What we have in our text this morning is another of Mark’s “sandwiches” or “interpolations.” The narrative of the Lord’s driving the money-changers out of the temple is sandwiched between the two episodes having to do with the fig tree. We have learned that when Mark does this, the outer sections help us to understand the meaning of the inner one.
At Passover time, that is the Spring, leaves have already appeared on fig trees, but the first harvest of the fruit would not be expected until May or June. Passover is, as Mark notes, not the time for figs. The point seems to be – and Mark is drawing attention to it by the last phrase of v. 13 – that a fig tree in full leaf at Passover time is making a promise it cannot fulfill. [France, 441] The point will be that the same is true of the temple. It too, for all its religious show, is barren, fruitless.
The address to the fig tree, spoken loudly enough for the disciples to hear it, is necessary so that the disciples will get the point of what happens to the tree as a result.
There was a trade in animals for sacrifice, especially the small birds used by the folk who couldn’t afford a lamb or goat and there were stalls for changing money into the particular coins required for the payment of the temple tax at this time of year. There was nothing wrong with this commerce per se, but there was something wrong with the outer court, a place of prayer, being transformed into a noisy near-eastern bazaar. What is more, the mention of the nations reminds us that Gentiles were allowed only in this same outer court of the temple; so the only place for their worship had been ruined for the purpose. These people were insensitive to the deeper issues of communion with God.
Given the Lord’s triumphant entry into the city the day before, his being welcomed as the messianic king, and given the fact that one expectation of the messiah was that he would purify the worship of the temple, this action of the Lord in driving out the money-changers should not be seen simply as an isolated act of attempted reform. Rather this too is a claim to messianic authority on Jesus’ part – he had authority over this temple – and a symbolic act of divine judgment on the entire religious system of that day.
“Withered from the roots” recalls the parable of the sower in chapter 4 and its description of some of the seed sown by the sower that grew up quickly but withered because it had no roots. Same words. The temple too has withered because it had no root and it too would die and not bear fruit again, as we will learn later. The withering of the tree is clearly miraculous. Healthy trees in full leaf do not wither over night.
Mark follows the withering of the fig tree with sayings on faith and the power of prayer. The empty religious worship of the Jews is the backdrop to an account of true faith in God expressing itself through prayer, humility, and love.
The Lord’s withering of the fig tree is the only destructive miracle recorded in any of the four Gospels. Through the ages various skeptics have used this account to accuse Jesus of being petty, ill-tempered, and capable of acts that were unworthy. I suppose in our day of heightened environmental concern, people would also accuse Jesus of a failure to be green for withering the fig tree. Bertrand Russell, the 20th century philosopher and political activist, accused the Lord of vindictiveness for blaming the tree for not producing figs out of season, for blaming a tree for being and doing precisely what it was supposed to be and do. In his book, Why I am Not a Christian [17-19] Russell wrote, with this incident among other in view:
“I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history.”
In other words, for doing such things as withering the fig tree, Russell concluded that Jesus was not as fine a man as other men we know about from history. But of course Russell would think that about the withering of the fig tree. He also denied what the miracle was performed to symbolize, viz. God’s wrath and judgment upon those who fail to bear the fruit of righteousness and goodness, and especially upon those who worship him with their lips but whose hearts are far from him. His wrath, in other words, toward hypocrites. In the same book by Bertrand Russell from which the citation I just read to you was taken, we have this:
“There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that he believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment…. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world…. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. [22-23]
That was easier for Russell to say because he didn’t believe in any kind of afterlife. He expected his body to rot after death and that would be that. But most people are not persuaded that this life is the end of a human being and that there is nothing beyond death. Nevertheless, believing in an afterlife as they do, they don’t think much of divine judgment or wrath either. Most people tend to think that, one way or another, it will turn out alright for them. And so it is even in the church. You have heard of the famous sermon of Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is perhaps the most famous sermon ever preached on American soil. It was preached several times, in fact, but most famously at Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741. It provoked a spiritual transformation in the town that was to last for several years. Nowadays the same sermon would be far more likely to provoke offense rather than faith, more likely to send people out of the church in a huff than send them to their knees crying out to God for forgiveness and salvation. But people in the church of that time – much more so than church-goers today – knew the doctrine of divine wrath against sinners was taught in the Bible and in particular was an emphasis in the teaching of Jesus Christ. Nowadays, even in churches that still believe the doctrine it is impolitic to say so. Imagine that! A catastrophe of unimaginable proportion lies dead ahead and the people who know it say almost nothing about it.
A.W. Pink, the Christian writer of a few generations back who had a reputation for summarizing biblical teaching clearly and concisely, reminded us that “A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God, than there are to his love and tenderness.” The late John Gerstner reports that a friend of his did a masters thesis (more statistical than theological) which concluded that for every reference to God’s mercy and grace in the Bible there are three references to his wrath and fury. Now I certainly haven’t checked those figures, but of the place of divine wrath in the Bible there can be no doubt. If the ratio is really 3-1, it is not, I’m sure, an indication that God is three times more wrath than love! His wrath he himself refers to as his “strange and alien work” in Isaiah 28:11. The Bible says that God is love; it never says that God is anger or God is wrath. The reason for the statistical imbalance must rather be that we have much less difficulty believing in his love and much more difficulty taking seriously his holy wrath.
And, of course, that is what we have here: a memorable picture of an angry Jesus, an avenging Jesus Christ. The same Jesus who is possessed of such deathless love for his people is also capable of fierce anger; the latter is the truth about him as surely as the former. As we read in the prophet Nahum:
“The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The Lord takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his indignation against his enemies. Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire; the rocks are shattered before him.” [1:2-6]
In Hebrews 12, in a remark that in context is made about Jesus himself, we read that “Our God is an avenging fire!” This truth has never been popular. Tertullian, in the third century, admitted: “We get ourselves laughed at for proclaiming that God will one day judge the world.” It should surprise no one that people don’t like this teaching and don’t like to hear it. We live among people every day who demonstrate time and again that they do not want to be told that their behavior has unhappy consequences; we are always rubbing shoulders with people who live as if such consequences did not exist. They are always resentful if their bad behavior is pointed out. They almost never feel, when punished, that they really got only what they deserved. What is it about our world that would convince anyone – from a philosopher to the most common man – that judgment does not follow upon misbehavior? We see it everywhere we look, every day. We ourselves clamor for it in many cases. We simply don’t want to face the prospect ourselves. This is not an argument against divine wrath; it is merely an illustration of the foolishness and the sentimentality of human beings: they find it very easy to believe what they want to be true and very difficult to believe what would be bad news for them. They usually don’t believe the bad news until they are forced to and often then it is too late.
All of this leads us to say that we of all people must take seriously this picture of the Lord Jesus withering a fig tree – destroying it – as an image of what he would do to the unbelieving church that was about to reject him. We must take seriously this picture of our Lord Jesus with a whip in his hand, overturning the tables, scattering the merchants and their wares. The saintly bishop Joseph Hall, in his great book, Contemplations, asks us to imagine the scene before us as Jesus drove out the merchants and money-changers using perhaps, as he did once before, as we read in John 2, a whip made of cords.
“With what fear and astonishment did the repining offenders look upon so unexpected a [punisher], while their conscience lashed them more than those cords, and the terror of that meek chastiser more affrighted them than his blows! Is this that mild and gentle Savior that came to take upon him our stripes, and to undergo the chastisements of our peace? Is this that quiet lamb, which before his shearers openeth not his mouth? See how his eyes sparkle with holy anger, and dart forth beams of indignation in the faces of these guilty money-changers: see how his hands deal strokes and ruin. Yea, thus, thus it became thee, O thou gracious Redeemer of men, to let the world see that thou has not lost thy justice in thy mercy…that thou canst thunder, as well as shine.”
How furious he was that day at the sight that greeted him when he came into the temple. So furious, so offended that though there were but one of him and a great many merchants and bankers, though there were a garrison of soldiers stationed nearby to keep the peace in the temple precincts, though the merchants were unlikely to acquiesce in the loss of a day’s business, he drove them all out before him and swept the court clear of those who had turned a house of prayer into a market.
No man ever loved as Jesus loved. No one ever had the compassion for others he had. When he drove out the money-changers, he was but a few days from the cross and the terrible suffering he willingly endured for our salvation. No one ever came anywhere close to suffering so much or so willingly for others as did Jesus. But no one was possessed of a purer or hotter anger when his righteousness was provoked by the sin of man. And, lest we forget this, in fulfillment of the prophecy of that withered fig tree and in the fulfillment of his judgment of the perversion of the temple worship in his day, a few years later not one stone of that temple remained on top of another. It was razed to the ground and one of the most important buildings of the ancient world was wiped off the face of the ground. And now these thousands of years later a mosque sits where once sat the temple of the Lord.
And why? Because these people were making a travesty out of the worship of God and the honor of his Father’s name. Because these merchants in their lust for more trampled upon the opportunity of Gentiles and Jews to draw near to the Lord in prayer. This offended the Lord and it should have offended him. You are offended at injustice; why? Because you are made in God’s image. If you are offended at selfish, cruel, thoughtless behavior, how much more the Lord! The worldliness and the selfishness of these people – all the traffic of that bazaar – were effectively preventing the people who wished to draw near to God in worship from doing so. It should offend you when people undermine the faith of others, when they defame God’s name, and when they make light of holy things. His anger toward the money changers was his love for his Father, his church and his people in action. And his anger was also a manifestation of his own righteousness. The phrase which Jesus uses, “den of robbers,” is actually taken from the prophet Jeremiah’s great temple sermon in which he accused the people of his day of bringing into the temple all of their sins: their false gods, their adultery, and their maltreatment of the poor. Though they were living impure, cruel, selfish lives they came into the temple as if all must be well between themselves and God. They worshipped God as if he couldn’t see what they were and what they were doing; they worshipped him while despising him and his will; they defamed his name but expected him to bless them nonetheless. They were treating the living God as if he were a complete fool! And a great many people who imagine that they believe in God are doing precisely the same thing today. They are treating God as if he were a fool, as if he were just like them.
The worst sinners will always be found in a church, pretending righteousness while flaunting God’s holiness, using God’s name to line their pockets or silence their consciences. There is a terribly solemn sermon, preached by Robert Murray McCheyne in December of 1842, three months before his death, in which he asks his congregation:
“…why then is there a hell? The answer brethren and it is an answer I desire to be written on the heart, is that the righteous Lord loves righteousness. The only reason…is because God is a God of righteousness. Dear brethren, I pray you, in God’s name to think of this. If punishment come from the righteousness of God, then there is no hope. If it were out of passion, then it might pass away. But…it is not out of passion. It proceeds from the rectitude of God.” [Sermons, 175]
And just as divine wrath is the expression of the Lord’s perfect righteousness, the offense people take at the doctrine and their inclination to disbelieve it is an expression of their unrighteousness. Interestingly, many unbelievers have virtually admitted this. Here, for example, is Aldous Huxley, in his book Ends and Means [270-272]. Huxley, as you know, the Richard Dawkins was instrumental in undermining the faith of many in his day.
“I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves… For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.”
The denial of a last judgment is an essential piece of the construction of a meaningless universe and a meaningless human life and Huxley accordingly denied it. Take away a reckoning, a judgment, an evaluation of every human life; take away the moral seriousness that is the result of such a reckoning and it no longer matters how anyone lives. How could it matter. Everything comes at last to nothing; everything comes at last to the same place. Meaninglessness follows the denial of judgment by relentless logic, so Huxley denied the judgment. He wanted to do as he pleased. He didn’t want to answer for his conduct. Absent a judging God he wouldn’t have to.
Bertrand Russell, so anyone would think who read his biography, denied God’s judgment of our lives in the next world for similar reasons. Why? No very exalted reasons; certainly nothing very philosophically serious. Russell wanted to sleep with whomever he wanted and he didn’t want to worry about his behavior or feel guilty because of it. One of his wives – he had several along with a large number of other women either as mistresses or short-lived flings – a woman who had even thought free love a good idea for a time, took offense at his bringing another woman home to live in their house. “I could not believe that Bertie would do such a thing to me.” She admitted that it was inevitable that such a man would hurt many people on his way, but, she said, his tragic flaw was that he felt “so little regret.” [In Johnson, Intellectuals, 216] That’s what you get when you deny divine judgment and God’s holy wrath. So little regret for behavior that is ugly, unworthy of a human being, harmful and cruel. So little regret. What do you think the Jesus who cleared the temple thinks of men who use women for their own pleasure and then discard them? What will he do to such men if he drove people who were conducting legitimate business but in the wrong place out of his temple with such fury?
Of course people do not like this aspect of the Lord’s character, his righteous indignation as human sin and his punishment of it. People don’t like the idea of being caught and punished for their sins. No one does. No one breaks the law expecting to be caught and they resent the punishment when it comes. They are confident and self-assured in their crimes and offended when judged and condemned.
I remember years ago a young woman of our congregation who had one evening babysat for our children was carjacked, after leaving our home, just a few blocks from our house. The soldier who kidnapped and raped her kept her through the night, some of the time in the trunk of her car; an ordeal most of us can scarcely imagine. The evil of it, the cruelty of it, the utter inhumanity of what he did, shocks us when we think of it all these years later. He hoped to get away with it, took pains to hide his tracks, but he was caught anyway and tried in a military court on Ft. Lewis. I was present through the trial that lasted but one day. The defense attorney protected his rights, but the evidence was conclusive and he was convicted and sentenced the same day. I was amazed as I looked at him in his uniform sitting at a table next to his lawyer, how different he appeared as the accused than he had as the cruel, confident kidnapper and rapist of our friend and sister. He now seemed small, afraid, lost. He’d been caught and now he had to face his punishment. Things looked so different in the courtroom than they had that terrible night in the car.
I guarantee you, if someone had said to him before he jumped into her car that night, “You can do what you are about to do, but you must and will pay for it; you will spend much of your adult life behind bars in a federal prison and what is left of your life when you get out will have to be lived under the specter of what you did for these few hours,” I say, had someone told him that, he wouldn’t have done it. But he didn’t really think he would get caught. He expected at the moment to get away with it. He was not figuring on being punished for his crimes. He was not thinking he would trade these few hours for the remainder of his life.
And that, my friends, is why so many people live the way they do every day, everywhere. They don’t expect ever to have to answer for their unkindness to others, their indifference to the needs of others, their preoccupation with themselves and their pleasures, and, above all, their almost total indifference to God. They don’t believe there is any punishment awaiting them for one reason and one reason only: they don’t want there to be any such punishment. The wish is the father of the thought. There is no philosophical reason why there should not be justice dispensed to every human being and there are a good many proofs that absent that justice we lose the reason for our deepest beliefs about life, about right and wrong, about justice itself. Everything we know about those things – those things that come nearest to what it means to be a human being – everything disappears if there is no justice, no divine judgment, no reckoning. Further, there is nothing about the world we observe every day to suggest that justice and judgment should not be expected in the world to come – that world to come that almost everyone believes in no matter what they were taught in university. If there is happiness in the next world – as there is happiness here and a craving for so much more than we find here – why should there not be justice as there is justice here and a craving for so much more of it than we actually find here.
There is no divine wrath in their view for the same reason there is no punishment in the criminal’s mind. Man would prefer that there not be such wrath and so he imagines there is not. You may think the argument against God’s wrath and judgment must be more profound than that but I assure you it is not! It isn’t when a philosopher makes the argument and it isn’t when an ordinary person ignores the issue. They don’t believe in the wrath of God because they don’t want there to be any such wrath. To be sure, they wouldn’t mind that judgment falling upon some others, but they definitely don’t want it to find them out. And so they do what human beings always do: they believe the bad things away.
But there is the unmistakable ring of truth in this narrative in Mark 11. If Jesus had not taken the whip to those merchants and money-changers, no one, I mean no one, would have invented that story. It has the ring of truth and conviction shot through it. Similarly the withering of the fig tree. Did you notice that last sentence in v. 14: “And the disciples heard him say it.” There’s an eyewitness touch. The Lord was drawing the attention of his disciples to what he was about to do. It was a strange thing to say but he made them hear him say it so that they would connect the dots the next day.
The Lord Jesus came into Jerusalem the day before as a king. And punishing wickedness is what kings do. Earthly kings and authorities can do it only so well. Much that is truly offensive, harmful, cruel, unworthy in the behavior of human beings goes unnoticed and unpunished. But God knows everything every human being has thought, said, or done. He knows whether you have loved your neighbor as yourself; he knows whether you have loved him, the one who gave you your life and implanted his law in your heart so that you would know what was right and what was wrong. He knows how you have condemned others for what you fail to do yourself. He knows your hypocrisy and insincerity; your love of yourself; your pettiness; your lusts; your indifference to others; your dishonesty; and all the rest. He knows! And what is more all this offends him as it should! It offends us when we see it and know of it, why in the world would it not offend the holy God?
Now look at the Lord take on those merchants. Those were ordinary folk; family people, no doubt. They didn’t see that they were doing anything wrong. They were doing what everyone else was doing. They had the approval of the church authorities to do what they did. They were making a living and supporting their families. Who was this Galilean amateur rabbi to tell them to get out of the temple court? Who was he to treat them as if they were some kind of criminal? But here is Jesus upending their tables and scattering their birds and spilling coins over the pavement and telling them that they were offending God and disgracing his house.
Who do you believe? And what do you think this portends for the future? If this is Jesus of Nazareth, this man animated by righteous anger, loving his father’s name and his father’s house, do you suppose that he will not be today and in the future what he was then?
You cannot take the sin out of your life, the sin that offends God and brings down his wrath. You cannot. But you can have your sins forgiven and have a new life in which the power of sin in your heart is broken. Jesus will do that for you, the same Jesus who thrashed the money-changers in the temple. Why, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if some of those same merchants became followers of Jesus Christ themselves a few weeks or months later. Admitting that you deserve his whip is the first step to knowing his love.