Have you ever picked up one of those small, multi-layered sandwiches at a buffet and been surprised at how tasty it was? A Bible story can be like that—perhaps a bit confusing at first with its multiple layers, yet surprisingly tasty and nourishing once you get into it. There’s a story like that in Mark chapter 11. The first layer goes like this:
As they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. (Mark 11:12-14)
Why did Jesus do that? It seems at first glance a rather unreasonable thing to do. It wasn’t the season for figs—so why blame the tree? Was the pressure of the last weeks of his earthly ministry getting to Jesus? No, he knew exactly what he was doing. He didn’t mutter this under his breath—as verse 14 indicates, he made sure his disciples heard.
Mark then adds another layer to this “tasty sandwich”:
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:15-17)
What Jesus did here was a public relations nightmare! Approaching the city the day before, the multitudes greeted him as a conquering hero. This was a particularly sensitive time of year, and the occupying Romans were on the lookout for trouble. Jesus had “flown under the radar” in his triumphal entry, so the sensible thing for him to do now would have been to keep his head down. Instead, he causes a major incident in the most sensitive spot imaginable—the Temple. He charges it with being unfruitful in prayer for the nations.
This shocking proclamation exposes the corruption and hypocrisy of Israel’s religious elite. Jesus is accusing them of abandoning Israel’s mission to be a light to the nations, and attempting to keep God’s blessing for themselves. Jesus is asking for trouble!
Then Mark adds another layer:
The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. (Mark 11:18)
Jesus’ prophetic word was sure to provoke a showdown with the religious elite. But it wasn’t quite time yet. So…
When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. (Mark 11:19)
Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree was not about the tree. It had no fruit through no fault of its own. That would be clear to all. He was using the incident with the tree to illustrate a far more important lesson. But it was not a lesson that the disciples grasped at the time, as we see in the last layers of the story:
In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:20-21)
Jesus’ reply to Peter might seem rather unsatisfying—perhaps even condescending:
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.” (Mark 11:22-23)
Let’s review what Jesus is saying here in context. He is not giving advance notice of a breakthrough in civil engineering. This lesson is no more about the mountain than the other was about the fig tree. In the ancient world, “mountains” often symbolized empires and kingdoms. Casting them into the sea symbolized their judgment—being thrown into a place of destruction (Mark 9:42). This was likely baffling to the disciples, because what Jesus predicted did not happen immediately. The disciples were weak in faith, and so the one who “does not doubt” here is Jesus. He has no doubts that his Father will bring this to pass—that he will judge the Jewish religious elite and the Roman overlords who refuse to bow to Jesus’ lordship. Eventually, they will be thrown down.
The point here is that the kingdom that Jesus is inaugurating by the authority of his words and deeds stands over all other authorities, religious or secular. His rule and reign has begun and he knows that it will reach its fullness over time. Jesus’ words of judgment—sorting out what is what—will come to pass, even if there is a delay, just as there was between the words Jesus spoke and the effects seen upon the fig tree. This delay does not diminish the effectiveness and certainty of his authoritative word. In that regard, remember the prophecy of Micah:
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. (Micah 4:1)
These “last days” have been unfolding for a long time. The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 and then, by AD 476, the Roman Empire ceased to exist. Yet we still await the ultimate consummation of the last days, which will occur at Jesus’ return in glory. The kingdom Jesus inaugurated 2,000 years ago eventually will completely overthrow all opposition, whether religious or secular. But, according to our Lord’s way, this overthrow comes gradually, and not through cruelty, force or intimidation.
Instead, the kingdom advances through the pronouncement of the Lord’s word by his people who, themselves, live by faith in that word. Opponents to Jesus’ kingdom reign are thus conquered “from the roots,” over long periods of time and in ways generally not immediately seen. For these vanquished foes, rather than revenge, there is forgiveness, love and mercy.
The time span between the inauguration and consummation of the kingdom involves a process of judgment that leads to peace—a peace that the world is unable to understand, for it goes against the grain of human nature (John 14:27). Those whom Jesus chose to join him in the next stage of his ministry needed to understand, as do we. We await the fullness of the kingdom with patience and a hope that will not be disappointed.
With concluding words from Jesus, Mark adds a final and rather surprising layer to this tasty sandwich:
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:24-25)
Here is the unexpected, perhaps shocking, way the kingdom unfolds. Through clarifying judgment, over time, all opposition to the kingdom is overcome as it is exposed for what it is: nothing compared to the rule and reign of God in Christ, which alone gives life eternal.
As believers, we pray for and thus welcome this unfolding judgment—not through revenge or condemnation, but by extending the Lord’s forgiveness to all. This we do because our concern is that deception be lifted and all enter God’s glorious kingdom, receiving God’s forgiveness as his redeemed children. Because we have received that forgiveness, we have passed through the Lord’s loving and freeing judgment, which led to our repentance. And now we wish for others to gain what we have received. Ultimately, God’s judgment, delivered to us in Jesus Christ, is a word of compassion and salvation. And that is a tasty sandwich indeed!