The Money-Changers and the Fig Tree

PALM SUNDAY marks the triumphal entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem. He entered through the Golden Gate, on the east side of the city, facing the Mount of Olives. Because of its messianic connection, this gate is to remain shut until Christ returns. Consequently, the Golden (or Eastern) Gate has remained closed for over two thousand years. The Golden Gate is one of the key datums that will be used for determining the true location of the first and second temples on the Temple Mount when it becomes time to rebuild the temple for Christ’s glorious return. (“Datums” are physical points of reference used for location and plotting properties.

On Monday, Jesus went into the temple courtyard, casting out all who bought and sold in the courts, and He overthrew the tables of the money-changers. These vendors were taking advantage of those who came to worship and to present a sacrifice—having traveled from afar, many were a “captive audience” in need of currency exchange and animals for sacrifice. The vendors were conducting business under the cloak of religion, where the bottom line was the gouging of travelers in pursuit of hefty profits. Jesus said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (Matt. 21:13, ESV; see also Isa. 56:7). Jesus was angry that these individuals had perverted the use of His Father’s house. Although Jesus was patient (He taught to turn the other cheek) there is also a time for righteous anger. When Jesus went out of the city to Bethany at the end of the day, He lodged for the night at Lazarus’ house whom He had raised from the dead (see John 11:33-44, ESV).

On Tuesday morning after the Sabbath, Jesus returned with his disciples to Jerusalem. He was quite hungry and hoped to find something to eat. Along the way He encountered a fig tree bearing fresh leaves but no fruit. Fig trees typically bear their fruit at the same time or shortly after they grow new leaves. Also, figs remain on the tree between seasons if not picked. Jesus cursed the fig tree for being barren, saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again” (Matt. 21:19). By the next morning, the tree had completely withered and died. This notion of lack of fruit represents being in a state of hypocrisy. All “false confessions” wither in this world, and the fig tree was an example of this notion.

Looking at the vibrant foliage of the fig tree from afar, one could reasonably expect the tree to be bearing figs. Jesus approached the tree because its full leaves seemed to announce the presence of fruit. Absence of fruit despite the presence of luscious leaves is like false façades commonly seen in the church—nominal Christians tend to look great on the outside, but they do not bear the fruit of the Spirit. Believers who are truly “in the way” of Jesus will bear fruit. Jesus told the disciples that the fig tree they came upon demonstrated Israel’s shameful fruitlessness.

The fig tree in Matthew 21 dovetails nicely with Isaiah’s imagery of the vine (see Isa. 5:1-7). The vineyard of the LORD of hosts represents the house of Israel. Isaiah writes, “In that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel” (Isa. 4:2) (emphasis added). The vineyard was given over to Israel in prime shape, ready for to yield its fruit: “There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain” (Isa. 4:6). The vineyard was planted on a very fertile hill (5:1), made up of choice vines, and the soil was cleared of stones (5:2). The vineyard, representing God’s “chosen,” were set for life, but they squandered God’s grace. They allowed conditions to deteriorate. Weeds choked off the primo vines and the ground became dry and caked. This is a perfect metaphor for spiritual decline—apostasy and its consequences plainly displayed.

God withdrew His protection for the vineyard: “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it” (Isa. 5:5-6).

God’s high expectations for Israel as His chosen people were fair and not the least bit excessive. (In fact, Paul will later write that we must present our body to God as a living sacrifice.) God looked for justice among His people, but He found bloodshed. He looked for righteousness, but He found excuses for why Israel kept falling short. The ESV Study Bible footnote for Isaiah 5:5-6 says Isaiah used wordplay to demonstrate how sin is not merely failure to reach a standard; it actually distorts good into evil. What befell Israel was not arbitrary evil, but instead was the consequences of their own disobedience. This reminds me of a novelty print t-shirt hanging in my closet that says, Well, Well, Well, if it Isn’t the Consequences of My Own Actions. Ultimately, the results of Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah played out through the the diaspora where the Jewish nation was uprooted and dispersed throughout the world.

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

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