This is a long reading, as are quite a few from here on, but we must get to the end of Mark by Easter Sunday. I’ll focus today on just a couple of short reflections.
What an entry this must have been for anyone who witnessed it – either the friends of Jesus or his enemies! We remember the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
We’re all familiar with the shouting of Hosanna! But it is worth pausing to wonder why these people all thought to say: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! It comes from Psalm 118. It’s a long Psalm, and if you don’t want to read it all, here are vv25-26.
Lord, save us!
Lord, grant us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord we bless you.
This Psalm is the last of a series of six Psalms (113-118) which are known as the Hallel, or Praise Psalms. They were (and are still) recited from memory by Jews on holy days and festivals. So the people knew this Psalm well, and knew that it related to the great joy to be celebrated when the Messiah finally came.
After spending the night at Bethany, at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, Jesus returns next day. Mark chooses to mention two significant moments: the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree. Both need some explanation.
The temple in ancient Israel formed several functions:
- It contained the visible presence of God, in the Holy of Holies.
- It was the place where heaven met earth, where God met humankind.
- It was the altar where sacrifices for sin could be made.
- It was open to all, even including a Court for Gentiles.
After the crucifixion of Jesus, all four of these purposes were rendered obsolete. God was now forever present in his Son, Jesus Christ. God (and heaven) met with flesh (earth) in the incarnated body of Jesus. Jesus was the only sacrifice for sin that would ever be needed. Jesus’ death opened up the path to God for complete redemption, equally to the Gentile as to the Jew. There would no longer be any difference between them. The book of Hebrews spells all this out in detail.
Jesus’ action in taking authority over the temple indicated that he was about to assume its various roles, in his own body. The temple would be destroyed, but he would raise it up again in three days, at his resurrection. He would be our temple: the place where sacrifice is made for sin, the visible presence of God, the meeting-place between heaven and earth, the Saviour for all sinners, including Gentiles.
The cursing of the fig tree worries many people. It sounds as though Jesus is being unreasonably cranky. But as always, when we dig a little, we find some answers.
The fig tree had long been a symbol of Israel (Hosea 9:10). Fig trees bear fruit on their branches before, or at the same time as they bear leaves. Since the time of year must have been Spring, as Passover was approaching, the tree ought to have had young figs on it. Yet Mark says that this was not the season for figs. So was Jesus just being petulant? Was he angry because he was hungry and cursed a fig tree out of his human hunger and frustration?
- F. Bruce, a great Bible scholar, wrote:
“When the fig leaves appear about the end of March, they are accompanied by a crop of small knobs, called taqsh by the Arabs, a sort of fore-runner of the real figs. These taqsh are eaten by peasants and others when hungry. They drop off before the real fig is formed. But if the leaves appear unaccompanied by taqsh, there will be no figs that year. So it was evident to our Lord, when He turned aside to see if there were any of these taqsh on the fig-tree to assuage His hunger for the time being, that the absence of the taqsh meant that there would be no figs when the time of figs came. For all its fair foliage, it was a fruitless and a hopeless tree.”
Mark knew what he was talking about, when he added those words that it was not the season for figs. Jesus was not being unreasonable. This was no petulant action of an angry God. But it was the perfect symbol of a righteous judgement of God on a nation who had utterly abandoned their calling by God to be a light to the nations.
The symbol was clear: the nation of Israel, the fig tree of God, had failed in its mission. It had reached the end of its days as the chosen nation.
Within just a very short time, the Gentiles would be invited into the kingdom that had previously been entrusted to the Jews. Gentiles had always been welcome, but they had had to convert to Judaism. Jews and Greeks together would soon enjoy the kingdom, by grace through faith. The day of Bar-Timaeus was at hand.
So we are now in Jerusalem, and on the road to the cross. There is now no turning back. Will we be found faithful to him? Will we bear our fruit in season?
 F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Leicester, UK: IVP, 2000), 88-9.