(This post is part of a series of short studies in Mark's Gospel)
Is there a relationship between Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree and his cleansing of the temple? What might the fig tree represent? What Old Testament Scriptures does Jesus draw from, and what is their significance to his actions in the temple?
It is no insignificant detail that immediately preceding Mark’s account of Jesus cursing the fig tree, he has him going into the temple and looking around at everything (11:11). Then the next day, Jesus goes looking for fruit on the fig tree, and finds only leaves, “for it was not the season for figs” (11:13). And then he pronounces the curse, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." The disciples hear it, and then [immediately after this] they enter Jerusalem, and Jesus enters the temple (11:14-15). This is Mark’s story telling at its best! The association between the fruitless fig tree and the temple the Jews had turned into a “den of thieves” was not lost even on the perpetually slow-to-understand disciples. For after they left the temple and the city, they passed by the now withered-to-the-roots fig tree, and “Peter remembered” (11:17-21).
The Old Testament Scriptures Jesus is drawing from in this scene of his “cleansing of the temple” indeed shed light on the theological significance of Jesus’ actions. Isaiah 56 looks forward to a time when the outcasts of Israel would be gathered back, into God’s “holy mountain” (i.e., “Mt. Zion,” or the church, cf. Hebrews 12:22-24). This then is likely a prophecy of the New Covenant and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. By quoting it here, Jesus is signifying that the reality to which the temple pointed would be replacing the type or shadow that was the temple building, which was about to be destroyed. The second passage he is drawing from directly is Jeremiah 7, which contains within it a prophecy of the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem; and by using the words, “you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17), he is identifying those presently in power within that system with those against whom Jeremiah’s prophecy is spoken.
The temple and its system was “an oppressive structure which the priests ran to their own advantage” (cf. Isaiah 58; Zephaniah 3). And now Jesus is saying, “God is now doing something which is making this system redundant.” So as Wright points out, it isn’t the commercialism, or even the monetary “thievery” with which Jesus is primarily concerned. “By overturning the tables, he stops the animal sacrifices. By stopping the sacrificial system, he is symbolically saying, ‘This whole system is under judgment, and before too long it will stop completely, because the temple will be destroyed.’” This makes so much sense within the context and chronological sequence of Mark. Just before this Jesus “curses he fig tree” for not being “fruitful.” Then he drives those from the temple who had turned it into a “den of robbers,” by using the sacrificial system to oppress God’s people, and to exclude the very outcasts and outsiders that God was about to gather to himself, into His “house of prayer for all nations.” Then immediately after, Jesus passes by the withered fig tree, within which is a lesson that the “mountain” [of prideful, pharisaical Israel] is about to be cast into the “sea” (cf. Revelation 8:8). Shortly after this, Jesus speaks a parable against the Pharisees, the “builders” who had rejected the Lord’s “cornerstone,” who were about to be cut off completely (cf. Mark 12:1-12). All of this becomes the backdrop for Jesus’ foretelling of the destruction of the temple, and “the end of the age,” which are to be simultaneous events.
Because the Jews in the first century had rejected the reality to which the temple pointed, effectually “worshiping the creature rather than the Creator” (cf. Romans 1:25); they were guilty of turning the temple of God, and the law which was given to them as a tutor to lead them to Christ (cf. Galatians 3:24), into an idol. And for this reason they would were about to be destroyed along with it.
It is important that we remember that the temple and its practices were part of the Old Covenant that was about to come to an end. The Old Covenant was never to be permanent, nor was the temple (cf. Hebrews 8:6-12). The destruction of the temple was a sign of the end of the Old Covenant age, and insured the ending forever of the temple practices—animal sacrifices and such—which were part of a law that was “added because of transgressions” (cf. Galatians 3:19), and functioned to give the “knowledge of sin” (cf. Romans 3:20). In fact, in those very sacrifices, was “a reminder of sins every year” (cf. Hebrews 10:3). Now, through Christ, “a new and living way” into the “sanctuary” or the “holy place” (i.e., the presence of God—this room in the temple was not the “true” but rather a “copy” of it) was being opened, “through the veil” (remember the symbolism of the veil being torn in two), that is, “through his flesh” (cf. Hebrews 9:6-24; 10:15-21). Now, there would be no more yearly reminder of sins, and no “consciousness of sins” (cf. Hebrews 10:1-7) as in the New Covenant, God “remembers our sins no more” (cf. Hebrews 8:12). God’s people would no longer come to Jerusalem to worship, but “true worshipers would worship in Spirit and in Truth" (cf. John 4:23-24). The judgment that was coming upon the Pharisees, and those Jews who did not receive Christ as Israel’s Messiah, and did not heed Christ’s words to his disciples to “flee to the mountains” when they saw Jerusalem surrounded by armies (cf. Luke 21:20), and “the desolating sacrilege” (cf. Mark 13:14; Daniel 9:26-27), was indeed coming upon them for their idolatry. In seeking righteousness by works, they rejected the righteousness of God in Christ, and as Paul says, they “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (cf. Romans 1:25).
 Contrast this fig tree, which was fruitless, and “out of season,” with the Tree of Life in the center of the New Jerusalem (i.e. the church) which bears fruit every month (cf. Revelation 22:2).
 Compare this curse to Jesus’ statement to the chief priests and Pharisees, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (cf. Matthew 21:43).
 N.T. Wright, What Is the Significance of Jesus Cleansing the Temple? (2001), The John Ankerberg Show (johnanderberg.org), Video Clip file, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1rTG9MMWN4 (accessed June 1, 2012).
I have been married to my loving husband Keith for 26 years. We have three beautiful and brilliant children, ages 24, 22 and 20. Nothing cheers my heart more than having them all at home, yet nothing is more satisfying to my mind than watching them grow from afar. My personal passion is theology: the knowledge and experience of the Truth and Mercy found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and displayed in the lives and communion of His people. My husband and I love to travel, and because our children are often out and about in the world, we get lots of opportunities to see it! And we also love to fill our home with friends who love us, and love our wine collection.