What’s wrong with this world? What do we really need? The central answer of the Bible is that our problems all flow from the problem of sin, and therefore, what the world fundamentally needs is forgiveness. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He went straight into the temple. And then over the next few days, He keeps returning to the temple: first clearing it out, then preaching and teaching in it. Jesus insists that the point of His life is to fulfill what the temple always pointed to: forgiveness for sins.
And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve.
12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: 13 and seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. 14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.
15 And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; 16 and would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. 17 And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves. 18 And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine. 19 And when even was come, he went out of the city.
20 And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. 21 And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. 22 And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God. 23 For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. 24 Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. 25 And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. 26 But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses (Mk. 11:11-26).
Summary of the Text
Having ridden into Jerusalem on palm branches and shouts of ‘Hosanna!’ Jesus went directly into the temple and looked around (Mk. 11:11). The next day, Jesus is on His way back into Jerusalem, sees a fig tree without any fruit, and pronounces a curse on it (Mk. 11:12-14). The cleansing of the temple comes next: driving everyone out, overturning the tables of the money changers and pigeon-sellers, and not allowing anyone to walk in the temple for most of the day (Mk. 11:15-16). He was also preaching and teaching on Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7 during much of this time and held a rapt audience of many, such that the chief priests and scribes were powerless to do anything (Mk. 11:17-19). Coming back into Jerusalem the next morning, the cursed fig tree has withered to its roots, and Peter points it out (Mk. 11:20-21). To which Jesus replies that Peter should have faith in God, and he may even command this mountain to be cast into the sea. In fact, whatever any disciple asks in prayer will be granted, particularly forgiveness for others, so that God will also forgive all their sins (Mk. 11:22-26).
Beginning at the end of our text, the problem is forgiveness of sins. In the Old Testament, God established a system of sacrifice by which God promised to forgive the sins of Israel (Lev. 4:20ff, 1 Kgs. 8:30ff). And when this system was fully functioning, it was to be the kind of light that would draw the nations, so that they might also receive forgiveness (Num. 15:26, 1 Kgs. 8:41-43). The temple was supposed to be a “house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7), and specifically keying off of Solomon’s temple dedication prayer, prayers for forgiveness. The sacrifices of the tabernacle and temple were a sign to Israel and the whole world that God forgave sins. But what was happening at the time of Jesus was what had happened in the days of Jeremiah: people went through the motions of going to worship, chanting slogans about the temple of the Lord (Jer. 7:4). The problem was not with the temple, the problem was with the people sinning up a storm and then going to the temple as an act of empty ritual and formalism. They turned the temple into a “den of thieves” because they brought their sins with them like stolen treasure – with no intention of giving them up, much less seeking forgiveness for any of it (Jer. 7:11). God says that when this happens, He will destroy the temple because it’s become a place where sin is being spread instead of forgiven (Jer. 7:12-14).
Leprous Houses & People
Wound through this episode is a fair bit of Old Testament allusion and symbolism. The fact that Jesus looks around the temple the first evening and then returns the next day refusing to let anyone do anything in the temple is reminiscent of the duties of a priest for a leprous house (Lev. 14:34ff). Leprosy in the Old Covenant wasn’t just a skin disease, it seems to have been a fairly broad category of things that made people and objects ceremonially unclean, which usually just meant they needed to wash and wait until evening before they could offer any sacrifices (although some forms of uncleanness could last longer). The general point of the ceremonial system was to teach Israel that their entire lives mattered to God, and they needed to give thought to how every detail needed to honor Him. Every detail is either pleasing to God and under His blessing and growing life, or else it isn’t pleasing to Him and in some way it’s actually spreading death. In the Old Covenant, washing could make you clean, but you were constantly becoming unclean again. Uncleanness was always contagious. The really striking thing about the New Covenant is that Jesus comes and He’s constantly touching or being touched by unclean people, but instead of becoming unclean, Jesus cleanses the unclean (cf. Mk. 5:27-34, Mt. 8:2-3). In Jesus, cleanness has become contagious. But here Jesus is essentially declaring the temple “unclean”.
This brings us to the cursed fig tree. Fig trees were among the signs that the land of Canaan is a good land (Dt. 8:8), and so the phrase “every man under his own fig tree” became a common expression in Israel for the good life (1 Kgs. 4:25, 2 Kgs. 18:31, Is. 36:16). And in the prophets, the fig tree became a common image for the people of Israel (Jer. 8:13, Hos. 2:12, Joel 1-2). In context, the fig tree in our passage represents Israel and is parallel to the temple. Just as Jesus “inspects” the temple and finds it unclean, so too, when Jesus comes looking for fruit on the fig tree, He is displeased. The curse is also the same: an empty, destroyed temple is the same as a withered, fruitless tree of Israel. And given all of this, it does not seem likely that Jesus changes the subject when He tells Peter that believing prayer will uproot “this mountain” and cast it into the sea. Which mountain? They are on their way to the temple on Mount Moriah.
Conclusions & Applications
And this brings us back to the central problem: if that temple mount is removed and destroyed, how will Israel and the nations be forgiven? Without the sacrifices, priests, and temple, how can they know if they are actually forgiven? Jesus tells Peter and the other disciples: forgive others. But how does that help us?
We sometimes hear these commands/warnings and wonder if Jesus is veering somewhat close to some kind of works-righteousness (e.g. if we do our part, God will do His…?), which can sometimes make us doubt (e.g. Have I really forgiven…? Am I really forgiven…?) But this radically underestimates the task of forgiving sins. To forgive is to release, to set free, to erase the debt of sin. But how can any mere human actually release another human from sin, which properly speaking requires death? Remember, this was one of the great objections of the scribes and Pharisees: no one can forgive sins except God alone (Mk. 2:7). And they were right. Only God can forgive sins. And that was only possible through the shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22). But even the blood of bulls and goats couldn’t actually take away sins; it had to be the blood of a perfectly obedient man, who could truly represent us (Heb. 10:4, 10-22).
Christian forgiveness is a promise not to hold the sins of another against them on account of the blood of Christ. In other words, whenever a Christian forgives someone, they can only do so by holding up the blood of Jesus, which is your forgiveness as well. If you say you cannot forgive someone, you are in effect saying, “there is no bled shed for this.” But if there is no blood shed for their sin, there is no blood shed for your sin. If you do not forgive, you cannot be forgiven. But when you see the blood of Jesus shed for you, there can be no doubt that it is enough for them. But no one has ever forgiven or been forgiven by humanistic good will.
We live in a sin infested world. And having rejected the blood of Jesus, we have turned to all manner of schemes and theories to try to wash away our sin, like trying to use soap on tattoos, and so our culture is quickly becoming a foul cesspool of guilt and shame and uncleanness. But we proclaim the blood of Jesus that cleanses every stain. We proclaim the blood of Jesus which is more potent that the most heinous sin, and His righteousness which is more contagious than all the filth in the world.