(This is the second of two articles related to Jesus’ teaching in Mark 11 that His Father’s house is to be a house of prayer. Click here for the first article. For more on the church as a house of prayer see Stanley D Gale, “God’s House of Prayer – Extreme Makeover Edition.”)
“For it was not the season for figs” (Mark 11:13). In other words, it was unreasonable to expect figs on the tree. So why, knowing that, would Jesus approach the fig tree when He was hungry? Even stranger, why would Jesus curse the fig tree upon finding no fruit?
That’s how Mark sets up Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and His clearing out of the money changers from the temple. At first blush, we could easily conclude that Jesus was a hothead. He certainly doesn’t seem the gentle Savior we believe Him to be.
But there’s more going on than meets the eye.
We begin to understand by noticing that the interaction with the fig tree brackets the account of Jesus clearing the temple. Jesus curses the tree, heads to Jerusalem where He has His temple encounter, and returns to find the tree withered.
Some expositors understand Jesus cursing the fig tree as a reproach against fruitlessness, and a judgment against unfaithful trustees. That’s not an unreasonable conclusion. God wants fruitfulness of His people and His church. Luke even records a parable in which a man came to his fig tree, found no fruit, and so intended to cut it down (Luke 13:6-9). God wants fruit.
But Luke does not make the notation that “it was not the season for figs,” as does Mark. While the point in Luke’s parable may be fruitfulness, Jesus seems to be saying something more in the incident recorded by Mark.
We understand that something by seeing the fig tree in light of that which it brackets.
Leaving the cursed fig tree, our Lord arrives at Jerusalem with His disciples. They enter the temple to find it a busy farmer’s market of commerce. Consumed with zeal for His Father’s house, Jesus drives out the money changers and upends the kiosks. He explains His actions by citing the prophetic word of Isaiah.
Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ ” (Mark 11:17)
In other words, the temple of God was being used for the ends of man (see previous article).
We leave Jerusalem with the words of Jesus ringing in our ears. God’s house is to be a house of prayer.
Jesus and His disciples again encounter the fig tree.
Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away.” (Mark 11:20–21)
The object lesson is on the table. The cursed fig tree has withered. What point will Jesus make? He doesn’t speak about fruitlessness. Nor about judgment. Rather, Jesus speaks of faith. Not just faith but faith in God, the God whose presence is indicated by the temple.
So Jesus answered and said to them, “Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.” (Mark 11:22–24)
The point Jesus makes relates not directly to fruitfulness (although that is part of the picture) but to prayer. He showcases the power and prospect of prayer. In fact, the next verse (v. 25) that closes out the section also has to do with prayer.
Now we can understand the object lesson of the fig tree.
It is not reasonable to expect figs on a fig tree when it is not the season for figs. But prayer works beyond what is reasonable. It connects to the God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or could even think.
Prayer shatters the bounds of the ordinary to invite the extraordinary, the unexpected. Prayer can bear figs out of season. Prayer can move mountains. Not just the act of praying, but prayer that turns to the true and living God in dependence, submission, and expectation.
The church is to be a house of prayer. It doesn’t need to rely on the ordinary. It shouldn’t be satisfied with small measures. It doesn’t need to turn to human contrivance. It shouldn’t be constrained by sight or limited by seasons. Prayer can and should seek God for great things, wonders beyond expectation, things that make it clear God is in them.
This is the business of the church, the way it carries out its calling, a way the nations will be impacted for the gospel and will know that God is indeed among His people. The church relies not on its own ingenuity or devices but on the God who is the ground and goal of faith.