The Fig Tree Series, Part 3: Going Past the Outer Courts
“Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. And He began to teach and say 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 robbers’ den.” The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching.” (Mark 11:15-18, NASB)
So this whole time, we’ve been talking about the fig tree, and how the Lord never puts anything to waste in the scriptures. Everything thas a Kingdom-minded meaning. What might seem random to us, upon pressing deeper, turns out to have a much deeper meaning. What I think is so unique in Mark 11, is that we get to see one of those random, unassuming parts of scripture become the practical application in just a few short verses.
Last week, we went through how the fig tree Jesus curses isn’t just a fig tree with no fruit. It’s actually a deeper metaphor of how Christians can be. Just like the fig tree gave the appearance of fruit without actually being fruitful, Christians can give the appearance of faith without the “fruits” of living a life in submission to and glorifying Jesus. And what was the fate of that fruitless fig tree? Jesus cursed it so that it would never bear fruit again. Harsh, but necessary, Jesus knew that a dead tree would be better than a misleading tree because it couldn’t fake out anyone else.
Maybe it sounds radical, but the reality is that a Christian that leads other people astray with a false sense of Jesus is tossed out just the same when the time comes for the Lord to judge them. And yes, sometimes the practical application of that looks harsh… like cursing a fig tree so that it never bears fruit. Or kicking everyone out of the temple to show the Pharisees that it is never acceptable to put personal gain above glorifying God.
The scene looks like this: It was the week of Passover, so people were traveling from far and wide to offer a sacrifice and worship in Solomon’s Temple, much like people travel from far and wide to watch the New Years Eve ball drop in Times Square.
So, just imagine, the Temple is mobbed, and much like today, the scammers and opportunists of the city come out to prey on all these tourists that are simply trying to worship God for a sacred day. First, you have the merchants who were selling doves and animals to be used as sacrifices for the people entering the inner parts of the Temple. These merchants knew it was the tendency of these people to buy their animal sacrifices in the city, rather than packing them up at home and lugging them miles and miles to Jerusalem and the temple. So these merchants were preying on the peoples’ desire for convenience by trying to sell them their goods right outside of where the altar was in the inner courts.
Second, there were the money-changers, who were aware that these tourists were also going to have to exchange their local currencies into a currency that was acceptable to pay the mandatory Temple taxes. Between the merchants and the money-changers, all of a sudden, a place reserved for holy acts of worship and prayer becomes a noisy marketplace of opportunists preying on the needy and using worship as a business strategy to profit off of.
I’m hoping you’re starting to remember that fruitless fig tree; because these opportunists all profited off of the guise that they were trying to help the worshipper. They were simply trying to use their financial provision as a means to aid the believer… for a price. When I see this scene in my head, and I imagine Jesus walking through the gates of the Temple– already frustrated by the fig tree from earlier that morning– only to see more manipulation and profiteering running rampant in His Father’s House?
I understand His indignation. I understand how that sight lit a righteous anger in His heart. I can see why He flipped some tables and ran those people out of the Temple. Because to Jesus, an empty temple is better than a temple full of manipulation.
And here’s what I think is cool: in verse 17, Jesus says, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’” And it might seem like an innocent one-liner meant to knock some sense into the priests and Pharisees that just let this corruption run rampant in the Temple… until you realize exactly where in the Temple Jesus is standing and causing this scene: the Court of Gentiles, or the outer court.
This specific part of the Temple was the only area that the gentiles, or non-Jews, could pray and worship. In Jewish culture, the inner courts and the Holy of Holies were only accessible to the Jewish people and the priests that represented them before God– the chosen people. So when the Pharisees gave merchants and money-changers access to the Temple, where did they allow them access? To the only area of the Temple the gentiles could enter. Why? Because the Pharisees saw the gentiles as a waste of time– the people God created to be inferior to His chosen people. So to them, what use was there to have a court dedicated to the gentiles to worship a God that made them secondary to everyone else, except that they could use that area as prime real estate to turn a profit for the Temple.
But Jesus, in all His mercy and kindness, sees the value in all of us. That’s why He fights for us. That’s why He’s our advocate. Because in the midst of His righteous anger for His Father’s house, He still found it in Himself to defend the Jew AND the Gentile. He knew scripture and He knew the Father’s Heart: that the Temple was not just for the Israelites, but for the gentile as well. God desires for His house to be a home for all people, all nations– not just a chosen few.
Jesus holds all of us accountable to the Truth, whether we hold it as reverent or not. We can be like the fruitless fig tree, dressing ourselves up as a Christian and a corrupt temple. We can allow our hearts to be overtaken with things that don’t glorify God, but turn us an earthly profit. We can allow our time, fruit, and legacy to be farmed out to the highest bidder, all while lifting our hands in apparent worship. We can idolize our own appearance and status, sacrificing it on an altar of our own making, an altar that looks like it’s all for God, when in reality it’s all for us.
Or we can allow Jesus through the gates of our hearts and flip over whatever tables He wants to, chasing out any desire that puts other gods before the One who we were created to be with. The One who chose to make Himself accessible to the Jews, but also to me. Because Jesus was the one to give me permission to come closer to Him than just the outer courts. Jesus, God in human form, in the very same week that He cleared out the Temple, went to a cross and died as the final sacrifice that would allow me to come closer than just the outside-looking-in. He died so that I could go into the Holy of Holies, where His presence dwells; and I wouldn’t have to go to a mountain or a city to do it.
So yes, that’s why the fig tree is so important: because if we don’t understand what Jesus is trying to tell us over and over again, it will eventually be too late. If we continue to allow our hearts– the new, post-resurrection Temple– to be bought out by lesser idols, then we will be tossed away. We will be cleared out.
And I don’t want that for you and myself. I want something deeper. I want to be found worthy enough to accept His invitation into His presence and promises. I want to be found with fruit and right with the Lord.