Is The Fig Tree Israel?

Has a common interpretation been incorrect? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

I have a nightly practice where I will read a short passage of Scripture right before I turn out the lights and ask myself questions about it as I go to sleep. Bizarre, but my mind is one that is always running and I want it to have something concrete to run on. I have been going through the gospel of Mark and I read last night about the cleansing of the temple in Mark 11. If you know the passage, it is sandwiched in between the cursing of the fig tree and the death of the fig tree.

A common interpretation of the passage has been that the fig tree represents Israel, and there are reasons for understanding that. The fig tree was by all appearances one that would have fruit on it, and yet its appearance was deceitful. It did not have the fruit that Jesus expected. So was it with Israel as Jesus came to Israel expecting to see the fruit and when it came, he found that that fruit was not there. There could be some passages where the fig tree does represent Israel, but let’s consider that in Mark, it surrounds the cleansing of the temple.

What if the fig tree was not the symbol of Israel in this instance but was rather a symbol of the temple itself?

Earlier in the passage, Jesus has just entered Jerusalem in the triumphant entry and He did go to the temple and looked around and saw everything but since it was late, he left. The next day He is heading to the temple. What we can infer from this is that Jesus had seen what was going on in the temple and thought about it throughout the night and knew what it was that He was going to do. On the way, He sees a fig tree and the fig tree reminds Him of what is going on with the temple.

The temple was meant to be the place where God was supposed to dwell and share the blessings of YHWH with the world. The reality is that the temple had not done that. Israel had essentially kept YHWH to themselves. Places of the temple were such that Gentiles could not enter. This in spite of how Israel was said in Isaiah to be a light to the Gentiles. How could they be a light if they were keeping the light from them?

Instead, the temple was used to support the lifestyles of the religious people. This is something seen as well in the fact that Israelites had a way from the Pharisees to avoid taking care of their parents when instead they could just give the money to God. This can be seen as service to God, but there was a commandment given to honor parents and it is not holy to disobey such a command as if God had not considered the idea you have.

The Israelites were in a good place in many ways. They wanted to be free from Rome, but at the same time, they were allowed a good deal of freedom that other countries were not and they did not want to really rock the boat yet, the way Jesus was. When the Messiah shows up, great. Let him do that. It was important to maintain the status quo, but the sad reality is that the status quo was abhorrent to YHWH and keeping Israel from fulfilling its mission.

One aspect was the temple. It was believed that when the Messiah came he would either cleanse the temple or rebuild the temple. The reality is that Jesus did both. Jesus cleansed out this temple and it was abandoned. (Note when he leaves the Temple in Matthew He says to the Pharisees that “YOUR house is left desolate.”) It was no longer the house of YHWH. It was the house of the Pharisees.

So did Jesus rebuild the temple? Yes. The temple is in fact right here on Earth now. Where? It’s in the church. Paul in 1 Corinthians tells the people that they are God’s temple. This is an extraordinary statement for Paul to make especially considering that when he wrote 1 Corinthians, the Jerusalem temple was still standing. For Paul, it was already obsolete.

Going back to the fig tree then, we can see that when Jesus prepares to go to the temple, he curses the fig tree. When he leaves, the fig tree is indeed dead. Could Mark be drawing a parallel saying that Jesus is going to the temple and pronouncing it dead and after he has done that, the disciples get a vivid reminder that His action in the temple does indeed show that the current temple apparatus is of no use?

I am certainly more prone to see it this way and if you think that it could be or see a reason why that’s probably wrong, then let me know. We all should want to know what the Scripture itself says after all.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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