The cleansing of the temple appears in all four Gospels. The three Synoptic Gospels have this event during Passion Week, four days before Good Friday. Mark’s gospel uses a literary technique known as intercalation where one story is sandwiched in between another. The writer of Mark inserts Jesus’s temple cleansing within the cursing of a fig tree. Before the readers come to the temple cleanse in Mark 11:15-19, Jesus leaves Bethany and sees a fig tree. The tree has no fruit on it because it is not in season; nevertheless, Jesus curses it and says to the tree ” May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” This is a troubling statement, uncharacteristic of Jesus’s personality of love and grace.
Then comes Mark 11:15-19 where Jesus reaches Jerusalem and enters the temple. Emotional anger erupts in Christ’s heart as he sees people buying and selling in the temple courts, in effect, turning the temple into a place of business rather than worship. Jesus physically disrupts the commerce declaring the the temple was not a place for profit but prayer.
Then Jesus and his disciples leave the temple and come across the fig tree that Jesus cursed in Mark 11:12-14. Now in Mark 11:20-21, the fig tree indeed was cursed and withered all the way to its roots. This is a very troubling scene as Jesus is not often thought of as someone who unleashes his anger, especially on an innocent tree, but in these verses-Mark 11:12-22-Jesus curses a fig tree and physically moves people in the temple courts who are engaged in commerce and trade. Why would the writer of Mark write such a scene? Why would Jesus bully a fig tree whom he knew was not in season? Is this fitting behavior of the son of God and Messiah: cursing a fig tree that would be withered down to its roots?
The answer becomes clearer when read in light of Jeremiah 8:13. The verse is in the pericope of Jeremiah 8:13-9:24 which is read aloud in the Jewish synagogues during the months of July or August commemorating the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by Babylon in 586 B.C. and Rome in A.D. 70.
Jeremiah 8:13: “When I would gather them, declares the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.” The fig tree is often a biblical reference to Israel. After reading Mark 11:12-22 in the context of Jeremiah 8:13 (and the section of Jer 8:13-9:24), understanding that the fig tree represents Israel and the Jewish nation would eventually reject Jesus as Messiah, the scene of Jesus cursing the fig tree is not so troubling. Jesus cursing the fig tree was his way of teaching the disciples that the temple would eventually be eradicated and the nation of Israel would again face judgment. The southern kingdom of Judah was held captive by Babylon from about 606 B.C.-536 B.C. and Israel was facing another judgment similar to the one under Babylon. Rome destroyed Herod’s temple in A.D. 70 and the Jewish nation did not reunite until 1948. On Monday of Passion week, Jesus teaches his followers that the temple will be destroyed and the nation of Israel will again face hardship. But Good Friday will eventually lead to a future restoration of Israel and the world; the kingdom will not be an earthly one but a spiritual one that will continue forever as prophesied by Jeremiah 23:5-6: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.'”
A life lived apart from God’s statutes will lead to cursing but Jesus took the curse for us on the cross and will come back again to restore all things.