1. The Backdrop
The context of these passages is the Passover, the high feast of Jewish life. It involves pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice and so you can imagine just how many people would have been in the city and the temple being incredibly loud, busy and tumultuous.
2. The Excellency of Christ
Jesus is hailed as king as he enters the city and is given a parade worthy and customary of a coming king: people putting out a kind of red carpet of their cloaks and palm branches, cheering as he approaches.
But there is a strange contrast - the king is coming, but comes riding…a donkey? It would be more typical to see the king riding upon a great horse. Instead, here is Jesus riding a donkey, fulfilling prophecy regarding the Messiah (Zechariah 9:9) and also subverting expectations of what it means to be king by bringing together majesty and meekness.
In 1738, what’s considered one of the great sermons ever (The Excellency of Christ), Jonathan Edwards preached on all the ways Jesus combines character traits that we would consider mutually exclusive in any other person: infinite majesty yet complete humility; perfect justice yet boundless grace; absolute sovereignty yet utter submission; all-sufficiency in himself yet entire trust and dependence on God. In Jesus, the result of these extremes of character is not mental or emotional breakdown but a complete and beautiful whole.
3. Parables: Fig Tree and the Temple
What Mark presents is an commentary about Israel and its disappointing spiritual state given over two scenes - or to be more precise, two parables (v12-14, v15-19) dealing with symbols that deeply represent Israel.
4. Fig Tree: I’m Surprised, But Not Really.
The most helpful approach in trying to understand what happens here with the fig tree is to see this as an ‘acting parable’ where Jesus isn’t simply telling them the story but enacting it for them. It’s a parable that deals with fruitfulness, or lack thereof.
The fig tree, like a vine, was a well-known representation of Israel. The thing about the actual fig tree is that there should be something to eat from it almost all the time. Whether its the full fig or small buds that come out with the leaves, one could reasonably expect to find a snack in the fig tree.
So, there’s a sense here that Jesus was hoping to find something when he went up to it looking for fruit, knowing full well it wasn’t the right season(“he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs”) but was disappointed and surprised to find nothing. All leaves, no fruit. All show and outward appearance, but no fruit.
But not too surprised. The curse that he says to the tree is in part a pronouncement but also a statement of fact. It’s just the inevitable result of the path that this tree (Israel) faces should it continue on its current path.
Like the fig tree, the temple, together with the worship offered in it, represented Jewish life and religion. People also see this event, loaded with meaning, as an acted parable about God’s judgment on Israel.
Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. (Mark 11:15)
Jesus is flipping over tables and driving merchants out as he enters the temple, indicating that this is happening in the outer court. The animals required for sacrifice were sold in this court. During a high feast like Passover, to accommodate the number of people coming into the city to offer sacrifice, this would have been an area full of noise, people and animals. One historian noted that during one Passover over 200,000 lambs were sold.
And this is the point of Jesus’ complaint. The outer court was also known as the Court of Gentiles, the area of the temple intended for Gentiles (literally ‘the nations’) to pray. And how could anyone pray in such a place? That all people can come to God and worship is the issue for Jesus and he is furious that they are being prevented. Israel is not being a light to the nations as they were called to be. In this way, as Jesus sees it, the nations are being prevented from praying to God:
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:17)
6. Prayer As Great Faith
Jesus is also making a very subversive statement: that prayer, offered with a forgiven and forgiving heart, is the greatest act of faith, more so than the ceremonial system of sacrifice.