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Foliage or Fruit?

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Foliage or Fruit?


Peter Hubbard


August 15, 2021


Mark, Mark 11:12-25


Twenty years ago this summer we were working our way through the Gospel of John at this time, and we were about in the middle of what is often called the Upper Room Discourse, which is chapters 14-17. We wouldn’t get to 17 until Christmas, but we were right in the middle of that this summer, twenty years ago. And the Lord captured us with Jesus’ teaching on prayer, specifically 14:12 where he talks about the promise when the Spirit comes that the people of Christ will do greater works than Christ did. What does that mean? And what does that look like as Christ followers spread globally, this greater work?

So, we began twenty years ago gathering each Saturday night to pray that God would do his work here, specifically praying for our Sunday services as well as other ministries. And we have seen God do remarkable works and answer many, many prayers. But one couple who was a part of our prayer team each Saturday evening was Herman and Elly Van Slooten. They are with Jesus now. But when they prayed in their Dutch and Indonesian accents, you just knew the answers were on the way.

Herman was also quite a gardener. And there were many Saturday evenings where he would show up at a prayer meeting with a little bag of vegetables for me. And often (and this was a little frustrating) he would bring tomatoes because he knew I was growing tomatoes, but he knew my tomatoes hadn’t come yet. And so, I’m like, “Herman, what is the deal? I have these huge tomato plants.” Sometimes I’d have to build structures to hold my tomato plants. They would grow up 8, 10, 12 feet high. And yet Herman would beat me every year to the big ripe tomatoes. And he looked at me with this Dutch accent and said … And I won’t try it, but he just basically said, “Peter, don’t grow tomato plants, grow tomatoes.” Thank you, Herman. He would get right to the point. And then he went on to talk about the fact that if tomato plants are going to produce really big, juicy tomatoes, you can’t coddle the plants. The plants have to experience a certain amount of hardship so that they redirect the energy, the nutrients from the plant to the fruit.

“Peter, don’t grow tomato plants, grow tomatoes.”

And that is, this is the practical point of the passage we’ve come to in Mark 11:12-24. The goal is not foliage, but fruit. The goal is not foliage. In other words, beautiful leaves, nicely shaped branches. It’s not foliage, but it’s fruit. Jesus is not seeking to grow impressive Christians who represent beautiful foliage but lack fruit. He is up to something much greater, something only God can do.

And he communicates this through the parable of the fig tree. This parable is a live action parable, and it’s also another example of what we’ve been seeing throughout the book, what we call the Markan sandwich. Look at these three parts of the passage we’re going to be looking at. Verses 12-14 is the parable enacted in a tree, the fig tree. And then verses 15-19, the meat of the sandwich, is the parable embodied in a temple. But the reason we call it a sandwich is because notice he comes back to the tree in 20-25, the parable explained from a tree.

Now, why did he divide the two? He’s not really interested in chronology here in just us knowing the timing of the events. He’s interested in us interpreting the parts interdependently. The outside of the sandwich interprets the inside and the inside, the outside. And this is really important in this passage, because if you just see Jesus curse the fig tree, and you walk away and try to interpret that, good luck. Or if you just see Jesus cleanse the temple or just hear Jesus teach about mountain-moving faith, you’re probably going to come up with some interesting interpretations. But Mark repeatedly uses this literary technique of the sandwich in order to protect us from having interesting interpretations and help us see the point. So, let’s walk through these three parts one at a time.

Number 1, the parable enacted in a tree. Jesus and his disciples in verses 12-14 are nearing Jerusalem. Jesus notices “a fig tree in leaf” (verse 13).

“And he went to examine the tree to see if there was anything on it to eat, for he was hungry. [However, verse 13] When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it [verse 14], ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’”

Now, this live action parable includes the only time Jesus performed a miracle of demolition. Now, most of us, if we had the power Jesus had, would primarily focus on miracles of demolition. Not so with Jesus. So, the question comes up, in this moment, is he just hangry? It talks about him being hungry. Is he like a spiritual version of Megamind, just trying to take out his anger by doing random harm? Bertrand Russell believes he is. In his book, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” Russell explains his frustration with this story.

“This is a very curious story [atheist Bertrand Russell writes], because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I could not myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above him in those respects.” [Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” 19.]

Now, Russell is ignorant both of the character of Jesus and the life cycle of the fig. Let’s talk about figs in Israel for a second. From November to February, during winter, the fig tree had dormant buds. From March to April most fig trees in Israel experience swelling buds — these little buds begin to swell, and in Hebrew they’re known as “paggim.” And then from May to July, “paggim” is joined by leaves. That’s really important. The “paggim” appear before the leaves. And then from August to October, ripe figs appear. This is harvest time. And there’s a different Hebrew word for these figs — “te’enim.”

And so, what Mark 11:13 is telling us when it says it’s not the season for figs, it’s not the season for “te’enim.” The ripe figs haven’t come yet. It’s not the end of summer, harvest. These “te’enim” are the ripe figs we typically think of when we think of eating figs, but the “paggim” were edible. They just weren’t as big and juicy and delicious as the “te’enim.”

So, what is the point Jesus making in this parable? And here it is. You have the foliage but not the fruit. You have the foliage but not the fruit. In other words, at a time when as Jesus looks at this fig tree, it has leaves, which you should be able to assume then it has what? “Paggim,” the swelling buds. But it doesn’t yet have the ripened fruit. But it should at least… Because it has leaves it should, if it’s alive, it should at least have “paggim.” And yet this tree has the appearance of productivity but not the reality of it. So, this is the parable enacted in a tree.

And then in verses 15-19 we come to the meat of the sandwich, which is the parable embodied in a temple. Verse 15, embodied in a temple.

“And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.”

So, here is Jesus rather uncharacteristically driving out, flipping over, forcefully preventing people from cutting through the court of the Gentiles. Now, this gentle Jesus is not just mindlessly reacting. We know that because if you look back at verse 11, he came in, surveyed the situation, went back to Bethany, came back the next day. He was very intentional, methodical in what he was doing.

So, what was the temple like in Jesus’ day? This was known as Herod’s temple. It was under construction from 20 B.C. to 63 A.D. Now, of course, it was finished, the greater part of it was finished within ten years. They kept working until most people in that day would have viewed it as finished a couple of decades later. But the work on the temple was never fully completed until seven years before it was destroyed. Isn’t that tragic? It was a massive complex. For us, we understand things in terms of football fields. Twenty-five football fields would have fit within the temple complex. The temple proper was surrounded by concentric courts. You have at the center the Most Holy Place. And then from there, the Holy Place. And then the temple area, and then the Court of Israel, and then the Court of the Women, and then the Court of the Gentiles, which is where Jesus was flipping tables.

The Court of the Gentiles consisted of over 30 acres filled with merchants and animals and money changers and pilgrims from all over. Josephus, in A.D. 66, tells us that in one Passover (one year, Passover, which was the time these events are occurring) 255,600 lambs were offered. That’s over a quarter of a million lambs, not to mention all the other offerings. Can you imagine the smell, the sounds, the animals, the money changing? Because people were coming from all over with all sorts of currencies. And if the currency had a picture of someone on it, it was not acceptable in the temples. So, it had to be exchanged for a temple shekel. And so, a lot of what is happening is good, helpful to pilgrims to help them be able to offer their sacrifice and to worship. But within all this good, Jesus looked and saw that what was originally intended to be a house of prayer for the nations had now become a den of robbers. And so, Jesus is concerned that the foliage is displacing the fruit. In verse 17, he says,

“Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of robbers.”

Here he’s quoting Isaiah 56:7. All the merchants and money changers — some of them doing good things, some of them doing bad things — but all of them ended up preventing outsiders from coming in to worship. Verse 8 of Isaiah 56, which would be the verse after the verse Jesus quoted says,

“The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, ‘I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.’”

So, God is in the posture of invitation, bringing in, inviting in. But they were preventing. You couldn’t hardly make your way through the throngs of money-dealing and animal-selling. Jesus obviously struck a nerve and got quite a reaction. Look at verse 18.

“The chief priests and scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.”

Notice how many of us will fight for our foliage rather than the fruit God wants to produce. And this is where the Markan sandwich helps us. Verse 20 comes back to the fig tree so that we can hear the point. Where is all this going? What does a fig tree being cursed a temple being cleansed — what does that have to do with each other? The live action parable is going somewhere.

Number 3, the parable explained from a tree. So, we’re back to the tree. Verse 20,

“As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.’”

Now, if we were to read this whole passage in isolation, you might conclude Jesus took his anger out on an innocent fig tree. The fig tree never hurt him. Or Jesus is anti-business. He hates when people are making money. He’ll flip your table. Or Jesus promises whatever you ask. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you live in Fountain Inn, and your land happens to be flat, and you want a piece of Paris Mountain, you just pray, and Paris Mountain will move under your subdivision. Wouldn’t that be cool? Now some of us with whacked out imaginations just start imagining what that would look like with all the praying Christians in Greenville as mountains are constantly moving under subdivisions.

What is the point of this and what does the mountain-moving prayer have to do with the cursed fig tree and a cleansed temple? Jesus is teaching us two big things. Number 1, his prophetic plan, his prophetic plan. Verse 22, “have faith in God.” Verse 23, “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea’ … it’s going to be done.” What is “this mountain”? He’s standing near Jerusalem. He’s pointing. What’s the highest point in the entire area? It’s the temple mount. The temple was built on a mountain. He is prophetically declaring that this mountain is going down. He is coming to Jerusalem to die. When he dies, the curtain separating the Most Holy Place from the Holy is going to what? Be torn from top to bottom. In other words, symbolizing both access for all but also the destruction of the physical temple. We’re going to see as we continue to work through Mark, he is prophetically declaring that this temple, which is full of foliage but lacks fruit like the fig tree, is going down to the roots. This is his promise, because his goal (verse 17),

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.”

Now, last night as we were praying for our services today, it just blew me away just thinking about how true this is today. And I know we’re in “the now and the not yet,” so we haven’t seen this finally, fully realized. But when you just stop to imagine, we’re on the other side of the world in a prayer meeting. This morning we pray in this service so many times — to begin, to end, all throughout, in our singing, we’re praying hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people crying out. In our church, which we’ve never done a formal study of how many nations are represented here, but I know it’s at least 30-40 nations in our tiny little representation of the church of Christ globally. Christianity is by far the most diverse religion in the world, and you could almost say the most diverse global movement. Clearly, the most diverse global movement in history. My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations.

When we, the American church, have not lived up to that, which is often, it is because we are fighting over foliage, not seeking fruit. And that’s what Jesus is confronting in this passage. Our destiny as the people of God is to stand in awe of the One who is worthy to open the scrolls, who has ransomed people for God from every tribe, language, tongue, people. This is his prophetic plan, and he’s enacting it in this passage.

But secondly, he is communicating what we could call his transforming purpose. The contrast here is between fruitless foliage and fruitful faith or believing prayer. Now, I’ll be honest, I’ve really struggled with this. I’m wired as a doer. I find great satisfaction in doing things and getting them accomplished. And there is nothing that feels more like foliage than prayer. When you get up from praying, humanly speaking you feel like you’ve done nothing, right? The dishes are still dirty. The kids are still screaming. The students aren’t taught. The building’s not built. The list is not … no more boxes are checked. You just what? Prayed. Just prayed.

So, if we’re looking at this from a human perspective, then we’re going to say, “What are you saying, Jesus?” You’re calling us to a life of believing prayer, fueling everything we do so that we don’t live a life of foliage — external performance with no real productivity? This prayer feels very unproductive. And yet Jesus is teaching us, that is the source of productivity. It is counterintuitive. The very thing that feels the least productive is what leads to the most fruitfulness. And often the activities that feel the most fruitful are ultimately foliage.

Wow! Does that not move us to a posture of these three key actions he describes in this last paragraph of believing, receiving, releasing? There’s an upward, an inward, an outward aspect to this. Believing, receiving, releasing. Let’s look at these one at a time. And this is the way to move from foliage to fruitfulness.

Upward, have faith in God (verse 22), believing. Shed your fig leaves that you are currently using to cover yourself up to try to pretend to God and pretend to people that everything is okay. It’s foliage. Let me give you one example of this. I’ve recently come to realize how I can hide from God in prayer. That’s a skill! Hide from God in prayer. Just think of that compared to these are pilgrims coming to worship in Jerusalem, and Jesus is basically labeling it foliage. How do we hide from God in prayer? By turning prayer into a performance or speaking words that we think God expects us to speak but don’t really come from our hearts. We’re doing these things, religious activities, but we’re not really engaged. We’re still in foliage, not fruitfulness. Have faith in God.

And God is going to put each of us in situations where that, what sounds like a cliche, right? You can’t get any more cliche for Christians than “Have faith in God. Just believe.” But have faith in God comes alive when we realize what we don’t have faith in. What is the difference between “God, have faith in you” rather than in my feelings, rather than people’s expectations, rather than the image I’m trying to portray or the list I’m trying to keep? “Have faith in God.” “Have faith in God.” So, Jesus is exposing what we tend to put our faith in and saying have faith in God — upward. It’s outside of ourselves, in one sense. It’s not in our performance or our expectations. Have faith in God, upward

And then inward (verse 24), “Believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” When my faith is truly in God and not what I feel when I leave a time of prayer or how I feel when I perform religiously, but my faith is in God, then I can receive what I’ve asked for from my Father before I’ve received it. Because my faith is in him, not my expectations, not my performance. Now, this promise in verse 23 and 24 sounds like a blank check, right? Just want to move a mountain? Believe mountains move. And in one sense, it’s true, and there are parallel passages that just emphasize the fact that nothing’s impossible. God moves mountains and we believe that.

But we know this isn’t just a blank check — Jesus saying, “Hey, whatever you want. I know you’re 5 feet tall, but you can dunk if you just believe.” That’s not the point of this passage. And how do we know? Well, if we keep going a few chapters, chapter 14, we find Jesus praying to his Father in the garden, “Abba, Father.” And he makes a simple request. And you know he believes. And the Father says what? No. Could this cup pass? But not my will, but yours. And the Father said, “No, no, no, no.” And why would the Father say “no” to his Son who believes? Because he’s not after foliage, he’s after fruit. There is a fruitfulness that comes from Jesus drinking this cup that would never come any other way. So, our Father knows. He knows exactly what will lead to greater fruitfulness. And when we believe in God, then we can receive knowing he knows exactly what will lead me beyond foliage to fruitfulness.

And this has an outward aspect to it as well (verse 25), “forgive, if you have anything against anyone.” What you’re doing there is you’re releasing resentment. Because when your faith is in God, and you’re feasting on his promises, you’re not living like an orphan. And therefore, you’re not living on rations — starving, grabbing, holding, clinging, resenting. No, you’re feeding on his promises. And so, when someone wrongs you, you can forgive because you have been forgiven. Look at an example of this in Ephesians 4:32.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.”

But I can’t do that. I’m not that. I’m not naturally kind. I’m not naturally tender-hearted, I’m hard-hearted. I’m not naturally a forgiving person. Well, how do you do that? Well, it says God in Christ forgave you. His forgiveness is not just favor. It is that, but it’s also fruit. When he forgives you, he is giving a gift to you that you don’t deserve so that you can pass that on to people who might not deserve it. Our forgiving others is a part of the fruitfulness that flows from his forgiving us. Because our faith is in him, we’ve received what he gives us, provides for us so we can pass that on. All of this is Jesus faithfully and sacrificially moving us from foliage to fruitfulness.

Let me share a similar analogy Jesus makes in John 15:1-5.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away [like the cursed fig tree], and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes.”

Notice, “does bear fruit.” It’s bearing fruit, but it may be “paggim,” little, tiny, swelling buds. And many of us this morning feel that way. We can’t point to it. Lord, I don’t have any big fruit. This kind of passage scares the fire out of me because I can’t point to tons of fruit. But if your faith is in Jesus, you have “paggim” — little, swelling buds that if somebody looks close enough, they can see it. So, what is your Father going to do? Look what he says next.

“He prunes. He prunes, that it [these little, swelling buds. I’m mixing analogies here], it may bear more fruit. [He prunes, that it may bear more fruit!] Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you [it’s a gift]. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

Mountain-moving faith is fruitful. Not because we can muster up enough of it, but because we have faith in God who can do what we can’t do. Let me describe to you, real quickly, how God is working this out in our lives at this time.

My wife, Karen, has had some health issues over the past couple of months — anemia, a fast-growing fibroid, leading to (a week and a half ago on Wednesday) surgery. And we really didn’t spread the word because it just seemed like a very normal thing. Most women get fibroids. But when they removed this in surgery a week and a half ago, it was extremely large. We thought it was going to be 6-8 weeks recovery and then good to go. But a few days later, on Friday, when the surgeon came to our room to release us from the hospital, she said she had some hard news for us, that this tumor, fibroid, which is never cancerous, literally never. .2% is cancerous, an extremely rare and aggressive, the name is leiomyosarcoma. And just to give you an idea how rare, the surgeon nor her team had ever seen this. The pathologists, the whole department had never seen this.

And I say that not to be dramatic, but just to really share a praise. Because as this news was being shared … And Karen has been very transparent with our church family about her battles with anxiety in the past and present and depression in the past. And so, it just felt like this was an unimaginable burden to place on her. But I just want to share all this, and she wants me to share this, to give glory to God. Because God just came over her with a deep sense of peace. It’s almost like, this is so rare it can only come from you. God, you are in this. This is you moving us from foliage to fruitfulness.

Last week some elders and their wives came over and anointed her with oil and prayed. We are extremely optimistic. Good news is the tumor that was removed had clear margins. So that’s one of the very optimistic parts of the story. She is currently healing so that they can examine and then do a CT scan and then see if there’s anything else to do. But if you could remember her in your prayers. But also, be sure to give God glory for what he’s doing in and through her. When I left this morning, I was looking at the bathroom mirror, and the whole wall next to her sink is just covered with verses, promises from God. “Have faith in God.” And that’s where we rest, and that’s where we rejoice.

And I wonder this morning, the question I believe Jesus is asking us is, are you satisfied with foliage, or do you long for fruit? There’s a big difference there. And it’s easy to become comfortable. It’s easy to become satisfied with the image we portray, the control and management we can bring about in our lives. But our Father loves us too much to leave us with foliage. “Peter, don’t grow tomato plants. Grow tomatoes.” That’s what Jesus is saying. I am not going to leave you just with an image that you think you want people to have of you. I want to bear my fruit in you — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These are the fruits of the Spirit. These are things we can’t generate within ourselves. Only God, the mountain-moving God, can take hard, cold hearts and cause them to flourish with love, joy, peace.

Let’s pray. Father, we just want to give you praise. Your love is unlike any other love. Your Word speaks life to us today. And I pray no matter where we are, Lord, there are some in here who aren’t bearing any fruit, and Jesus is saying to you, I will cut you off. But I’m speaking to you right now saying to you, come to me, believe in me. I died, that you might live. I rose to create a new living temple, a place of worship that goes global through me, through my people.

I pray, Lord, there would be some this morning who believe for the first time. Jesus, forgive me for my sin. I repent. I believe. God, you desire so much for our lives than simply accumulating and trying to impress others. You call us to a life of fruitfulness.

I pray for some in here who are going through deep trials right now and are feeling discouraged, that Lord, you would show them a vision of your love. That you, the Father, the Gardener, so gently, but yet sometimes painfully will prune us. Not because you hate us, not because you’re angry, but because you love us and you desire to bear more fruit through us, in us.

I pray that there would be hundreds of people this morning right now saying, Jesus, I want fruit more than foliage. Yes, we’re all going to have a certain amount of foliage. We have to. The temple did, we churches do. It’s not a bad thing to have leaves. But Lord, we’re never satisfied with that alone. Bear your fruit through us. So, hear our cries right now, Lord.

“Have faith in God.” Father, this is a terrifying passage if we don’t have faith in you, if our faith is in a false image of who we think you are, fearful. “Have faith in God.” May we receive through faith what you have for us. May we release any bitterness or resentment we have for others. Wash us clean through the sacrifice of Christ, Lord. We give you glory. We thank you for the joy that you plant and grow in our hearts. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.