Pictures of the Way to God
They say that a picture is worth 1000 words, so the message today has 4000 words, because we want to look at four pictures out of Mark 11:1-25.
We have been on a journey to Jerusalem in our study of Mark which began in the northern part of Galilee in Mark 8:27. Although two weeks ago we were already in Jerusalem and talked about the trials of Jesus and the disciples, this morning we will step back to the point on this journey at which Jesus first stepped into Jerusalem. If you look at 10:32 it says, “they were on their way up to Jerusalem.” Then in 10:46, we read that “they came to Jericho” which is about 26 km east of Jerusalem and then in Mark 11:1, we read, “As they approached Jerusalem.”
As Jesus came into Jerusalem a number of important things came together. The conflict with the religious leaders became more focused and their opposition intensified. Jesus, the one who had come from God came to the dwelling of God, but did not find a reception. The rejection of God at the temple opened the way to think about a new way to God. In the process of discovering how Jesus was rejected, we also learn about how Jesus can be received.
I. Picture 1 – Jesus Came to His Temple
The first picture we see is the picture of Jesus entering into Jerusalem in what we have come to know as the Triumphal Entry. Today is Palm Sunday and that is why I chose to look at this text today. What do we see in this picture?
As they approached Jerusalem from the East, from the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples to get a colt for him to use to ride into the city. It is clear that there was something very deliberate about this. Jesus had just walked almost 200km and it was certainly not because he was tired that he needed to ride the last few kilometers. The conversation about how the disciples will acquire the colt is interesting in that Jesus predicts that they will have trouble getting permission from the owners, but that the phrase, “the Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly” was enough to get that permission.
They got the colt and Jesus got on it and as He entered the city, people threw their cloaks on the road and also threw branches from the field on the road in front of him and shouted the words from Psalm 118. Psalm 118 is a Psalm of approach which was often sung by pilgrims entering into Jerusalem and approaching the temple. This time as they sang this Psalm, however, there was special meaning to it. The Psalm speaks about the one who “comes in the name of the Lord” which speaks about the coming Messiah entering into the temple and this is exactly who Jesus was and what He was doing.
In order to understand the importance of what was happening here, we need to remember several things.
Jerusalem and the temple in Jerusalem were significant places. At least since the time of Solomon, the temple in Jerusalem had been the place where God was present with His people. When Solomon built the temple, he dedicated it to the Lord and part of the dedication prayer included these words from1 Kings 8:29, "May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place." Ever since that time people had directed their eyes towards the temple when they prayed, for God was present there. If they were a long way away from the temple, they would direct their eyes towards Jerusalem, which represented the temple and the presence of God. So when Daniel was far away in Babylon, when he prayed, we read in Daniel 6:10, "Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before."
The temple in Jerusalem was the place where God was present. Now Jesus, who we know is the Son of God, was coming to the place where God lives. The singing of Psalm 118 at this point reinforces all of the significance of Jesus coming home. The Psalm celebrates the coming of the one sent from God. It was loaded with messianic meaning and now Messiah was coming to the place of God’s presence. This was an occasion of powerful symbolism conveying a whole range of important meanings. It spoke of the entrance of God into human affairs to accomplish the promises God had made a long time ago. It celebrated the consummation of all the hopes of Israel, indeed all the hopes of mankind. It was the fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi 3:1, where we read, “…‘suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty." At this point, this promise was being fulfilled.
The meaning is true and so powerful that we would expect a great celebration, a wonderful acknowledgement, a confident hope loudly proclaimed. But the end of this picture is anti-climactic. Jesus entered the temple, looked around and left because it was already late. Where’s the acknowledgment? Where’s the celebration? It seems rather lame that Jesus came to the temple and looked around and left. It may seem rather a letdown, but it is not without significance for in Jeremiah 7:11 we read about a temple inspection by God. There it says, “But I have been watching, says the Lord.” As Jesus looked around, he was making an inspection of God’s dwelling. What did his inspection reveal?
II. Picture 2 – Jesus Cursed Fruitlessness
The second picture begins to answer that question. It is the picture of a fig tree. Jesus was once again heading for Jerusalem, having spent the night at Bethany, and on the way he was hungry. He saw a fig tree and went to see if there was any fruit on it, but since it was about 2 months too early to find fruit, he did not find fruit and cursed the tree.
I don’t know about you, but that troubles me. Jesus has been kind and gentle all the way along. In spite of all He was about to face, it is hard for me to think that he was getting edgy and that He cursed this tree in a fit of anger. It would be totally out of character. The Expositors Bible Commentary says, “It is the only miracle of destruction attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.” Another translation, which Geddert suggests, may help. “Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if, contrary to all expectation (since it was not the season for figs), there would be any fruit on it. But sure enough, there were only leaves.” But even so, what do we make of this?
One of the themes which we have been following in Mark is the theme of hearing. Jesus told parables because they hid the truth from those whose hearts were not ready to hear and opened the truth to those who both heard and saw. The mention that the disciples “heard him say it” seems more than coincidental in the context and given the difficulty of interpreting this event, it seems most likely that this was intended as an acted parable.
If we understand this event as a parable, what is the meaning of it? The image of a “fig tree” is used for Israel in the Old Testament. In Hosea 9:10 we read, “When I found Israel… it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree.” But in Hosea 9:15, 16 we read, “Because of their sinful deeds, I will drive them out of my house. I will no longer love them; all their leaders are rebellious. Ephraim is blighted, their root is withered, they yield no fruit.” In the context of the temple inspection which Jesus did at the end of the triumphal entry and in the context of what happens next, it is not difficult to understand that when Jesus cursed the fig tree, it was not the fig tree itself which he was judging, but rather what was happening in the temple and what the religious leaders were doing. What Jesus was implying in this parable was that what was happening in the temple was, as one writer describes it, all leaves and no fruit.
III. Picture 3 – Jesus Cleansed the Temple
And so we come to the third picture which is the picture of Jesus cleansing the temple in Mark 11:15-19.
As Jesus came into the temple he noticed three problems. One was that there were people who were buying and selling merchandise. Second, that there were people exchanging money and third, that there were people carrying merchandise through the temple.
What was happening in the temple? The business that was taking place here was business related to the temple. People came from far away to offer sacrifices in the temple and they needed to bring an unblemished sacrifice. The people who were buying and selling merchandise in the temple could provide what they needed. Instead of bringing it all the way from Galilee or further and risk damage to it, they could bring money and buy the needed sacrifice right where they needed it and assure themselves of an appropriate sacrifice. Furthermore, a half shekel tax was required annually from all those who were 20 years old and older. Since people came from many countries, they needed to get the right currency to pay this tax and the money changers could provide it, conveniently right there in the temple. The other thing was that the shortest distance to Jerusalem on the road down the Mount of Olives, went right through this area of the temple and many people with all their goods coming into the city made their way through.
It all seemed innocent enough, but Jesus began to chase them out and turn over the tables of the money changers and prevent people from taking a short cut through the temple. Why was He so upset with this?
Jesus not only drove them out, but also taught them the meaning of his actions. In His teaching, He quoted portions of Isaiah 56:1-7, particularly verse 7, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” With all the commotion going on, the atmosphere was not one in which worship could take place. Geddert says, “Where in all this commotion and noise is there room or atmosphere for true worship?”
In the other gospels the quote stops after the word “prayer,” but Mark completes the quote adding the words, “for all nations.” The area in which this was happening was in the court of the Gentiles. This was the only place where Gentiles could come into the temple. The Jews, by doing all these things in this area of the temple, were excluding the Gentiles. God wanted the temple to be a place where people could meet Him and worship Him and He wanted this to happen for all nations. It had become a place where ritual was alive, but God was absent.
The other verse Jesus quoted here was from Jeremiah 7 and Jesus quoted just the one line, “you have made it a den of robbers.” In saying this, he was not necessarily suggesting that the money changers and the animal salesmen were cheating the people to whom they sold. It seems more likely that he was referring to the religious leaders who had robbed the people of a place of prayer and the Gentiles of a place of access to God. The temple had become a hideout for robbers and those robbers were the Jewish religious leaders. This is where the religious leaders could hide out in safety. They could claim, as Isaiah 56 does “the temple of the Lord,” implying that they believed they were safe from all trouble because the temple was the place of God and the place of safety. But Jesus calls it a den of robbers, saying that instead of leading people to God, they steal from the people their access to God. The religious leaders certainly realized that Jesus was speaking against them and attacking what they were doing, for as a result of his actions they repeated their intention to put Jesus to death.
By cleansing the temple, Jesus was not making a complete change in the way the temple worked. Likely the next day things were back to the way they had been. Rather, Jesus was making a point. He was being prophetic with his action. His action was to communicate that this was not right. The functions of the temple were intact, but the religious leaders had taken away any real opportunity to meet God. This was not what God intended. It was, as the parable of the fig tree implied, all leaves and no fruit.
IV. Picture 4 – Jesus Pointed to the Way to God
The final picture happened the next morning when Jesus and his disciples once again went into Jerusalem. On the way they travelled by the fig tree which Jesus had cursed the previous day. Peter remembered what Jesus had said and they all noticed that the fig tree was dead.
If we look at the dried up fig tree and the words of Jesus which follow as a method for getting what we want from God, as it is tempting to do and as many do, we have a very disjointed flow of thought. Instead, we need to understand these things in the context of all that has gone before. Jesus came into Jerusalem and was proclaimed as the one whom God had sent. He came to the place where God lived among his people. As he looked around, he realized that the intent of the temple was not being carried out. As He demonstrated against the abuse of the temple and was rejected by the religious leaders it became clear that God was not welcome in His own home and we realize why Jesus ended up on a cross. We could say that God was rejected in the place where people should meet God. This was a significant rejection. Instead of the temple being a place where one could meet God, the religious leaders had allowed it to deteriorate into a place where they could perpetuate their God dishonoring religious system - a religious system loaded with ritual but devoid of meaning. It had become a system of ceremony, with no opportunity to really worship or pray. It had become a religious system that took away opportunity meet God from anyone who was not a Jew. The building was great. The positions were all filled. The ceremonies and sacrifices were happening every day, but the opportunity to meet God was gone. The fig tree was dried up.
What Jesus went on to say in Mark 11:22-25 was therefore not so much a comment on how to have power to dry up fig trees, but a word about how to meet God. If the fig tree is dried up, how does one meet God? If the place where one can meet God is not a place to meet God any more, where can one go to meet God?
Later, when Jesus was on trial, the phrase, “destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days” became one of the phrases which they tried to use as an accusation against Jesus. With the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing of the temple and the picture of the dried up fig tree, Jesus was teaching that the temple would not be the place to meet God any more. The warning of temple destruction was given and in less than 50 years the temple was actually destroyed. Jesus was saying, “It isn’t functioning as the place to meet God anymore.” The fig tree is dried up.
But as Jesus continued to speak He also pointed to the way to God.
First of all, as we saw when we looked at his trial, Jesus is the new temple of God and access to God is found in Him. It is in the victory and resurrection of Jesus that one can now meet God. It is in the life of the risen Lord that we meet with God. How wonderful that we still live under that reality. The temple is gone and will be no more because Jesus has erected a different temple, the temple of His body and that is the place to meet with God. When Jesus came into the temple on the day of the triumphal entry, the ending was anti-climactic because He was not welcome there. As a consequence, we learn that access to God is no longer ceremonial or geographical but relational. Geddert says, “A new temple not made with hands will become the true house of prayer for all nations.”
So now what? How do we meet God now? The answer to that question is found in the words of Jesus in this section and He mentions three things.
Those who seek God can still meet God by faith. Jesus announced very clearly, “Have faith in God.” We do not come to God by ritual or by having sight. We come to God by faith. Hebrews 11:6 says, "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." The faith He speaks of, however, is not a magic incantation used to force God to do our will. Rather, faith is the confidence that God is love and that He has all power.
Those who seek to meet God will meet him by asking, by prayer. The temple was to be a house of prayer, but it had lost that status. However, prayer is still possible and seeking God is still possible. If we want to know God and walk in Him and do His work, we need to come to Him in prayer.
The third element of finding God is in a restored relationship with those around us. Forgiveness is the path to God. If we are wronged, we must forgive others. Notice that the text does not say if someone asks forgiveness or if they are worthy of forgiveness. The only condition to forgiveness in this verse is that “if you hold anything against anyone.” Forgiveness is not an option, because our being forgiven by God is conditional on our forgiving others. Sometimes as we live and serve in the church we realize that there are people with whom we do not agree, who are annoying and who may hurt us. The answer to every one of these situations is that we need to forgive. The church is not perfect and sometimes we get tired of all the imperfections, but the solution is not to disappear and find a perfect church or just meet with the people we agree with. The solution is to live with an attitude of forgiveness. Geddert says, “A doubting heart can make prayer ineffective; so also can an unforgiving heart.”
What is the way to God? It is to seek God, to trust God and to forgive others.
This text in Mark is an important point in the history of God’s work on earth. It indicates a significant shift in the way God meets with His people. Instead of a place and a building, God now invites us to a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. We have access to God through faith, through prayer and through right relationships.
As we think about this story, it is not only a story to cause us to rejoice that we have this privilege. It is also a Scripture passage that invites reflection on our relationship with God. When the temple was established, it was a place to meet God. Ritualism, barriers and leaders trying to maintain a system caused the “fig tree” to become dried up. So the things to think about at the end of this passage are not only to rejoice at our access to God through Jesus, but also to make sure that ritualism and maintaining a system are not preventing us from having access to God. Do we have faith in God? Do we pray? Are we forgiving others? If Jesus came and made an inspection tour of our church or of our heart, what would He find?