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Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on September 18, 2016 under 2016 |

Message preached Sunday, September 18, 2016 from Mark 11:7-11

Theme: Our Lord isn’t impressed with religious ‘leaves’ when there is no spiritual ‘fruit’.

Lately, we have been in the portion of the Gospel of Mark that tells us about our Lord’s last few days before going to the cross. And this morning, we come to a very strange story from that portion of our Lord’s journey.

Strange as it may be, though, I believe it’s a story that has a great spiritual lesson to teach us.

It’s found in Mark 11; and it tells us of what happened the day after our Lord’s ‘Triumphant Entry’ into the city of Jerusalem. You’ll remember, perhaps, how that day ended. We’re told that after Jesus rode into the city on the colt of a donkey—amid the cheers and celebration of the people—that He then entered the temple. And in verse 11, it says that “when He had looked around at all things, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve.”

And that’s when we come to our strange story. Mark 11:12-14 tells us;

Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.” And His disciples heard it (Mark 11:12-14).

It’s then—after the event of cursing this fig tree—that Jesus went with His disciples a second time into the temple. And in this second time, a shocking thing happened—quite in contrast to the quiet and passive event of His first visit. He drove out those who bought and sold wares in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers who had set up business in it, and prevented those who were trying to transport merchandise through it. He taught them all; saying,

Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves’” (v. 17).

After that second day’s visit had come to an end—and no doubt while His disciples were still in shock over the stunning things Jesus had done in the temple—Mark 11:20-21 tells us,

Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away” (v. 20-21).

There are many things in this portion of God’s word that we should take our time to carefully consider and learn from. But I hope that, in our time together this morning, we may just focus in on the strange story of that fig tree—and how significant it is in the light of the things that had happened around it.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Now; this strange story isn’t the first time in the Bible that we find a fig tree or its leaves. We encounter the leaves of a fig tree, in fact, in the very first story that the Bible gives to us. After Adam and Eve had sinned against God in the garden of Eden, we’re told that their eyes were opened and that they knew they were naked; and so, “they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings” (Genesis 3:7).

At the very start of the Bible, then, the leaves of a fig tree are made symbolic of trying to cover up something from the sight of God—even though God clearly sees and knows all things.

That’s not to say, of course, that the fig tree is always meant to symbolize something bad. Far from it! In fact, the fig tree—and especially its fruit—is very often used in the Bible as a symbol of prosperity and blessing in Israel. There are several occasions in the Bible when seasons of blessing for God’s people are described as “each man under his vine and his fig tree”. And likewise, times of trouble and judgment in Israel are described as times when God causes the vine to dry up and the fig tree to wither.

In fact, it would seem that the Bible even uses the fig tree and its fruit as a symbol of Israel itself. In Hosea 9:10, God says,

I found Israel

Like grapes in the wilderness;

I saw your fathers

As the firstfruits on the fig tree in its first season” (Hosea 9:10).

And what’s more, it’s a symbol of the promised blessedness and prosperity of Israel in the time of the Messiah’s reigns. That time of Jesus’ future reign from Jerusalem is described in this way in Zechariah 3:10;

In that day,’ says the Lord of hosts,

Everyone will invite his neighbor

Under his vine and under his fig tree’” (Zechariah 3:10).

So; when we read of Jesus encountering this fig tree on His way to Jerusalem as Israel’s promised King—and particularly, when we read of Him cursing it for having leaves but bearing no fruit—we’re clearly reading of an act that has deep symbolic significance. In fact, some Bible scholars have referred to this story as an ‘acted parable’. The closer we look into it, the more—I believe—we will see that it’s not merely a strange story; but rather, an important spiritual lesson being acted out before our eyes by the Lord Jesus; a lesson to which we do very well to carefully heed.

* * * * * * * * * *

Let’s look into this story in verses 12-14 a little closer; and first consider what it teaches us about …


In verse 12, we’re told that Jesus’ encounter with this fig tree happened “the next day” after Jesus’ momentous ‘Triumphant Entry’ into the city of Jerusalem. He had gone there as the promised King of Israel; and presented Himself to His people in obedience to the Old Testament prophecies concerning His coming.

And of course, the expectations that the people had about Him were very high. They had hoped that he would come into the city to immediately take up His rightful place as the Son of King David, cast out all the Romans and Gentiles as a mighty conquering Messiah, and begin the glories of His reign as King of the Jews then and there.

But that’s not why He came. The Bible tells us that He will reign in that way in the future. But the reason He came into the city back then—long before that earthly reign—was so that He could first die on the cross and atone for the sins of mankind. Instead of conquering on that day—as everyone expected He would—He instead quietly walked around in the holy temple of God His Father, looked around and observed all the things that were going on there, then left to go over the hill and back to the little town of Bethany for the night.

Now; some Bible teachers have speculated—but not unreasonably so—that the night He spent in Bethany was a difficult one for Him. He had gazed upon all the money-changers and marketers and merchants defiling the sacred purpose of His Father’s house. He had seen how the Jewish people had retained the spiritual ‘glimmer’ and ‘glitz’ of the temple; but also how they had lost the genuine spirit of reverence and worship that ought to have been in it—covering up their spiritual loss with the ‘fig leaves’ of empty religious symbols and practices, and with the buying and selling of religious trinkets and gimmicks. It was like He had said on another occasion:

This people honors Me with their lips,

But their heart is far from Me.

And in vain they worship Me,

Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’ (Mark 7:7).

It may have been that He and His disciples had gone to the home of His dear friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus; but most likely, He didn’t spend a very restful night in Bethany. What He saw had burned within His heart. And perhaps, in all of it—even though we know from elsewhere in the Bible that Martha was a wonderful cook—He had not felt very much like eating.

That is speculation, of course. But it may help explain what we read in verses 12-13;

Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it (vv. 12-13a).

The fig tree was out of the way; but was conspicuous to the eye. And what’s more, it was immediately attractive and inviting because it had leaves. Leaves usually followed after the growth of fruit; and so the leaves would have suggested to our hungry Lord and His disciples that, beneath those leaves, it bore figs rip for eating. And so, He drew near and looked for fruit to satisfy His longing.

And may I suggest to you that that was what our Lord was longing for from Israel? He wanted to come to Jerusalem—to the sacred temple of His Father—and to find true spiritual fruit from His people. He wanted to see them looking for Him to come to them as the promised Savior; and He wanted to see them turning from their sin and seeking God’s grace through Him.

Confession of sin; true repentance; a hunger for holiness; a delight in the Lord and for His holy law; and looking for and seeking of the promised Savior from sin—that was the kind of fruit Jesus longed to see from His people.

* * * * * * * * * *

But that’s not what He found. In fact, the Gospel of Luke tells us that as He drew near to the city in His ‘Triumphant Entry’—even though all the people along the road were celebrating; and even though the temple within was bustling with religious activity—He was weeping with sorrow over Jerusalem; saying,

If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:42-44).

This leads us to consider again the fig tree; and …


He saw that the tree was rich with leaves; and so, He drew near to have His longing satisfied with the good fruit that it seemed to promise. But as Mark tells us in verse 13;

When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs (v. 13).

As it turned out, the regular season for the growth of figs was still about a month away. And yet, even though the tree appeared to bear fruit early—and at a time when it would satisfy His longing—it bore nothing. It was barren. It was a remarkable fig tree—one that bore leaves early; and yet offered nothing of the luscious fruit that its leaves advertised. It not only did not satisfy His longing; but it instead frustrated His longing and made His hunger even more intense.

And again; may I suggest to you that that’s how our Lord felt when He came to His people? They had the temple. They had the rituals. They had the offerings. They had the feasts. They had the ceremonies. The had the hustle and bustle of religious activity. In fact, it would have been the most ‘religious’ city in the world. And yet, upon closer examination, there was no true spiritual fruit. It had all the leaves of the fig tree; but none of the promised figs that our Lord longed for. No repentance. No sorrow for sin. No longing for God’s gift of righteousness by grace. No welcome for Jesus as the promised Savior.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Lord once told a parable about this; and He told it in the context of the call for repentance. He said;

A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-9).

Our Lord was just about to come to the end of His three-and-a-half-year-long public ministry to His people. Could it be that, throughout all that time, He sought fruit from Israel … that He had given it time … but, after all that time of waiting, found none?

This leads us back once again to the story of the fig tree—this tree covered with the leaves of promise, but barren of the fruit it boasted. It’s then that we see …


In verse 14, Mark tells us;

In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again” (v. 14) …

or, as it can be more accurately translated from the original language, “No longer—unto the age—let anyone eat fruit from you.” The deceitful fig tree—bearing the outward sign of fruit, but bearing none of the reality—had lost its opportunity to bear any fruit for anyone any longer; even to the end of that age.

Mark tells us that Jesus’ disciples were present and heard Him say this strange thing to the fig tree. And then next day—as they walked by it again—they were amazed to see that it had withered. It became as barren to the appearance as it had been in fact—beneath its previously rich display of leaves.

And after having thus cursed the fig tree, Jesus went into the temple in Jerusalem—the center of the religious life of the Jewish people—and cleansed it of its money changers and merchants.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; I believe that this story is meant to teach us two lessons—but with a common theme. That common theme is that our Lord is never pleased to find the outward leaves of ‘religion’ without true spiritual ‘fruit’. And the first lesson of this common theme has to do with Israel.

Think of how Israel was like that fig tree1:

  • First, like the fig tree, it has stood in this world in a conspicuous position—both as the center of so much of this world’s activity and concern, and also as the center of so much of its history. All the world knows of Israel … and of Israel’s God.
  • Second, like the fig tree, it is attractive in its religious appearance. It has been known throughout history as the land of God’s promise. It’s from the Jewish people that God has revealed Himself to the world; sending forth His revealed word from it, and also bringing forth His appointed Savior and King by it.
  • Third, like the fig tree, it was barren of the spiritual fruit it promised. God’s own verdict of His people Israel was that they had drawn near to Him with its lips, but were far from Him in their hearts. Israel’s history is a sad and long one of unfaithfulness to the God who called it into being for Himself.
  • And finally, like the fig tree, it came to a swift end after the Lord had come to it. It was only a few decades later—in 70 A.D.—that the city of Jerusalem was completely destroyed by the Romans, and the Jewish people scattered from their land around the world for nearly two-thousand years. Only recently have they returned.

This teaches us that our Lord did not tolerate the outward show of religious ceremony and ritual—not even from even His own precious, chosen people—when they did not bear the fruit of true spiritual life and love for Him.

I believe, though, that this did not mean that our Lord was through with His precious people Israel. I wonder if, like me, you see signs of grace in this story. When Jesus cursed the fig tree—as it is in the original language—He did not literally say that no one would eat fruit of it again ever again from that day forward and forever. Rather, He said—as the original language has it—that no one would eat of it again “unto the age”. Not “unto the ages”, as if in the plural; but “unto the age”, as if in the singular. I believe that this speaks of the age that was then commenced by our Lord’s coming on that day. From then on—and after the city’s destruction in 70 A.D.—it came to be what the Bible calls “the times of the Gentiles”2. That “age”, in God’s redemptive plan, is the time of the spread of the Gospel throughout the Gentile world. It’s the age in which we now live. It’s an age that will one day—perhaps very soon—come to an end; and then, God’s precious chosen people will then be restored to a place of prominence.

I also note that, in this story of the fig tree, our Lord did not find fruit upon it “for it was not the season for figs”. The Bible teaches us, however, that the time of Israel’s true fruitfulness is yet to come. As the apostle Paul tells us in Romans 11:25-27—himself being a Jewish man;

blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:

The Deliverer will come out of Zion,

And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob;

For this is My covenant with them,

When I take away their sins” (Romans 11:25-27).

What a great and gracious God we serve!

* * * * * * * * * *

But I believe there is a second lesson that this story is meant to teach—and it has to do with you and me. Just as our Lord was not impressed with the outward “leaves” of religion from His people when He found no true spiritual “fruit”, neither will He be pleased with it when He finds the same situation in us.

In the Book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus wrote a letter to a church in a city called Sardis; and in it He said;

I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you” (Revelation 3:1-3).

As professing followers of Jesus, we can be just like that barren fig tree. We can be putting forth all the outward ‘leaves’ of spirituality—going to church regularly, talking the Christian talk, expressing our anger over unrighteous people in this world, condemning sin, carrying our Bible around, living an outwardly moral life; and yet, the whole time long, not bearing the kind of fruit that the Lord Jesus truly longs to find in us—sorrow for the sin in our own lives, a humble trust in the cross of Jesus alone for salvation, true repentance from sin as an ongoing habit of life, a deep and personal relationship of love for our Savior and for our brothers and sisters in Christ, a walk of obedience to His word in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Dear brothers and sisters; I don’t want our Lord to find me to be all outward display and no real fruit. I don’t want to be guilty of ‘the leafy deception of a barren fig tree’. And I don’t believe you do either. Let’s ask Him to do whatever is needed to be done in us—individually, and as a church family—so that we are found by Him bearing the kind of fruit that truly delights His heart.

I have adapted this comparison from W. Graham Scroggie, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Zondrervan Publishing House, 1976), pp. 200-201.

See Luke 21:24.

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