A Den of Robbers | Mark 11:12-26

On the following 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.

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.

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.”

Mark 11:12-26 ESV

One of George Washington’s favorite scriptural images to use in his speeches was drawn from 1 Kings 4:25, Micah 4:4, and Zechariah 3:10, that every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree. It is no wonder that Washington loved this imagery, for even without many vineyards or fig trees around us we still catch something of its meaning. Fig trees can grow impressively large, produce one of the sweetest of all fruits, and have wide leaves that make ideal shade. The grapes from vineyards were certainly snacks as well, but more importantly they were pressed into wine. Furthermore, while being radically different plants, the two were often grown together because they share a similar preference for climate and similar root system. Since fig trees were less maintenance than vineyards, they would often be planted first to test whether or not the soil could support a vineyard. Indeed, for every man to sit under his own vine and fig tree was a sign of household independence, prosperity, and security.

Thus, it is no accident that the scouts of the Promised Land returned with a cluster of grapes, pomegranates, and figs. Neither is it surprising that the Bride in Song of Solomon would rejoice in the love and land that she and her beloved shared, saying, “The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away” (Song of Solomon 2:13).

Particularly in the prophets, it is not uncommon for the LORD to speak of His judgment against Israel in association with figs and vines. “And I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees, of which she said, ‘These are my wages, which my lovers have given me'” (Hosea 2:12). “It has laid waste my vine and splintered the fig tree; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches are made white” (Joel 1:7). “I struck you with blight and mildew; your many gardens and your vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locust have devoured; yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:9).

Having now entered Jerusalem for His final time week before the crucifixion, it should neither surprise us to find Jesus giving two parables (one enacted and the other spoken) of His assessment of the spiritual condition of God’s people using these two plants. We begin today with an enacted parable using a fig tree, while next week we shall hear a spoken parable of a vineyard.

MAY NO ONE EVER EAT FRUIT FROM YOU AGAIN // VERSES 12-14

Our passage begins with Jesus making His way back to Jerusalem. Being hungry, He saw a fig tree along the way full of leaves, yet when He found no figs, He cursed the tree.

These simple verses are some of the most controversial in all of the four Gospels. One commentator writes, “There can be no doubt that this, without exception, is the most difficult story in the gospel narrative. To take it as literal history presents difficulties which are well-nigh insuperable. The story does not ring true. To be frank, the whole incident does not seem worthy of Jesus.”[1]

To be similarly frank, I believe that such a conclusion comes from attempting to be more holy and pious than Christ Himself. It presumes to know how Jesus should act and from those presumptions sets itself as the arbiter of Scripture’s truthfulness. Instead, we should submit ourselves to the reality of this text so that we may then ask why Jesus cursed the tree.

You see, many people, including the commentator above, can only seem to read this passage as a selfish and petty act of destruction. Yet from the rest of Scripture, we know that Jesus never acted in such a manner. While this may be His only destructive miracle in the Gospels, we can be certain that it was not done out of selfishness or pettiness. Instead, Jesus used the fig tree as an enacted parable, as a real-world illustration of a deeper spiritual reality. And as Morgan notes, “There is no more warrant for criticizing our Lord for destroying a tree for the purpose of teaching, than there is for objecting to a Christmas tree for our children, or the plucking of the petals from a flower in a lesson on botany.”[2]

But what was the lesson? Even though Mark specifically tells us that it was not the season for figs, Jesus expected figs because the tree was full of leaves, which was the indication of fruit. It bore the external markers of fruitfulness, yet it lacked one key ingredient: the fruit.

Many theologians far wiser than myself have said that this is a warning against hypocrisy, against having only the appearance of godliness without actually bearing the fruit of godly behavior. While that is certainly true, I think we can go further up and further in to the core of this lesson by saying that it is a parable about the curse of fruitlessness. Hypocrisy certainly is a primary form of fruitlessness, yet it is not the same fruitlessness. Why does this distinction matter?

What is the purpose of a fig tree? To bear figs. The tree’s fruitlessness meant that it had failed to be what it was fundamentally created to be. It failed to give fruit to the people, animals, and even soil around it.

What is your purpose? Is that not the million-dollar question of our day? A fig tree is meant to produce figs, but what fruit are you meant to produce? What fruit am I meant to produce? What is the fruit that the Creator demands of humanity, we who have been created in His image? I think the Westminster Catechism is right: The chief end of man [or, the fruit that we should all be producing] is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. The fruit that I produce should be the glorification of God my Creator.

But that is still too abstract. Let us go further. How can we glorify God? By loving Him and obeying His commands and law.

But what is the law of God? Jesus Himself will soon tell us that the summary of the God’s law is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is fitting, therefore, that 1 John 4:8 says, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” A fruitless fig tree is deserving of destruction because it is not fulfilling its purpose given to it by the Creator. Likewise, a loveless person is fit for destruction because he or she is not fulfilling the purpose given to us by our Creator, in whose image we have been made.

OVERTURNING TABLES // VERSES 15-19

Leaving aside the fruitless fig tree for a moment, we read that Jesus entered into Jerusalem and went again to the temple. This time, however, He did not merely look around; instead, He drove out those who sold pigeons and exchanged money. As He did this, He taught 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.”

In order to understand what is happening here, we need to understand the basic layout of the temple. At the center of the temple was the Most Holy Place, also called the Holy of Holies, where the high priest would go in to sacrifice once a year on the Day of Atonement. Outside of that room, there was the Holy Place where daily sacrifices were made, where only the priests could enter. Next came the Court of the Israelites, where Jewish men could come to pray and bring offerings. Then there was the Court of the Women, where Jewish women were permitted to worship. Finally, there was the Court of the Gentiles, which was a massive area where any God-fearing non-Jew could come to worship the true and living God. The merchants that Jesus drove out were doing business within this outer court for the Gentiles.

What makes Jesus’ quotation of the Isaiah 56:7 so significant is that the word for Gentiles and nations is the same. The Gentiles are the nations, and the nations are the Gentiles. The two terms are synonymous. Thus, God’s intent has always been to disciple the nations, to bring all peoples into the fold of His people. To this end, Israel was meant to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6), displaying to all other nations the glorious beauties of Yahweh. Yet the Jews came to despise the nations rather than long for their salvation. Indeed, R. C. Sproul notes that “The Jews hoped that the Messiah would cleanse the temple of Gentiles, but Jesus cleansed the temple for the Gentiles.”[3]

With this in mind, let us return to Jesus’ teaching here. God’s house was meant to be a house of prayer for all the nations, but they had turned it into a den of robbers. What exactly was the sin here that Jesus was rebuking? Many say that the merchants were extorting the people, spiking the prices of sacrificial animals for those who had come a long way to worship. Perhaps, but is that what Mark says was happening? We read much maliciousness upon the merchants here, but I think it is just as likely that they justified their business within the temple to themselves by saying that they were meeting people’s needs. After all, many people did travel great distances to worship at the temple, and they would need to buy their sacrifices whenever they arrived. Offering such a service within the temple was really a way of serving others, right? They were helping to make worship more convenient. How could that ever be wrong?

They missed the purpose of the temple and had become robbers. Robbers of whom? On one level, they were robbing the Gentiles of their ability to find a solemn place for prayer within the Court of the Gentiles by filling it with animals and business. But on an even larger level, they were robbing God of His due and proper worship, for that was the purpose of the temple. Like the fig tree with its leaves, the temple was active, busy, and seemingly bursting with life, yet its fruit was missing. All its leaves were for naught without it producing figs. All the activity in the temple was likewise for naught whenever that activity obscured and hindered the Gentiles ability to pray.

This, by the way, is my largest problem with the so-called seeker-sensitive movement and its attempt to make church more appealing and more attractive to visitors. By centering worship around what will be most pleasing, God is robbed of being worship’s chief end, and paradoxically, the people being served are robbed of having their focus shifted onto the Most High.

Yet we should not merely point the finger of rebuke at others, for we are just as capable of allowing activities, events, and even ministries to obscure or hinder our worship of God. Francis Schaeffer once exhorted that “If we put activity, even good activity, at the center rather than trusting God, then there may be the power of the world, but we will lack the power of the Holy Spirit.”[4]

J. C. Ryle counsels us to also apply this lesson individually, writing:

Let us always remember, that baptism, and church membership, and reception of the Lord’s supper, and a diligent use of the outward forms of Christianity, are not sufficient to save our souls. They are leaves, nothing but leaves, and without fruit will add to our condemnation. Like the fig leaves of which Adam and Eve made themselves garments, they will not hide the nakedness of our souls from the eye of an all-seeing God, or give us boldness when we stand before him at the last day. No! we must bear fruit, or be lost forever. There must be fruit in our hearts and fruit in our lives, the fruit of repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and true holiness in our conversation. Without such fruits as these a profession of Christianity will only sink us lower into hell.[5]

Refusing to hear Jesus’ warning, the chief priests and the scribes resolved to destroy Him out of fear and jealousy. How tragic that God Himself warned them of their errors, yet they could only think of how they might destroy Him! Rightly did Christ lament, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37)!

HAVE FAITH IN GOD // VERSES 20-25

After leaving the city again for the evening, verse 20 tells us of Jesus’ return to Jerusalem on Tuesday morning, and as they passed by the fig tree, the disciples saw that it had withered to its roots. Again, fig trees could be quite large and have aggressive roots, so this overnight withering was clearly supernatural, which evidently the intent behind Peter’s statement in verse 21.

In verse 22, Jesus begins a teaching to His disciples that seems to have little connection to everything that we have discussed so far.

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.

While these words are certainly difficult to understand in light of their context, we can safely say that Jesus did not intend to give fuel to the “name it and claim it” fire. Faith is not a mystical ingredient that forces God to answer our prayers. Instead, I think G. Campbell Morgan makes the proper connection to the previous verses by saying:

[Jesus] was not giving them the secret for destroying fig trees; but the secret for so living that they should not be destroyed as the fig tree had been destroyed. When the Son of man came to Jerusalem for His final investigation, He found faith missing, He found leaves without fruit… He gave them the secret of making destruction unnecessary; and therefore the secret of removing obstacles to the Kingdom…[6]

Fruitlessness is ultimately caused by faithlessness. We fail to fulfill the purpose for which God designed and redeemed us because we do not have faith to see the majesty of His design and redemption. Like a mountain obstructing our path and blocking our view of the road ahead, we are often blind to way in which God patches together into a glorious tapestry our simple, ordinary faithfulness to orient our lives around loving God and loving our neighbor through the Spirit’s power.

Therefore, we ought to have faith and pray diligently for the Lord to remove any such obstacles that might hinder our fruitfulness. And since we know that such prayers are scriptural and in accordance with God’s will, we can have the utmost confidence that He will answer us, even though God’s answers do not often appear as we expect them. This indeed ought to be a challenge to us, for I believe that one great hindrance to fervent prayer is the thought that “God will do His will regardless of my prayers.” While that statement is technically correct, the vast testimony of both Scripture and church history is that God delights to accomplish His will through our prayers. As our heavenly Father, He delights to meet our needs whenever we call upon Him and similarly delights in working us into His grand redemption plan for the entire cosmos.

I believe Christ speaks of forgiveness in verse 25, as being an all-too-common mountain before us, since failing to forgive hinders our very prayers. Failing to forgive, especially when repentance is given, makes us like the servant from Jesus’ parable who was forgiven an exceedingly large debt yet failed to forgive another servant of a comparatively tiny debt (Matthew 18:21-35). How can we be recipients of God’s endless grace while not also showing grace to those around us?

Ryle once more probes us to consider:

Do we know what it is to be of a forgiving spirit? Can we look over the injuries that we receive from time to time in this evil world? Can we pass over a transgression and pardon an offence? If not, where is our Christianity?  If not, why should we wonder that our souls do not prosper? Let us resolve to amend our ways in this matter. Let us determine by God’s grace to forgive, even as we hope to be forgiven. This is the nearest approach we can make to the mind of Christ Jesus. This is the character which is most suitable to a poor sinful child of Adam. God’s free forgiveness of sins is our highest privilege in this world. God’s free forgiveness will be our only title to eternal life in the world to come. Then let us be forgiving during the few years that we are here upon earth.[7]

Yet with all of this in mind, let us return to verse 22: Have faith in God. Have faith that is marked by its fruitfulness and that rebels against unfruitfulness. We have seen examples of such extraordinarily ordinary faith all throughout Mark’s Gospel. Faith enough to know that Christ’s cleansing touch is greater than the defilement of leprosy. Faith enough to believe that the slightest touch of His garment can heal. Faith enough to scream His kingship through a crowded street. Faith enough to follow Him, even when that means abandoning everything else. Faith enough to grab hold of Christ, and faith enough to know that we rest in His faithfulness, not our own. Faith enough to believe that our salvation is by the grace of our Lord alone and not by any good works that we manage to perform. Faith enough to call upon the Name above every name and be saved.

Such faith, rooted in Christ the eternal Word, must produce fruit. Trees planted beside Christ the Living Water can do nothing less. Indeed, Jesus is our supreme example, the ultimately fruitful tree. Remember that trees do not consume their own fruit; rather, they bear fruit for the nourishment of others. In the same way, let us remember that Christ came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (10:45). He came for our redemption and to accomplish the Father’s will. He is the only one who has ever fully loved God and loved His every neighbor, fulfilling the law of God in its entirety without ever wavering.

Therefore, as we come to the supper of our Lord, let us look upon Him for both our salvation from sin and our fruitfulness in obeying our Father’s commands. As we taste and see the goodness of our Savior, let us meditate upon the words of Christ in John 15:1-5:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.


[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, 269.

[2] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Mark, 252.

[3] R. C. Sproul, Mark: An Expositional Commentary, 258.

[4] Francis Schaeffer, The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way & No Little People, 46-47.

[5] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 184.

[6] Morgan, Mark, 257-258.

[7] Ryle, Mark, 189.

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