strange story about Jesus and a fig tree. Jesus is hungry. He sees a fig tree, but when he comes to it he finds that there are no figs on it because it’s not fig season. So then Jesus curses the fig tree. He says “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Very strange. We’ll talk about it. But then after the fig tree, we’re back at the temple. And we have the cleansing of the temple - the driving out of the money changers - a story which we all know. Then we’re back at the fig tree where we have this conversation between Jesus and Peter. Peter says, “Look, the fig tree that you cursed has withered up and died.” And Jesus talks to them about faith and prayer. This layering, or sandwiching, is something that we’ve seen before in Mark. Mark does this to show us when two things are connected. When the story goes temple, fig tree, temple, fig tree, it’s Mark’s way of saying that the temple and the fig tree are connected. They are about the same thing. Mark does this multiple times in the book. It’s not a secret. Once you know to look for it, it’s pretty obvious.
So now that we know that, let’s go back and look at the fig tree. It’s pretty clear when you have the context. This isn’t an impulsive Jesus losing his temper with a fig tree. Mark even tells us, “Look, it wasn’t even fig season. This isn’t about the figs.” The fig tree is Israel. Jesus is giving the disciples (and us) an acted-out parable about the nation of Israel, which has become a fruitless tree. The king came looking for fruit from his tree, but when he came he found no fruit. This imagery of Israel as a fig tree, is actually pretty common in the Old Testament. Jeremiah does it a couple of times. That would have made sense to them. So, Jesus, while making sure that the disciples are within earshot, gives this prophetic curse, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” The prophetic part of this will make more sense as we go through the rest of the story.
Then Jesus comes again to the temple. Remember that the temple had it’s inspection the evening before. So what did Jesus find there when he came? What he found was that the temple court had been turned into a bazaar - a marketplace. There are money changers and merchants selling animals for sacrifice, right there inside the temple. Jesus obviously isn’t happy about this, but we need to think about why. Often times when this story gets told, it’s about some greedy merchants who had set up shop inside the temple, and Jesus comes and throws all of the money on the floor, and says basically, “how dare you turn this house of prayer into a house of trade, a house of commerce?” That’s not wrong, but that’s not all that’s going on here. This isn’t primarily about greed. It’s about the idolatry of the temple, and Israel’s failure to be what God had called them to be. And Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple” is much more than a cleansing. It’s actually a condemnation, a prophecy of judgement. Just as the fig tree is an acted out parable, the temple cleansing is an acted out prophecy. The message is that judgement is coming.
Here’s what’s happened. First, having people at or around the temple, exchanging money and selling animals, is not the problem. You had to have those things. The law of Moses established a temple tax, and also that the tax had to be paid with a certain type of coin. So if all you had was Roman coins, you needed to exchange them so that you could pay the temple tax. And selling animals wasn’t the problem either. We aren’t to imagine that every Israelite had their own personal collection of doves to use for sacrifice. Doves are the sacrifice of the poor. And many of these worshippers are coming from miles away. They had to buy the animals that would be offered. The problem isn’t the presence of commerce in temple goods. The problem is that normally all of the selling and exchanging happens outside the temple nearby, as you would expect. But now the whole operation had been moved inside. Specifically it was happening inside the Court of the Gentiles. That’s key. The Court of the Gentiles was the area inside the temple complex, but furthest outward, where Gentiles were allowed to come and worship. Only Jews could go into the inner court. What the temple leaders had done, for squabbling political reasons that we don’t need to get into, is to bring those merchants inside. But not to the place where the Jews go to worship. They brought them into the Court of the Gentiles. You have to imagine the scene. Don’t picture two tables in the corner with a bird cage and a money box. During Passover week, tens of thousands of people came to the temple to worship and sacrifice, which means that tens of thousands of animals were sacrificed. And it’s not just birds. John’s account says that the oxen and sheep merchants were also there inside. Moving these merchants inside the temple court turns the only part of the temple where the Gentiles are allowed to go into a zoo. That’s what got Jesus fired up. What should Jesus have found in the temple? Isaiah tells us. Isaiah 56 says
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; [...]
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”
Instead of the temple being a house of prayer for Gentile worshippers as it should have been, the Jewish leaders have turned it into a bazaar. They have made it impossible for Gentiles to pray and worship. This gets to the heart of Israel’s sin. Remember, the Jews are meant to be a light to the nations. It was never God’s intention that Israel would remain forever a little island of godliness and blessing in a world of wickedness. Remember the promise to Abraham, through your offspring “all the families of the earth will be blessed.” But instead the Jews have come to idolize their privileges and distinctiveness. They are trusting in their Jewishness instead of trusting in God. The Pharisees, for example, have created all sorts of extra ways in which the Jews were expected to be separate from Gentiles. They said that by merely eating in the presence of a Gentile, that a person became unclean. That’s no where to be found in the Old Testament. They wanted to be cleaner than God required, which actually makes you not clean at all. The priests, as well, created this separation in the temple where God had not. The Court of the Gentiles is no where to be found in the law either. It should not have even existed. In fact, the law says just the opposite. In Numbers 15, God is instructing Israel in the different kinds of offerings they are to make, and he says:
13 Every native Israelite shall do these things in this way, in offering a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. 14 And if a stranger is sojourning with you, or anyone is living permanently among you, and he wishes to offer a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord, he shall do as you do. 15 For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the Lord. 16 One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you.
See, this is not a case of Israel stubbornly hanging onto the law while Jesus wanted to show them something new. They had neglected the law. Then to top it off, after neglecting what the law required, they sought refuge in the temple. They thought they were safe because they were Jews. This is what Jesus meant when he said that they had turned the temple into a “den of thieves.” They neglected the commands of God and then sought safety in the temple. The “den of thieves” is a reference to Jeremiah
Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.
When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry - righteously angry. And he did not respond nicely. “He entered the Temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.” John’s account tells us that he made a whip of chords that he used to drive them out of the temple. This should make you think about Psalm 69. “Zeal for your house has consumed me.” Then Jesus didn’t run off in a huff. He stayed and stood guard over the Temple. Verse 16 says that “he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” The court of the Gentiles is the outer most court, which has become just a thoroughfare for the Jews on their way into the inner court. But Jesus won’t let them through. It doesn’t say how long this went on. You get the impression that it was some time. This was a scene. Remember, it’s Passover week. All of Israel has made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the temple. It’s the busiest time of the year, and Jesus shuts the place down. This is a very public demonstration, meant for all of Israel to see. If they were paying attention, their minds would have gone back to the prophet Malachi.
And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap. [...] Then I will draw near to you for judgement. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
Malachi 3:1-2, 5
Behold the kindness and severity of King Jesus. Jesus is turning over tables and pronouncing judgement in the the temple. And in the same act he is jealously guarding the ability of outsiders, Gentiles, you and I, to come and worship as God had always intended. You can start to see glimpses now, can’t you, of where we come into the story.
But then Mark tells us how the temple priests responded. Verse 18, “They heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him.” At a human level, this was the thing that set Jesus’ course to the cross. Jesus has threatened their claim of authority over the temple, and they won’t stand for it. They’ll kill him for this.
Mark then completes the circle by taking us back to the fig tree on the following morning.
20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.
Then Jesus gives what feels like a bit of an odd response. He doesn’t explain everything to them the way he sometimes did with his parables. Instead he gives this lesson about faith and prayer.
22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 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. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
It’s not obvious how this fits into the stroy. Maybe we can think of it this way. The temple was meant to be a house of prayer. Jesus gives us a contrast. The scribes and priests offered up fruitless prayers from a fruitless temple, because they did not pray in faith, from a pure heart. But Jesus says that the prayer that is offered to God in faith and humility will be heard and answered.
The withered tree, again, is Israel under God’s judgement. It’s important that you have this theme of judgement on Israel as a category in your mind as you read the New Testament. It’s a recurring theme in the gospels. Sometimes we miss it because when we hear Jesus talk about coming judgement our mind goes immediately to the end of the world. But don’t jump to the end of the world till you’ve first done justice to the story that Jesus, in his life on earth, came to inhabit.
Luke says that as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, he wept over the faithlessness of Israel, and the judgement that was coming on them. Right after the triumphal entry, Luke says:
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
Jesus came to Jerusalem on a donkey and not a war horse. But Jesus doesn’t always ride a donkey. He came to Jerusalem speaking peace to the nations, but not to Israel. Behold the kindness and severity of God. Israel learned that if you will not have Jesus as your peace-bearing king, then you will have him as the sword-bearing king. Eventually we do get to see Jesus on a war horse. The book of Revelation tells us about it, and it’s terrible.
11 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
Jerusalem did eventually get to see that Jesus. Do you know the story of what happened to Israel? Forty years after Jesus was crucified, in the year A.D. 70, the armies of Rome surrounded the city of Jerusalem and set up a siege. For five months they camped outside the city, while those inside who did not heed Jesus’ warning to flee to the mountains, slowly starved. Then finally the soldiers moved in, and that was the end. They sacked the city. They burned the temple to the ground. Not one stone was left upon another, just as Jesus said would happen. That was the end of the Jewish religion. It would never be restored. It wasn’t the end of the Jewish people, of course. But that was the end of the temple and the sacrificial system that had been the backbone of the Jewish religion for two thousand years. The death of Jesus on the cross was its end in terms of its efficacy before God. But the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70 was its literal end in history.
As an aside, there is a debate about how much of the future judgement that is talked about in the New Testament is actually pointing to what happened to Jerusalem in A.D. 70. We can’t get into that, but it’s good to have that event in the back of your mind as you read your New Testament. Don’t put every mention of future judgement into that category - but don’t ignore it either.
So what does all of this mean for us? In Romans 11, where Paul exhorts us to behold the kindness and severity of God, he is grappling with this question, “What does the rejection of Jesus by Israel mean for the Gentiles?” And he says that “through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles.” “Their trespass means riches for the world.” And then he says, “I’m speaking to you, Gentiles,” and he tells us how we should respond to this story that we just heard. This is what he says. It’s wonderful and sobering.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.
Romans 11 is deep water, but let’s just pull out a couple of things. First, Mark 11 is a story about the branches that were broken off so that you might be grafted in. In God’s salvation story, their trespass meant riches for you. It might be edifying to think about the different ways that’s true. How did Israel’s trespass lead to salvation for the Gentiles? But the most important way is clear. Israel’s greatest trespass was when they delivered their king over to Pilot to be crucified. And in the providence of God, it was that very act of treachery that brought salvation to the world. When you hear this story about branches being broken off, don’t be proud. Be sober-minded, and let it be a reminder of the kindness that God showed to you when he covered your sin with the blood of his Son and grafted you in to his family.
There is also a warning for us here. “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith.” If he didn’t spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Let this story be a reminder as well of the consequences of rebellion against the King. Let’s be those who are always battling against anything that rises up and contends with Jesus for our allegiance, whether it is sin in our own hearts, or the comforts of this life, or the competing truth claims that are moving through our culture like wildfire. Consider what it means for you to “continue in his kindness.”
Let’s finish by thinking again about King Jesus. Today is the Fourth of July. When I think about America right now, I have the same mix of thoughts and emotions that I’m sure all of you do. I’m going to celebrate tonight with fireworks and hamburgers along with everyone else. But as we do all of that, just remember that Jesus Christ is king, here and now, and it’s his kingdom that you have been grafted into. I pray for his kindness on us as a nation. But it is much more precious to us to see Jesus lifted up, and to see him vindicated, than it is to see America be prosperous and successful. One way or another, every knee will bow. Every person and every nation will either joyfully embrace the gift of his kindness, or drink the bitter cup of his severe wrath. Whichever way God chooses to demonstrate the kingship of Jesus, we must be ready to give him praise. Worship him as he is. What God has joined together, let not man separate. You can’t have Jesus on the donkey without Jesus on the war horse. Nor can you have the war horse without the donkey. There are ways for all of us to get this wrong. When you look around at the godlessness of this world - truly twisted, wicked stuff being celebrated and called good - it’s right to pray as David did, “Lord, come on your white horse and bring justice. Don’t let this go on.” But if you are like Jonah, secretly resenting the idea that tomorrow you might be asked to consider your enemy a brother and to rejoice at his salvation; and if in your heart you want judgement on your enemy so that you can be vindicated, then you haven’t beheld the kindness of King Jesus. You only want part of him - the part that proves that you were right. You’re forgetting that you, too, were once an exile who experienced the kindness of God.
But likewise, if you love the image of Jesus, humble on a donkey, but you find Jesus on a war horse with a sword in his teeth to be a little brutish - a little too extreme - then you also haven’t beheld the whole Jesus. Remember, he is good, but he is not safe. We can’t just love the part of Jesus that makes us comfortable. If anything about Jesus makes you uncomfortable, just know that that’s to be expected. God is making us more and more like him, but we aren’t there yet. Until we get there, just remember that we are the ones that have to change. Don’t try to change Jesus. Behold him and love him as he is. Lord help us.
Here’s the thought that I want to end on. Like the boy in the Neverending Story, you come in on the other side of “the Nothing.” The covering that Chris read about in Isaiah 25 that was cast over all peoples - Jesus has swallowed it up. Branches were broken off so that you might be grafted in. His kindness and his severity are for you, not against you, if you belong to him. Beloved, you are children of God, friends of the King. His kindness and his severity were for you that day in the temple. And they are for you now. All of King Jesus is for you. What do you have to fear? Fear no man. Fear no government. Fear no disease. Fear the King, and love him. You belong to the King, and he is for you. Let’s pray.
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