Monday/Tuesday: Fruitlessness or Faith-Filled? (Mark 11:12-25)
I. How Does It End?
I'd like you to listen to a very short story that I read recently. It goes like this:
"A man planted a fig tree in his garden and came again and again to see if there was any fruit on it, but he was always disappointed. Finally, he said to his gardener, 'I've waited three years, and there hasn't been a single fig! Cut it down. It's just taking up space in the garden.' The gardener answered, 'Sir, give it one more chance. Leave it another year, and I'll give it special attention and plenty of fertilizer. If we get figs next year, fine. If not, then you can cut it down.'" (NLT)
I told you it was very short. But let me ask you this, does that story sound familiar? For many of you, it should. It's one of Jesus' parables. Luke recorded it for us (in Luke 13:3-6). Now, did you notice that the story leaves the listener or reader wondering what will happen next; ask “How does it end?” Will there be fruit on the tree...or will it get cut down.
Keep that parable in mind as we turn back to Mark's gospel, specifically to Mark chapter 11.
II. The Passage: "Have Faith in God" (11:12-25)
Even though it's Sunday out there, in here it's Monday of the week that changed everything. What am I talking about? I'm talking about “Holy Week”, that week 2000 years ago that concluded on Easter. Most of us are familiar with days like Easter/Resurrection Sunday, and even Good Friday. And still others have heard of Palm Sunday. But what about Monday of that same week, the Monday in between? What does the NT tell us about the day after Palm Sunday?
Well that brings us back to Mark 11. Turn there if you haven't already.
You may remember that last time Mark described for us Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and how his entry was marked by large crowds of people welcoming him as the Messiah, the son of David, and therefore shouting, “Hosanna” (which means, “Save us, O Lord”).
Now, verse 11 of this chapter simply tells us this about the rest of Jesus' Sunday in Jerusalem: And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
1. A Fruitless Tree (vs. 12-14, 20-21)
So we'll actually pick the story again in verse 12. Listen to what we learn about what happened on Monday of that same week:
On the following day [the day after Jesus entered Jerusalem, looked around, and then went back out...on that next 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.
Now do this, if you will: skip down to verses 20 and 21. That's where Mark continues this story of Jesus and the fig tree. Verse 20...
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.  And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”
If you look again at verse 12, you’ll see that this supernatural incident with the fig tree begins with something quite natural: the fact that Jesus is hungry.
Now, it’s important to point out a couple things about the fig tree. 1) The fig tree is one of the most common trees in Israel. References to it can be found throughout the Bible. 2) One of the interesting things about this tree is that the early fruit that appears on the tree actually precedes the growth of the leaves.
Since our passage is set just before the Passover, Jesus would have known that it was not “the season for figs” as Mark points out. Mark’s wording is a little awkward here, but all he’s really trying to point out is that the presence of leaves on the tree would seem to indicate that there would be some fruit, even though it was not the season for the ripened fruit.
So seeing the leaves, Jesus expects to find some kind of fruit. But He doesn’t.
Now, what’s really unusual here is what Jesus does next. He begins to talk to the tree. Now all of us might know people who talk to their plants or play music for their plants. But that’s not what Jesus is doing here. Those people talk to their plants to encourage growth. Jesus speaks to this tree...to announce it’s destruction.
But why? Well the context seems to point to the fact that Jesus is speaking to the tree for the sake of His disciples. In looking for a snack, Jesus has encountered a situation that He decides to use as a symbolic act for the disciples. What Jesus is doing here is what prophets in the Old Testament often did in obedience to God. They would take everyday objects or situations and invest them with symbolic meaning, like Jeremiah’s sash, or his clay pot, or Zechariah’s staff.
So as THE ultimate prophet sent by God, this barren fig tree becomes the prophet’s symbolic act. But what exactly is the symbolism here?
2. A Fruitless People (vs. 15-19)
Well to answer that question, we need to look at what Mark has inserted in between the two halves of this story of the fig tree. This is what we read in verses 15-19...
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.  And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.  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.”  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.  And when evening came they went out of the city.
So remember, the fig tree was the act of a prophet. So when the OT prophets used symbolism like this, it was always followed by an explanation and/or warning.
What as the issue here? The chief priests in Jerusalem had allowed animal vendors and money-changers to operate in the Temple courts, probably in a very large area called the court of the Gentiles that was just north of the Temple itself.
Now animals were needed for sacrifices in the Temple, and those who brought their own always ran a risk that the animal would not be considered acceptable. In the same way, Jewish pilgrims who came from around the world had to convert their foreign currency into Jewish coinage if they wanted to pay the Temple tax.
But even though such services were needed, the fact that this kind of activity was taking place on the Temple grounds themselves indicated that those involved were lacking a proper reverence for God. Jesus even stops some who were using the court of the Gentiles as a short cut as they carried out their business. Furthermore, ancient sources outside of the New Testament confirm that at certain times, the priests themselves were guilty of financially profiting from this kind of commerce taking place on the Temple grounds.
So it might be safe to say that when we read in verse 11 that Jesus, the day before, “looked around at everything” in the Temple, he had seen what was going on and had been dwelling on this spectacle all night. It wouldn’t be unreasonable at all to say that Jesus knew exactly what he was going to do in the Temple when He spoke to that fig tree.
All that to say, what happened in verses 15-19 did not happen because Jesus had a short-fuse. He was not simply losing his cool or acting impulsively.
What Jesus was doing was make another prophetic statement. He was trying to making a statement about the corruption of worship and the corruption of the Temple leadership. And who does He quote in verse 17? Not surprisingly, he quotes two prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Upon coming to the Temple of God, Jesus found it to be very much like the fig tree he encountered that morning: it had leaves, it had the look of sacred activity and devotion, but it had no fruit; it lacked the fruit of true reverence for God. It had become a place, not of repentance, but of lifeless ritual. It had become a place, not of prayer, but of profit-making. It had become more about man’s work than God’s worship.
And just as He had cursed the fig tree for its lack of fruit, only two chapters later in Mark 13, Jesus will foretell the destruction of this fruitless Temple. And just as that fig tree withered, so too would history confirm the words of Jesus Christ; this massive Temple was destroyed within forty years of Jesus’ pronouncement.
Like the parable of the fruitless fig tree that we started off with this morning, throughout the Old Testament, the image of the tree lacking fruit was used as both a symbol of Israel’s spiritual fruitlessness, and as a description for the judgment that was coming because of that fruitlessness (Jeremiah 8; Joel 1; Hosea 9, 16) . But...but there’s something else the prophets did in their ministry.
3. A Fruitful Lesson (vs. 22-25)
Look with me at verses 22-25. Actually, let's go back and hit verses 20 and 21 again...
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.  And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”  And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God.  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.  Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.  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.”
After the symbolic actions of the Old Testament prophets, after their pronouncements of judgment, we also find the, calling for true worship from God’s people. Isn't that what we see here with Jesus as well, Jesus, the ultimate prophet? Absolutely!
Did you see where Jesus went with His curse on the tree? He doesn’t talk to them about the symbolic significance of the tree. He doesn’t talk to them about Israel’s fruitlessness. He's already done that in several parables. No. He talks to them about faith.
Jesus wants to take advantage of their amazement that His curse really came to pass. But this is where we need to be careful. Some have looked at this passage and concluded that Jesus is, in essence, simply telling them, “You liked that whole ‘cursing-the-fig-tree’ thing? Well you can do stuff just like that if, even more, if you just have faith.”
That’s not exactly what Jesus is saying here. His point is summed up in the opening words of His response to Peter. “Have faith in God.” (x2) Or to put on other words, “Trust God! Trust Him!” And what kind of faith is Jesus describing here? It is a faith that trusts God to do what seems impossible…like, uprooting a mountain and casting into the sea. When Jesus uses the word “this” in 23, “this mountain”, He’s probably talking about the Mount of Olives, from which, if they were on the eastern slope, you can see the Dead Sea [this mountain…into the sea]. But the language here is clearly a hyperbole, a literary exaggeration.
The point is this: God can do what is seemingly impossible. Jesus was calling them to do the very thing that the Temple leadership was failing to do; the very thing that so many of Jesus’ listeners were failing to do: to trust God, especially in circumstances that seemed to be impossibly difficult.
And that contrast between the establishment and Jesus’ desire for His disciples comes through loud and clear when Jesus goes on to talk about how that trust, that “mountain-moving” faith should be demonstrated: Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
One writer put it this way, “Mark sees prayer as faith-verbalized”. The seriousness of our prayer is an indication of the seriousness of our faith” The contrast here comes from Jesus own usage of Isaiah back in verse 17. The Temple was to be “a house of prayer for all the nations”, but it had become a “den of robbers”. So more than just a condemnation of a lack of prayer, Jesus’ words are pointing to a lack of faith. That is the heart of spiritual fruitlessness.
It's easy to see Israel's fruitlessness and failures and think, “Well, we the church, and I as a follower of Jesus won't be like that. No. We will, I will be fruitful.” But then we begin to think about fruitfulness in terms of doing ministry and quantifiable results, right? And yet the lesson Jesus has for his disciples is not really about ministry accomplishments as we tend to think about those. No...now please listen carefully...fruitfulness for Jesus Christ means a genuine faith that trusts God for the impossible, that prays against all odds, and that forgives without limit in light of God's grace. (2x)
To prepare them for His work, for God's work, Jesus calls them to one thing: a needy, but faith-filled heart, both softened and empowered by grace. The opposite of this is what? It's a hard and doubting heart; one resistant to forgiveness. But like we see here, the one who is sensitive to receiving God's forgiveness in his or her life, is sensitive to the importance of granting forgivenss (notice it begins in the heart (v. 25), apart from offender or declaration).
Why do they (and we) need this kind of mountain-moving faith? Because Jesus is calling them (and us) to do what is humanly impossible. He is calling them to rejoice in their sufferings. To walk not by sight. To preach a message that will be considered foolishness. To die daily to themselves. To show grace. To shine His light. To love sacrificially. To see all people, even their Roman overlords, to see all people turned from darkness to light.
How does the week that changed everything change us? It starts from the inside out. Is that what you see God doing in your life? Is that what you are asking God to do in your life? Are you praying, “Father, may I trust you for the impossible, and then pray against all odds, forgiving without limit in light of your grace. Soften my heart by your grace. Empower my heart by your grace. Remind my of how needy I am. But help me trust that you are more than able.”
III. A Curse, A Tree, A Death
Of course our only hope for Monday's lesson is Friday's victory. As we read here in Mark 11 about a curse, a tree, and a death, may God direct our hearts to Paul's words in Galatians 3:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— (Galatians 3:13)
For both Jews and non-Jews, Jesus Christ took God's judgment against our fruitlessness. For his sheep, our shepherd-prophet bore the full brunt of the condemnation He announced. The needy, but faith-filled heart, that is softened and empowered by grace is only possible because of the Cross. That is where we find, in fullest measure, the grace that both softens and empowers.
Wherever you find yourself spiritually, come to Him this morning; come receive this new heart. Come be renewed in that new heart He gave you. It really does change everything.
other sermons in this series