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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:Where is the fruit?
Text:Mark 11:12-18 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ
 
Preached:2011
Added:2011-06-10
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Psalm 42:1-3
Psalm 38:1-3, 7, 8 (after the law)
Psalm 1
Hymn 76
Psalm 57

Reading:  Malachi 3
Text:  Mark 11:12-18
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

We’re finally at that time of year where trees are showing signs of life.  Leaves are out and some trees have blossoms on them.  Blossoms are a welcome sight because we know that in due time, many of those trees with blossoms are going to bear fruit. 

Fruit-bearing trees figure prominently throughout the Bible.  Think of how Scripture begins in a garden.  In the Garden of Eden, there were fruit trees for Adam and Eve to enjoy.  They could eat from any of them – except for one: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Adam and Eve listened to the lies of the evil one and ate the forbidden fruit.  Popular portrayals often show them eating an apple, but we have no idea of knowing what kind of fruit it was.  The point of the story is that this fruit was explicitly off limits and Adam and Eve transgressed. 

In the Old Testament, God’s people were often portrayed as a fruit tree too, or sometimes as a vineyard or an orchard.  We find this especially with the Old Testament prophets.  God was the farmer and he came looking for fruit.  That means he was looking for evidence that they had entrusted themselves completely to God, that there was faith and repentance.  In times of disobedience, the fruit was lacking and therefore judgment was pronounced on the tree or on the vineyard or orchard.  There’s an example of that in Isaiah 5.  God planted a vineyard and then he comes looking for a crop of grapes.  Finding none, he says that he’s going to make the vineyard into a wasteland. 

Since Adam and Eve took the forbidden fruit, fruit has many times been in short supply among God’s people.  That forms the background to what we see happening in our text for this morning.  Here we see our Lord Jesus at Jerusalem in the final week before his death.  Christ is portrayed here as the prophet coming to bring words of warning to God’s people.  He is the one who teaches that changes need to be made, repentance is called for.  Like the prophets of old, he’s come to the center of Israel’s worship and is posing that all important question:  “Where is the fruit?”

As we’ll see, that’s a question we need to consider in our day too.  It always easy to identify the sins and failings of Jesus’ antagonists in the Bible.  It’s much more difficult for us to see ourselves in them.  Yet this text calls us to do that.  It calls us to self-examination.  Christ is not only asking the people of his day, he’s also asking us:  “Where is the fruit?”      

As we consider our text, we’ll look at the:

1.      Figure of the fig tree

2.      Terrible temple situation

3.      Just judgment

4.      Right and wrong response

Immediately before our passage, Christ had entered Jerusalem to the shouts of “Hosanna!”  Then verse 11 tells us that he took a preliminary look at the temple.  He was inspecting it and that was setting the stage for what happens the next day.  At the conclusion of that day, he went out to Bethany.  Many assume that he did that to stay with friends, probably with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

The next day dawns.  This would be a Tuesday.  The Tuesday before Good Friday.  Our Lord Jesus sets out from Bethany towards Jerusalem.  This was a journey of about 3 kilometres, so not very far.  For some reason he hadn’t eaten anything before leaving and so he was hungry.  Those three words carry some weight:  Jesus was hungry.  What does that tell us about him?  Those three words remind us that he was and is a true man.  He knows what it’s like to have that gnawing feeling in your stomach when you need to eat something.  This is Jesus the true human being.  He has Mary’s DNA.  He did then and he still does now.  Knowing of his humanity is comforting for us because we know that the sacrifice he made later that week on that Friday was the sacrifice that is effective for us.  Only a true man could pay for our sins, for all the lack of fruit in our lives.  And now a true man is at God’s right hand.  He sympathizes with our weaknesses and intercedes for us to the greatest effect.  And his true human flesh in heaven is the guarantee that someday our human flesh will also be glorified and live in God’s presence forever.  “Jesus was hungry” speaks to us of these great gospel truths.

Now the hunger of our Saviour was the occasion for him to look for fruit on this tree off in the distance.  From a distance he could see that the fig tree had leaves.  It’s time for a little lesson in fig trees.  This happened in the spring and, as Mark notes a little further, this was not the season for figs.  You could expect to find figs later in the summer and in the fall.  So, knowing that, why did Jesus think that a fig tree with leaves would have fruit?  Is that a reasonable expectation?  Well, here’s the thing:  fig trees with leaves would usually have little buttons on them out of which the fruit would eventually develop.  These little buttons were (and still are) edible.  They’re not really tasty apparently, but they will provide some nourishment.  And these buttons would normally be there if the tree was showing leaves.  So, yes, it was completely reasonable for Jesus to see a fig tree from a distance with leaves and think that it might provide some nourishment for him.            

However, when he came up to the tree and inspected it, he didn’t find what was he looking for.  This tree was just putting on a show.  There was nothing edible on its branches.  Then Christ responded with the words in verse 14, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”  That was a curse upon that tree, a curse along the lines of what you would expect from a prophet of God.  Words of judgment for barrenness and a total lack of fruit. 

Now someone might say, “You can’t blame the tree for this.  A tree is just a tree.  It didn’t deserve this curse.”  However, loved ones, we need to keep in mind that this passage is not about really about the tree as such.  The tree is a sort of living parable and it’s directly connected to what happens next in this passage.  Remember that Christ is the Lord of creation.  Through him all things were created and he is the Lord, the master and owner of everything, including every single tree on this earth.  The Lord of creation chose to use this particular fig tree to drive home a point to his disciples and to us.  The fig tree is a figure or an emblem representing the people of Israel.  Christ has come to them looking for fruit.  The fact that this fig tree is symbolic accounts also for the words at the end of verse 14:  “And his disciples heard him say it.”  That draws our attention to the fact that this was an event of some significance and his disciples were paying attention.  Later, in a couple of weeks, we’ll come back to the follow-up passage and we’ll see how Peter remembers Christ’s curse on this barren fig tree. 

But for now we move on with Christ and his disciples to the city of Jerusalem and to the temple.  To understand what’s happening here, you need to have a sense of the way the temple was set up in the days of Jesus.  Just like with Solomon’s first temple, Herod’s temple was set up as a series of concentric places.  In the centre was the Most Holy Place or the Holy of Holies.  Only the high priest would go there and only once per year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  Next outward was the Holy Place where the altar of incense was found and the table of showbread and the candelabrum.  Then outside that was the court of the priests where you would find the altar for burnt offerings and the washbasin or laver.  Then there was a court where all Jewish men were permitted to come and bring their offerings, that was the “Court of Israel.”  Then there was the “Women’s Court” where the women would be permitted to congregate.  Then outside of that yet was the Court of the Gentiles.  That was the place where anyone could gather, Jew or Gentile.  It was still part of the temple courts, and the idea was that both Jews and Gentiles could pray in that area.  And besides the concentric arrangement, there was also a vertical aspect to the way the temple was set up.  The Holy Place and Most Holy Place were at the highest elevation and the Court of the Gentiles was at the lowest.  So as you went further into the temple complex, you would be climbing ever higher up steps. 

Now that we’re oriented, we can go back to Mark 11:15 and we find that Jesus enters the temple area.  What this means is that he came into the Court of the Gentiles.  And there he witnessed something that made him angry.  A few years before this, a major change had been introduced into the temple in Jerusalem.  In 30 A.D., the high priest Caiaphas had made arrangements for traders, merchants, and money-changers to be allowed to do business within the temple precincts, in the Court of the Gentiles. 

When pilgrims came to Jerusalem for various feasts, they could bring their own animals for the sacrifices.  However, there were two issues.  First, you had to take those animals with you on the journey.  If the animal died along the way, you were at a loss.  The second issue was that if you got to the temple, it might turn out that your animal had some kind of blemish that you were unaware of.  That blemish could disqualify your animal from being sacrificed.  So a business developed in Jerusalem of people raising and selling animals to pilgrims.  These animals were on basically on site, so transportation wasn’t an issue.  And these animals were certified as being blemish-free, so guaranteed to be accepted by the priests.  And of course, those selling them could charge a premium price for this service. 

Then there were the money-changers.  Jews were coming to Jerusalem from all over the Roman empire and beyond.  They didn’t carry with them the right currency for the temple tax.  So another business venture arose where money changers set up shop in Jerusalem and exchanged Roman, Greek, Egyptian and whatever other currencies, for the currency that was needed for the temple.  Of course, those doing this were charging a premium for the service, just like money changers do today. 

Now what had changed at the time of Christ’s visit to the temple was that all this business activity had been moved into the temple precincts.  All of this buying and selling and trading was being done in the Court of the Gentiles.  It had become a sort of religious marketplace.  Exorbitant prices were being charged and the high priests were getting a cut.  The traders had to pay the religious leaders for the privilege of being able to conduct business within the temple.  And all of this business activity was what Christ witnessed there on that Tuesday morning. 

He had come there looking for fruit and what he found was a baptized shopping mall.  Only the water with which this shopping mall had been baptized was tainted.  It was a terrible situation and it stunk.  So our Lord Jesus reacts with righteous anger.  He takes action and he fulfills the prophecy of Malachi 3.  He starts throwing out the buyers and sellers.  He throws over the tables of the money changers and the benches of the dove sellers.  This is not your stereotypical Jesus meek and mild.  This is the Lion of Judah roaring and raging.  There was no fruit here, only leaves.  There was the appearance of religiosity, there was the show of people who were trying to worship God, but the reality was something altogether different.  From afar, the temple looked like a busy, happening place.  But upon closer inspection, all that busy-ness was barren.  Moreover, it was offensive to God, a stink in his nostrils.  The prophet has come to deliver the message of warning and judgment.

Then verse 16 tells us that he would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.  He not only cleansed and cleared the temple, he also kept it clean.  He preserved it from quickly falling back, at least for a short time. 

We easily notice his indignation here.  It’s easy to see that Christ got furious at what was happening.  We need to see that.  We need to see that there is such a thing as righteous indignation.  There was that recent news story about a punk rock band in Vancouver making an album that was deliberately blasphemous, that heinously mocked our Lord Jesus.  To make matters worse, this album was produced with Canadian tax dollars, with your money and mine.  We funded this blasphemy against our Saviour.  We should be indignant about that.  We should let our government officials know that we find this outrageous.  We would do that because we are first of all united to Christ, who showed the same indignation at the sacrilege of his Father’s house.  And second, we would do that because we love Christ, we love him who called himself the Temple of God.  That would be the fruit of our faith, the demonstration of our love for him.  Christ got angry and so should we – that’s a righteous anger, brothers and sisters.

That’s the easy thing to see here.  But we also need to see something else and that’s Christ’s obedience to the Father.  The prophet is doing what the priests should have done.  Just like Adam and Eve were to guard and protect the Garden, the priests were supposed to protect the sanctuary of God in the temple.  They failed.  They let in the serpent, so to speak.  But now the Second Adam has come and he will be faithful.  He is faithful.  He obediently drives out these invaders and keeps them out.  He defends and preserves the house of God.  He is doing for God’s people what they could and would not do for themselves.  In all of this, he shows himself to be the fulfillment of the man we sang about in Psalm 1.  He is the fruitful tree.  And he is such for us.  As we continue trusting in Christ, loved ones, God sees us as we are in him.  As we continue resting in Christ’s accomplishments, God sees fruit piled a mile high.  Christ’s faithful obedience here is meant to draw our hearts back to him, back to Christ.  Of ourselves, the question, “Where is the fruit?” can get a depressing answer.  But for us the question, “Where is the fruit?” that needs to be answered first and foremost by saying, “In Christ.  In Christ alone and in his perfect obedience for me.  And because of his work for me, I want to bear fruit too.  I want to show my love for him.  I want his Spirit to work in me and give me power so that I can not only know that I am his temple, but also show that I am his temple to those around me.”

Then in verse 17, our chief prophet goes to the teaching mode again.  In his teaching he issues the just judgment on what he’s witnessed.  As it says in Malachi 3:5, he’s coming near to them for judgment.  The judgment calls on the Word of God previously given through other prophets.  There was Isaiah 56:7.  Through Isaiah God said that he wanted his house, the temple, to be a house of prayer for all nations.  That alludes to where all this takes place:  in the Court of the Gentiles.  All nations were to be welcome there for prayer, foreshadowing God’s intentions to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth.  But how could you pray in the middle of a rowdy marketplace?  Imagine trying to pray at the Farmer’s Market, but then add in hundreds of sheep and cattle and bartering money-changers.  The temple had become a zoo, almost quite literally.

But that was not its design.  Its design was to be a place of reverent worship.  Here Christ exposes the failure of Israel.  But he also provokes us to think.  There are four different ways of speaking about the house of God in the New Testament apart from that physical temple building that Jesus visited.  I’ve already mentioned two of them.  First, Christ is the temple of God.  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it again.”  Second, individual believers are described in Scripture as the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Third, the church is also described in Scripture (in 1 Cor. 3:16-17 and elsewhere) as the temple of God.  Now that’s not a reference to the church building, but to the body of believers.  The church is the house of God.  When we are gathered here together for worship, we are at the house of God.  God’s design is that his house be a place of reverent worship.  God is not only interested in the outward appearance, the leaves, if you wish.  He’s also interested in the fruit of the heart. 

Now there are a number of different ways we could apply this.  But let’s take the cue from our text and focus on prayer.  God’s design is that his house would be a house of prayer, that there would be reverent and godly prayer offered at his house.  The outward appearance is there, we could all agree.  No one is shouting or talking or getting out of hand when we pray here during the worship services.  But what is happening with our hearts as we pray?  Are we really praying together?  Or are our minds wandering and chasing rabbits down all sorts of trails up in the gray matter?  Or are we perhaps drifting off into la-la land.  You could have the appearance of reverence, but your mind can be a dark place where there is anything but reverence.  Our Lord Jesus calls us here to recognize our sin and repent of it.  And moreover, bear fruits befitting repentance.  Concretely, a tired mind will find it more challenging to focus on prayer and be reverent in prayer.  A fruit befitting repentance would be to make it your habit to get to bed at a decent hour on a Saturday night.  Staying up late on Saturday is not going to be conducive to reverent worship on a Sunday morning.  Another fruit befitting repentance might be to take advantage of the traditional Sunday afternoon nap, so that you’re fresh and ready for the afternoon service.  Loved ones, whatever it is we need to do, we have to be conscientious about it, for this is the worship of God that we’re talking about here.  Think of those words in Hebrews 12:28-29, “...let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

So Christ confronts God’s people with what God’s design originally was.  And then he brings in the testimony of Jeremiah 7:11 and applies it to them.  He says, “This was supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.”  He condemns the religious leadership for their failure to keep out the predators from God’s temple.  Dens normally house predatory animals, and thieves are exactly like that.  They prey on the weak and vulnerable and take advantage of them.  And there at the temple it was all about the money, fleecing the pilgrims to line the merchant’s pockets and the pockets of the priests.  All in the pious name of providing a necessary service for the temple sacrifices.  They were robbing people, but they were also robbing God.  By not preserving the sanctity of the temple and the reverence of its worship, they were robbing God of the glory due his name.  These words ought also to warn us.  When truly reverent worship (inside and out, leaf and fruit) is not there, we too are robbing God.   And robbing God is always a bad idea. 

Christ speaks just words of judgment.  His assessment is totally correct.  He provides a “God’s eye-perspective” on what’s taking place.  But notice one significant difference between what happens with the fig tree and what happens at the temple.  Can you spot the difference?  The difference was that with the fig tree, Christ pronounced a curse.  There is no curse upon the temple.  Not yet.  That will come later.  The beginning of it happens with the tearing of the temple curtain at Christ’s death.  The culmination of it happens when the Romans sack Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and destroy the temple.  But now is the time for repentance.  The just judgment or evaluation has been issued and the warnings have gone out.  There is time to turn.  There is time to bear fruits befitting repentance.  So also today.  Today we still have time, as long as we live and breathe, to respond to Christ’s call to faith and repentance.  But time will run out.  We don’t know when.  It didn’t happen yesterday.  But it could happen tomorrow.  Or perhaps three millennia from now.  And even if Christ doesn’t return in our lifetime, you will still die.  You will meet your Maker.  Then there are no second chances.  Loved ones, the time is now. 

In our text, the chief priests and the scribes demonstrated a wrong response to the just judgment and the call of Christ.  They were offended at his gall.  They were ticked off at his nerve in calling them out and exposing them for what they were.  As the mirror of the law was lifted up for them to look into so that they could see their ugly sinful selves, they rose up in pride.  Hatred grew in their hearts and they began to conspire about how to destroy this rabble-rouser.  Ironic isn’t it?  They were supposed to guard the temple against invaders and predators.  Instead, they try to guard it against the Son of God.  Instead of pushing out the business men, they try to find a way to murder the Son of the one who owned the house.  That illustrates one way in which people will react when the law of God is preached strictly.  Some people will react in anger and indignation.  They’ll refuse to listen and they’ll just get ticked off that they’ve been exposed and challenged.  When  the question gets posed, “Where is the fruit?,” they respond with invective and cussing and swear words, if not on their mouths, then certainly in their hearts.

Then there were the people.  The crowd was amazed at his teaching.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that they were approving of what he said.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that they were taking his words to heart.  Because it’s a crowd, it’s hard to say exactly what everyone was doing with what Jesus said.  But certainly it made an impression on people.  Undoubtedly, for some the impression was just one of awe in the sense that here was someone who wasn’t going to kow-tow to the big men in the Sanhedrin.  He impressed them with his willingness to blow smoke in the face of the chief priests and teachers of the law.  He took a bold stand and when people do that, even if they don’t agree, that can make an impression. 

But on the other hand, there may have been some who genuinely felt the force of his teaching and what he was doing here.  That right response is where we need to be.  What does a right response to Christ’s words and deeds look like here?  First of all, it’s one of humility.  Recognizing our own failures and weaknesses and our need for Christ.  We too fail to guard the temple of God, whether in our own hearts or in the church.  Our reverence is not what it should be.  That’s why we turn to Christ and look to him for help.  We see him as the fruitful servant of God who’s done everything for our salvation.  Then we beg God to make us fruitful and we set our hearts and wills and minds in the direction of being fruitful too.  As individuals and as a church, we want to be that temple of God which bears fruit to his glory.

A few moments ago, I mentioned that there are four ways in which the New Testament speaks of the temple.  Perhaps you noticed that I left off the fourth.  The fourth is found in Christ’s revelation to John.  Heaven comes down to earth and God makes his dwelling with man.  The entire new creation becomes the temple of God.  And there in that temple is the tree of life and its bears a crop of fruit every month.  The temple of the age to come will be a fruitful temple – always and forever.  That’s our destination.  And as look to Christ again today and heed his words, we can be confident that we will some day enjoy those fruits with him.  AMEN. 

Prayer:

Father in heaven,

We’re grateful that we could again sit under the preaching of your Word.  Your Word has pricked us and exposed our need for Christ.  We’re glad that we have a Saviour who has paid for all our fruitlessness.  We rejoice that we have Christ the perfectly obedient Son who lived according to all your commandments for us.  O Father, we pray that you would richly bless us with your Spirit so that we may live out of our union with him and bear abundant fruit for the glory of your Name.  Help us also as we worship you each Sunday to be reverent, not only with our outward appearances, but also in our hearts and minds.  Please continue shaping us and moulding us with your Word and Spirit.  When you call us to repent, please help us to be quick to do so.  Please help us to be humble and honest with you about our sins, so that we may confess them and receive your forgiveness.  Father, we also pray for the coming of your Son.  We pray that he may come quickly with the clouds to establish the New Jerusalem, that great and final temple.  We look forward to his great day and we pray that you would help us to be always ready.          

 

 

                                      




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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