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The US has historically privileged Christianity. This privilege allowed folks in the culture to believe that American identity is equivalent to Christian identity. There are those who identify vaguely with certain ideas of the Christian faith without actually demonstrating a clear commitment to the teachings of Jesus. But Jesus teaches us that God will judge those without faith in him. And faith in him is revealed by means of faithful devotion to Jesus and his teachings.

Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree, his cleansing of the temple, and his confrontation with the religious in Mark 11:12-12:37 helps us to see the importance of faithful obedience to Jesus in this present age, so that we will participate in the age to come.

The Cursing of the Fig Tree, Cleansing of the Temple, and Jesus’ Authority Questioned (Mark 11:12-12:37)

Mark 11:12-13:37 comprises a single section. Much of the teaching in Mark 11:12-13:37 takes place in or around the temple. Jesus visits the temple in 11:11, after which he goes away with his disciples. The next day, in vv. 12-14, Jesus curses the fig tree.

The cursing of the fig tree is a pronouncement of judgment against Israel because of the nation’s lack of faith in him as the Jewish Messiah. Jesus pronounces judgment on Israel because of their disdain for the temple (11:15-19). Their disdain for the temple symbolizes their disdain for Yahweh, for Israel wasn’t using Yahweh’s house as a house of prayer for the nations, as Jesus suggests in v. 17, but Israel converted his house into a “den of robbers.”

Jesus interprets the meaning of the fig tree symbolically in 11:20-25 as Israel’s faithlessness. The latter is supported when Jesus urges the disciples to have faith (11:23-25). In 11:27-12:24, Mark records a series of dialogues between Jesus and the religious leaders. In each dialogue, the leaders express a lack of faith in Jesus’ authority and messianic status. As a result, Jesus condemns them. In 13:1-37, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple (a symbol of assurance that Yahweh dwelt with the Jews) and the suffering that the nation would experience at the hands of the nations (i.e., Rome) in the coming decades because many within Israel rejected him as the Jewish Messiah. Jesus likewise predicts the future return of the Son of Man to earth to render judgment upon the entire cosmos after his resurrection (13:24-37).

Jesus’ Problem with The Temple and Isa. 56:7 and Jer. 7:11

A puzzling story in this section is when Jesus pronounces judgment upon the temple. Jesus’ problem with the temple isn’t that the people were selling items in it per se, but his problem was that they had converted the temple, a house of worship and praise of Yahweh, into a place of business and a place of injustice, instead of a place where Yahweh was worshiped by his people. Jesus critiques Israel’s abuse of the temple because their abuse represents that their hearts had turned from Yahweh. I offer 3 arguments to support this.

(1) The merchants at the temple were possibly selling vessels from the temple. They were selling holy ornaments for financial gain. This seems plausible by Mark’s editorial note in v. 16 that Jesus “did not permit anyone to carry a vessel through the temple.” This word for vessel (skeuos) is used often in Jewish Literature to refer to the holy vessels of the temple when the word is used in temple texts (1 Esdras 1:39, 45, 54; 2:7, 13; 4:44; Judith 4:3; 1 Maccabees 14:15; 2 Maccabees 4:48; 5:16; 9:16; Baruch 1:8).

(2)  Jesus’ citation of Isa. 56:7 suggests that: “my house will be called a house of prayer.” In its original OT context, Isa. 56:7 is a chapter where Yahweh promises salvation for the nations. He urges Israel in 56:1 to keep justice and do righteousness, for salvation will soon come. Isa. 56:2-6 promises salvation to the foreigner who keeps Yahweh’s covenant. In Isa. 56:6a, Yahweh states that he will bring foreigners to his holy mountain (i.e., to his temple at Zion) and he will make them joyful in his “house of prayer.” The phrase “house of prayer” is a metonym for worship, because Isa. 56:7b speaks of burnt offerings and sacrifices being accepted on Yahweh’s alter in his house. Thus, prayer actually represents temple worship. Then, Isa. 56:7c, the portion that Jesus cites in Mark 11:17, states the reason why sacrifices will be offered and accepted on Yahweh’s alter: “for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” That is, his house will be a house of worship, not a house where justice is perverted.

(3) After Jesus cites Isa. 56:7, Mark records that Jesus accused Israel of converting God’s house into a “den of robbers.” The phrase “den of robbers” comes from Jer. 7:11. In Jeremiah 7, Yahweh commands Jeremiah to pronounce judgment against Israel at the gate of the temple. Israel had turned to false gods and had stopped serving Yahweh in compliance with Torah. Yet, they continued to participate in temple worship as though this would be acceptable to Yahweh although their hearts were faithless toward him. But Jeremiah pronounces that they have turned Yahweh’s house into a “den of robbers” before Israel’s eyes. They perverted justice, but they thought that Yahweh would still dwell with them in his temple.

Jesus, therefore, cites Isa. 56:7 and Jer. 7:11, two prophetic texts that pronounce judgment against Israel, to demonstrate that Israel has turned from serving Yahweh (i.e., the nation was faithless), just as in the texts of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and to demonstrate that unless they have faith in Jesus as Messiah (11:20-25), their judgment is imminent.

The Lesson from the Fig Tree (Mark 11:20-25)

The necessity of faith in Jesus is evident in the lesson from the fig tree. Faithlessness is the reason why Israel’s judgment is imminent. In 11:20, Peter sees a withered fig tree, and it reminds him that Jesus earlier cursed it (v. 21). So, Peter points out to Jesus the tree that he cursed is now withered and doesn’t produce any fruit (v. 21). Jesus responds to Peter by urging him and his disciples to have faith in God. That Jesus’ command isn’t only to Peter is clear from the 2nd person plural pronoun of the Greek verb used in the text.

Then, in v. 23, Jesus uses hyperbole to accentuate the importance of faith: “Truly I say to you that whoever should say to this mountain: be taken away and be thrown into the sea, and whoever should not doubt in his heart, but should believe that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

Verse 24 picks up with the concept of prayer, which initially seems out of place. But an examination of the verse suggests that Jesus discusses prayer from the latter part of v. 23 to emphasize the importance of faith, because he states that God answers prayers offered in faith: “For this reason, as many things you pray and ask, believe that you will receive, and they will be to you.”

Verse 25 illustrates in a practical way what faith in God (in contrast to Israel’s faithlessness) looks like: “and whenever you stand and pray, if you have anything against someone, forgive so that your heavenly Father would forgive against you your transgressions.”

In other words, faith takes sin seriously, unlike faithlessness. Lack of faith in Jesus blinded many in Jesus’ day of the reality that they corrupted the temple because of their sin. Jesus’ encounter with the religious leaders in Mark 11:27-12:44 further supports the importance of faith.

The religious leaders challenge Jesus’ authority as the Jewish Messiah (11:27-12:34). But the faith of the poor widow, who gave in faith out of her poverty, contrasts with the lack of faith of the religious leaders (12:41-44), who gave out of their wealth without faith. As a result of the religious leaders’ faith (who represent Israel), Jesus promises a future judgment of Jerusalem at the hands of foreign invaders (13:1-37). This invasion occurred from 66-70 AD when the Romans fought a war against the Jews and won, a consequence of which was the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.

Conclusion

Jesus requires and demands faithful obedience to him and to his teachings. If we fail to obey Jesus and his teachings, Jesus promises judgment. To be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ. Following Christ is difficult, but worth it. Faith in him will often set his followers at odds with those in the culture in which they live. Regardless of the cultural cost, may Christ-followers count the cost of following Jesus’ teachings.

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