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Entries in Fig Tree (1)

Tuesday
Mar272018

The Flesh Profits Nothing

Mark 11:7-26.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on March 25, 2018.

Today we remember the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem the week before he was crucified.  In some ways it looks like a victorious thing we should be excited about, yet in other ways, it represents a clear defeat of mankind’s ability to follow God in truth.  Yes, many people publicly embraced Jesus as the Messiah that day.  But over the course of the following days they were unable to follow the Spirit of God because they were operating according to the desires of their flesh, rather than the desires of the Spirit of God.  Of course, God knew this was the case and therefore had worked it into His plan to use the fleshly desires of mankind (and even fallen cherubim) in accomplishing His plan.  This doesn’t make these things good or acceptable.  The crucifixion of Jesus still stands as the most reprehensible action of mankind and the devil and his angels.  There is no absolving ourselves by claiming it was the will of God because those who participated in the crucifixion of Jesus did so in answer to their flesh, not the Spirit of God.

Jesus made it clear that he was doing a spiritual work that was directed by the Spirit of God.  He said in John 6:63,

“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.  The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.”  

I want to highlight this concept.  Following the flesh will not benefit you in any way.  It is only in hearing and following the Spirit that we can benefit.  I do not say this to exclude physical things.  We can grow up, marry, raise children and work as a person who follows the Spirit of God, rather than one who follows the desires of their flesh.

On this amazing day, Jesus finally quits beating around the bush (from the perspective of the average person in Israel) and presents himself as God’s Anointed One, the King of Israel.  However, we must take note that Jesus does not present himself in a way that would satisfy the flesh of those who were celebrating that day.

The same is true today.  We declare that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords to the people of this nation and world.  However, we must follow the Spirit of God and not the desires of our flesh (i.e. be born again) if we are to enter the Kingdom of God.

He appears to do nothing.

We are picking up the story mid-stream.  Each day more and more people are swelling the population of Jerusalem, and the surrounding area, in preparation for the coming Feast of Passover.  On top of this is the growing anticipation of this man Jesus.  Will he show up?  Is this the year Messiah appears and delivers us from the Romans?  When Jesus comes down the Mt. of Olives, opposite the temple, riding on the back of a donkey, it was an unmistakable signal to the people that Jesus was presenting Himself as their king.  The prophecies of Zechariah spoke about the Messiah and His work.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!  Behold your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.  I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem; the battle bow shall be cut off.  He shall speak peace to the nations; His dominion shall be ‘from sea to sea, and from The River to the ends of the earth.’ “  Zechariah 9:9-10.

Yes the stories of all that Jesus did around the country had stirred up an anticipation that he would step into the role of Israel’s messianic king.  He has avoided this up to this point.  But, now he clearly accepts the role that the prophets had declared and publicly offers himself to Israel.

Yet, what we will see in the following events, both that day and in the days to follow, is that there is an anticlimactic feel.  This is the high point, but everything continues to unravel over the next days and culminates with the crowds crying, “Crucify him,” and then the death of Jesus on the cross.  Mark seems to highlight this anticlimactic feel.  Everything builds up in the story.  Jesus enters Jerusalem and goes directly to the temple.  He then looks around at everything (with everyone watching him with bated breath).  Yet, Jesus simply leaves, “as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve.”  Why the grand entrance into Jerusalem, fulfilling prophecy, only to look around and leave?  Why did he come so late in the day?

This should be a clue to us that Jesus is doing something more than offering himself to Israel as the Messiah.  This timing issue ought to catch our attention.  Is it not true that God often seems to come “too late” for our tastes?  Are not we tempted to just give up and walk away because He appears to do nothing?  Yet, when we think God is doing nothing, we are wrong.  We have to learn to see with the eyes of the Spirit, rather than the eyes of our flesh.  We need the eyes of faith in God rather than faith in the flesh and what we see.  God is always working by His Spirit.  If He comes late in the day, it is because that is precisely the best time to come for the things of the Spirit, but not for the desires of our flesh.

Mark emphasizes that Jesus looked around at everything.  In light of the fact that he will come back the next day and “clean house,” we must see this as a kind of inspection.  Rather than doing nothing, Jesus is inspecting the temple that belongs to Him, the temple that he had commanded Israel to build along with the instructions of what to do there.  Were they focused on the purposes and plan of God in what they did there?  The irony of the situation is that as they are being inspected by The Lord of Glory, they presume to be “inspecting him.”  Be careful that you are not so critical of Jesus and the Christians who follow him that you miss the fact that you too are being inspected by God.  If He uses the same criteria of fleshly judgment against you that you use against him, will you survive? 

Jesus leaves exactly when you would expect something big to happen.  Our flesh does not like that sort of thing.  If we don’t get the “bang for our buck” then we feel like we are cheated.  God will never allow us to turn Him into our personal “God machine.”  You know; where you put in a certain amount of effort or money and get what you ordered by 3 PM the next day (or with Amazon Air within 30 minutes).  Not only does our flesh profit nothing, it cannot recognize a spiritual profit when it is staring it in the face.  We must recognize this critical point about ourselves as humans.  We have to learn to recognize that God often operates in a way that is a rebuke to our flesh, and simultaneously a call of the Spirit to follow Him.

He rejects the empty, religious practices of the day.

Now look at verses 12-19.  I ask you to put the verses about the fig tree on hold so that we can deal with them later.  However, after spending the night in a neighboring village called Bethany, Jesus and his disciples come back to Jerusalem and go to the temple the next day.  When Jesus gets there, he tosses the money changers out, and forces those selling sheep and doves to get everything out of the temple grounds.  Why does Jesus do this?  He is confronting the empty, religious practices of his day.

The temple had turned into a convenience store for religious people.  They could come from anywhere in the world, purchase a sacrifice in the temple, and not have to bother themselves with any of that nasty work of touching them (except for a ceremonial touch).  The problem was not that they purchased the sheep.  This was acceptable.  But that this was being done in a place that was not meant to be a commercial place that focused on the comfort of the “worshipper.”  This conflation of the sacred and the common (commerce is not evil, but neither does it have place in the sacred), has forever been a bane to humanity.  Today, we can be in jeopardy of turning churches into a means of making money off of those who are in our niche market, all by satisfying the desires of the religious people who gather, which are superficially spiritual desires, but at their depths are only fleshly desires dressed up as spiritual desires).  It becomes a type of “spiritual transaction” in which those in the pew pay in order to have their conscience assuaged.  This is a dangerous undermining of the true purpose of the place of worship.

The true purpose of the temple was to be a place where people could approach God in order to deal with their sin, but also, to fellowship with Him.  It was a place to celebrate His appointed feasts and to rejoice in His kingship over them.  The flesh turns religion into a marketplace of hyperactivity that loses sight of what the Spirit of God is trying to accomplish.  The flesh is hostile to the purposes of God and will always choose one of two paths: active rejection or passive repurposing.  Jesus is reminding them that the true purpose of the temple was to be a place of prayer (i.e. interaction between people and God) for all nations.

He does not confront the Romans.

We won’t spend a lot of time on this.  But, it is worth noting that Jesus did not even lift a finger towards removing this occupying force.  He did not raise an army, or connect with the zealots of the day in order to raise up a rebellion.  There was no great battle of Messiah vs. the Romans that week.  This was an added consternation to those whose flesh badly wanted free of the Romans, but not necessarily their sins.

The lesson of The Withered Fig Tree

Verses 20-26 bring us back to the fig tree that was mentioned earlier.  It is important to recognize that these two interactions with this fig tree are like bookends to the actions of Jesus in the temple.  So what about this?

When Jesus and his disciples were traveling into Jerusalem, Jesus saw a fig tree in the distance that had leaves on it.  It was common for travelers to eat from food that was found along the road.  As long as it wasn’t in an enclosure, it was considered common fare.  The fig tree is different from some fruit trees in that it will fruit first and then grow leaves.  Thus the leaves on this tree give the appearance that there is fruit to be had.  It represents something that promises fruit from a distance.  It is clear that this interaction with the fig tree is intended to be a parable for something.  So we must dig deeper to discern the spiritual truth that Jesus is trying to teach his disciples and us.  As I said earlier, it is obvious that Mark understood the events of the fig tree to be connected to the cleansing of the temple.

The fig tree that promises fruit from afar has none upon closer inspection.  Jesus draws near, but finds no dates on the fig tree.  The inspection of the fig tree is parallel to the inspection of the temple that Jesus had done the night before.  The shouting crowds surrounding Jerusalem and the temple activity all gave the appearance of a people who were obedient to the Lord and were righteously awaiting his coming.  Like the fig tree, it would appear that Israel was faithfully serving the Lord and waiting for His deliverance, but it was superficial.  In truth, most of their hearts were following fleshly desires.  Only a remnant of the people would follow the Spirit of God over the course of the next 40 years.  And, only a remnant would escape the destruction that was coming upon this fig tree that God had planted in the land.

Now we can focus on the fact that it wasn’t prime fig season, yet.  However, this plant put forth the outward appearances that it was fruitful, when all the other fig trees were not.  This signifies all who are easily drawn into religion by their flesh.  We can fall into the trap of thinking that we are fruitful because we gather at a particular place, at a particular time, and do a particular set of rituals.  But the real thing that prepares us for God comes from listening to the Holy Spirit and following Him.  There were some who had fruit in those days, just as there are some who have fruit today.  But, God is not looking for an outward show that has lost the true inner purpose of His Spirit.  If you lack the fruit of the Spirit of God then humble yourself and cry out to Him for His presence and salvation in your life.  But under no circumstances should you pretend that you are okay with God, when you are not.  Those who do so have nothing to expect from God, but a curse and His judgment that they are unacceptable.  Jesus does not curse the fig tree because his flesh is angered that it won’t get food.  He does so to teach us a spiritual lesson that the outward show of religion that lacks the fruit of the Spirit of God is ripe for judgment from God.

It is easy to think that Jesus simply takes time to teach on prayer all of the sudden.  But, his comments about prayer are directly tied to the fig tree.  We need to understand the role of faith in our spiritual life as a follower of God.  That which is by faith will live, but that which is by the flesh will die and benefit us nothing.  The flesh tells us that the path of faith won’t work, but the Spirit faithfully calls us to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.  When we cling to our sins over the top of the call of the Holy Spirit, our flesh becomes blind and calloused to what the Spirit of God is saying.  The Pharisees could only see that Jesus was trespassing upon their authority.  Who did He think He was?  They were so offended in the flesh that they could not hear the Spirit saying, “Israel, behold your king!”  In truth it was the Pharisees and the Sadducees who were the true trespassers.  Their right to represent God before the people was only authoritative as long as they actually represented Him, and not the desires of their flesh.  We must learn to let go of what others have done to us, and follow the Spirit of God, rather than the spirit of fear and offense.  Only then can we escape becoming a fig tree that offers false hope to God and ends up withered and dead.

Flesh Profits Nothing audio