MS Week#30: The Temple, Prayer, and Forgiveness

Brad Libolt Speaking on Mark 11:12-25. He speaks of a “Markan sandwich” in which Jesus uses an interaction with a fig tree to help us better understand what is going on in the temple and why Jesus has such a strong reaction to it. He also spoke of how we are called to forgive because we have been forgiven.

  • The scripture today is a classic example of a Markan sandwich. A Markan sandwich is a literary device Mark uses to draw readers to a particular point in his gospel.
  • In these sandwiches, the pieces on the outside, the bread, help illuminate what is happening in the middle. In this sandwich, the bread is the story of the fig tree, him cursing it and then Peter noticing it, and the meat in the middle of the sandwich is what is Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. So Jesus’ interaction with the fig tree is helping us to understand what is going on in the middle, when he cleanses the temple. 
  • Let’s look closely at the interaction with the fig tree, then we will be able to understand better what Jesus is doing in the temple. 

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

  • Remember last week we talked about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He rode in, humble on a donkey, as the king from the line of David who has come to restore Jerusalem and free them from their oppressors. But we also said that the people who were supposed to be ruled by this king, the people in Jerusalem, are not going to accept him. 
  • Jesus entered the temple after his ride on the donkey, but it was late so he went back to Bethany with his disciples. But now he is returning, and on his way from Bethany, which is over on the Mount of Olives, to Jerusalem and Jesus gets hungry. In the distance he sees a fig tree, and goes to it to get something to eat. But when he gets there it only has leaves, nothing to eat. And that is because it wasn’t the season for figs. So Jesus speaks to the tree and says, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And the disciples overhear it. Peter calls this a curse later on.
  • Now this is the first part of the sandwich. After Jesus goes in the temple and does his thing Peter notices the fig tree has withered down to its roots. 
  • So what is this fig tree doing here? Why is Jesus’ cleansing of the temple sandwiched between the cursing of the fig tree?
  • The fig tree is symbolic of the temple. Jesus is hungry, and naturally he looks for a fig tree to eat from. He sees a tree that has leaves, and leaves indicate that there might be fruit on it. The tree is inviting, offering what Jesus is looking for, but when he gets to the tree there is no fruit. And the disappointing fruitlessness of the tree is symbolic of the disappointing fruitlessness in the temple. The temple too is promising something it can’t provide. 
  • This is further supported by the use of fig trees and the lack of fruit on them in prophetic literature. In Micah chapter 7, God is speaking through Micah about his search for someone righteous or upright in Israel. He is looking for someone, anyone, who is following his law and worshipping him. But he can’t find anyone. And he compares this search to looking for a ripe fig to eat but finding none. Here is Micah 7:1-7, listen to what it says:

Woe is me! For I have become 

as when the summer fruit has been gathered, 

as when the grapes have been gleaned: 

there is no cluster to eat, 

no first-ripe fig that my soul desires. 

The godly has perished from the earth, 

and there is no one upright among mankind; 

they all lie in wait for blood, 

and each hunts the other with a net. 

Their hands are on what is evil, to do it well; 

the prince and the judge ask for a bribe, 

and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul; 

thus they weave it together. 

The best of them is like a brier, 

the most upright of them a thorn hedge. 

The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come; 

now their confusion is at hand. 

Put no trust in a neighbor; 

have no confidence in a friend; 

guard the doors of your mouth 

from her who lies in your arms; 

for the son treats the father with contempt, 

the daughter rises up against her mother, 

the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 

a man’s enemies are the men of his own house. 

But as for me, I will look to the Lord; 

I will wait for the God of my salvation; 

my God will hear me. 

  • God is searching for anyone who is obedient in Israel but is finding no one. Like searching for a fig when hungry, the search for someone in Israel who fears God is un fruitful. 
  • And this is exactly what Jesus is finding as well. He is in Jerusalem, this is supposed to be the place where he rules as king and the whole world comes to Jerusalem to worship God and God’s people are obeying him and keeping his law. But that is not what he has found. It would seem that way, there are leaves on the tree, the temple is hustling and bustling, there is activity going on, but there is no fruit. Just like the fruitlessness and evil of the people in Micah’s day, Israel is no different. Jesus is looking for ripe figs to eat, and finds none. In the temple, he is looking for fruitful and obedient people, and he finds none. 
  • What he does find in the temple causes one of the more interesting acts of Jesus we have in the gospels, let’s take a look. 

15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.

  • Jesus comes into the temple and there are people everywhere, buying, selling, changing money, carrying stuff around. It was a busy and loud scene, with lots of commerce and business taking place. And when he sees all this he begins to drive people out. He starts cleansing the temple, driving out the money changers and the buyers and sellers. 
  • Now usually we assume that Jesus is driving people out because they are taking advantage of the poor, exploiting foreigners, and because the whole system is corrupted by the Jewish leaders. This is all true, and was happening according to the accounts of this story in the other gospels. But notice here in Mark that Jesus is driving out not just the sellers, but the buyers too. He wants everyone out. Everyone gone. And why? Well he tells them.
  • It is written in Isaiah that God’s house, the temple, should be a house of prayer for all nations. How in the world could anyone pray or worship in this environment? With all the buying and selling and commotion going on, no one could pray or worship God in peace, which is what the temple was intended for. Imagine trying to pray in the midst of a busy mall, it is very hard to do. But it hadn’t always been this way. The buying and selling and commercial activities that were necessary for those needing to sacrifice used to happen out on the Mount of Olives, outside the temple and the city. Outside the temple, they could buy and sell and change money and be as loud as they wanted and people could go into the temple to pray in peace and quiet. But they moved all this into the temple, into the court, and made it impossible for people to pray, which was what the temple was supposed to be. 
  • On top of Jesus’ nod back to Isaiah and what the temple was supposed to be, he also quotes Jeremiah, and it is a part in Jeremiah when the prophet himself was standing int the temple, condemning it for its evil and apostasy and predicting its destruction. Here Jesus is doing the same, calling the people in the temple and the Jewish leaders out for their own sin and apostasy, their fruitlessness, their failure to provide the place of prayer the house of God was intended to be. 
  • Now there is something very interesting going on that I don’t want us to miss. In 1 and 2 Chronicles, the last book written in the Old Testament, King David is painted in an awesome light. The author leaves out the bad parts about David, and offers him as an image of the future king that is going to come and rule Israel with justice and righteousness. Then after David, the author of Chronicles compares each king after him to David, the ones that are good are also pictures of the future king. And starting with David, each king is judged based on whether or not they cleansed the temple. David made all the plans for the temple, Solomon built the temple, then all the good kings after them, the kings that are put forward as an image of the future king, either cleanse or reform the temple. They tear down idols, reinstate the priesthood, they do different things, but all the good ones reform or restore temple worship. So when you are done with 1 and 2 Chronicles you are expecting and hoping for a new David who restores the temple. 
  • Last week we talked about Jesus being the new David, the king who the Israelites have been waiting for for hundreds of years, and now, King Jesus has arrived, and the first thing he does is cleanse the temple. Further evidence that Jesus is the promised king, the new David who has come to rule Jerusalem and the world. 

20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”

  • Then we come to the last part of the sandwich, on their way by the same place Peter sees the fig tree is withered down to its roots and tells Jesus, “Look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 
  • Then Jesus responds to him, and his answer is puzzling at first, but it has great implications for you and me. 

22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

  • Jesus shifts to this discourse on prayer. He gives a short teaching, a few short sayings, on prayer, on how we should pray and the affects it can have. He says to have faith in God. We talked a while back about prayer and the connection with faith. Jesus marries the two so closely, that if you say you have faith but don’t pray, you don’t actually have faith. So again here he opens his discourse with a reminder to have faith in God. Having true faith results in dependency on God, which manifests itself in prayer. 
  • Then he goes on, and uses an example of praying for an impossible situation. If you say to a mountain to be taken up and thrown into the sea and do not doubt but believes, it will be done. God can do the impossible, and sometimes he chooses to do it through us. But here’s the thing. This doesn’t mean we just go around asking God for him to do crazy impossible things and try to have enough faith that it happens. God isn’t a genie in a bottle, he doesn’t grant wishes. He is a sovereign God who has a will for the world. And when we pray for impossible things we ask to be in line with God’s will. Jesus does this in the garden of Gethsemane, asking that if it is at all possible the cup of wrath would pass from him, but then he says not my will but yours. Jesus prayed for something impossible, but submitted it to the will of God. And the will of God was that Jesus would drink the cup, so Jesus submitted to it and went to the cross. 
  • I remember hearing a sermon on this verse in maybe middle school or high school, and I lived in a valley and there were mountains all around and there was one mountain near my house. And when I would drive home from church the road I took went straight for about ten miles right towards that mountain. So often I would think, “man if I just pray hard enough and believe enough I could move that mountain.” I took this really literally, and I don’t think that’s how it is meant to be taken. Yes, God can do impossible things, and he sometimes chooses to do them through us. But it is all within his will, and in praying for impossible things we are seeking to align ourselves with his will, not asking him to align with our own. 
  • Then he talks about forgiveness. When you pray, forgive those who have hurt or wronged you, SO THAT God may forgive you. This is a conditional clause here. If you want God to forgive you your trespasses you must first forgive those who have wronged you. This seems intense, but think about it.
  • Our basis for forgiving others is the forgiveness that God has shown us. We have sinned against him greatly. We deserve death, we deserve separation from him for eternity, we deserve punishment for the wrong that we have committed and the ways we have turned our back on the God of the universe. But out of his great love and mercy, God chose not to leave us in our sin and darkness but to send his son Jesus to rescue us from it. To pull us into light. But the way in which he does this is by sending Jesus to take on the wrath and punishment that we deserve for our sin and die the death that should be ours. He was a substitute for us, in our place, sacrificing himself for us. And his did this so that we could be forgiven. Now that our sin is atoned for we are forgiving and part of God’s covenant family, part of the people of God forever. 
  • And this is huge. We do not deserve forgiveness from God. We have wronged him in terrible ways, and he had every right to leave us in our sin and let us suffer the consequences we brought upon ourselves. But he didn’t. He sent his own son to die in our place. 
  • And it is because of this forgiveness that we forgive others. When we think about the gravity of the forgiveness that God has shown us we should look at the ways in which people have harmed and hurt and disappointed us because we know that God has forgiven us for much worse. No matter how terrible someone treats you or hurts you, you have treated God worse, you have sinned more greatly against your creator. 
  • It is because of God’s forgiveness that we are even able to come to him in prayer. So if we come to him on the basis of this forgiveness without first having forgiven others, we are coming to him arrogantly. We are coming to him with the implicit assumption that we deserve forgiveness from God but the people who have wronged us don’t deserve forgiveness from us. 
  • And maybe they don’t, but we don’t deserve it from God either. So think about someone who you need to forgive. Someone who has hurt you or wronged you. Someone who in your mind does not deserve forgiveness from you. Then consider all God has forgiven you from and all he will continue to forgive you from, and reconsider how you view that other person. No matter how much someone has hurt you, you have hurt God so much more and yet he still loves you.
  • If you don’t forgive others you don’t recognize the forgiveness and love that God has had for you.
  • We forgive because we have been forgiven. 

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