The cleansing of the Temple
Pp Mark 11:11-26, Luke 19:45-46
The events in the Temple
The chief priests and scribes
The figs and the fig tree
1. The parable of the unfruitful fig tree
2. The enactment of the parable of the unfruitful fig tree
Receiving by faith
The reader will probably be wondering why I’ve chosen to group together such a large amount of verses seeing as there appears to be a clear demarcation within them which could be used as a natural division to split them into two separate pages (between Mtw 21:17 and 21:18). The cleansing of the Temple in Matthew is a distinct unit which ends with a record of Jesus going out of the city and lodging in Bethany (Mtw 21:17) whereas the incident concerning the fig tree is clearly noted as being an event which happened ‘in the morning’ (Mtw 21:18).
However, Mark is wholly different at this point and has integrated the story of the fig tree into the cleansing of the Temple, dividing it to have occurred on two separate days. And, even more than this, Jesus is recorded not as cleansing the Temple immediately after He entered the city but of looking around at what was taking place there and
‘...as it was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve’
Then, the following morning, Jesus is seen to go to the fig tree and expects to receive fruit from it but finds none (Mark 11:12-14) before arriving in Jerusalem, entering the Temple and driving out those in the court of the Gentiles who were trading (Mark 11:15-18) and then returns, supposedly, back to Bethany for the night (Mark 11:19). The following morning - which is now Tuesday - and, upon passing by the fig tree once more on their journey into the city, the disciples remember what had happened the morning before and remark that the fig tree which was cursed is now withered away (Mark 11:20-26) before entering the city once more (Mark 11:27).
Luke records no such event as the fig tree at this point and His record of the cleansing of the Temple is only two verses long (Luke 19:45-46).
What we need to determine before we begin, therefore, is the correct chronology of this part of the Gospel narrative. This isn’t too difficult, as it happens, simply because both Scriptural records don’t contradict one another and the time sequences are entirely consistent to make us realise that the author of Matthew appears to have brought together the incidents as subjects and dealt with them thematically instead of treating them like Mark in strict chronological order.
Perhaps Matthew’s trying to present a clearly readable narrative at this point and felt that to record the incidents as they were would have caused an unnecessary difficulty in reading their content accurately for the recipients of his work - but Mark should be followed closely simply because the way it’s been put together there means that the event of the fig tree becomes an action which is symbolising Jesus coming to the Temple and finding nothing of any worth to God the Father taking place within its courts.
We will look at this under the header ‘The figs and the fig tree’ where we’ll rely mainly on the text of Mark to bring home what the event was meant to teach the reader. What I don’t mention there, however, is that Matthew’s statement (Mtw 21:19) that
‘...the fig tree withered at once’
must be understood to imply that it began to wither from the moment Jesus cursed it until the following morning when they passed that way again - an indication, perhaps, that they didn’t journey home to Bethany by the same route that evening or else the tree may well have been seen to have withered (or was it dark enough for them to be more concerned with seeing the road which lay before them?). Matthew’s ‘at once’ necessarily means that it began to occur but that the effects of it weren’t seen until later.
One final word needs to be said about the cleansing of the Temple in John’s Gospel which is found in John 2:13-16 and which bears notable similarities with the events recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. The incident, however, is placed at the very beginning of John and this has often caused commentators to try and come up with a reason why the author felt it necessary to record it at this point rather than in the correct chronological place. Therefore, Mathag states that such a positioning of the story
‘...almost certainly results from that evangelist’s concern to emphasise Jesus’ break with Judaism from the outset of the Gospel. The differences between the Johannine and synoptic accounts hardly need point to two separate occurrences’
Leaving aside the differences, however, which I agree are not so different as to warrant a definite claim that there were two incidents, we should, perhaps, ask ourselves why there shouldn’t have been the two cleansings? Mathag speaks of such a dramatic event taking place as being ‘unlikely’ but, if there were two, the first would clearly serve as a warning to the nation to ‘bear fruit that befits repentance’ (Mtw 3:8) and that, at the end of Jesus’ three years of ministry, He comes for a final time to seek the fruit which would be useful to God the Father. Johnmor comments that
‘...the evil in question was one which was likely to recur after a check. Jesus’ action, though salutary, is not likely to have put a permanent end to the practice’
and this is entirely correct when a legalistic response of observance may have been given rather than a life-changing internal turn round which would have over-flowed into a believer’s life. Judaism was predominantly law based and, as such, even if it had made a positive response to what had transpired (which would seem unlikely seeing as the trade represented a lucrative income for the High Priest - see below), would have soon found itself degenerating into a state of affairs which was no better than - and probably a whole lot worse than - it had previously been.
It would be too much to insist that, in the parable of the unfruitful fig tree in Luke 13:6-9, the three years which the owner is mentioned as coming to the plant to get fruit from it is to be identified with the three years of Jesus’ visits as Messiah to the city, but it isn’t impossible either and, as the reader will note in my commentary below, it seems more likely to be a correct identification than a wrong one.
Arguments against such a double event are normally along two specific lines, the first of which tries to bring a theological reason for such a shift either by John or, less commonly, by the Synoptic writers. But, as Johncar points out, if the theological implications of such a shift were obvious and easy for the reader to determine, why don’t commentators who hold to such a view agree as to the reason for the chronological disparity?
Secondly, as Johncar writes
‘...it is often argued that if Jesus had cleansed the Temple once, the authorities would never have let Him get away with it again’
But two - if not three - years have passed since this original incident and Jesus will have been travelling to the city to celebrate not only the compulsory festivals but some of the non-compulsory ones as well (see John 10:22). We have no record that He ever tried to do such a thing again and, besides, to try and isolate one man from out of the multitudes who used to attend the festivals would be very difficult unless they deliberately followed Him twenty-four hours a day with an armed guard. By the end of the time period within which nothing had happened, therefore, there’s no reason to expect that Jesus was any more restricted in doing what He did as He was that first year.
Johnmor also notes that, in that initial cleansing, Jesus would have been less well-known seeing as it occurred before most of His mighty miracles were done and that
‘The authorities may well have been disinclined to go to extremes against Him especially if there was some public feeling against the practices He opposed’
a fact which is supported by Mtw 21:45-46 where the attempted arrest of Jesus is thwarted by the high regard in which the people held Jesus.
Besides, the first cleansing does support the parable of the barren fig tree and is extended by the acted out parable which occurs at this final Passover before the crucifixion.
Therefore, the cleansing at the beginning of John’s Gospel and at the start of Jesus’ ministry is entirely in keeping with Jesus attempting to signal to Jerusalem that something radically new must begin to take place in the service of God and that, for the next three years, His teaching both in Galilee and Judea (which He attended for the festivals) was meant to be received and so bring about an alteration.
An initial cleansing, therefore, is entirely feasible and almost necessary.
The Cleansing of the Temple
Mtw 21:12-13, Mark 11:11,15-18, Luke 19:45-46
Even though Matthew’s Gospel reads as if Jesus went directly into the Temple after entering the city and created havoc amongst the traders there present, Mark 11:11 should be followed here which states plainly that
‘...when He had looked round at everything, as it was already late He went out to Bethany with the twelve’
and, having seen the state of the nation’s centre of worship towards God, returned the next day to clear out the Temple courts of what He’d found there. The day is now Monday if we take the Triumphal entry as being on the Sunday (John 12:1,12) and Matthew will go on to show that Jesus wasn’t simply content to dispel the traders and go His way but to stay in the precinct and give teaching to those who were present (Mtw 21:14-16).
But, for now, we need to solely deal with what’s normally labelled as the ‘cleansing of the Temple’.
Considering this is such a commonly remembered passage of Scripture even amongst the unsaved (Arthur Scargill described this passage as his favourite when asked to name a portion of Scripture for a book of famous people’s favourite passages), it’s surprising that both Matthew and Luke record the incident in just two verses while Mark takes only four.
Although the event was extremely significant (see my notes below entitled ‘The figs and the fig tree’ for the context), there seems to have been little that needed to be said about what transpired early that morning.
We need to try and get to grips with the scene which confronted Jesus when He entered the Temple and what compelled Him to remove the traders from its midst, even though His reaction appears not to have been something which occurred on the spur of the moment but which was a considered response to the nation who had failed to heed the enacted warning of His previous cleansing of the Temple at the outset of His ministry to the nation (John 2:13-16).
The Temple layout is still much disputed by scholars but we don’t need to go into a discussion of the precise measurements for us to be able to appreciate the relevancy of certain sections of the area to the event recorded.
The centre of Israelite worship lay in the Temple itself which rose higher than the very outer walls and which contained both the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in which the priests ministered to YHWH on behalf of the nation. Around this there lay an enclosure which was subdivided into two, being the Court of Israel into which only the male Jews were allowed to enter and the Court of the Women, a distance back from the entrance into the Holy Place, into which only the women could come - or, better, that this was the nearest they were allowed to approach God’s presence.
Outside this and stretching to the furthest limits of the Temple compound was the area which appears to have been referred to as the Court of the Gentiles into which only the non-Jews could enter. This outer court was further divisioned by a partition known as the Soregh described by Josephus in his War which reads (5.5.2)
‘...there was a partition made of stone all round, whose height was three cubits: its construction was very elegant; upon it stood pillars, at equal distances from one another, declaring the law of purity, some in Greek, and some in Roman letters, that “no foreigner should go within that sanctuary” for that second [court of the] Temple was called “the Sanctuary” and was ascended to by fourteen steps from the first court’
Josephus’ quote of this warning is somewhat condensed and the full version gleaned from the discovery of one of these rocks in 1871 (another fragment of such a notice was discovered in 1936 which showed that the letters were highlighted with red ink) reads, as Zondervan
‘No Gentile may enter within the railing around the sanctuary and within the enclosure. Whosoever should be caught will render himself liable to the death penalty which will inevitably follow’
This would make this outer court divisible into two separate areas known as the Sanctuary where anyone from Jewish ancestry was allowed to come and the Court of the Gentiles which was the nearest any other person could come in their approach of God.
Where exactly the market was taking place within the Temple precincts to which Jesus took exception is not easy to be certain about but Mark 11:17’s record of Jesus’ words concerning the Temple being a house of prayer for the nations would seem to indicate that it was taking place within the area specifically labelled as the Court of the Gentiles, leaving the Sanctuary within the inner Sorekh free for the gathering of Jewish worshippers. This area is variously sized by commentators and archaeologists alike so we can’t be certain just what area it took up. We can be fairly sure, however, that, because of the numbers of pilgrims, it would have been packed to the edge with offerers trying to pay their dues and to offer sacrifice.
Jesus specifically calls the set up of the market (Mtw 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:46)
‘a den of robbers’
and it’s difficult to think that Jesus means anything other than that illicit or unrighteous trade was being carried out here. We will return to this in a moment but it’s surely not without significance that both ‘cleansings of the Temple’ took place near the time of the Festival of Passover (John 2:13ff for the first such event) for, as we saw when we approached the passage Mtw 17:24-27, the half shekel tax would have been due to have been collected both in the provinces where the band of disciples met up with them previously and in the Temple courts. Shekalim 1:3 records that
‘On the 15th [of Adar - the month before Passover] the tables [of the money changers] were set up in the provinces; and on the 25th thereof they were set up in the Temple. After they were set up in the Temple, they began to exact pledges’
so that the direct reference to ‘money changers’ seems to be to a collection of this tax, the existence of such people being a seasonal occupation occurring just the once every year. Edersheim goes into precise detail concerning the practices of the money changers - as well as the other Temple procedures - on pages 367-373 of his main work and it’s to this that the reader should turn to get a general feel of the unrighteous trade which was being transacted under the sight of God for, in the Temple at Jerusalem, was where the nation believed that God dwelt.
I make no excuse for quoting Edersheim at length here simply because most modern commentators - for whatever reason - seem to gloss over the full implications of what was being done. He points out, therefore, that the half shekel tax
‘...had to be paid in exact half-shekels of the Sanctuary or ordinary Galilean shekels. When it is remembered that, besides strictly Palestinian silver and especially copper coin, Persian, Tyrian, Syrian, Egyptian, Grecian and Roman money circulated in the country, it will be understood what work these money-changers must have had...’
as they changed the currency of the pilgrims arriving in the city for the only acceptable coinage. But this wasn’t a service which was carried on for the benefit of the worshipper but (I have kept the old monetary values here as to convert them into modern money would be meaningless - and extremely difficult!)
‘All who refused to pay the Temple-tribute (except priests) were liable to distraint of their goods. The money-changers made a statutory fixed charge of a Maah, or from 1½d-2d on every half-shekel. This was called qolbon. But if a person tendered a Sela (a four-denar piece, in value two half-shekels of the Sanctuary or two Galilean shekels), he had to pay double qolbon; one for his half-shekel of tribute-money, the other for his change’
Because of the vast amount of pilgrims which journeyed to Jerusalem for Passover from foreign lands outside the land of Israel where collections would not already have been made, the revenue from such a conversion of money would have been, in Edersheim’s own words ‘immense’. His estimate of the total half shekel tax stands at £75,000 and
‘...the bankers’ profits may have amounted to from £8,000 to £9,000, an immense sum in the circumstances of the country’
The exact figures will obviously be disputed but the significance is that the total commission amounted to something like eleven per cent of the turnover. But, as Edersheim points out, this is only half the story if the full picture is pieced together for it is
‘...an almost necessary inference, that many of the foreign Jews arriving in Jerusalem would take the opportunity of changing at these tables their foreign money and for this, of course, fresh charges would be made. For there was a great deal to be bought within the Temple area, needful for the feast (in the way of sacrifices and their adjuncts), or for purification, and it would be better to get the right money from the authorised changers than have disputes with the dealers’
He also envisages that these money changers would be responsible for the collection of votive offerings of foreign, non-resident, Jews and of proselytes to Judaism and would, therefore, also take their own percentage as administrators. He concludes by noting that there’s the probability that they
‘...transacted all business matters connected with the Sanctuary...Whether or not these Temple money changers may have transacted other banking business, given drafts, or cashed those from correspondents, received and lent money at interest, all which was common at the time, must remain undetermined’
The Temple was literally awash with finance and, as pointed out by Edersheim, the combined values of gold and silver which Crassus in 54-53BC carried away from the Temple treasury amounted to some two and a half million pounds - and this figure is an estimate based on the Victorian values not on twentieth century estimates! The service of the God which the Temple seems to have exploited, therefore, was able to generate huge resources of material wealth while the poor continued to be poor and the hungry continued to scratch around for daily morsels of bread (any similarity with denominations you know?).
This, then, was the half shekel tax collection and it’s to this specifically that the Gospels of Matthew and Mark refer. But trade within the Temple courts didn’t stop here (and I will try to summarise these other functions as succinctly as possible seeing as this short article could easily turn into a full scale novel!).
The acquisition of sacrifices and offerings (both Matthew and Mark speak of the sellers of pigeons and, though there are records of such sellers being present on the Mount of Olives, their existence here is fairly certain and their move across the Kidron Valley may have taken place at a later date or run concurrently under the authority of the Jewish Sanhedrin - John 2:14 also notes other sacrificial animals here which were being sold) seems to have involved the paying of a fixed sum which was determined every month by the officials and which operated by some sort of ‘receipt’ system which was then handed over to a designated official who gave what the receipt entitled the bearer to. But many pilgrims would have come bearing their own sacrifices - especially if they were farmers and shepherds - and each of these would have had to have been inspected to make sure that any defects in them were only temporary so that an animal might be declared perfect and without blemish.
Edersheim notes that one such inspector (called a ‘mumcheh’ which meant simply ‘one approved’)
‘...had been authorised to charge for his inspection [of first fruit offerings] from four to six Isar (1¼-2d) according to the animal inspected [and] it is but reasonable to suppose that a similar fee may have been exacted for examining the ordinary sacrificial animals’
so that it would be less of a headache to buy an animal from the official sellers so that it could be guaranteed that the animal had already been inspected and approved. And, in this way, additional profit was made. From here on, Edersheim relies upon some reading between the lines to answer his question
‘What became of the profits of the money changers, and who were the real owners of the Temple market?’
and, although what now follows may seem reasonable, it’s purely an inference from the evidence available. After all, if the Pharisees profited indirectly from such a set up (though it was the Sadducees who were primarily the recipients) their records are hardly likely to condemn their own Temple practices as being unrighteous when they’re trying to show how the Temple service was to be reinstituted once it was rebuilt. It’s more likely, however, that the Pharisees gained very little from the revenues collected and that this has given way for a handful of statements which give full vent to what they knew to have been going on.
The author’s intention is to attempt to show whether what was taking place within the courts of the Temple was that which could have made it
‘...specially obnoxious and unpopular’
the reason being that there appears to have been little opposition from the ordinary people when Jesus moved out the traders, and Mark 11:18 records that
‘...the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the multitude was astonished at His teaching’
and the inference is that what Jesus was doing didn’t go without the approval of the general populace (Edersheim’s notes, however, are dealing mainly with the account of the cleansing in John’s Gospel at the start of His ministry), the actions which He’s now using being a demonstrable application of what He’s been proclaiming to the people within the Temple courts. This may be no more than supposition, however, seeing as the author of Matthew will go on to speak of His continued presence in the Temple even after the chaos (Mtw 21:14-17) and it’s not impossible that He was teaching the crowds who were gathering before Him. That there were people being healed (Mtw 21:14) and children proclaiming Him as the Messiah (Mtw 21:15) can’t have been an indication that the general populace were trying to distance themselves from the actions which had previously occurred.
Citing the Jerusalem Talmud, he points out that there are five separate and distinct answers, four of these connecting the profits with public service but the fifth noting that the profits belonged to the money changers themselves. If this latter was the case then, as he points out
‘...it can scarcely be doubted, that they had to pay a considerable rental or percentage to the leading Temple officials. The profits from the sale of meat and drink offerings went to the Temple treasury. But it can hardly be believed, that such was the case in regard to the Temple market’
He records that there is
‘...little doubt, that this market was what in Rabbinic writings is styled “the Bazaars of the sons of Annas”, the sons of that High-Priest Annas who is so infamous in New Testament history. When we read that the Sanhedrin, forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem, transferred its meeting place from “the Hall of Hewn Stones” (on the south side of the Court of the Priest and therefore partly within the Sanctuary itself) to “the Bazaars” and then afterwards to the City (Rosh haShannah 31 a and b), the inference is plain that these Bazaars were those of the sons of Annas the High Priest and that they occupied part of the Temple court; in short, that the Temple market and the Bazaars of the sons of Annas are identical’
Therefore, the unrighteous traffic which was being carried on in these ‘bazaars’ would have rendered the Temple market place one of the most unpopular by the general population who saw them being taxed and burdened with additional costs by the sincerity of their service of God. Edersheim notes that, three years before the destruction of Jerusalem, the ‘bazaars’ were removed
‘...on account of the sinful greed which characterised their dealings’
So, therefore, Jesus’ declaration that the Temple courts housed a ‘den of robbers’ is seen to be relevant to the society and situation of the day in which Jesus found Himself. The only problem was that He was taking on the Jewish High Priestly family and it’s not without significance that Mark 11:18 records that the ones who felt moved to put Jesus to death (or, at the very least, to discredit Him) were those of ‘the chief priests and the scribes’, the former of which were specifically Sadducean and the latter may well have been for this group had their own scribes (the majority were Pharisees, however) - the Pharisees, who didn’t profit directly from the trade which took place, are notably absent from the picture.
As if to strengthen Jesus’ condemnation of the market within the Temple’s courts and to show how the character of the High Priest mirrored the acquisition of money from the bazaars, Edersheim goes on to note that both Josephus and the Rabbis (that is, the Pharisees) give a picture of avarice and corruption amongst their ranks, writing
‘Josephus describes Annas (or Ananus), the son of the Annas of the New Testament, as “a great hoarder up of money”, very rich, and as despoiling by open violence the common priests of their official revenues (Antiquities 20.9.2-4)’
Josephus’ passage comments that this Annas bought friends with great presents so as to gain influence for himself and that
‘...he also had servants who were very wicked, who joined themselves to the boldest sort of the people, and went to the threshing floors, and took away the tithes that belonged to the priests by violence, and did not refrain from beating such as would not give these tithes to them. So the other high priests acted in the like manner, as did those his servants, without any one being able to prohibit them; so that [some of the] priests, that of old were wont to be supported with those tithes, died for want of food’
Edersheim continues with reference to the Talmud which
‘...also records the curse which a distinguished Rabbi of Jerusalem (Abba Shaul) pronounced upon the High Priestly families (including that of Annas), who were “themselves High Priests, their sons treasurers (Gizbarin), their sons-in-law assistant treasurers (Ammarkalin) while their servants beat the people with sticks” (Pes 57a)’
and concludes his description of the Temple practices by stating correctly that
‘...we can now also understand why the Temple officials, to whom these Bazaars belonged, only challenged the authority of Christ in thus purging the Temple. The unpopularity of the whole traffic, if not their consciences, prevented their proceeding to actual violence...Nor do we any longer wonder that no resistance was offered by the people to the action of Jesus...’
Unfortunately, Johncar’s assertion that
‘There is no evidence that the animal merchants and money changers or the priestly authorities who allowed them to use the outer court were corrupt companions in craft’
is incorrect. Edersheim has sufficiently dealt with the set up within the Temple to make the reader understand that there was a great profit to be made if the trade was correctly handled and that it appears to have been seen to that everyone had their own fair share of the profits.
When Jesus came into the Temple courts on that Monday morning, He already knew what He’d find - and knew of the greed which was characterising the transactions which were taking place there. Therefore, primarily, His anger is directed towards those who are making a profit out of those who were wishing to offer sacrifice and worship to God (kinda gets uncomfortable for our own present day set up, doesn’t it?) - He calls all those doing such a thing ‘robbers’ (Mtw 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:46 - possibly with an allusion to Jer 7:11 though, if the Jewish leaders took it as such, they would have been intensely angered for Jer 7:9 speaks of the people to whom it’s addressed as being those who ‘...steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal and go after other gods that you have not known’).
There may have been an element of help offered by the disciples in the event (as a film I remember about the life of Jesus interpreted) which has gone unrecorded but, to be fair, it wouldn’t have taken too much to have begun a panic in the Temple simply because a few stampeding cattle and dispersing traders would have quickly bumped into others and so on until the entire movement of those present was away from the One who was creating it. In any crowd, such a scene isn’t hard to picture - after all, just walk into a busy rush hour street in the city, wave a bag in the air and shout ‘bomb’ and see what happens (no, no - don’t do it! I was just kidding...).
But He also summarises the problem is that such a set up was restricting the Gentiles from finding a place where they could serve God through the simplicity of prayer. Mark 11:17 brings this home more especially for he records Jesus defining words that the Temple was supposed to be a place of prayer ‘for all the nations’ (Mark 11:17, Is 56:7).
No doubt the Sanctuary and the two inner courts were peaceful enough away from the hubbub of trade and activity outside, but the Court of the Gentiles was the closest they could come in their approach to the presence of God and He expected that some sort of provision should be made for them to do just that.
I don’t believe Jesus would have argued at that time with the purchasing of sacrificial animals and offerings in the service of God but He was angry with the way it was being conducted - not only because such religious rites represented big money turnovers which lined the pockets of the Israelite aristocracy at the expense of true worshippers, but because the clamour and business dealings were preventing non-Jews from serving God in the restricted way they were able under the Mosaic Law.
The Events in the Temple
Mtw 21:14-17, Mark 11:18
This passage is almost unique to the Gospel of Matthew even though Mark 11:18 hints at it by saying that
‘...all the multitude was astonished at His teaching’
We saw above that there’s a good reason for presuming that the cleansing of the Temple through the overturning of the traders’ tables and probable stampede of cattle which ensued was simply an extension of His teaching which had been delivered for some time before the event took place. What this specifically Matthean passage shows, however, is that Jesus seems to have stuck around after the chaos in the Temple to continue to teach those people who were present and that, although the chief priests and their scribes were attempting somehow to both remove and destroy Him, their concern for the reverence in which He was held among the congregation caused them to be unable to do anything at that precise moment in time (Mark 11:18).
What it hints at, therefore, is that Jesus must have had popular support to do such a thing.
Matfran cites II Sam 5:8 to develop a contrast between king David who is asserted to have refused the blind and the lame entry into the House of the Lord in OT times and Jesus who, alternatively, welcomes them.
This seems to be an unwarranted comparison, however, not only because David’s exclusive statement which is developed by the Israelites to state that they weren’t allowed ‘in the house’ would be difficult to be applied when there was no Temple of the Lord then in existence and not even until the reign of his successor, Solomon. Jeremias (my italics) notes that
‘Begging in Jerusalem was concentrated around the holy places...but beggars were not allowed in every part of the Temple’
and he proceeds to cite some Rabbinic sources which comment on the existence of ‘mutilated priests’ in both the Court of the Priests and the Court of Israel, something which, under the Levitical laws, was forbidden to occur (Lev 21:16-23) and which, under the rules of the people who wrote the DSS, would have been expressly forbidden (IQSa 2).
Shabbath 6:8 also notes restrictions upon the accessibility of cripples within the Temple Courts but the wording there assumes that some were definitely allowed to enter (Hagigah 1:1 should be read in this context, also, which seems to say that none blind or lame would be allowed into the Temple Courts) and it is, therefore, incorrect to say that Jesus represented a new turn of affairs in that the blind and lame would be accepted into God’s presence.
The RSV translates the quote from Ps 8:2 by the statement
‘...Thou hast brought perfect praise’
whereas the Hebrew of the OT passage actually speaks of founding
‘...Thou hast founded a bulwark...’
but this rendering of the passage is quite accurate when the accepted LXX version is considered and it has to be asked not why the author of Matthew’s Gospel changed the direct quote which Jesus would have spoken in Aramaic and, therefore, in line with the OT and neither why Jesus Himself followed the LXX version if the quote is taken as accurate but why did the LXX translators change the text?
The word translated ‘bulwark’ in the OT (Strongs Hebrew number 5797) primarily means ‘strength’ or ‘power’ and the idea in the OT is one of God founding strength in the earth ‘because of His enemies’ - and that strength is then understood as being the praise from His people which is bearing witness to His glory, power, presence and Being in their midst and in their lives.
It would appear, then, that the LXX translators sought to convey this truth by interpreting the word with one which conveyed praise.
Sometimes, the children mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel are expected to have been mimicking the acclamations which Jesus received the previous day when He entered the city (Mtw 21:1-9) and, while this may indeed have an element of truth in it (Matfran makes this comment but also notes that it would have been unlikely had Jesus not have had a large and loud following after the Triumphal entry the day before), one has to remember that the Scripture which Jesus quotes speaks specifically of God drawing this praise from out of them rather than for it to have been thought of as something which was simply a reflection of what they’d seen done the day before. Jesus has previously noted that revelation has been given to ‘the babes’ (Mtw 11:25-26) and, though we saw there that the words related to believers whatever age, their literal interpretation is forced upon us in this instance.
It’s also significant here that the same word used for ‘crying out’ (Strongs Greek number 2896) is the one employed in Mtw 27:23 and 27:50 where the former gives a description of the crowds clamouring for Jesus’ crucifixion and the latter of shouting at Jesus as He hung on the cross. While the Sadducean party were opposing the pronouncements of life in the Temple (Mtw 21:16), they were also the ones who were crying out for the end of that same life.
But the children would have been unlikely to have been the ones who had changed their cries from one of acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah to the one of rejection as their parents seem to have done when He failed to live up to their own preconceived ideas of what He should both do and be.
There’s an interesting contrast here between two actions which are both condemned as being irreverent, irreligious and an insult to God. On the one hand, Jesus’ actions in attacking the trade in the Temple is a condemnation of the practices of His generation who, as we’ve seen above, were creaming off large sums of money to line their own pockets (Mtw 21:12-13) and, on the other, the chief priests and the scribes’ pronouncements that inferred that the children ‘crying out’ in the Temple was bearing witness to a fact which wasn’t true (Mtw 21:14-16) - though it would be hard to imagine them being able to have heard their pronouncements unless the cacophony of sound had been removed previously by Jesus!
The question is posed, therefore, as to what true religion is, the answer coming in the opening of the eyes of the blind and in causing the lame to walk (Mtw 21:14) - that is, meeting the needs of others who are created in the image of God. From such ‘religion’, true praise will spring as opposed to the false praise that was continuing in the Temple through the sacrificial system and its support services.
True religion is seen to be a threefold ministry here and is presented to the reader in both positive and negative aspects. First, as we’ve said, it’s meeting the needs of others (Mtw 21:14 positively in the healings and 21:12 negatively in the trade which was being carried on, exploiting those who wanted to approach God).
Secondly, true religion is correctly reacting to what God is doing (Mtw 21:15 positively in the children and 21:15-16 negatively in the religious leaders) and, thirdly, it’s enabling the unsaved to seek God (both positively and negatively in Mark 11:17 where one item needs to be removed which makes a way for the God-fearers, the Gentiles, to approach God. See also Luke 15:1-2 and Mtw 9:10-13).
One final point needs making here and that is that, from the start of Matthew chapter 21, Jesus has changed tack with regard to being proclaimed as the Messiah. No more does He forbid people to be silent on His identity as He has done previously throughout the Galilean ministry (Mark 3:11-12) and it must be realised that the time has now come for His Messianic claims to be announced to the nation.
This won’t lead to His victorious enthroning as the true King of Israel as the disciples would have imagined but, as Jesus had clearly perceived, would lead on to His ultimate death and victorious resurrection in which man’s true enemy is defeated.
The chief priests and scribes
I have previously noted above that the phrase ‘the chief priests and scribes’ (Mtw 21:15, Mark 11:18) is a reference primarily to the Sadducean party rather than to the Pharisees and, though the majority of scribes seem to have been in the latter religious sect, it’s equally probable that this phrase is meant to summate the totality of the former aristocratic people.
Certainly, the Pharisees are never directly mentioned in this passage in either of the three Gospels which cover this second cleansing of the Temple and it seems best to take this omission as a clear indication that they didn’t get too involved in the denunciation of what Jesus was doing - after all, as we saw above, it was the jurisdiction of the high priests and of his family as to what took place in the market place within the Court of the Gentiles and they had nothing directly being opposed here - Jesus’ objections lay with the trade and the traders rather than with the sacrificial system itself.
Having said that, the Pharisaical trait spoken of by Jesus in Mtw 23:13 which accuses them of shutting
‘...the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in’
is very much seen to be a trait also of the chief priests and represents a good commentary on the attitude of heart which seemed to dog both sects. These two aspects of refusing to enter themselves or of allowing others to enter when they desired to, are characteristics of a religious people who are both jealous and envious of a move of God which is carrying on apart from their own agenda and, in church-speak, denomination. As such, the chief priests and scribes are a good example to all present day christian groups who see God moving external to their own fellowship but who are tempted to either condemn the move or to try to make their attendees frightened to either leave them or to experience what God wants to do with them.
Firstly, we’ll look at the phrase in Mtw 23:13 which speaks of the religious as refusing to enter the Kingdom of Heaven themselves, exemplified in their wrong reaction to what God was doing in the Temple, a negative response to the clear evidence of God’s spiritual work. One would have thought that, when Mtw 21:15 records that they
‘...saw the wonderful things that he did [the healing of the blind and lame in Mtw 21:14], and the children crying out in the Temple “Hosanna to the Son of David!”...’
that the Scripture would go on to record that they confessed that the power of God was at work and that, even if they didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, they could recognise that God was with this Galilean preacher that they’d heard so much about. But the Scripture goes on to state, rather, that
‘...they were indignant’
a trait of their Pharisaical counterparts in the incidents of Mtw 9:32-34 and 12:22-24 when the enormity of the sign and the consequent truth that it taught (Mtw 12:38) meant that there had to be a very violent reaction against what they saw with their own eyes.
Praise, in the Scriptures, is almost always a reaction of mankind to what God both has done and is doing while worship is a reaction to a revelation of God (one day, I will recompile my notes on the subject of praise and worship and put them on the web!). The crowds had reacted in praise when they realised the power of God in their midst (Mtw 21:15, Luke 19:37-38) and the evidence of the miraculous is a good sign that God is once more on the move. However, it isn’t an automatic menu for men and women to react positively to the work of God and such praise seems to be always determined by the agendas and beliefs that are resident within a person’s heart.
For instance, if one believes that the miraculous died out with the early Church, the stubbornness and hardness in a believer’s life when people are miraculously made well begins to grind against that will until either the callousness wins out or there’s a meltdown and submission to what God is seen to be doing.
Here, the situation is slightly different for God was moving through some unlearned, unqualified and unapproved peasant by healing the blind and the lame of their incapacities and not through them, and it became impossible for them to react in praise without also following after the confession of the children who were announcing to those present that Jesus was the Son of David (Mtw 21:16). Because of their jealousy, then, they did not and could not be a part of what God was doing.
Secondly, Mtw 23:13 speaks of the religious people’s refusal to allow anyone who wanted to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven to go in through, no doubt, a series of discouragements such as the previous Pharisaic pronouncements (Mtw 12:22-24) and of legislative proclamations which would have excluded those who went over to Him (John 9:22).
So, here, the Pharisees rebuke those who got excited about what God had done through the Triumphal procession (Luke 19:37,39) and the Sadducees call into question the children’s pronouncements as they react to the healings taking place (Mtw 21:14-16). You can always tell those who rebuke people for getting excited about what God is doing - you can’t tell them much, but you can always tell them - and that’s precisely what Jesus does (Mtw 21:16, Luke 19:40).
In Mtw 21:16, Jesus uses a quote from Ps 8:1-2 which reads in the original OT passage that God’s glory is pronounced in Heaven
‘...by the mouth of babes and infants, Thou hast founded a bulwark [a stronghold of praise] because of Thy foes, to still the enemy and the avenger’
and which hints at the reaction of God in bringing praise from situations at the expense and to the detriment of His enemies, a clear indication (if they realised the implications of the Scripture) that Jesus was associating them not as friends of God but as those who were actively opposed to His will.
In Luke 19:40, also, Jesus speaks to the Pharisees in words reminiscent of Hab 2:9-11 which reads
‘Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm! You have devised shame to your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond’
and which is particularly relevant to the following day’s events in the Temple where the ‘evil gain’ is paralleled with the set up of the market stalls within the Court of the Gentiles (see above) but, in the context in which it’s spoken, observes that the proclamation of the stones bears witness to the evil of the man who’s set himself against God. It’s certain that the crowds who were proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah King on the Sunday were announcing something positive but, because of the previous pronouncements of the Jerusalem leaders, it became a word which condemned their own assessment of Jesus.
In both NT Scriptures, Jesus brings to light their sinful motives, the root of which was jealousy and envy that tried to dissuade others from entering what they themselves had rejected.
The figs and the fig tree
Mtw 21:12-13,18-19 Pp Mark 11:12-14,20-26
The fig tree (Ficus Carica) was once common amongst the inhabitants of Israel and most of the inhabitants either had their own fig tree which they gleaned for fruit at certain times of the year or knew of such plants that could be approached when on a journey for a light snack. The traveller in Israel as well as the neighbour of farming lands was allowed to enter fields in order to eat the crop which was growing and maturing so long as they didn’t gather a harvest from the place and carry away any of the produce for later use (Deut 23:24-25). In this way, it may be that Jesus approached the fig tree, but the Scripture makes one think that this fig tree was one which was situated on the side of the roadway leading to Jerusalem and was growing semi-wild there (Mtw 21:19).
The fruit of the fig tree is a somewhat strange looking object which is bell or pear-shaped with a closed opening at its base (the opposite end of the stem). The flowers are held within the fruit and are never seen even when the fig is in flower unless the fruit is cut open.
The fig tree, according to Zondervan, can grow to around thirty feet if cultivated but will send out lateral shoots which grow across rocks if left wild, an indication that the fig in question was more likely to have been cultivated than wild.
Pollination is impossible without the selective attention of the ‘fig wasp’, the female of which deposits her eggs inside the fruit. The eggs then develop inside the fig, protected from the surrounding predators and, upon hatching, the male wasp will seek out a female in the same fruit. Once fertilised, the female must exit the fig in search of a second fruit in which to deposit her eggs while the male normally dies within the fig (hence, I always check a fresh fig first by cutting it open before eating it! Fresh figs have only started appearing in the UK’s supermarkets in the past five years or so simply because refrigeration techniques have been improved to the extent that they can be transported from the commercial growing region of Turkey. Before this, dried figs seem to have been the only fruit available even though the fruit found its way into a multitude of products).
The female which leaves the first fruit, leaves covered in pollen which then pollinates the second fig to which she comes to lay her eggs, beginning the whole cycle again. I can’t help but make a comment here that how this relationship could ever have evolved is more fantastic a proposition than in simply believing perfection in the created order!
In the Middle East, the fig produces two distinct crops each year. Winter figs ripen for eating in May and June while summer produces a crop in late August and September but it’s not unusual that both crops can run together to produce one long cropping season. The small fruit buds normally appear in February, a couple of months before the leaves which can be seen from April onwards and which are large in quantity and broad, and which provide shade throughout the summer periods. Ungers notes that the small, unripened fruit is inconspicuous and hidden within the leaves of the fig tree until the time immediately before they become ripe.
Even though it would be wrong to expect a crop of figs from a tree before May, Zondervan notes incorrectly that the fig tree which Jesus approached in March/April
‘...should have borne early ripe figs. The Lord would have known whether the tree should have been cropping’
for, although there may have been fig fruit on the tree, none of it would have been expected to have been ripe at that time. Mark 11:13 specifically states (my italics) that
‘When [Jesus] came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs’
a fact which should have immediately drawn the disciples’ attention to the significance of what was about to transpire on successive days. It wasn’t that Jesus had no idea that it wasn’t the season for ripe figs - being a resident of the land of Israel, He would have known the times and seasons when harvests would be reaped and fruit would become mature and edible - but that He was attempting to bring home to the disciples something about their experience in the Temple in Jerusalem which they should have paid particular attention to.
The fig figures predominantly in the OT and appears 63 times in the RSV in both Old and New Testaments. It’s earliest mention is in the Garden of Eden and is the tree recorded as being the one from which Adam and Eve took leaves and joined them together, making coverings for their nakedness (Gen 3:7). After this, although the fig is most likely to have been cultivated extensively throughout the Middle East, it doesn’t get another mention until the children of Israel approach the Promised Land to take possession of it and it’s one of the fruits which are brought back by the spies (Num 13:23) which, along with the information about the grapes, would indicate a date of somewhere around late August or September.
The Israelites certainly seem to have known of the existence of the fig and would probably have had their own private crop where they’d been resident in Egypt (Ps 105:33) for they complain of the land to which Moses had currently brought them that it lacked such trees (Num 20:5) before, some years later, Moses assured them that the land which they were about to go in and possess was one of (Deut 8:8)
‘...wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey...’
Again, the fig tree disappears from being mentioned until a parable is related by Jotham, the son of Gideon, in Judges 8:7-15 (see v.10-11) but the plant doesn’t appear to have any specific meaning there and is probably used only because it was among the most common fruit bearing trees in the land at that time.
From the time of the kings onwards, the fig tree began to become a symbol of prosperity and peace to the nation along with the vine so that, in 1 Kings 4:25 (see also Micah 4:4 and Zech 3:10 - eating the fruit of the tree is also equated with such in II Kings 18:31 and Is 36:16), we read that, in the days of king Solomon
‘...Judah and Israel dwelt in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree...’
Apart from this one reference, however, the fig is only mentioned in connection with a cake which was presumably made from the fruit (I Sam 25:18, 30:12, I Chron 12:40) and which was also applied to Hezekiah’s boil in order that God might heal him (II Kings 20:7, Is 38:21).
In the poetic books, the Song of Solomon uses the fig tree producing fruit as being indicative that the appointed time has come (SofS 2:13), a similar allusion being made in the NT though here it’s the leaves which are used as being indicative of the advent of Summer in connection with the approach of the Son of Man after the signs which are being spoken of (Mtw 24:32, Mark 13:28, Luke 21:29-30). It’s also used in Prov 27:18 as a tree selected to make a point about guarding their master but there’s no typology here which we’d expect to be used elsewhere.
The prophet Isaiah makes little prophetic use of the fig except to speak of the eagerness with which the Israelites would eat the first ripe fig before Summer came (Is 28:4) and speaks of the dissolution of the created order like leaves which fall from both the vine and the fig tree (Is 34:4). It’s Jeremiah, however, who uses the fig tree several times and even has one vision which is predominantly about such a fruit (Jer 24:1-10 see also Jer 29:17) where the fled Israelites were to be treated with favour (the good figs) and the settled inhabitants under king Zedekiah in Israel and those in Egypt were to be treated with contempt. This is the first place where the fig is associated as being a type of the nation and, even though I’ve heard a great many preachers assert that the ‘fig tree’ is always a type of Israel in the Bible, it’s incredibly rare or, perhaps better, non-existent in the OT - even here, the allusion is to the fig tree’s fruit rather than to the plant itself.
The fruit of the vine and fig tree and even of the fruit of those two plants is predominantly indicative of the fruitfulness of the land in the OT (I Kings 4:25, II Kings 18:31, Is 36:16, Jer 5:17, 8:13, Hosea 2:12, 9:10, Joel 1:12, 1:17, 2:22, Amos 4:9, Micah 4:4, 7:1, Hag 2:19, 3:17, Zech 3:10) and the prophet Jeremiah sees the gathering together of the nation as occurring at a time when the barrenness of the land (perhaps both spiritually and agriculturally) would be evident. He writes that
‘When I would gather them, says the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them’
The presence of both vine and fig tree in the land was necessarily a picture of the nation’s fruitfulness whereas their absence was typical of barrenness. This doesn’t mean that we should look to a literal fulfilment of fig and grape production within the land to determine the spiritual health of the nation, for the terms are being used figuratively and aren’t interrelated.
The final word on what the Israelites were expecting to take place can be summarised by reading either Micah 4:4 or Zech 3:10 which speak of a future time by declaring (Zech 3:10) that
‘In that day...every one of you will invite his neighbour under his vine and under his fig tree’
and (Micah 4:4) that
‘...they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree and none shall make them afraid...’
and which also bleeds over into the Apocrypha in I Maccabees 14:12. It can be plainly seen, therefore, that such an assertion that the fig tree represented Israel in the OT is wholly without foundation and we should make sure that we don’t simply take reference to the fig tree where we find it in the NT and think that it must, inevitably, mean the nation of Israel.
That the fruit might be indicative of the nation is quite true (but it rarely occurs) and it would be more in keeping with OT usage to see the use of the fig tree as being indicative of fruitfulness or barrenness.
A wrong interpretation of what the fig tree represents has been the stumbling block of many a preacher I’ve heard who’s taken Mtw 24:32, for instance, which reads concerning the end times
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near’
and interpreted it to mean that, once Israel begins to flourish as a nation once more, it will be a short time before the Son of man returns to set up a visible Kingdom. Some have then gone on to speak of dates such as 1948 when the modern state of Israel came into being and to see the end of the age to have to conclude within the lifetime of that ‘generation’, a period of forty years which ended with 1988.
All that Jesus is doing here, though, is to use a natural analogy to convey to the disciples that, just as they can naturally interpret the signs of the seasons, so too they will be able to interpret and anticipate when the time for the culmination and conclusion of all things will take place - an appeal which He also made on a previous occasion to His enemies (Mtw 16:1-4).
The fig tree isn’t used as extensively in the NT as it is in the Old and is normally mentioned as a specific picture that readers will understand (Mtw 7:16, Luke 6:44, James 3:12-13, Rev 6:13). Apart from the passage which is under our consideration in this article (and Luke 13:6-9 which we will deal with first), John 1:48-50 is significant simply because it would appear that reclining under one’s own fig tree was part and parcel of what it meant to be a Jew. We shouldn’t place too much stress on this passage because Jesus could as well have said that He’d seen Nathanael as he was sitting in the shade of his parasol (if they’d been invented in first century Israel!) but that He chose to use this figure of speech and this incident may well conjure up in Nathanael’s mind thoughts of the future Kingdom in which peace and prosperity was defined in these terms (see above).
This brief survey should suffice to introduce the two passages which we need to look at here which definitely associate the nation of Israel with the fig tree even though this is a wholly uncommon one when the total of the Scriptural record is considered.
1. The parable of the unfruitful fig tree
I have noted above that the action of Jesus in seeking figs from a tree which was unlikely - if not impossible - to bear ripe figs at that time of year was an indication that, although the action may be used to teach the disciples about faith (Mtw 21:20-22), it must also be seen to be a situation which occurs because Jesus has something to bring home to the disciples which they need to grasp.
This is all the more brought home to the reader by Mark’s chronological sequence of events which surrounds the cleansing of the Temple with the fig tree incident, suggesting that the event to which it refers could be one and the same as is sandwiched between the two passages.
Leaving that event to one side for the moment, we need to consider the parable of the unfruitful fig tree recorded in Luke 13:6-9 and its significance for the nation of Israel. Initially, it has to be said that the context of the parable doesn’t favour an interpretation which sees the fig tree as being indicative of the nation of Israel (and more especially when one realises that the fig tree is never used as a symbol of the OT nation of Israel).
Rather, the context of Luke 13:1-5 should be read and applied to the interpretation where Jesus primarily had in mind individuals and the need for their repentance that they might be accepted by God. Lukmor states correctly that the parable
‘...brings out both the need for repentance and the slowness of God to punish’
for Jesus has had to respond to the inference of some that, because there were some Galileans who had had their blood mingled together with their sacrifices, it was proof enough that they were worse sinners than others (this, although not implicitly stated is implied in Jesus’ response). As Jesus goes on to point out, however, disaster is not a sure foundation by which to base the spiritual health of a believer or group on and what was more important to Him was that those who had told Him about such an event should consider carefully their own standing before God and repent in case they should fall into the hands of God before they were in a correct relationship with Him (Luke 13:5).
Out of that context, then, Jesus speaks of God’s righteous judgment against those who should be expected to bear fruit but yield none, but also of His patience in allowing sufficient extra time for it to be produced. The command, then, is to (Mtw 3:8)
‘...bear fruit that befits repentance...’
and not to find justification in one’s own lifestyle simply because others are less fortunate than oneself. Having said that, it’s difficult to read the parable and not see in it a picture of the nation of Israel and of how God longed to find some fruit within it that was useful to Him.
The parable speaks of the owner having (Luke 13:6)
‘...a fig tree planted in his vineyard...’
which can be paralleled in the life of the nation as being chosen by God as special within all the nations of the world (Ex 19:5-6), having called them out of Egypt to be a people who were holy and separated from the ways of the nations and separated to His will for their lives.
Luknol comments that it was the usual practice for a vintner to grow at least one fig tree in his vineyard not only for the fruit which it would provide for him during the summer but for the shade for which it was renowned (he cites Pliny in his Natural History in 17.35.200 and Theophrastus in De caus plant 3.10.6 - both of which works aren’t available to me).
The vineyard, therefore, is representative of the nations of the world - even though it becomes a picture of the nation of Israel in a future parable (Mtw 21:33-41) - and the fig tree of the nation of Israel, resident within its promised land of Canaan. Just like a pine would have stood out in the midst of a cultivated orchard, so too was the fig tree notably different to all the other plants by even the most ignorant of gardeners.
God’s calling upon the nation was to one of fruitfulness and so to be useful to the owner of the vineyard (Luke 13:6-7) but, even though sufficient time had been given the tree to produce fruit, still nothing appeared on the branches. We could reason that, at the very least, the owner could have used the fig tree for the shade it provided during the hot summer months but this would be reading too much into the parable - the be-all-and-end-all of the fig tree in this parable is solely to produce fruit.
I’ve said above that the three years mentioned in this parable is significant because it represents the time in which Jesus had ministered to Israel (a figure arrived at because of the counting of the Passover festivals celebrated or mentioned in the life of Jesus). It could equally well be a reference to the Mosaic Law of Lev 19:23 which states that
‘When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, it must not be eaten’
but we should really take the first visit of the owner to the fig tree as being in a year when it would have been expected to have matured and be ready for harvesting something from its branches. Lukgel cites Plummer who says to the effect that, if three years were given for a tree to come to maturity then a three year period after this also would be given to show that the tree was barren and worthless to its owner. It’s far from certain that this was the way it was viewed in first century Israel, however.
The three years, therefore, don’t appear to symbolise a specific time period within either the Law or agricultural practice of that time but it is indicative of sufficient time being given for fruit to be produced. That the time period may be indicative of Jesus’ time of ministry to Israel is quite possible, though, and shouldn’t be discounted as being an impossible inference.
If we’re right in thinking of this parable as being possible of an interpretation of the current nation of Israel, we should envisage the one final year being the time immediately proceeding from the resurrection and ascension of Christ before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD when the Gospel went out to the ‘Jew first’ (Rom 1:16) in order that the nation might turn back to their God and acknowledge the One who’d been sent to them.
God intended that the nation would change - as is clear from the parable here - and that it would begin to bear the fruit that it had so long held out promise of, but the nation generally chose to reject their Messiah through the teaching and witness of the apostles. In the end, Paul recognised that God had rejected the nation for the time being as capable of representing Him in a passage recorded of him shortly before his death (Acts 28:25-28).
In the parable, the end of this final year is still to find its conclusion when fruitfulness was expected to be present within the nation - sadly, even though the nation had heard the preaching of both Jesus and the apostles in their midst, it did nothing to cause them to see the riches of the New Covenant which He had long promised would be brought to them (Jer 31:31-34).
It may also be significant that the period from the time of Jesus’ resurrection to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem was almost exactly forty years simply because, in the Bible, the number ‘forty’ is often used to denote a time period in which a change comes about.
Therefore, in Gen 7:4 we read of the rains of the flood coming down for forty days until the surface of the earth was radically changed and, in Num 13:25, that forty days was the period in which the nation of Israel changed from being a people who were willing to enter in to and take possession of the Promised Land to a people who failed to believe God at His word.
The three periods of forty years in Moses’ life (Acts 7:23,30,42) also marked three distinct changes (the period of the Egyptian court, as a Bedouin/Midianite shepherd and as the leader of the nation in the wilderness) while to the city of Nineveh it was the period of time at the end of which they were to be judged (Jonah 3:4) and, in the forty day wilderness period, was the time after which Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:2,14).
Though change was offered to the nation of Israel through the message of the Gospel, fruitfulness failed to be achieved because of the rejection of the work and person of Jesus Christ. Although this Lukan parable is primarily aimed at instructing those who considered others who were less fortunate in this life than themselves to make sure that they bore fruit which was useful to God, there’s also a good reason for understanding the parable to be indicative of the situation in which the nation of Israel found itself, leaving the final conclusion open and undetermined, seeing as the fate of the fig tree resided solely with the fig tree itself even though encouragement was to be given it.
To many, this interpretation may seem misguided and accusations may be levelled at it that I’m saying that the nation of Israel has been rejected from ever being God’s special possession in the earth. It’s obvious from Paul’s writings, however, that such a position is impossible to maintain (Romans chapters 9-11) for there still remains a work which God intends doing as the end is approached.
But, for now, the rejection of the Messiah and His message means the rejection of the nation as being the representatives of God - not that no Jew can be saved but that salvation does not come by either natural descent from Abraham or by adherence to a legalistic type of religion which opposes the message of mercy, forgiveness and free salvation to all who will acknowledge their way of living and turn from it to God.
This parable is then seen to be enacted almost perfectly in the cursing of the fig tree which occurred either side of the cleansing of the Temple and which we’ll look at in the next sub-section.
2. The enactment of the parable of the unfruitful fig tree
Mark 11:11-21 Pp Mtw 21:12-13,18-22
Although the interpretation of the parable of the unfruitful fig tree is a little strained when taken as being applicable to the nation of Israel and of how they stood in danger of temporarily being put to one side if they continued in their unbelief, that interpretation does work when seen to be applied to this event which again uses a fig tree and the idea of fruitfulness to convey truth.
As I’ve noted above, Mark’s Gospel retains the correct order of the incident when presented side by side with the cleansing of the Temple and makes the reader realise that the latter event is as much tied in with the cursing of the fig tree as is the lack of fruit itself which is found on its branches. Both incidents should be viewed as a whole rather than, as Matthew records, made to stand as two separate and distinct events which are difficult to see any interrelationship within.
At the beginning of his commentary on the passage, Markcole asks the question
‘Were the resources of the Bethany household somewhat strained by this hungry band of healthy Galilaean [sic] fishermen and peasants? To be hungry at such an hour in the morning (Mtw 21:18) was unusual’
and we could, indeed, come up with an interesting discussion about how pilgrims in Jerusalem put an unnatural strain on provision not just for the band of disciples with Jesus at their head but for the entire economic status of the city and the surrounding land. But, as he goes on
‘Unless we realise that this was an acted parable of Israel, we shall be puzzled by all sorts of irrelevant questions’
so that we should simply note that Jesus was hungry for whatever reason and leave it there. After all, to make any sense of His action, Jesus’ hunger would be a necessary part of the story even though it’s equally certain that He couldn’t have expected to find anything worthwhile on the tree that was being approached. As Mark records for us (11:13) - and as previously noted above
‘...it was not the season for figs’
While the fig tree certainly held the promise of fruit for its leaves would be out being around April of the year, the first ripe figs would only be found come May and June if the tree was to produce an early crop. Marklane records that
‘On the protected eastern side of the Mount of Olives, fig trees can be seen in leaf at the end of March or the beginning of April. Only early green figs, which actually appear before the leaves, could be expected at this time and they are disagreeable in taste and are not ordinarily eaten. They are not ripe before June and quite commonly they all fall off so that after some days the fig tree has only leaves’
Jesus, of course, knew this - He was acquainted with the seasonal supply of fruit and vegetables as He had been and as everyone of that area had been, from a child so that the incident should immediately strike the reader as strange and be allowed to point towards an interpretation which tries to get under the surface to gain spiritual truth.
This can only be done when the passages which both precede the incident and which stand in the midst are considered as being a part of the whole.
On entering Jerusalem the previous day, Sunday, Jesus had looked around at what was clearly visible in the Temple courts (Mark 11:11) before going out with the disciples to Bethany where they were lodging. When Jesus walked into the Temple courts the following morning, therefore, He already knew the condition of the Temple and what greeted His eyes would in no way have taken Him by surprise. This parallels perfectly the statement that Jesus knew that, having approached the fig tree, He would find nothing worthwhile, simply because there was no way in that short period of a few hours that spiritual fruit would have been able to have been produced, the people being set on their ways.
When viewed from a distance, both the nation and the fig tree bore the semblance of being fruitful (Mark 11:13) for each of them had an external appearance of being good for food. It wasn’t until they were both closely inspected that it could be seen that what at first glance looked promising was, in effect, deceiving (a ‘false advertisement’ according to Matcar). Mattask goes on to define the unfruitfulness of the nation as coming about through
‘...barren legalism and perfunctory ceremonialism’
and this is just about the bottom line. Micah 7:1 seems to be a commentary on this when the prophet complains that he can find no first ripe fig which he would desire to eat even though the harvest has been gathered in. It might be going too far to say that this verse was in Jesus’ mind as He approached the fig tree on His journey into Jerusalem but it’s certainly true that righteousness can be thought of in terms of spiritual fruit and even as the existence of or lack of the ripe fig.
But, as I noted above, a first cleansing of the Temple had already taken place at the very beginning of His ministry (John 2:13-16) and it’s tempting to see in that action a preparation of the nation to receive the teaching of the Gospel which He was going to bring in His subsequent ministry over the course of the next three years (Luke 13:7) and showing that the removal of the old had to take place before the coming of the new could be accepted (Mtw 9:17). What Jesus does at the end of His earthly ministry to the nation is to cleanse, once more, their service of God and to allow one final year to be given it to produce the fruits that God required from them (Luke 13:8-9).
So, although Jesus came to the Temple shortly before that final Passover in search of fruit from the life of the nation, He already knew that He’d find none - but He came, regardless, searching for the results of His sowing throughout His previous three year ministry to Israel. Once more, then, Jesus proceeds to remove the bad fruit from His Father’s house and to make it plain that God wasn’t pleased with the things which were taking place within its courts (Mark 11:15-17). Jesus’ anger was particularly kindled by a consideration of the Scripture Is 56:7 which speaks of God proclaiming that
‘...My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’
for, in the Court of the Gentiles, the only place where non-Jews were allowed to come before God, there was a cacophony of trade and noise which made their seeking of YHWH a virtual impossibility. Many denominations throughout Church history have been frightened to set up bookstalls and the like within their church buildings because of this Scripture but this isn’t what it’s all about. Rather, the distraction being given by the traders was distracting God-fearers from being able to approach God and to learn about Him.
The existence of bookstalls in buildings hardly falls into this category, however, unless the bookseller continually shouts out what he has on offer throughout the meeting which takes place!
Instead of the nation of Israel being a distinguishable fig tree in the midst of the vineyard of the world, she’d degenerated into a people who were more concerned with legalistic observance which actually cut away at men and women coming to know the true God. And, instead of fruitfulness being clearly perceivable in the life of the nation at the centre of its worship, there was only evidence of barrenness.
As I noted in the previous section, what befell the nation in 70AD was simply a consequence of its own rejection of its Messiah and that, even though the nation was given ample opportunity to turn back to God having crucified Him, their stubborn refusal to hold on to their legalistic religion made it impossible that they could ever bear useful fruit for the God they professed to serve. This isn’t to say that every Jew ever born is living under a curse (or, rather, more of a curse than any other man) - and neither should the church which likes to label itself as ‘christian’ demonstrate its belief in such a false interpretation by actively opposing the Jew - for there are many who turn from dead religion to the life of God. Those who have force converted Jews to Christianity have only made such people flee one form of spiritual death to another for their violence betrays the fact that their brand of religion is not representative of God. Jesus should be seen to be opposing those who hold the promise of fruitfulness (the fig’s leaves) but who are barren and it has to be observed that there were many in the Temple when Jesus entered who showed themselves to have grasped something of the Life of God (Mtw 21:15).
What we see as occurring, therefore, was more a consequence of spiritual barrenness than it was of their rebellion against Rome which sent its soldiers to quash the rebellion. Mattask’s comments, however, that
‘Just as the cleansing of the Temple was a symbolic denunciation by the Messiah of the worship of the old Israel, so the withering of the fig tree was a symbolic denunciation by Him of the Jewish nation as the privileged people of God’
is too strong a statement along with Matfran’s comments in which he mixes his metaphors confusingly and speaks of the nation as being
‘...ripe for destruction’
for we aren’t reading of Israel’s rejection here but of their dangerous position of being unfruitful and of living under an imminent curse. The parable of the unfruitful fig tree (Luke 13:6-9) must also be taken into account which we saw above pointed towards an extended period of time in which the nation would once more be given ample opportunity to respond to God’s message of the Kingdom of Heaven. Matcar contrasts the two passages of this event and the parable in Luke’s Gospel and comments that
‘...the latter treats delay in judgment whereas the present passage is concerned with imminent judgment’
but, although this is strictly correct, we shouldn’t imagine that either of the two records should be taken as standing alone but should be interpreted as one unit seeing as they deal with one subject. Therefore, what the cursing of the fig tree teaches about the immediacy of judgment falling upon the unfruitful, the parable of the barren fig tree expands for it to be seen that God will show mercy even beyond the time when fruit would have expected to have been produced. Neither should Jesus’ absolute curse that it’s barrenness should be ‘forever’ (Mtw 21:19) be taken literally simply because there remains a promise concerning natural Israel that is yet to be fulfilled at some point in the future (Romans chapters 9-11). In everything, the commentator must balance one Scripture with another and this is no more apparent than here where an absolute interpretation would have us remove Israel from anything which YHWH would choose to do with them as a nation.
In one sense, fruitfulness is the be-all-and-end-all of the christian life and believers are warned enough times that lives which are committed to serving God should be ones which overflow with fruit from within. What Jesus enacts here before the nation is no less than He’s spoken in the previous times of ministry to the nation and to His followers, that good fruit is necessary (Mtw 7:17-19, 12:33, 13:23).
Shortly before His death, Jesus will also warn the disciples (John 15:2) that
‘Every branch of Mine that bears no fruit, He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit’
and, in Heb 6:7-8, the author is concerned to point out that being in the place of reception of provision from God is not something which should stop there but that it has responsibilities laid upon the recipient to do something worthwhile with it. The author writes
‘For land which has drunk the rain that often falls upon it, and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed; its end is to be burned’
The follower of Christ, therefore, shouldn’t look with disdain upon the nation of Israel and state that they failed to bear fruit which was useful to God the Father, without going on to see in the judgment of the nation a warning for His own life before God that fruitfulness is a necessary consequence of a life lived for God (Rom 11:17-24).
Receiving by faith
Mtw 21:20-22, Mark 11:22-25
The witnessing of the effect that Jesus has had on the fig tree occurs on the following morning as they pass by on their way, presumably, from Bethany where they were staying and into the city of Jerusalem (Mark 11:20). Even though the author of Matthew has run both halves of the incident together, it’s important for us to remember that he does this only thematically and that, when he writes (Mtw 21:19) that
‘...the fig tree withered at once’
he has to be interpreted as saying that the tree began to wither immediately but that the visual effect wasn’t seen until the following day. In Mark, Peter’s the one who’s singled out for observing the fig tree and noting it’s withered appearance (Mark 11:21) though it was probably the other disciples who asked the direct question as to how it withered away at once (Mtw 21:20). The real point, however, is that they singularly fail to see the significance of the enacted parable and ask, rather, how Jesus managed to do it! Mathag calls the question ‘irrelevant’ but that Jesus nevertheless ‘honoured’ the question and provided an answer for them.
For the disciples, there was little spiritual teaching that they immediately gleaned from what had occurred and their minds seem to have been more concerned with how they might duplicate such a miraculous event. Jesus’ reply centres in the need for faith which seems to depend for its interpretation on the spiritual background one comes from! Matfran states with a fair amount of certainty that
‘...faith is always in Matthew not a quality of the one praying but a relationship of practical trust with the one to whom prayer is offered...’
but the Scriptures which he cites to support his assertion (Mtw 8:10, 9:2,22,29, 15:28, 17:20) cannot be made to wholly give this interpretation of the concept and, in the second of these, faith isn’t even mentioned as being present. Matcar is more accurate when he defines belief in the NT as never being
‘...reduced to forcing oneself to believe what he does not really believe. Instead, it is related to genuine trust in God and obedience to and discernment of His will...’
Plass in his classic ‘Sacred Diary’ records his attempts at trying to make a paperclip move as a result of reading a book which spoke about
‘...how christians should be able to move mountains by faith, if they are really tuned into God. Very inspiring. Waited til there was no-one around then practised with a paperclip. Put it on my desk and stared at it, willing it to move. Nothing! Tried commanding it in a loud voice...’
In paralleling Mtw 21:21 and 17:20, Plass comments
‘If you only need faith the size of a mustard seed to move a mountain, what hope is there for me when I can’t even get a paperclip to do what it’s told!’
His hilarious attempts are therapy enough to make us realise that trying to summon up belief to make something happen or ‘practising’ God’s will before the time we might get to know God’s will are purely man-centred and should be abandoned to be replaced by a development of a relationship with God where doing His will becomes a natural extension of ordinary, everyday living. Sometimes, absurd experiences (in this case, fictitious - I hope) simply cause us to focus on our own ludicrous examples which we could relate concerning our own quest for spiritual development and how we often feel a failure because we impose a wrong interpretation upon the Scripture only to fail to live up to it - his entire book is a delight to read, I hasten to add, and still in print, too.
Jesus isn’t saying here that the disciples will be able to duplicate what He’s just done if they can summon up from within themselves some belief which goes against their natural head knowledge that such a thing could and would happen but that, when they come to the point of realising the Father’s will in any given situation, they will be able to bring about His purposes by applying their supernatural knowledge.
Faith, then, relies upon a correct relationship with God as Matfran points out but must go further to be seen to be simply the disciple bringing about the will of God on earth as it has been heard from Heaven (Mtw 16:19, 18:18) without doubting in one’s heart that what is being done is God’s will (Mtw 21:21). In the words of I John 5:14 which primarily speak about prayer rather than faith
‘...this is the confidence which we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us’
but this applies to Mtw 21:22 which Jesus expands to teach them concerning the need for believing prayer.
Knowing God’s will is vitally important that the miraculous might be done and it isn’t the quantity of faith that’s important (Mtw 17:20) but a simple trust in the Father and a certain assurance that what one is doing is firmly rooted in the Father’s will.
The concept of the mountain being rooted up and cast into the sea is purely a figure of speech meant to show the disciples that even the totally impossible in their eyes is made possible when they know God’s will for, although He brought into being the created order, He chooses to step outside its normal running and step into mankind’s life to do the miraculous and naturally impossible.
It’s entirely possible that Jesus is using what was naturally present to bring home the point for His reference to ‘this mountain’ would naturally be taken to refer to the Mount of Olives - or one of the other major peaks of the area but it’s normally associated with this mountain range to the east of Jerusalem - simply because it’s from this place that the Dead Sea can be seen some fifteen miles to the east which would give a good picture to the disciples of where it was to be removed to.
Jesus could, of course, have simply been referring to the ‘sea’ in general and the fishermen might have pictured their home Lake of Galilee in their minds but that there was a sea which was visibly present at the same time of the teaching would seem to indicate that Jesus used both images to convey His meaning.
Some commentators take the mention of such a miracle to refer to the splitting of the Mount of Olives in two when the Lord will become King over all the earth (Zech 14:4) so that Matcar can summarise Jesus’ teaching given this interpretation as meaning that
‘...what the disciples must pray for is the coming eschatological reign’
but this is somewhat of a misunderstanding of the passage. All that Jesus is concerned to do is to show them the possibility of the impossible, not to direct their minds to a future Kingdom which will not be immediately established.
Simply, Jesus is using imagery to convey an absolute point which, in the words of Mathen, is perfectly summarised by the statement that
‘...no task in harmony with God’s will is impossible to perform to those who do not doubt’
where the believer should be more concerned with endeavouring not to doubt what He knows to be God’s will and of hearing the Word of God from Heaven than he should be about whipping himself up into a position where faith hits the surface of his life to be freely useable in whatever way he wishes.
Running both Mtw 17:20 and 21:21-22 together, faith is seen not as a commodity to be achieved or increased but as a trust in God that hears what He has to say and responds positively to the Word spoken, seeing the reality of what’s been promised coming about on earth.
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