PassageI’m combining three ESV sections together into one post, because the episode with the fig tree is broken up into two pieces, with another passage in between.
In the last passage we read about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, actively proclaiming himself as king, though, as I’m always so quick to point out, not the type of king the crowd was expecting. (“You’re God, the Creator of all the universe? Who cares, I just want you to defeat the Romans!”) But when he arrived in the city it was late, so they just looked around a bit and left for Bethany. In this passage Jesus and the Apostles are coming back from Bethany to Jerusalem, and on the way Jesus notices a fig tree in leaf so he goes in search of figs but finds none because it’s not the season for figs. He then says to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (verse 14 (ESV)).
They then continue on to Jerusalem, whereupon Jesus enters the temple and starts driving out the people who are buying and selling there and overturning the tables of the money changers and people selling pigeons. Of course, he tells them why:
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.” (verse 17 (ESV))The chief priests and scribes don’t share his zeal for “cleansing” the temple, however, and try to figure out a way to “destroy” him because they are afraid of how astonished the crowd is at his teaching.
At the end of the day Jesus and his disciples leave Jerusalem again, and when they come back the next morning they pass by the same fig tree, now withered completely, which Peter points out to Jesus. As usual, Jesus takes the opportunity to take things to a deeper level:
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.” (verses 22–25 (ESV))
ThoughtsOnce again, the ESV Study Bible notes have helped me understand a passage with context I didn’t have; the episode with the fig tree is more laden with symbolism than I had realized. Even though it is not the season for figs, the appearance of leaves on the tree should have indicated that there was fruit on the tree, but there was not. I’ll quote the rest of their note on verses 13–14, since they put it much better than I ever could:
Jesus’ actions here have symbolic importance, signifying the hypocrisy of all who have the appearance that they are bearing fruit but in fact are not. The specific reference, though, is to Israel, since in the OT the fig tree often serves as a metaphor for Israel and its standing before God (e.g., Jer. 8:13 (ESV); Hos. 9:10 (ESV), 16 (ESV); Joel 1:7 (ESV)). Here the cursing of the fig tree signifies the judgment of God on the “fruitless” Jewish people (cf. Mark 7:6 (ESV)), who had turned away from God into empty ritual and legalism (cf. Hos. 9:10–17 (ESV)). It is a visual parable to signify Jesus’ unrequited search for the true fruit of worship, prayer, and righteousness in the Jewish nation and its religious practices.Then Jesus gets to the temple and throws out all of the people who are there making money off of God’s work, and the reaction of the religious leaders shows their true hearts. In this blog there have been times when I’ve done my best to see their point of view, and there are times when I think they are truly trying to do the right thing. They misunderstand the Scriptures at times, obviously there is never a case where I think they’re right and Jesus is wrong, but there is a difference between honestly trying to do the right thing but being wrong and not even trying to do the right thing. This passage is definitely a case of the latter, not the former. People in the temple are clearly profiting off of the worship of God, and the religious leaders should have a problem with that, but they don’t seem to. What they do have a problem with is the fact that people are listening to Jesus, and rather than thinking about whether Jesus actually has a point, they’re only worried about getting rid of him so that they won’t lose their influence with the people.
So what is Jesus so angry about? I wrote about this a bit when I posted on Matthew 21:12–17, but the short answer is that people are buying and selling in God’s temple, where He is supposed to be worshipped. Worship of God should never be a source of wealth. (Oh, how readers in North America will react against that statement.) I notice especially verse 15 (ESV) where it describes Jesus overturning tables of money-changers as well as “the seats of those who sold pigeons.” When the Old Testament rules for sacrifice were handed down there were certain animals that had to be sacrificed for certain reasons, but sometimes special provisions were made for the poor who couldn’t afford a particular sacrifice; for example, Leviticus 12 talks about offerings to be made after a child was born, and allows either pigeons or doves to be used, and then further allows birds to be used instead of a lamb. (When Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph offered pigeons, which indicated that they were not well off.) When someone was in the temple making a profit off pigeons that person was directly targeting the poor.
I struggle with how to talk about verses 20–25 (ESV), when Jesus talks about having faith in God and receiving what you ask for. It would be easy to come away from a surface reading of this passage thinking that what Jesus is telling us is that you just have to “believe hard enough,” and you can get whatever you want. Based on wider context of the New Testament I don’t think this is what Jesus is really saying—but at the same time I definitely do not want to detract from this passage, or remove anything that is being said here.
The key, however, is the very first thing Jesus says to them: “Have faith in God.” In the Bible, “faith” is not just believing that something is true, and having faith in God is not just believing that He exists. The Bible’s definition of “faith” is much more than that. I think it’s pretty clear (based on the context of the rest of the New Testament) that when Jesus says to the disciples “have faith in God,” he is not saying to them, “have faith that God will give you whatever you want like a magic genie,” he is saying “Believe God is who He says He is, listen to His Word, and do all that it commands of you. Be like Him.” When you read the word “faith” like that, reading a passage that says, “Have ‘faith’ in God, and then if you pray for something and truly believe it will happen, it will,” takes on a whole different meaning. If you have proper, New Testament-style faith in God, what are you going to pray for? Jesus talks about mountains jumping into the sea to make a point, that nothing is too big for God to do, but when you’re really in tune with God, I doubt that’s what you’ll be praying for. Neither will you be praying for lots of money or a fancy car. You’ll be praying, “Lord, now that I know you, help me to know you even more.”