Mark 12 contains four events over a three-day period that seem disconnected from one another, but if we look at them carefully, there is a singular takeaway for us.
On the first day, Jesus approaches Jerusalem and sends two disciples ahead of Him to secure the use of a colt on which no one has ever sat. He enters Jerusalem riding on this colt in what is known as His triumphal entry, fulfilling the Messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. He goes into the temple to look around, but as it is growing late, leaves with His disciples to spend the night in Bethany.
On the morning of the second day, they travel once again toward Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus sees a fig tree in the distance, fully bloomed out in leaves. As He is hungry, He goes to it, expecting to find figs. Mark tells us it is “not the season for figs,” but the tree’s leafy appearance indicates there may be fruit. Jesus’ response is unusual: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!”
After this curious exchange, the group continues into Jerusalem, where the well-known occurrence of Jesus’ cleansing the temple occurs, angering the chief priests and scribes who are determined to destroy Him, fearing His influence on the people who are supposed to be loyal to their teachings.
The next morning, on their way back into the city, the disciples are surprised the find that the fig tree has withered from its roots up. When they question Jesus, He gives a lesson on prayer (which is worthy of its own study). As they enter Jerusalem He is accosted by the religious leaders, demanding to know by whose authority Jesus is acting. He poses a challenging question, asking “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?”
The chief priests and scribes are caught. If they acknowledge John was a true prophet, they will have to answer why they rejected him. But if they claim he was a fraud, it will cause an uproar among the people who considered John to be sent from God.
The recurring theme of Jesus’ words and actions reveals the dangers of appearing to bear spiritual fruit but having no substance underneath the exterior facade. The fig tree represents Israel. On the surface, the chief priests, scribes, and elders appear religious. They dress in religious clothing; they pray in public; they put on a good show of piety and devotion to God, but have missed the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies that were happening right in front of them. In addition, they were so proud they would rather avoid a direct question, fearing what others might think of them. They didn’t really want to know if Jesus was God’s Son; they had already formed an opinion and wouldn’t back down on it no matter how clear the evidence was. The incident in the temple reveals they had left their spiritual responsibilities to teach truth and had turned the worship of God into an opportunity to make themselves richer in worldly goods and political power.
The crowds of people following Jesus also have the appearance of belief but will quickly turn from cheering His entrance to calling for His execution. Their adoration is only on the surface. For the vast majority, they are simply curious onlookers swept up in a tide of emotion, participating in an exciting event to which they have no true connection.
They are like fig trees with abundant leaves, but no fruit.
Because Israel refused to bear the true fruit of repentance (Matthew 3:7-9), they were cut off from the salvation Jesus came to provide. Their hearts have been hardened (Romans 11:25) and a veil covers their eyes (2 Corinthians 3:14-16). God turned away from His chosen people and offered salvation to the Gentile nations because of their disobedience. They chose religion over the restored relationship to God that was available through their rejected Messiah.
The lesson for us is to examine our own hearts. Are we outwardly pious, having an appearance of devotion to God through our church attendance and good deeds, and simply wearing the label of “Christian?” Or have we born the true fruit of repentance, seeking forgiveness of our sins and by faith trusting in Jesus not only as our Savior but as Lord and Master of our lives?
If Jesus came to your house, what kind of fruit would He find? Would He commend you for the true spiritual fruit, giving evidence that the Spirit of God lives in you? Or would there only be empty leaves of religious activity, hiding a heart that has never surrendered to Jesus?