As we take some time to meditate on the final days of our Lord’s earthly life during this Holy Week, it is quite striking to see how the week began. Following Jesus’ prophetic and triumphal arrival in Jerusalem, the gospels give us two unexpected events that occurred on Monday. First, Jesus curses a fig tree on the way into Jerusalem the following morning. Upon entering the city, He proceeds to go into the temple and do little house cleaning.
This is not how I would have anticipated Jesus starting off the final week leading up to His sacrifice. What was His purpose for these actions? What’s all this business of cursing trees and whipping businessmen? It’s not as though Jesus was surprised to find the outer courts of the Temple transformed into a marketplace. He knew exactly what He would find when He got there. I believe He went there to teach His disciples an important truth. It’s not as though Jesus was surprised to find the fig tree barren of figs. Mark’s gospel tells us that “when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.” (Mk. 11:13) He approached the fig tree to teach His disciples an important truth.
Was Jesus’ indignation directed merely at the merchants in the Temple or was it a greater judgment upon the condition of the nation of Israel? The Temple was simply a reflection of the people. It wasn’t an outer court filled with worldliness that was the problem as much as it was the hearts of the people filled with worldliness. But as is always the case, the condition of our hearts will always flow into the outward condition of our worship. The Temple became profaned because the people were profaned. The Temple had pushed the glory of God to the fringes because the people had done so long before. Jesus cleansed the Temple to foreshadow what He was about to do for His church. He was restoring His Father’s house, not in a building, but in a Person. He was purifying the church, not as though who perform the ceremonies and sacrifices, but as those who look in faith to the One to whom all those things pointed. This restoration and purification would be accomplished through His impending death and resurrection.
Was Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree the result of a hungry man frustrated that He didn’t find what He was looking for? Of course not. Like the Temple, this fig tree was representative of the nation of Israel as a whole. God had planted a precious tree in His world to bear fruit for the nations. Instead, this tree had become barren and useless. It had all the outward appearances of life but it was fruitless. Notice what Jesus didn’t do. He didn’t cause the fig tree to begin bearing fruit. He cursed it. He doomed the tree to remain in its present condition forever. J.C. Ryle describes it this way,
“The Jewish church had everything to make an outward show. It had the temple, the priesthood, the daily service, the yearly feasts, the Old Testament Scriptures, the rituals of the Levites, the morning and evening sacrifice. But beneath these goodly leaves, the Jewish church was utterly destitute of fruit . It had no grace, no faith, no love, no humility, no spirituality, no real holiness, no willingness to receive its Messiah. (John 1:11.) And hence, like the fig-tree, the Jewish church was soon to wither away. It was to be stripped of all its outward ornaments, and its members scattered over the face of the earth. Jerusalem was to be destroyed. The temple was to be burned. The daily sacrifice was to be taken away. The tree was to wither away to the very ground. And so it came to pass. Never was there a type so literally fulfilled. In every wandering Jew we see a branch of the fig-tree that was crushed.” (J.C. Ryle, Commentary on Matthew)
What shall we take from these things today? First, let us take heed that our own worship does not become littered and cluttered with worldliness. Let us not fall into the trap of resting secure on the outward forms of obedience while our hearts are empty of the glory of Christ. He is the true temple and the true object of our worship and affection. He desires to reside with us through His Spirit. May our hearts be kept as good dwelling place for Him. Let us take heed of barrenness in our own lives. We shall not be satisfied with any type of growth that does not produce the blessed fruit of the Holy Spirit. Our Father will bless the nations by the fruit of His church. O may it not be that the hungry come into the church to find it barren of good fruit. Will not the Lord cut off those branches which are dead? A curse upon our houses if only leaves be found there.
Second, let us take heart and be of good cheer! The Lord loves His bride. A man does not clean what He does not love. The world will not fill up our courts with empty noise and empty promises forever. Jesus will come again with whip in hand to drive out all idolaters, blasphemers, persecutors, and every other enemy of the gospel of peace. He will drive them out so that we may dwell with Him in undisturbed peace and joy forever. This world is pretty noisy right now. This world is pretty cluttered right now. Child of God take heart! It will not always be so. Learn to tune out the noise and look past the clutter to the peace and joy that has been made yours through Christ. Likewise, let us find comfort in that the old covenant with all its types and ceremonies has given way to the new. Even as God judged the nation of Israel as a whole, His blessing always remained for the remnant. The day was soon to come that these disciples would see Jerusalem destroyed before there very eyes. The temple defiled and the center of their world crumbled to the ground. This was not to happen by accident. Jesus was building His church out of the rubble of Judaism. He tears down that He might build up; He curses that He might bless. May our Lord’s whips and curses be to you strength and blessing today.