The Re-Mark-Able Gospel
About a year ago, I started the Gospel of Mark for my personal, daily Bible reading. I have read it many times before as I have done with the other Gospels. The stories are all familiar to me. But something was different this time around. There is something about how this Gospel is presented that unusually evokes emotion and response as if an intended audience is in mind. There are several references to people, including Yeshua, being amazed or astounded. Tradition suggests that Mark wrote what he heard Peter present orally many times. The more I read it, it made more and more sense to me that it was designed as an oral drama.
Why this is worth noting is it appears to be carefully crafted in such a way as to draw the reader or hearer into the story. Early in Mark, chapter four, Yeshua is teaching in parables when he announces: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9, cf. 4:23). This may even be the theme of the book. For while Yeshua explains that parables were purposely obscure for the sake of outsiders (see Mark 4:10-12), throughout the book, we see Yeshua chastising his followers for not comprehending what they are hearing and seeing. The book cries out, “Pay attention; get the message!”
When I read the Bible, I seek to discover the purposeful intent of what God is saying. While I am careful not to read into the text, I am aware that not every lesson in Scripture is obvious on the surface. I produced a message a couple of years ago asserting that we need to be more diligent to plunge the depths of Scripture (see In Celebration of Biblical Narrative: A Biblical Critique of Jordan B. Peterson). Still, I don’t want to read into the Bible what is not there.
The Strange Tale of the Fig Tree
Thus, it was with great hesitation that I began to grapple with the “cursing of the fig tree” in Mark, chapter eleven. After spending about five months submerged in Mark for my daily personal reading, beginning January of this year, I began to preach on it weekly. I am not the only one to find this incident strange, if not disturbing. It is in two parts.
First, Yeshua and his followers arrive in Jerusalem welcomed by a great celebratory crowd with messianic shouts of Hoshiana (English: Hosanna, deliver us now!). He briefly visits the temple and “looks around.” It’s as if he is sizing up a situation that he will confront the next day. He might be sizing up the reader too for that matter. Then, we read:
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 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. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. (Mark 11:12–14)
If this sounds as if Yeshua is being unreasonably vindictive against the tree, it’s because we don’t understand figs. Best I can tell, here’s what’s going on: Yeshua sees a fig tree on the way to the temple that morning. Every year fig trees grow new shoots. The figs for the new season, which will ripen by end of summer/early fall, only grow on these new shoots. Yeshua knows that, but what he is hoping to find is the early figs which appear sometimes on some fig trees, commonly known as breva figs, which ripen in the spring, growing on older shoots. In addition to not finding the hoped-for breva figs, noting that “he found nothing but leaves,” informs us that the expected new fruit for the coming season also wasn’t present as it should have been. This tree, therefore, is good for nothing, and so he curses it. This unusual reaction to a fruit tree should clue the reader in that this is not really about fig trees.
In between the two interactions over the tree, Yeshua drives out the sellers and moneychangers from the temple. This dramatic event includes a brash critique of the temple system, when he says, “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” (Mark 11:17). This is based on two references from the Hebrew prophets. The first is from Isaiah:
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
The Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:6–8)
This passage underscores God’s intent to bless the nations as promised to Abraham through the Good News of the Messiah (see Genesis 12:3; cf. Galatians 3:8). The large courtyard surrounding the temple proper was known as the Court of the Gentiles. It wasn’t exclusively for non-Jews, but it was the closest they could get to the temple. The moneychangers and people selling sacrifices for Passover, while both legitimate in themselves, had found that setting up in that Court was most advantageous, yet resulted in crowding out the people, particularly non-Jews.
The second is from Jeremiah:
“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, declares the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of Ephraim” (Jeremiah 7:8–15).
This is a purposeful allusion to the corruption and inevitable destruction of the first temple in Jeremiah’s day. Yeshua is predicting a similar end to the temple of his day. It may sound as if the people behind the commercial enterprise were the object of this harsh saying. However, a den of robbers is not a crime scene, but a hideout, where thieves go to hide from the authorities. The implications here is that the temple had become the abode of wrongdoers, pointing to the priests who likely profited from the commercial enterprise.
The corruption of the second temple was going on for some time. Following the restoration of the temple in the days of the Maccabees a century and a half earlier, the priesthood significantly declined. It became more about preserving the priests’ place and position than for the welfare of their people. To do so required cutting deals with pagan Rome. It’s clear, therefore, that the cursing of the fig tree was a symbolic gesture referencing the corruption of the temple system. What should have been the source of spiritual and moral nourishment to the nation was sucking them dry instead. Yeshua was saying, enough is enough! The temple would cease operation upon its destruction forty years later at the hands of the very world power with whom it had been in cahoots.
Do note that the fig tree signifies the corrupted temple system, not the people of Israel themselves. Yeshua was inaugurating a system change under a new priesthood headed by himself (see the Book of Hebrews). The termination of the Levitical priestly system would reconstitute Israel, but not replace it. Don’t forget Yeshua appointed a new Jewish leadership, trained to bring renewal to Israel and the Abrahamic blessing to the nations. The Jewish believing remnant that has existed from the beginning of the nation will one day be the whole (see Romans 11). The Messiah while condemning the temple system of his day, never condemned Israel as a nation.
Moving More Than Mountains
Understanding the symbolic nature of the fig tree is crucial in understanding the faith lesson Yeshua teaches next (see Mark 11:20-25). The morning after the driving out of the sellers, etc., Peter remarks on the now withered tree. Yeshua responds by teaching how faith moves mountains. On the surface it sounds as if Yeshua was saying, “See this tree, Peter? You ain’t seen nothing yet! If only you would have great faith, you could actually move mountains!” Certainly, Yeshua is not encouraging his followers to engage in literal earth moving. This is the Messiah’s way of saying that genuine faith enables us to do the impossible. But this too, while having general application to life’s difficult challenges, is about something very specific.
By referencing “this mountain,” (see Mark 11:23), he is most likely speaking of the Temple Mount. The sea would be the Dead Sea, the north shore of which could be seen in those days from there. That’s the approximate location of the no-longer-existing Sodom and Gomorrah, judged for its horrible sin, implying that the temple was both utterly corrupt and beyond hope. The faith Yeshua was calling for was not showy dramatic miraculous displays as much as the faithfulness that enables one to stand against great oppressive powers. This is not to say that Messiah’s followers are not to do signs and wonders. But in this context, we are instructed that if God’s people would not be intimidated, but be truly faithful to him, we will see such world powers undergo seismic shifting before our eyes. That’s the faith of Yeshua, and that’s the faith he was calling his disciples to have.
Mark’s audience needed to hear this message. Whether his audience was Jewish, Gentile, or both; be they in Jerusalem or somewhere else within the Roman Empire, the pressure against the Gospel message would be no less than what the Messiah himself faced. The opposition would have been mountainous, so to speak, completely overwhelming and humanly impossible to stand up to. Impossible that is without faith; faith being trusting God, his word, and his will. The second Psalm reads, “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Messiah (Anointed)” (Psalm 2:2). Yet, the psalm goes on to say God laughs at them, holding them in derision. Despite their arrogance and temporary power, God will establish his everlasting kingdom: “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:6). It is faith that enables the faithful to stand firm while God upends the structures of this world.
Mountain Moving in Troubled Times
We live in tumultuous times: however the global pandemic plays out, there is every indication that we are facing economic collapse, political instability, civil unrest, further disintegration of the family, and snowballing apostasy. Yet, we must not forget that the Gospel was birthed in similar times. Yeshua’s mission was handed to a small eclectic group of Jewish men and women who dared to face the existential threat of both the corrupt religious powerbrokers among their own people and the oppressive controlling world power. Like their master, they were people of faith, who spoke to mountains that moved. Within a few decades the Kingdom of God was multiplying everywhere they went.
Today’s mountains of political intrigue, spiritual decline, and moral decadence will move, if we have the faith to stand and speak the truth of God despite intimidation and persecution. God will prevail. Of that, there is no doubt. But will we be like our brothers and sisters who were part of God’s transformative solution or will we be cast into the sea along with the shifting mountains. To whom and to what will we be loyal? In whom or in what will we place our trust? Will we drown in the sea of judgment or will we be mountain movers?