“Nothing But Leaves”
“And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve. And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it. And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine. And when even was come, he went out of the city.” (Mark 11:11-19)
In this passage of Scripture the Holy Spirit uses a cursed fig tree and the corrupt religion of the Jews to teach us very important spiritual lessons.
“And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve” (v. 11). — The first thing Mark shows us here is that the Lord Jesus Christ, the sinners’ Friend, is just the Savior and friend we need.
The Lord Jesus loved to visit Bethany. After riding into Jerusalem on an ass’s colt and being publicly announced as Messiah the King, our Savior left the city with his disciples and walked out to Bethany. What a blessed town that was. It was about two miles out of Jerusalem. And it seems that the Master never missed an opportunity to go there. There was an elect family in Bethany, the special objects of Christ’s mercy, love, and grace. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus lived there. No doubt the Lord Jesus often spent a night with that chosen family. O blessed, indescribably blessed, eternally blessed is that home where the Son of God and his disciples are at home! Blessed is that home that entertains, feeds, and gives rest to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Perhaps you ask, “How can anyone do that today?” Let me remind you once more that the blessed Book of God teaches us that that which is done and for the Lord’s children is done to and for him; and that which is done against the Lord’s people is done against him. Wherever there is an open door, a room, a chair, a plate, a bed, a welcome sign for God’s saints, the Son of God is present to bless.
Bethany was a blessed place, because Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, this elect family, lived there. As God’s elect are the salt of the earth, this family was the salt of Bethany. Bethany means “House of Sheep,” and it was that. Bethany means “House of Obedience,” and it was that. Bethany means “House of Affliction,” and it was that, too. — Sheep, obedience, and affliction are always found in the same place.
“And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry” (v. 12). — With those words we are reminded that the Lord Jesus Christ really is both God and man. In verse seventeen, he speaks of the temple in Jerusalem, the house of God, and calls it, “My house.” Thus, he plainly declares his divinity. He could not have stated it more precisely and clearly if he had said, “I, the man standing before you, Jesus of Nazareth, am the almighty God.”
Yet, this great God really did assume our nature. He took into union with himself humanity. We read that, “He was hungry”. While he lived upon this earth, our blessed Lord Jesus had a nature exactly like ours, sin alone excepted. He wept. He rejoiced. He felt pain. He felt gladness. He got tired and needed rest. He got thirsty and needed to drink. He got hungry and needed to eat.
These are wonderful, amazing things upon which we should frequently meditate. He who is the eternal God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, — He who feeds every sparrow and clothes every lily — He who holds every beast of the field, every bird in the sky, and every fish in the sea in the palm of his hand — He from who all things came and to whom all things go, when he came to save his people from their sins, was hungry!
God the Son condescended to become a man. He condescended to every weakness of humanity. He who thought it not robbery to be equal with God took upon himself the form of a servant and humbled himself! No wonder Paul speaks of “the unsearchable riches of Christ!”
Yet, his stooping to humanity and to all the infirmities of humanity is only the beginning of the story. This man who is God, though he knew no sin, though he was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners, was willingly made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21; 8:9). Jesus Christ is God mighty to save. He is a man like us, able to suffer, bleed, and die. He is the God-man, who has redeemed us by a sacrifice of infinite merit. And, though he is now exalted to heaven’s highest glory, this great Savior is still a man, God in human flesh!
He who sits upon the throne of the universe, he who occupies the throne of grace is a man touched with the feeling of our infirmities. He knows the experiences of our humanity, all of them! He knows what pain, weakness, weariness, and hunger are. He knows the feeling of abandonment, isolation, betrayal, and slander. He knows what it is to visit the sick room of one who is dearly beloved. He knows what it is to stand by the graveside and weep. When we speak to the Lord Jesus Christ about these things, he knows what we are talking about. The Lord Jesus Christ is no stranger to trouble and sorrow. “Surely,” J. C. Ryle observed, “ this is just the Savior and Friend that poor, aching, groaning human nature requires.”
“What a Friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
The next thing taught in these verses is that nothing in all the world is so disgusting to the Son of God and so surely damning to our souls as fruitless religion.
“And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.” (vv. 13-14)
As our Lord and his disciples walked along, they saw this fig tree. It stood out from all the others because, though the time of figs had not yet come, this fig tree was in full foliage. The other trees were just beginning to shoot forth their buds; but this one was large, spreading its full foliage of leaves, and waving in the wind, as if to say, “Look at me!” But when our Lord walked with his disciples over to the tree to gather some figs, he found “nothing but leaves,” and immediately pronounced a curse upon the tree, and by sun up the next morning, it had withered in death from its roots (v. 20).
Without question, this event is full of spiritual meaning. It is a parable as full of instruction for our souls as any of our Lord’s spoken parables. Without a doubt, this barren, cursed, withered fig tree represents apostate Judaism. The Jews, the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, all were rich in leaves. They possessed more leaves than anyone. Ceremony, creed, history, doctrine, show, tradition, and reputation they had in great abundance. And they did not mind calling attention to their beautiful leaves. But they were utterly destitute of faith toward God. They had no fruit. Therefore, that nation and their religion has been specifically cursed of God and forever abandoned (Matthew 23:38)
This barren fig tree represents every apostate church and religious denomination in the world. I am talking now about churches which claim to be Christian, which claim to believe in and defend the Book, the blood, and the blessed hope, — Churches which wear the name of Christ, but have departed from the doctrine of Christ. If I could get their attention, I would say to every man, woman, and child in such churches, — “Escape for your life! Flee from Babylon. Get out of Sodom. The curse of God is in that place you think is the house of God.” The greatest missionary field in the world today is the professed church of God. Where can you find a church today where the Word of God is faithfully preached, the glory of God is paramount, the will of God rules, and the gospel of Christ is proclaimed? Robert Hawker wrote of such…
“Deceiving by the appearance of large full leaves of a profession without fruit, in the end (they) will be found dried up from the roots, with the curse of a broken law falling everlastingly upon them, untaken away by Christ.”
Above all else, this barren fig tree represents religious hypocrisy: carnal, half-hearted, hypocritical professors of Christianity. All who are content with a name that they live, though they are dead, should see their faces in this mirror! Their fine, showy, impressive leaves, those things that impress them so much with themselves, mean nothing to God almighty. They stink in his nostrils! Their religion is their damning delusion! They may have great experiences, but no experience of grace. They may have a rich history, but no holiness. They may enjoy religious excitement and displays of emotion; but they possess neither righteousness nor expiation. Their doctrine may be precise; but it is precisely dead. Their religion may be rich in ceremonial tradition; but it is poor in comfort and truth. It is useless religion, because it is fruitless religion. It does not produce faith in Christ, hope in Christ, or love for Christ.
“A sure way to go to hell is by living and dying without any religion at all. You may live like a beast, prayerless, godless, graceless and faithless. This is a sure way to go to hell.
Another way to go to hell is by taking up some kind of useless religion. You can live and die contenting yourself with a false christianity and rest on a groundless hope. This is probably the most common way to hell that there is today. There are many ways to hell, but only one way to heaven.
A religion is useless in which Jesus Christ is not the principle object. Most people today know nothing about Christ. Their religion is a few vague notions and empty expressions. They say, ‘I am no worse than others. I go to church when it is convenient. I really don’t do anybody any harm. I hope God will be merciful to me.’ But He won’t! God shows no mercy apart from his Son.” (J. C. Ryle)
Let us each one make our calling and election sure. Baptism, Church membership, religious ceremony, doctrinal orthodoxy, and deep religious emotions are not synonyms for Christianity! They are just leaves, nothing but leaves. They will no more cover the nakedness of our souls from God’s all-seeing eye in the day of judgment than Adam’s fig leaves covered his nakedness in the garden. Christianity is faith in Christ alone!
“Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Corinthians 13:5) If Christ is in you, if Christ is in me, if he is dwelling in us by his Holy Spirit, if he is the life that is in us, he brings forth fruit, even the fruit of the Spirit in us (Galatians 5:22-23).
I would rather stand before God in the day of judgment guilty of any crime known to man than stand before that bar of his august majesty guilty of self-righteousness and hypocrisy! If you die without Christ, your religion will sink your soul into the lowest hell! Your religion will be your greatest curse! The Son of God has pronounced his curse upon the barren fig tree and barren, fig-leaf religion!
The House of God
Here is the third thing taught in this passage. — When we come to the house of God, we ought to behave as people who have come to the house of God.
“And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine. And when even was come, he went out of the city” (vv. 15-19).
The temple in Jerusalem was typical and representative of the Church, which really is the house of God (1 Timothy 3:15). When the Bible speaks of the Church and House of God, it is talking about the assembled body of believers, gathered in one place for public worship. When we come together in the name of Christ, the Son of God meets with us (Matthew 18:20), the Spirit of God dwells within us, and we are the Temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16).
Let us attach no idolatrous superstition to any building or material place. The building in which we meet is not the church. The church just meets there. The auditorium is not a holy sanctuary. It is just a room in which the holy Word of God is preached. The pulpit is not a holy desk. It is just a pulpit in which a faithful man stands to preach the Holy Word.
The lessons taught in this passage of Scripture, with regard to the church, the temple, the house of the living God, are obvious. The church is God’s house. It does not belong to you and me. It is not our church. It belongs to Christ. It is his church. That means that Christ alone makes the rules, enforces the rules, and exercises rule. The only Ruler in Zion is the Son of God. His Word is our only creed. His revealed will is our rule of life. His glory is our guiding principle.
The function and business of the house of God is prayer, the worship of God our Savior in songs of praise and the preaching of the gospel. It is utterly abhorrent that anyone should make the house of God a place of trade, commerce, and entertainment. When we come into the church, the house, the temple of the living God, we should always behave ourselves reverently (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2; James 1:19-22).
Everything we say and do, when we come to worship God, ought to reflect reverence for our great God and Savior. We certainly ought never to be less precise, punctual, and reverent than Aaron and his sons were required to be. When they came to the house of God, they paid real close attention to things. It is nothing less than a lack of reverence for God that causes people to rush into the house of God at the last minute, or even worse, late! It is nothing less than a lack of reverence for God that causes people to come into God’s house with a flippant attitude, ignoring the solemnity of such a privilege and responsibility! It is nothing less than a lack of reverence for God that causes people to come to the house of God dressed like they were going to the beach or a ball game! David Pledger rightly observed…
“Even our dress should and will be governed by our thoughts about God. I know that God looks on the heart and we surely do not think to impress him by our dress, but we will show respect. A worship service is not to be like a sporting event. We do not have rules, and we never want to say anything that would keep one from coming to hear the gospel. Yet, I’m of the old school and believe that we should wear modest and appropriate attire, and I prefer that women wear dresses. We live in a time when everyone wants to be casual, but there is nothing casual about the worship of God Almighty. I would not wear blue jeans to a friend’s funeral if I had something better. Out of respect for my friend I would wear my best, and why would I show less respect when coming to worship the living God? May God help us to always dress in a way that honors God wearing the type of attire that shows our love and respect for our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Let us ever be aware of the fact that the Son of God takes notice of the things that go on in his house. Profanity, irreverence, and indifference are an affront to him. Let us take heed, when we come to God’s house, that we do not offer the sacrifice of fools. When we start getting ready to go to church, let us try to remember whose house it is and why we are going there. Beware of empty religious formality! When you come to God’s house, bring your heart with you. Don’t leave it in the world. Leave your business, your money, your politics and carnal levity at home. “Let us beware,” Ryle cautioned, “of allowing any buying and selling in our hearts, in the midst of our religious assemblies. The Lord still lives who cast out buyers and sellers from the temple, and when He sees such conduct He is much displeased.”
Listen to sermons at FreeGraceRadio.com