Our last article considered the Lord’s Arrival in Jerusalem. He came in fulfilment of prophecy, “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zec 9:9 ESV), and, having “looked round about upon all things” (Mar 11:11) in the temple, He left, spending the night in Bethany.
Mark’s record of the second day of “passion week” emphasizes the Lord’s Authority. It commences with the Lord cursing a fig tree and concludes with Him cleansing the temple (11:12-19).
His Authority (11:12-19)
Three closely linked narratives are brought together. First, the Tree is Cursed (vv12-14); then, the Temple is Cleansed (vv15-19) and, finally, the Teaching is Communicated (vv20-26). A fig tree is the focus of the first and third of these narratives, with the cleansing of the temple sandwiched in between.
The Tree Is Cursed (vv12-14)
Returning to Jerusalem from Bethany, the Lord was hungry and saw “a fig tree afar off having leaves” (v13). The foliage of the fig tree was an indicator that figs could be expected upon it. So He approached the fig tree to see if He could find anything on it. However, when He “came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs” (v13 ESV). In sharp contrast to the appearance of the tree was the absence of fruit. The Lord then cursed the tree: “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever” (v14).
The tree was judged because of its symbolic hypocrisy. There was an abundance of foliage but no figs. Leaves which should have confirmed the presence of fruit only served to conceal its absence.
Israel is symbolized by the fig tree. In a previous parable about the fig tree the Lord predicted that it would be “cut down,” indicating divine judgment on the nation (Luk 13:6-9).
In the present historical narrative, the Lord’s controversy with the nation of Israel is illustrated powerfully. The glory of the temple in Jerusalem and the greatness of the ceremonies and rituals associated with it only concealed the absence of the fruit the Lord hungered after. He would judge Israel’s hypocrisy.
The Temple Is Cleansed (vv15-19)
The Lord again entered Jerusalem and the temple court. He “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” (vv15-16 ESV). This was no hasty outburst of irritation. He had already “looked round about upon all things” (v11) and made His assessment. The Lord may act suddenly in judgment, but He is never hasty or ill-informed.
Three actions of the Lord are specified. First, He forcibly ejected those who were trading in the temple precincts. This trade was in animals used by the Jews for their sacrifices at the temple. Caiaphas, the high priest, had recently authorized this trade, providing ritually pure animals for worshippers and lining his own pockets and those of his family at the same time.
Next, the Lord overturned the furniture used by money changers and sellers of doves. The money changers were there to cash in on the fact that each Jewish male over 20 years old had to pay a half shekel annually to the temple (Exo 30:11-16). Because foreign coins were not permitted, money changers could charge exorbitant fees to change Roman or Greek coins to Jewish currency. They enriched themselves and the high-priestly family in the process.
Finally, He prohibited people from using the temple courts as a common thoroughfare.
During the cleansing of the temple the Lord was teaching, giving the rationale for His actions. “And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves” (v17). The authority for His activity was based upon Scripture.
His Old Testament references were drawn from Isaiah, “For mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people” (56:7), and Jeremiah, “Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it, saith the LORD” (7:11).
The temple was to have the reputation of being “an house of prayer for all people.” Gentiles must, therefore, be welcome there. However, the only place where Gentiles were admitted had been turned into a marketplace to serve Jewish worshippers and greedy traders. Also, God’s house, a place inextricably linked with the reputation of Yahweh, had become a place of greed, corruption and thievery.
As representing the God of Israel, the temple should have reflected both love and light, grace and truth. The Lord had looked but found no true demonstration of God’s character anywhere. The temple had been reduced to a place of self-serving for the high-priestly family. The Lord, by action and word, challenged the authority of the religious leadership, showing how far they had swerved from truly representing Yahweh.
The response from the religious authorities was swift. The “scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine” (v18). The two main groups in the Sanhedrin united to destroy Him. Why? Because He quoted the Scripture to challenge their actions and was zealous to purify the temple from their excess.
The Lord cursed the tree which promised fruit but produced none. He cleansed the temple which, though magnificent, did not reflect God’s character. There are lessons in this for us. Are we hypocritical? Are we play-acting at looking good while producing no fruit for God? What is the fruit the Lord looks for in His people? It is likeness to Him. As He was “full of grace and truth” (Joh 1:14), so should we be. Local assemblies should, likewise, manifest God’s grace and goodness to all.
 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.